WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — It’s nearing 6 p.m. on a Saturday in October. The sun is setting, the air is growing brisk and a large crowd begins to gather at the Elks Lodge on Scott Street. A pinkish glow begins to engulf downtown Wausau as dark envelops the sky and there is the sound of crunchy leaves rustling along the sidewalks,
The crowd continues to grow and more and more people of all sizes and ages begin to congregate near the 400 block of Scott Street. They may all be from different parts of town and varying backgrounds, but they’re here for the same thing: to learn about the eerie spirits some say lurk at many a landmark and downtown establishment.
They’re here for the 13th annual Historic Downtown Wausau Fall Haunted Walking Tour, put on by the Wausau Paranormal Research Society.
Some of the crowd may be here for a good scare. Others have made a tradition of the annual walking tours and a few want to hear the unadulterated version of what’s really skulking around mysteriously at places such as The Grand or The Fillmor, the former concert venue and movie theater now home to the Downtown Mission Church.
“I don’t want to walk away scared, but more educated about it,” 17-year-old Ariana Blair, one of many attendees of a recent tour, told Daily Herald Media. “Hollywood really stretches the limit of how people see ghosts.”
These haunted outings have become sort of a staple in Wausau — a guaranteed ghostly good time and a signal to the community that Halloween is just around the corner. And for most people, the only encounter they have with the Wausau Paranormal Research Society— which has existed in, some form, for the past 15 years — is this yearly walking tour.
However these downtown excursions into the city’s haunted past are just a small part of what the seven-person Wausau Paranormal Research Society does. In fact, when they’re not giving haunted tours of Wausau, the team is in the depths of investigating the presence of ghosts, spirits and other paranormal activities in the area.
The purpose of these investigations is simple: to find out whether such transcendental activity is occurring. WPRS will receive reports of doors opening on their own, apparition sightings, strange smells or objects moving by themselves.
But just because an incident seems otherworldly, it doesn’t mean it is, said WPRS’s executive director Shawn Blaschka, who is also co-author of the book, “Haunted Wausau: The Ghostly History of Big Bull Falls.”
“We don’t go into an investigation thinking it’s paranormal all the time,” said WPRS investigator Bill Beaudry. “We don’t jump to the conclusion that every creak, every knock, every sound is a ghost. We try to find a logical explanation.”
And it turns out that, when the society goes to investigate a case, the cause is most likely not paranormal. Finding spirit activity is actually pretty rare, said WPRS co-director Anji Spialek, also the co-author of “Haunted Wausau: The Ghostly History of Big Bull Falls.”
“I would say nine times out of 10, we do find logical explanations that have to do with the plumbing or the electricity,” Spialek said. “And then every once in a while, it’s that one time out of 10 when we catch that picture, or a voice and we’re not able to explain away the activity.”
The team collects evidence, with any pictures or recordings if they have them, and tries to find out if there’s any rational answer that would explain away the strange movements happening at a particular place. They may use a variety of instruments — a digital video recorder system, infrared thermal probes or electromagnetic field meters — to track movements and possible paranormal activity.
After completing an investigation, they’ll reveal the results to their clients and if they find evidence that it could be something metaphysical, they’ll give them tips on how to cope and deal with the spirits. WPRS does not charge for their services. They also do not cast spells, perform cleansings or have the ability to expel such spirits from the house.
Rather, they’re just interested in helping those affected by paranormal spirits to manage and come to terms with the situation. It’s about coexistence.
“We’re there to try to make them feel better about what’s going on,” Beaudry said. “We’re there to try to make them understand.”
They’ll dole out advice to the person affected by the paranormal activity to help them cope with the activity. In particular, there’s one tip that has yielded positive results for WPRS: Lay down the ground rules with the ghost.
“You would talk to it, and tell it, “I know you’re here, but you’re frightening me or frightening my children,’” Spialek said.
It seems simple, doesn’t it?
“You’d be surprised how often it works,” said WPRS investigator Nick von Gnechten.
A lot has changes since the group was founded at the turn of the millennium. The technology has evolved — at the start, Blaschka possessed a ghost kit, tape recorder, and a camera, but now the group has a whole trailer full of equipment— and the general public’s attitudes about the paranormal have slowly evolved too, Blaschka said. Thanks to the advent of TV shows such as “Ghost Hunters” in the mid-2000s, there is a much more widespread acceptance, Blaschka said.
“I think people have opened their eyes a little more and maybe are a little more open minded about the possibility that (paranormal) activity is around you,” Blaschka said.
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For the seven members of the Wausau Paranormal Society, the allure of seeking out paranormal activity has to do with a combination of personal interest in the paranormal — many have had a longstanding fascination ever since their childhoods — and the rush they get when pursuing such spirits or ghosts. They’ve all had interactions with paranormal activity— and it’s exhilarating.
“We’ve all had our hair pulled, our shirts tugged on, felt like we were touched,” Beaudry said.
For example, during an WPRS investigation, Spialek was working away when suddenly she saw a figure. At first, she assumed it was one of her team members, but then realized that wasn’t possible: they weren’t even on the same floor as her. She trailed the figure and happened to capture a good look.
“This gentleman was just wearing a work jacket, work pants, he just looked normal, like just a person,” she said.
She followed him through the kitchen. But when she entered the room —
“Nobody was there,” Spialek said.
While some people may have been frightened of such an encounter, Spialek said she was not. It was exciting, maybe a little startling, but invigorating. To put it simply, it was a thrill.
Spialek said that the reason most people are scared of the paranormal is because they don’t understand it or expect it — and when it’s happening in their home, it can feel intrusive. All spirit energy isn’t evil or menacing, she said.
“When you’re sitting at home and you’re not expecting something to happen, that can be scary,” she said.
What the Wausau Paranormal Research Society does is not a science — but one day, Spialek said she hopes it will be. For now, it’s just postulations and conjecture.
“This is all theory,” Spialek said. “And everyone has their own personal theories.”
Ultimately, how a person understands the paranormal is up to that individual and his or her own beliefs and experiences, Blaschka said. WPRS will investigate “anything that dwells along the paranormal or something that is unexplained. We got a call once for some little gnomes running around in someone’s backyard in Rib Mountain,” he said.
(And, in case you’re wondering, they did check out the claim, but never did find any evidence of gnomes.)
So how do you define paranormal activity? What are ghosts? Why are supernatural spirits dwelling among the living? Is the metaphysical malevolent? The answers to these questions will depend on who you ask, Blaschka said.
“I think it’s just spirit energy,” Beaudry said about ghosts. “Whatever is there is what was there from its previous life,”
“To me, a lot of times, a ghost is somebody who is trapped in between,” von Gnechten said. “They want to send a message. They died too early — too sudden. They want to stay in their home,”
And, sure, there are those people who don’t believe in what WPRS is doing, but that doesn’t really bother them, Spialek said.
“You’ll always have people who will dismiss it or say that they don’t believe it, but we’re OK with it, we’re not out to change anyone’s mind,” she said.
After all, it’s hard to come terms with the unknown, especially if you’ve never had a personal experience with it.
“It’s one of those things that needs to happen to you in order for you to be a believer,” von Gnechten said. “It’s something that you got to see for yourself.”
“Once in a while, it’s that one time out of 10 when we catch that picture, or a voice and we’re not able to explain away the activity.” Anji Spialek, co-author of “Haunted Wausau: The Ghostly History of Big Bull Falls”