Decatur’s Ghost Stories

It’s just a week away from Halloween, and that means ghost stories, visiting Greenwood Cemetery, and eating caramel apples, double-dipped of course, from Del’s Popcorn. I haven’t visited Greenwood or Del’s yet, but tonight I’ll write about some ghost stories.

Decatur has its notorious haunted locations such as the Culver House, Millikin University, Greenwood Cemetery, the Avon Theater and the Lincoln Square Theater. I’ve been to most of these locations, but have never experienced anything out of the ordinary at any of them.

The only site famous for hauntings in Decatur that I’ve had an experience at is Hell’s Hollow. Now, apparently this is a site that was made famous from stories that had been published in Chicago’s newspapers about Decatur’s “Hounds of Hell’s Hollow”, a gang of criminals and murderers that dumped their victim’s bodies on a hill by the Sangamon River, near Greenwood Cemetery.

The stories were made up, by none other than William Randolph Hearst to sell newspapers. While, those stories were fabricated, there have been bodies dumped in the area. It doesn’t help that there are tales of bodies from Confederate soldiers floating down the river after their shallow graves gave way on a nearby hill.

Native Americans apparently always considered the land to have spiritual significance. They never built on it because they believed it was a portal, of sorts, between the living and the dead. I don’t know how true that is, but I can honestly say that I have had strange experiences in this part of town that felt odd, way before I knew the history of the area.

The area just feels different from other parts of the city. It truly feels like you’re entering a spiritual place. Garman Park has the same feeling to me. Maybe it’s because of the hills and the ravines or being near water, but there’s a detectable energy that resonates in these areas. Or maybe, I just have a wild imagination.

About 10 years ago, my daughter and I went on a Haunted Decatur tour. It was fascinating because it wasn’t so much about ghost stories, but more about the rich history of Decatur. Did you know that there is an old family graveyard beneath one of the parking lots in downtown Decatur? There is.

In fact, there were several cemeteries that were moved as the city grew. Bodies were dug up and moved to new cemeteries. Well, most of the bodies were moved. Many of the oldest cemeteries were family-owned or just didn’t have the regulations that we do today.

Before the Civil War, it was common for family members to bury their dead. Many of the graves were shallow and unmarked. Can you imagine trying to dig in the middle of winter? Not easy. It’s hard to dig six inches, let alone six feet, in frozen soil. It happened more than once, that a family pet would dig up a bone or two and bring it back to their owners. Long-forgotten headstones, and a skull or two, popped up in backyard gardens. One headstone was found beneath somebody’s front porch in the west end.

Back to the Haunted Decatur tour. I remember it being a cold night, and like usual, I was wearing shorts and flip-flops. I was eager for the tour to be over since we were outside hanging out at Hell’s Hollow.

I don’t remember the details to the story he was telling us, something about a graveyard caretaker that stole jewelry from dead bodies or something like that. Then, in the woods near the river, we all heard a sickening sound. It sounded like a duck being strangled. I thought maybe a coyote or fox got it.

The story continued. I was freezing and standing at the back of our group with my daughter on the paved trail by the river. Then I heard breathing behind me. It sounded like an animal, or kinda like an animal, certainly not human. The breathing got louder and louder, till it seemed like whatever was making the noise was just a few feet away. It felt more like an engulfing presence about to wrap its cold arms around me.

Thankfully, our guide finished up his story, and we scurried back to the van. I was a little unnerved by the experience. When we got back to the car, after the tour was over, I asked my daughter if she noticed anything strange about Hell’s Hollow. I didn’t tell her what I had heard or felt, but she told me the same exact things I had experienced.

It truly sounded and felt evil, and I don’t mess around with evil.

My idea of a fun Halloween is carving pumpkins and watching The Munsters or Scooby Doo. There’s no Ouija boards in my house. The devil is not welcome.

Speaking of that. When we first toured our house, one of the bedrooms had satanic posters hanging on the walls. I didn’t think too much of them when we looked at the house because I was more terrified of a 30-year mortgage we were about to sign.

After living in the house for 26 years, there has been strange happenings in that room. My daughter, when she was about 6 or 7, told me she saw a black figure move across the hall into that room. She was distraught by it, and she wasn’t the type to get scared easily. I told her it was probably just a shadow or her imagination.

About 10 years later, I saw it too.

We had just added an addition to the house and that bedroom had been converted into a hallway, a walk-in closet, and a pantry to connect to the new part of the house. I was sitting in the new family room looking back towards the hallway, thinking of decor ideas when I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. My dog saw it too. She jumped up and starting growling.

I was in shock. It looked like a black, hunched over figure about 4 feet tall with long claws and a pointy head. It didn’t walk like a human, but instead kind of glided. It moved from the kitchen across the hall and disappeared.

Well, that explained the black hand that tried to smother my face when I slept in that room when my son was a newborn.

It also explained the noises I heard in the new addition, as it was still in the construction phase. I was laying in bed in the old master bedroom one night, and I heard boards being tossed around in the new addition that wasn’t yet accessible to the outside. No doorways or windows had been cut into the plywood. I also heard distinct footsteps. My dog noticed it too, and barked at the sounds.

I was freaking out a little, then I thought maybe a raccoon had found its way in and was making a ruckus. I went into the new addition the next morning, and to my surprise the boards, were stacked as usual. Nothing was out of place.

There was a lot of “activity” as the addition was being built. I don’t think our freeloading ghost or demon liked having its room altered.

One evening, after the addition was complete I was in the kitchen cooking dinner and speaking with my daughter who was standing in the new hallway. We joked about our ghost and that we hadn’t seen it in a while. Then, on the other side of the kitchen, a loud bang hit the counter. I could feel the vibration. It was like a sledgehammer had hit it. My daughter and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, we won’t joke about the ghost anymore.”

True story.

A few years ago, I hung a simple cross in the hallway of that old bedroom, purely for the purpose of driving away evil spirits. It worked. I haven’t noticed anything since then.

Hey, call me crazy, but the Bible clearly says that there are evil spirits and demons in this world. I would suggest never hanging satanic posters in your house, if you were thinking that would be a cool decor idea.

The house feels much more welcoming and comfortable now. The demon thing is gone, and even better, the mortgage was paid off years ago.

Happy Halloween!