Ursula Bielski is the founder of Chicago Hauntings, Inc. and his
been writing and lecturing about Chicago's supernatural folklore and
the paranormal for nearly 20 years. Ursula is the author of six popular
and critically-acclaimed books, including Chicago Haunts, the first-ever
book to document the city's rich ghostlore, and is the organizer of
the first Chicago Ghost Conference of 2007. Ursula and her husband,
author David Cowan, formed Chicago Hauntings, Tours in 2003, and the
tours have emerged as the most respected and acclaimed in the city.
Ursula she also hosts Beyond the Veil events with Chicago colleague
Edward Shanahan of the Unexplained World, escorting guests to intensely
spiritual locations around the Midwest. Ursula's interests in Chicago
ghost hunting began at a young age. She grew up in a haunted house
near Wrigley Field on Chicago's north side and received an early education
in Chicago history from her father, a Chicago police officer, who
introduced Ursula to the ghosts of Graceland Cemetery, Lake Michigan
and the old lockup at Chicago's storied Maxwell Street Police Station.
Since that time Ursula has been involved in countless investigations
of haunted sites in Chicago and around the nation, and has appeared
in productions by the A&E Network, The History Channel, The Learning
Channel, The Travel Channel, and PBS. In addition to her books, Ursula
is the author of numerous scholarly articles exploring the links between
history and the paranormal, including articles published in the International
Journal of Parapsychology. Ursula is a past editor of PA News, the
quarterly newsletter of the Parapsychological Association, a past
president and board member of the Pi Gamma Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta,
the national history honor society, and holds membership in the Society
of Midland Authors. Ursula holds a B.A. degree in history from Benedictine
University and an M.A. in American cultural and intellectual history
from Northeastern Illinois University, where her academic explorations
include the Spiritualist movement of the 19th century and its transformation
into psychical research and parapsychology, and the relationships
among belief, experience, science, and religion.
20 Questions Ursula Bielski
1. Where do you see ghost hunting and Paranormal groups, or ghost
Tours like your own in 10 years?
I would hope that, ten years from, now, ghost hunting and paranormal groups will have become more familiar with the science of parapsychology than most are at this point. One of our missions at Chicago Hauntings is to bring a wider scope to ghost hunting groups and individuals. In this, we try to introduce more people to the science of parapsychology--with its history of difficulties--, to the interdisciplinary nature of paranormal research, and to the need for integrating the study of the phenomena and the study of those who experience it. I am frustrated so often by the many groups and individuals today who are obssessed with evidence-gathering (whatever that even means), while totally ignoring the experiential evidence of witnesses or the psi abilities of the experiencers. What is also frustrating is the widespread lack of understanding that we need to "go at" these phenomena from many different perspectives. I would hope that thee realities would change in the next decade or so
2. What would you consider to be the definitive proof that ghosts are real?
Since graduate school, I have been taken with "phenomenology"--a crucial aspect of the study of history. Basically, phenomenology says that if someone believes they have seen a ghost, it doesn't matter if ghosts are real or not. People act on what they believe they've experienced. So if someone has the experience of seeing a ghost, this will shape their life, so it must be important to us, too, if we want to understand history in any real way. My ideas have become controversial under the eye of the new generation of "ghost hunters", because--unlike many--I am not ultimately concerned with proof, but with documenting human experience.
3. What is the most real evidence you have uncovered so far?
That said, I would have to reiterate that it is the experiences of individuals--not photos or EVP samples or videos or anything else tangible--that suggests to me that these phenomena have something true and lasting behind them.
4. Are you skeptical of the claims other make of their findings?
I have watched many people come and go over the past twenty years,
and many have gone because their work was disclosed as fraudulent.
When you know in your heart that there is something real about all
of this, it's hard to resist faking evidence to prove to others what
you know is true. We saw this in the behavior of the earliest Spiritualist
mediums and in the most contemporary mediums of today's world. It's
frustrating to have to let such unpredictable phenomena speak for
itself--if it wants to, that is-- and almost never on cue! I think,
though, that the answer to this frustration lies, again, in better
exposure to the science of the phenomena. Today's investigators must
learn about the history of the frustration of parapsychology--that
this frustration is the nature of the business--and elusiveness the
nature of the phenomena.
5. If you could investigate your "Dream Haunted Hot Spot" where would it be?
Right here at home: Hull House in Chicago, absolutely off-limits to ghost hunters, but one of the most storied and active sites in the nation.
6. What was your first Paranormal encounter?
In 1967, my parents bought the so-called haunted house in the neighborhood, where I grew up, just a few blocks from Wrigley Field. The next year I was born, and my first memory is of waking up in the night to the sound of footsteps on the stairs, as if someone were ascending, going on and on and on. This happened every night for about thirteen years, until around the time my brother and I started high school. It was something that was just always there, and it made me look around from a young age for others with the paranormal in their everyday lives.
7. What scares you about Ghost Hunting or Paranormal Investigations?
Everyone knows that I will not venture into a haunted site alone, and I have found this to be the case with many ghost investigators with religious--especialy Catholic--backgrounds. In Chicago, as in many other old American cities, there is a solid diabolical foundation to many of our ghost stories. In Chicago, I was raised on stories of the Devil Baby of Hull House, yarns about the night the Devil was seen in the Communion line at St. Michael's Church in Old Town, and the tale of the night the Devil came to dance at Kaiser Hall in the old Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport. Just as most ghosts seem to be Catholic, many people who fear them are Catholic, too: I think the fear stems from a deep respect for the unseen, which is also the origin, I imagine, of my defense of the experiential.
8. If you could work side by side with one of the Paranormal Investigator greats, who would it be?
Harry Price, at Borley of course!
