It hits us when we’re home alone and we shut off the TV, revealing the eerie silence of an empty house. Sometimes you feel it when you drag the garbage to the curb at night, or for the rurally inclined, to the burning barrel in the back yard. The feeling, the sense, that someone else – something else – is there. The hair stands up on your neck, the heart skips a beat, the body involuntarily freezes for just a moment. Then a tough façade kicks in with the denial.
“It’s not real,” you tell yourself. “There’s nothing there. Keep walking, don’t look back. Act like you’re not scared and it will go away. Just look straight ahead.” As if there was an option, as your neck is frozen in place, stuck like a locked steering wheel. If you don’t turn and look, you think, it’ll go away.
Closer to the door, you feel yourself on the edge of escape. Just make it inside the house, or into your bedroom, whatever strikes you as a safe zone in that moment, and lock the door. You measure your steps as you do only in moments of panic. Four quick steps you figure, and you dart onto the front porch, lunging for the doorknob with the final stride, timing it perfectly. You’ve barely landed and the knob is turned, the door is open, and you’re inside. Safe. Relieved.
Then you try to play it cool walking in, trying to catch your breath without looking like you’re catching your breath. Try to look at ease walking into the living room where your roommates, or your parents or your children sit, eyebrows raised at you.
You try to act like you weren’t just scared to death, that for a moment you didn’t believe with all your soul that there was something else out there. Something you didn’t see or hear. Something you just sensed. That for a moment ghosts were not the stuff of campfire stories, but as real as the garbage you just took out.
Because nobody believes in ghosts. Right? If you do, you’re a kook. Crazy. Nuts. Right?
Despite this stigma and the efforts of most of us to deny the paranormal, it seems every area has its own ghost stories and legends. Door County is no different. The isolation of the peninsula can lead the mind to wander, particularly in the long nights of the Wisconsin winter. Add to that the treacherous waters – never far from sight or mind – of Lake Michigan and Death’s Door that have claimed so many vessels, and you have a geography ripe for tales of the supernatural.
Perhaps these are the simple roots of the area’s ghostly lore, but there are those who are adamant there is more than imagination at play. For one Sturgeon Bay couple, the ghost in their midst is so real, they’ve made him a part of the family.
Their home sits about a block off the canal, its aging, worn shingles lending a hue of darkness that the beige of the first floor struggles to offset. The curtains of the second-story windows sit parted, giving the expectation that a face lost in purgatory might appear at any moment to stare you down from above.
If you dial the home of the couple (who we’ll call Jim and Sue) and nobody’s home, you’ll get an unexpected answering machine greeting telling you that “Sue, Jim and Black Bear aren’t home right now.” Realize, Black Bear is not a pet, but the name the couple has bestowed upon the ghost they say haunts their home on Eighth Avenue.
They’ve had the home for almost 12 years, having moved in after relocating from Los Angeles in 1994. The couple moved to the peninsula to escape the absurd pace of Southern California, only to find a new sort of absurdity in their new home.
Shortly after moving in, Sue was heading down to the cellar when an unexpected visitor startled her. “I opened the door and saw him coming up from the basement,” she remembers. “He looked like a [Native American] from way back in the 1700s. I screamed and slammed the door shut, then called Jim over. When he came I whispered to him ‘there’s someone in the basement.’ He looked so real I thought I’d just seen a real person.”
Jim told her to open the door and they’d see who it was, but when she did, the man she had seen wearing a black cloak on the steps was gone. “I’d never seen a ghost before, so I didn’t know what to do,” Sue said. “People tell me if you scream you scare them away, that you just have to talk to them. I think I just scared him off.”
Since that day, the couple has felt Black Bear’s presence many times, but Joe said he has never seen the ghost himself. “I drink, she sees the ghost,” he says.
He has had his experiences, however, with odd noises and little incidents. “I’ll be alone in the living room watching CNN when something taps me on the head,” he says. “I’ll think it’s Sue, but when I look nobody’s there.”
They say guests have been unnerved in the home as well. A sister of Jim’s refuses to stay in the home when she visits, and more than one visitor has told them they felt something odd upon venturing into their basement.
Jim and Sue trace the ghost to a doctor who lived in the home years ago. They said a Native American was found on the frozen canal one winter night and the doctor performed the autopsy. When he came home, they think he brought theNative American’s spirit with him.
Sue said she’s heard rumors from neighbors that the house is haunted, but her most startling confirmation came during a call to the family who lived in the home before them. “The lady got really upset when I asked her about a ghost,” Sue says. “She sounded defensive and said, ‘No, there’s no such thing in that house!’”
But then Sue heard something in the background. “I heard her son yell, ‘I told you Mom, I told you I saw it!’” she said. “That’s really got to make you wonder, now doesn’t it?”
The home’s staircase begins with a wide, grand berth in the living room, but narrows with each landing. A heavy, distinct creaking emanates from each step – creaking the couple hears from Black Bear as he makes his way in the night from basement to attic, where the boy said he saw the ghost.
Sue and Jim have come to accept their housemate, despite the occasional unfurling of toilet paper, taps on the head and intrusions into showers. They’ve learned to simply talk to him to keep him in his place. “When we hear him we just say, ‘Black Bear, go back down in the cellar,’” Sue says. “Then the noise usually stops.”
Unfortunately, the legend and the imposing look of the home have had an effect on one group of visitors. “We used to have a lot of trick-or-treaters,” Jim says. “But not that many kids come to the door any more.”
Sue and Jim’s story is not an isolated Door County tale.
Many stories have been spurred by the historic shipwrecks in the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Some residents will tell the tale of the Griffin, the famous lost ship of explorer Robert de La Salle, which legend claims still sails in the churning waters of a Lake Michigan gale, still seeking its destination over three centuries after it disappeared. Others believe the souls of those lost in the sinking of the Eric L. Hackley in 1903 haunt the village of Fish Creek.
The ghosts of the Hackley will be featured in a new tour offered by the Door County Trolley for the summer of 2006. Trolley operator A.J. Frank will offer a family-friendly tour of some of Fish Creek’s notorious hauntings. Among the stops will be an overlook of the site where the Hackley went down, taking 11 prominent Fish Creek citizens to the depths of the lake. Frank said he got the idea while on a similar tour in Savannah, Georgia.
“That, and all the stories I’ve heard from people on our other tours over the years really sparked my interest in the ghost lore up here,” Frank said. “Whether or not you believe in ghosts or haunted houses, there are some great stories to be told.”