Last year I had a title released called Wisconsin Legends & Lore (History Press). I tried to collect a good mix from Wisconsin’s rich history of storytelling. One of my favorite parts was talking about urban legends from around the state. Urban legends are stories spun, usually about a creepy location, and people (usually young folks) get a frightened thrill daring, or even worse– double dog daring— someone to do something frightening. In Muskego, Wisconsin, there was a dare to drive down Mystic Lane late at night to look for Haunchyville, supposedly a community of angry little people that will attack you if you dare cross over into their turf. If you park your car on Bloody Bride Bridge in Stevens Point, local lore says you can look in your rearview mirror and see the Bloody Bride sitting in your back seat. These stories of looking in mirrors and chanting names, picking up phantom hitchhikers, and encountering monsters, witches, and psycho killers on back roads can be found all over the country. The stories vary slightly, but the premise is often the same.
One person well equipped to track these stories down is prolific researcher, lecturer, and author Chad Lewis. Chad has authored and co-authored books like The Road Guide to Haunted Locations series, Lake Monsters of Wisconsin, the Hidden Headlines series, and many more. Although he’s been all over the world, much of his work focuses on the Midwest. He grew up in Eau Claire (which is in Wisconsin, but close to Minnesota) and currently lives near the Madison area.
Chad admits his favorite part of writing isn’t the long hours spent staring at a screen, scrutinizing grammar, but rather the thrill of the open road, discovering new places, hearing new stories. That’s what makes Supernatural Dares of the Midwest: Curses, Monsters, and Ghosts such a perfect project for him. He’s no armchair expert– he bravely got out there and tried every dare in the book for himself.
“I pride myself that every place that I write about or lecture about, I’ve actually visited for myself. That’s just the way it works for me, I have to be there. With the dares it was important that I tried them all. I joke in the book that there’s only one that I failed at doing and that’s because many claim it doesn’t exist,” Chad told me in an interview for the Tea’s Weird Week podcast. “That dare is if you check out a certain book from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater library, you will go crazy and either die or kill yourself. The reason I failed is because the book apparently does not exist. The library has told me year after year they don’t have it, which is exactly what you’d expect sneaky librarians to say to you,” Chad laughed. He’s referring to an urban legend that the UW-Whitewater library has an ancient magic Book of Shadows locked up somewhere, part of the greater witch lore of Whitewater, which was called Second Salem because they had a Spiritualist school there in the late 1800s.
Chad traveled around Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois seeking stories of cursed gravestones, portals to Hell, and country lanes said to be stomping grounds of monsters, eventually compiling about 40 supernatural dares for his book.
But why do we do it? Why do we scare each other into these frightening experiences of potentially coming face-to-face with the ghost of Old Man Weary or a pack of Hellhounds?
“I think there’s many aspects to it,” Chad tells me. “One, it feels good. Believe it or not, fear can make you feel good. Once your mind realizes you’re probably not in any physical sort of danger, your body is still rushing your organs with chemicals, the same stuff you get from happiness, sex, excitement– it feels good, the endorphins rush through.”
The dares also give people a chance to have their own mini hero’s journey.
“I think a lot of people are looking for that test of bravery amongst there peers, especially high school and college age kids. If they can walk down a cursed marsh road with a Goatman there and not bat an eye, they get a boost of self esteem and are seen in a higher light in their peers’ eyes, so I think the social aspect plays into it, too,” Chad says.
Last but not least– a thrill in a cookie cutter, boring landscape.
“On a deeper level I think people like doing it cause when you start traveling the country, you see that a lot of the cities look the same– the same restaurants, hotels, gas stations,” Chad explains. “So people are looking for that uniqueness, that strangeness that can only be found in your area.”
As Chad says, I love these stories and I think they’re an important part of our cultural landscape, our own modern folklore.
You can pre-order Chad’s book and check out his other work at: chadlewisresearch.com
Tea’s Weird Week podcast, episode 11: I talk more with Chad Lewis about his career as a researcher into the unknown and some of the supernatural dares he encountered working on his new book. Plus me and Heidi read some of the dumb things our listeners did on a dare and discuss mask enforcing luchadores, a Joker-themed candidate in Japan, Amityville, crystal ball safety, sperm samples on the moon, and more. Miss Information reveals trivia answers, an Irish jig inspired track from Sunspot, and we close with Ratbatspider‘s track about the Haunchyville urban legend, “Keep This Short.”
This has been a busy week for me (as you can see by this week’s “Please Clap Dept.”) with writing, podcast interviews, ghost tours, etc. October is always the busiest month for me and especially the last week of the month, so I’m mostly just sharing Halloweeny links in this column.
Halloween, like everything else, is pretty much cancelled this year– it sucks, I know. I’m going to celebrate by watching some of those old monster movies, hopefully going for a walk in Forest Home Cemetery, leading ghost tours for American Ghost Walks, and I made a play list of creepy cool music– 101 songs (plus a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death” by Basil Rathbone!) That’s 6 and a half hours worth of music for your stay-at-home Halloween party. I tried to get a good mix of classics, obscure, and a few bands I am friends or acquainted with. You can listen on Spotify here:
“Tea’s Weird Week: 101 Songs of Halloween Party”
Have a Happy Halloween, and of course VOTE. This election is not just about the McDonald Trump, but the local elections. Check your ballots– is someone who is a QAnon supporter on it? What about someone from the III%er militia or one of the Proud Boys or someone dangerous and terrible like Laura Loomer? There’s a lot of extremist candidates on ballots this year– vote the bastards out!