9. Read any good Paranormal Books lately?
I just finished John Kachuba's new "Ghosthunters" book, which I really enjoyed. I love his style: he truly makes you feel as if you are learning along with him. Another great writer today with a similar style is Jeff Belanger, who has a wonderful, down-to-earth, inquisitive style. I also just re-read Rhine's "Hidden Channels of the Mind." I make it a point to re-read the Rhines' books on a regular basis, to keep focused on and excited about parapsychology.
10. What Question do people ask you most when you tell them your a paranormal investigator, writer?
"What's the scariest thing you ever saw?" (My answer: I came home from from a tour one night after visiting the courtyard outside Chicago's Hull House--arguably Chicago's most haunted site--and woke at four a.m. to find a headless man standing on my bed.)
11. In your opinion, Where is the most Haunted city in America?
I truly do think Chicago is right up there. On our tours, we talk a great deal about the reasons for this: the proximity of the enigmatic waters of Lake Michigan, the massive and unfortunate Native American displacement of settlement days, and--most importantly--the deliberate lack of commemoration of some of the city's most important and deadly events: the Iroquois Theater Fire, the Eastland Disaster, the Fort Dearborn and St Valentine's Day Massacres. Other famously haunted cities in America--Salem, New Orleans, Gettysburg--have come to terms with (and embraced) their deadly pasts. In Chicago, we pay lip service to our "quaint" disaster-- the Great Fire of 1871--, but everything else is swept under the rug, including the gangland history of the 1920s, whose landmarks were systematically and completely destroyed by former mayor Richard J. Daley. During his long tenure, Daley fought a private war on the world's memory of Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and all they accomplished. Ironically, the most popular tours in Chicago today are tours of the vacant lots and parking garages that now stand on these notorious sites. We honestly feel that, when important events from a city's past are not properly commemorated--as in Chicago--inexplicable phenomena are some of the by-products.
12. Do you feel more people should get involved with Ghost hunting or Paranormal Investigation?
I don't think people should feel intimidated by the high-tech nature of a lot of the stuff they see on t.v. I started out ghost hunting in 1988 with nothing more than some fishing line and and a tape measure, baby powder, a Polaroid camera, and one of those clunky old cassette recorders that we used to use in grade school. The most important tools are patience and healthy skepticism--everything else can be improvised.
13. What does the future hold for you?
I find myself focusing more on the paranormal experience beyond Chicago and beyond just the historical aspect. I am working on a couple of books that look at a broader picture, and I have started a new venture--Beyond the Veil Events--with a great Chicago psychic feeler, Ed Shanahan (of the Unexplained World), taking guests to spiritual locations around the Midwest to open them up to the sites. I've never worked closely with a sensitive before--having no known psi abilities of my own--and this is completely different from what I've done in the past. I look forward to opening up more in the future to the experience of the sites I research.
14. Paranormal Conventions do you see them growing? And which ones are the Must go to ones?
I know that paranormal conventions are multiplying every year, but
I don't see much variety in them. I feel that conventions should be
places for the exchange of new ideas, the comparing of notes, the
changing of minds. Unfortunately, I think organizers are scheduling
the same names again and again just to draw attendees. When we began
organizing the First Chicago Ghost Conference for this October, I
did invite some big names in the field, like John Kachuba, Greg Myers,
Brian Leffler and Mark Macy, but because we felt they could provide
the best there is to offer regarding their own specialties: Kachuba
as an author, Leffler and Myers as astute physical investigators,
Macy as a devoted spirit communicator. But we also invited others
who were a bit surprised by the invitation: Sally Rhine Feather, who
is more acclimated to professional, academic circles, Nate Larson,
a Chicago artist intrigued by the paranormal, and Elizabeth Rintoul,
a school teacher convinced (like me) that the study of ghostlore is
a legitimate learning tool. When we dreamed up the roster of speakers,
we really tried to keep in mind the idea of "throwing people
together" in the grand tradition of conferences. We really wanted
people to learn from each other. Also, one of our priorities was to
give space and time to the many ghost hunting groups that have been
working in Chicago these many years. We offered free exhibit space
to any such groups who wanted to come and bring their photos, EVP
samples, case notes and membership information. I'd like very much
to see more of this in the future, across the country. As far as "must
attend" events, I think it's important to just go and mix with
others that are interested in what you're interested in: whatever
events you think will open your mind to other ideas.
15. What is your most favored tool of the trade?
A smart, patient, interested assistant. No technical tool can compare.
16. Tell us about your best moment in investigating or giving a tour?
See Number 10!
17. What is the hardest part about running a paranormal tour company?
The lack of time. There is so much feedback, interest, questions that come after each tour, but not anywhere near enough time to address it all. Every day, I wish I could go out for coffee with the author of every email and sit for eight hours and discuss all their questions, their fears their ideas about what all this is. We do the best we can, and we are constantly adding to our website so there is more and more information available all the time.
18. How do you document your investigations?
Most of what I do makes it either to our website or, eventually, to a book. I take lots and lots of notes, but I don't write up investigation reports right away, though I should. Mostly investigations start me thinking about broader themes and other, similar cases, and so a lot of it ends up in journals and essays.
19. Have you ever taken a ghost Tour not your own?
Oh, I've been on excellent tours everywhere, and they are all a bit different, but I've found them all to be passionate as well. I appreciate the time to simply be quiet and savor the atmopshere, the night air, to drink in the surroundings. I think a good tour guide makes sure you have a chance to do that.
20. What in the field of ghost hunting and Paranormal Investigating needs the most attention?
Again: I'd love to see more ghost hunters reading the professional
journals and academic textbooks in parapsychology. I think this is
absolutely crucial if there is to be any progress at all in modern
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