HAUNTED HEARTLAND IS PUBLISHED TODAY.
For decades, journalist Michael Norman has been tracking down spine-tingling tales that seem to arise from authentic incidents in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The young woman dead for more than a century haunting a section of famed Sheridan Road along Lake Michigan north of Chicago. A farmhouse in rural Iowa sheltering the ghost of a teenage boy killed in a freak farm accident. A ghostly workman in a plaid shirt playing peek-a-boo with unsuspecting staff at a famed Minnesota theater. The sly, invisible cat snuggling up against overnight visitors to a very old Ohio inn, while perfume of the feline’s ghostly mistress permeates the night air.
Those perplexing events, and over 80 more, are featured in Haunted Heartland, a collection of Midwest stories of the supernatural available just in time for Halloween from the University of Wisconsin Press.
Author Michael Norman has included eerie, entertaining and often baffling tales of ghosts and hauntings; possessions and exorcisms; phantom animals; puzzling, bobbing mystery lights; and more from 10 Midwestern states—Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
Norman’s previous books include Haunted Wisconsin, Haunted America, and an earlier best-selling edition of Haunted Heartland that he co-authored with the late Beth Scott. Many of the original book’s stories are included and updated. Other stories are new to this 2017 second edition.
“The line between reality and legend in these stories is imprecise at times,” Norman said. “Some are clearly rooted in the folklore or storytelling tradition of a particular locale.”
He cites the Ozarks as an example of a region known for its storytelling tradition. And in southern Ohio there is the locally known folktale of a ghostly wolf that has been heard for well over a century. He and his mates are hunted until one by one they make their way to the “dying place of the wolves.”
“Some of these ‘true’ ghost stories have been told and retold so many times—each recitation adding its own twists and turns—that it’s hard to know for certain where, when or how each one originated,” he said. “But they all have one element in common: they are said to have originated with an actual event, as far as I can tell.”
Other stories in the book may fall more within the controversial realm of parapsychology dealing as they do with people who claim to have had perplexing encounters with something they consider of supernatural origin.
“That story of the Iowa teenager is an example,” Norman points out. “His sister was one of the sources. She heard his voice and felt his presence in their family home many years after his death. She had very specific, very credible encounters with her deceased older brother. I believe she believed in what happened to her.”
Norman is an emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.
He acknowledges that as a writer, as a journalist, one can’t always prove the stories are “true” in the strictest sense of the term.
“I try to work with the ones that are most verifiable,” he said. “I like witnesses and first-hand accounts, not ‘my cousin’s best friend had a friend who said she saw a ghost outside her window.’”But that can prove to be difficult, not always possible, Norman admits.
“How does one ‘prove’ the existence of ghosts that might walk among us or that a particular place is ‘haunted’ so that skeptic and believer alike are satisfied?”
Although Norman had one encounter with a ukulele that appeared to play all by itself, he said he’s never personally seen a ghost. However, he’s interviewed hundreds of people over the years who say they have.
Norman thinks that by not taking a position as believer or non-believer he can more fairly approach the stories. He also depends on archival research and public sources such as newspaper accounts and first-hand accounts written by observers of the alleged haunting.
In some cases, Norman said, the ghost story is well known locally so there are both a number of witnesses and some written records.
“That’s the case with the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. The ghost of the workman clad in a plaid shirt has been sighted off and on by staff for many years. But who he is and why he lingers still isn’t clear,” Norman said. His research into the theater’s long and colorful history didn’t provide an answer.
“I don’t take a hard position,” he said. “In the end I hope they are compelling stories of events we can’t easily explain or understand in a satisfactory manner, that they are meant to remain mysteries.”
Haunted Heartland and Haunted Wisconsin may be purchased from any local or online bookseller, or directly from the University of Wisconsin Press at the links.