Please Clap Dept.: Busy week, I had a lot of great media opportunities:
* I was on the CripesCast, with the very funny Charlie Berens (Manitowoc Minute): https://cripescast.podbean.com/e/episode-19-tea-krulos
* I joined the guys on Lumpen Radio’s Eye 94 book show, includes some American Madness excerpts read by Shanna Van Volt, giving it a nice conspiracy jazz lounge tone: https://www.mixcloud.com/lumpenradio/eye-94-10-29-2020-tea-kroulos-conspiracies-and-qanon/
* I was part of a written roundtable discussion on misinformation for LitHub with authors Renata Salecl and Jonathan Berman. You can read it here: https://lithub.com/the-misinformation-superhighway-a-roundtable-on-the-rise-of-the-great-american-conspiracy/
* Last, I’ve never been on a baseball podcast before, but was glad to talk to Hall of Very Good to talk about the Pfister Hotel, where many MLB players have been haunted by ghosts: https://hallofverygood.libsyn.com/episode-255-tea-krulos
Buy my books American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness and a special Halloween treat, Wisconsin Legends & Lore.
I got the idea for this week’s column from the Vice Presidential debate. One of the star performances was not from Mike Pence or Kamala Harris, but the housefly that landed and sat on Pence’s head. I got some much needed laughs when I looked to social media and found that my feeds had been filled with fly memes. I saw a few people posting references to David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly (starring Jeff Goldblum) but I thought I would join in by sharing an image from one of my favorites, the classic 1958 Fly, which featured the great Vincent Price in the cast.
This classic film and others from this era have a dear place in my heart, because I grew up on them. You see, my parents were very strict about what I could watch as a kid. I was their firstborn, they were very religous and they wanted to protect me from a 1980s world gone made, from things controversial or provocative, from hearing words like “fucknut” or seeing sex parts. My options were limited, mostly to cinema pre-1970, give or take, or Disney films.
As such, as other kids were developing screen idols in 80s celebrities, mine were the likes of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price, and all of their creepy peers.
My favorites were the classic Universal stuff like Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolfman, Godzilla movies, and other classic monster and sci-fi like The Blob, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and many more. If it’s black and white and features monsters, aliens, ghosts, etc., chances are I’ve seen it.
In addition to horror and sci-fi, I also watched a lot of old comedy (the Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello) and mystery and noir (I especially liked Humphrey Bogart and anything by Hitchcock). At the time it was somewhat frustrating because on the playground, the guys would tell me how they had witnessed actual exposed boobs in movies like Porky’s or had seen someone cut in half with a chainsaw in a Friday the 13th movie and I’d be like…uh, yeah but have you dudes seen King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)?
My parents were strict even about seeing PG movies when I was younger. If I really wanted to see a movie, like say, Ghostbusters, or Gremlins, and lobbied them succesfully, I would wait until it was out on video, they would watch it by themselves, then the next night I could watch it with them but they would fast-forward through scenes with swear words of anything suggestive.
That means I wouldn’t get lines like “yes sir, it’s true. This man has no dick,” from Ghostbusters until years later, when I re-watched with friends.
Looking back on it, I’m glad though– I feel like I probably got at least a couple of college film history classes in before I even turned 14. And to me, Halloween will always mean old black and white monster movies. What’s your favorite classic horror/sci-fi? Share in the comments!
You can buy my book American Madness from Lion’s Tooth, Quimby’s, Bookshop.org and wherever books are sold. I had the great pleasure this week to talk about the book with Quimby’s Bookstore. We had fun talking about the book and played some conspiracy trivia–see how well you would have fared! You can catch it here:
And just in time for Halloween, you can get signed copies of my book Wisconsin Legends & Lore from the Milwaukee Paranormal Conference Square shop: https://milwaukee-para-con.square.site/product/wisconsin-legends-lore-by-tea-krulos-signed-and-inscribed-/44?cs=true
I sent in my manuscript for my book American Madness which will be out August next year. I also have a little book out about a year from now called Wisconsin Legends & Lore, which is a collection of some classic Wisconsin folklore, ghost stories, and urban legends. One of the stories I read about while researching is the tragic story of the Rouse Simmons, also known as the Christmas Tree Ship, a nice Wisconsin Christmas ghost story for you this Friday the 13th.
Every holiday season, Chicagoans eagerly awaited the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship, which would load up with evergreens in Michigan, then sail down to Chicago, where it would tie up to a dock. Families would head over, pick out a tree, and drag it back to their homes on a sled. The arrival of the Rouse Simmons meant the arrival of the holidays.
