Ghost Stories: Tony Cesare

Looking for the spirit of Halloween.

I hate Halloween.

The whole cartoonish celebration of the supernatural does nothing for me. Maybe it’s the late October spot on the calendar, from which you can see the long, cold plunge into winter. Maybe it’s the memory of gorging on marshmallow circus peanuts after trick-or-treating and getting sick as a goat—not sure.

About the only thing I look forward to in October is Shipyard Pumpkin Ale (available on tap this month at Lemon Tree). Other than that, I’ll be happy when it’s over.

I have friends who are obsessed with Halloween. They host haunted bacchanals where everyone dresses as something "naughty" (usually involves fishnet) or "dirty," then spend the night drinking warm beer out of red solo cups and wondering why they bothered. Nothing like getting pulled over for suspected DUI while dressed as a tampon.

A neighbor down the street transforms his front lawn into Forest Lawn with foam headstones (granite is heavy and expensive), zombies emerging from piles of leaves and the straw witch who apparently was looking down at her cell phone when she crashed into the Elm tree. I can barely find motivation to hang Christmas lights much less plastic skulls.

Go ahead: call me a Halloween buzzkill. But I’ll be laughing next summer as I watch you yank that fake spider webbing out of the hedges.

Ironically, I love a good ghost story, even though I believe in the possibility of ghosts about as much as I believe in the possibility of reasoned political debate.

On a rainy and raw October morning during my first year of college, I wandered into the DeKalb Public library (also known as the Haish Memorial Library) looking for inspiration for a photography assignment. The building itself could be the setting for a great ghost story—built in the 1920s out of grey Indiana limestone in the art deco style of the day. The roaring silence as I wandered the dimly lit bookshelves only added to the aura.

Among the books on photography I came across was The Haunted Realm by Simon Marsden, a collection of photographs and stories that depicted eerie and fascinating mansions, castles and abbeys throughout the British Isles. Marsden himself was raised in an archaic old house in the English countryside that was alleged to have been haunted. He spent his childhood immersed in ghost stories, always vigilant for the appearance of the family ghost, the "Green Lady" who had committed suicide on the grounds of the home. As such, he grew up fascinated by the supernatural.

His photographs were atmospheric black and white images that suggested a hidden world behind the cold marble gravestones and decaying castle walls. He shot in infrared film (which reads heat versus light) to enhance the spooky effect. I became obsessed with learning to replicate his techniques and managed to secure a few dozen rolls, not an easy commodity to find in DeKalb County.

I spent the semester wandering the countryside shooting my own version of the Haunted Realm—abandoned farms, rural graveyards and crumbling small town storefronts. The process of developing with infrared would try the patience of any job, but I stuck with it, always analyzing my images for a telltale luminescent orb or grinning phantom flipping me the bird. At the end of the year, I presented my work as a metal-clad book complete with a rusted lock and chain that had to be "unlocked" (skeleton key of course) to reveal the world within.

I got a B- on the project. My instructor thought the subject matter was “trite.”

Nonetheless I’ve been fascinated with ghost stories ever since. Every year at Halloween my wife and I make a pilgrimage to the Country House in Clarendon Hills for a Dead Guy Ale and Country Burger. Supposedly the restless spirit of a young woman who committed suicide somewhere along 55th Avenue during the 1950s haunts the restaurant. Over the years there have been numerous reports of a ghostly apparition beckoning patrons from an upstairs window and the muffled sounds of a wailing infant.

I’m sure at one point over-served customers could have mistaken the swirling clouds of cigarette smoke (it used to be thick as fog in the bar) for a ghost, but now that the smoking ban has passed I’m sure there are fewer hanging around. A "paranormal investigative team" made a series of ghostly recordings in the restaurant last year. If you listen very closely you can hear a disembodied voice whisper, “Don’t order the artichoke dip." You be the judge.

I’m aware of only two ghost stories associated with Downers Grove, which is unusual considering we’re a community with a rich history and an old downtown cemetery.

The first involves a janitor at Emmett’s Ale House, which is housed in a building that used to be known as the Crescy Auditorium back in the 1900s. The story goes that after working a long shift, the janitor fell asleep in one of the booths. He was awakened by the sensation of someone (or something) grabbing at his feet. Now fully awake, he watched as a wispy apparition crossed the restaurant and disappeared through the south wall. Coincidentally, that wall is adjacent to the Main Street Cemetery. Apparently the ghost had stopped in for a Munich Light, found that the bar was closed for the evening and—in his haste to make last call at DuPage Inn—tripped over the poor janitor sleeping.

The undead are notoriously clumsy, that’s why they are often referred to as "things that go bump in the night."

The second story involves the Tivoli Theater and the ghost of a former employee who attempted to burn the theater down but was himself trapped by the flames and died. His ghost manifests as a "mysterious curl of smoke" that appears under the stage curtain and drifts out over the seats. In a structure that old, I would blame a faulty AC unit or suspect electrical work before I’d look beyond the grave for answers—I know both have been the cause of many a curl of smoke in my home. That, and when my wife cooks.

I have my own ghost story.

Back when I was a teenager I used to attend a summer camp with a boy’s club run by the Des Plaines Police. One of our favorite past times was something called "night games," which was essentially capture the flag with flashlights. Two teams would spread out across the acres of pines in the dead of night and attempt to capture the opposing teams flag, and each other. Both the food and the fishing were terrible at  camp so this is really all we had to look forward to.

One night a few teammates and myself quietly hid in the camp chapel waiting for our "enemies" to pass outside. Someone remarked how nicely the ceiling was painted. Looking up I remember images of spectral ghosts that we understood to be angels, twirling just below the wooden crossbeams almost as if they were suspended and moving. Even in the dim moonlight, I could make out details like half hidden pale faces and swirling cloth. We debated whether they were painted or whether they were dimensional cut outs and hung from the ceiling. They were beautiful.

The following Sunday the camp gathered for mass. I sat fidgeting next to a friend who looked sick and pale for the entire service. I assumed he had a second helping of powdered eggs. When mass ended and we were filing out I asked him if he was all right. He looked back at me and I could see he was terrified. He gestured for me to look up.

The ceiling was weathered white, nothing else. No angels, no images, nothing painted. Nothing.

It’s been over 30 years since that morning and although the memory has faded I’ve never been able to come up with a rational explanation for what I saw.

Good thing I don’t believe in ghosts. 

(While researching this story I learned that Simon Marsden had recently passed away. Godspeed Simon, thanks for the inspiration.)

Mary H October 09, 2012 at 02:27 PM
I remember our old public library - built in the early 1900's. The ghost stories/scary books were in a small closet with floor to ceiling shelves - spooky just to enter. I discovered HP Lovecraft, way before Stephen King's day and lots of other scary stories. Loved the old ghost stories. Maybe that is why I love the Tower of Terror at WDW. My only ghost story relates to the death of my best friend when I was 25. I heard about her death (from leukemia) as I got home from a date. I cried and was only able to find a small pack of white tissue to wipe my nose. Cried myself to sleep and suddenly woke up to my friend sitting on the end of my bed just like she had so many times in our teen sleepovers. She told me not to cry, joked about how she would now be able to "keep an eye on me", etc. She kept handing me pink tissue - she was always a "pink" girly girl and always had pink tissue. We seemingly talked all night. She got up and looked out the window and said "it's almost morning, I need to see Gary (her husband) before he gets up - he and I still have some things to talk about". With that she disappeared and I woke up, calm and relaxed. Looked down and saw a pile of used pink tissues next to my bed. I HAD NEVER PURCHASED OR HAD PINK TISSUES IN MY HOUSE - EVER! I never had the nerve to ask her husband whether she "visited" him that night. But, while I was terribly sad, I was able to deal with her death much more easily after her visit with me.
Tony Cesare October 09, 2012 at 04:50 PM
That would make a great short story Mary, thanks for sharing!
Dominic Polito October 09, 2012 at 05:54 PM
We had a ghost in a house I lived in. Some kind of loud noise would spur a reaction. If you were vacuuming something would fall over in another part of the house. If you were laughing loudly the same thing would happen. The convincer for me was the time I was hammering in the utility room. I walked out and saw a candle holder slide across the end table and fall to the floor. For some reason it didn't scare me. It was if the ghost excepted the fact you live there. But he wanted you to keep it down and not disturb him or her. I know your probably raising your eyebrows thinking I must be nuts. But It was a continuous scenario for five years.
Susan Carroll October 10, 2012 at 04:51 PM
You will be visited by three ghosts tonight who will teach you the true meaning of Halloween...
Tony Cesare October 10, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Will the 'naughty' ghost be wearing fishnet stockings and heels? I'm in.
Matthew Jackson October 10, 2012 at 11:30 PM
good read! Haunted houses are crazy..some of my friends are trying to have an airsoft battle and plan on dressing up like zombies and stuff and have a good time with our airsoft guns that we got from http://airsplat.com/ and it should be fun.
Mark Thoman October 11, 2012 at 01:39 AM
My almost 35 year old Craftsman mower was handed down to me when my Dad died (foreshadowing!). Pretty much no one else wanted it. As guys well know, the "problem" with Craftsman products is they come with owners manuals and schematics that give you access to every part, allowing one to keep fine Sears products sort-of-operating zombie-like long past when they have any right to be. By the time I'd gotten to that day, I don't think there was anything left that actually existed on the mower when new except the engine block and piston. I'm out in the backyard stripping everything off the mower for the second or third time to see if I could jury rig another fix to avoid replacing the mower deck when I distinctly heard from directly behind me my dear dead Dad, agitated. "Quit g-ddamn-d shit-ing around go go-damn buy a new -oddamned lawnmower fer christ sake, ya godamne- cheapskate sonofabitch." Clear as day. I knew it absolutely was him as there was more profanity than actual words. All that was missing was the smack on the back of the head. I flinched and spun around but he was not there. Probably already at the VFW for some penny-a-point pinochle and Schlitz's with his poltergeist pals. I wasted no more time, and bought a new Craftsman with a new owners manual and parts schematic that I hope to haunt one of my sons over someday. Years later, and Mrs. T remains very skeptical about this, he came back to tell me to buy a sweet Weber Grille. But that's another story...
Tony Cesare October 11, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Great to hear profanity is not discouraged in the afterlife! Love it!


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