Captain Herman Schuenemann aka “Captain Santa” ran the business. He sold trees for fifty cents or a dollar, but he was known for generously donating trees to orphanages, hospitals, and poor families. His was not the only Christmas Tree Ship, but it would become the most famous. In November of 1912, Captain Schuenemann and his crew loaded 5,500 trees (imagine how piney that must have smelled!) into the Rouse Simmons, packing it as much as they could. There were supposedly bad omens, according to crew who declined to make the journey– rats seen abandoning ship, a crew totally an unlucky 13, and the ship leaving port on a Friday.
On November 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was sailing past Two Rivers, Wisconsin on route toward Chicago. A terrible storm hit Lake Michigan. The Rouse Simmons, already an old ship and overladen with thousands of trees, was thrashed in the wind, ice forming on the sails and ripping them. The Christmas Tree Ship (and a few other boats on the lake that night) and all hands were lost. Christmas trees from the boat washed ashore for years afterward.
Rather than be deterred by the lake that had claimed Captain Schuenemann’s life, his wife and daughters took over the business. The new Captain Schuenemann was his brave daughter, Elsie, who led the delivery of trees that same winter season of 1912. The family kept the business going until railroads and highways made the Christmas Trees ships obsolete in the 1920s and 30s..
The wreck of the Rouse Simmons was discovered by a scuba diver in 1971. They found that there were still needleless, skeleton-like trees in the cargo hold.
Legend says that you can see the ghost ship of the Rouse Simmons on Lake Michigan on stormy winter nights or on the anniversary of the night it sunk, struggling in the choppy waters to get south to Chicago.
A nice ending to this story is that a non-profit group called Chicago’s Christmas Ship, with the help of the Coast Guard, now continues the Christmas Tree Ship legacy. Using the sturdy Mackinaw, they’ve sailed to Navy Pier the last 20 years with a cargo of Christmas trees, where they work with community organizations to get trees to people who can’t afford them to make their holiday a little brighter.
You can find out more and donate here: http://christmasship.org/
More ghost stories! I host the Milwaukee Ghost Walk- Ghosts of Christmas Past tour tonight, tomorrow, and next weekend!: https://americanghostwalks.com/wisconsin/milwaukee-ghosts-of-christmas-past/
My latest book, Apocalypse Any Day Now makes a nice existential stocking stuffer: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow
Tea shares his weird week with you every Friday.
When I was a kid, my family knew I was into “weird stuff,” so my parents and grandparents sometimes saved newspaper articles they thought I might be interested in.
The ones I remember vividly were the Tallmann House poltergeist of Horicon, Wisconsin, that grabbed headlines in 1988 (and appeared on Unsolved Mysteries) and the Beast of Bray Road, which howled and broke loose in 1991. They were probably the first newspaper reports I read, and I thought about them a lot, drawing pictures of what the apparitions in Horicon might look like, and imagining werewolves lurking in the Wisconsin cornfields my family drove by.
Not shared with me, by the way, were reports on Jeffrey Dahmer and his arrest the same year, 1991. I would learn about that by eavesdropping on my grandma and mom talking about the case in hushed tones as they drank coffee at the kitchen table, while I hid around the corner.
Many years later, I was thrilled to meet Linda S. Godfrey, who was the reporter to break the story of the Beast of Bray Road and has since become a prolific author. Me and my friend, photographer Lacy Landre, drove out to meet her for lunch in Elkhorn and then me and Lacy cruised down Bray Road to see the stomping ground of the Beast. I wrote about Linda and the Beast in my book Monster Hunters: On the Trail with Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, Ufologists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (2015, Chicago Review Press) in a chapter titled “The Accidental Werewolf Chronicler.”
An excerpt of that chapter was also part of a werewolf themed issue of Fortean Times magazine (July 2015).
Linda has gone on to write many books and I’m glad she’s also been a part of the Milwaukee Paranormal Conference every year, and was presented with the first “Wisconsin Researcher of the Year” award at our year one event.
The Beast, meanwhile, has become a permanent part of Wisconsin lore, still very much talked about. For proof go no further than Seth Breedlove’s excellent The Bray Road Beast documentary, part of his highly recommended Small Town Monsters doc series.
I was happy to be asked to lead a discussion and Q and A with Linda for her new book I Know What I Saw: Modern Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore (Penguin/Random House), a great new collection of weird monster sightings. It’s happening Wednesday, July 17, 7pm at Boswell Book Company.
Here’s a short article I wrote on the book for the Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/arts-and-entertainment/books/linda-s-godfrey-looks-for-monsters-in-i-know-what-i-saw
And a link to the Boswell appearance event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/454343315368924/
It’s sure to be an interesting discussion!
I’m glad to say I’ll get a chance to revisit the Beast myself (along with the Tallmann House poltergeist and much more) in my book Wisconsin Legends & Lore, out early in 2020 (I have two books out next year!) from The History Press.
The Week in Links
I’m the tour guide for the Milwaukee Ghost Walks Third Ward Tour (almost) every Saturday evening. Friday tours will be added starting next month. You can get tickets here: https://americanghostwalks.com/wisconsin/milwaukee-ghost-walks/
I’m still working on developing Cream City Tours. We’re doing a Riverwest Pinball Wizards tour Sunday, July 28 at 5pm, Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/727504021015028/
Get a copy of my new book Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow