Adam Selzer writes young adult novels by day, but since that only keeps him occupied until about 10 in the morning most of the time, he had the rest of the time to focus on his career as a historian specializing in places that are supposed to be haunted. He runs two or three hundred ghost tours per year, and talks on TV and the radio quite a bit (usually about HH Holmes).
When did you begin giving haunted tours in Chicago? With so many paranormal-themed tours in Chicago, how did you get your foot in the door?
My first tours were in 2005. I’d cut my teeth writing articles about ghost lore and had a pretty good head for the job – most of the other applicants for an available slot were actors and, I imagine, people who saw the tour as a chance to preach their concept of how the afterlife works (which is fine for some tours, but trying to be theatrical on a bus in Chicago starts to look silly after a while). But I had a good sense for how to tell the stories and enough concern about my own credibility not to go around making stories up. This was right around the time when smart phones were getting more common; people could fact check us in real time now!
Richard Crowe used to tell the story of how the ghost of Clarence Darrow appeared during one of his tours. What is the most interesting thing that’s happened during one of your tours?
Oh, lots of things! I’ve heard pianos play themselves and things like that. At a space where HH Holmes had a “glass bending factory” (where he sure as hell wasn’t bending any glass), we’ve seen a woman in a black dress who appears and disappeared. I never get that good of a look at her; I always think it’s just some idiot getting in the way of a moving bus until she vanishes. Exactly what Holmes was doing at that site isn’t really known, but it was near the homes of roughly half of his known Chicago victims, and there’s a short list of things a multi-murderer would be doing with a furnace that large.
Were you born and raised in the Windy City? In what neighborhood did you grow up, and did you have a favorite haunted place you liked to visit as a child?
Nope! I was in Atlanta and Des Moines before I came here. But there are haunted houses in every town. Most suburbs have a woods said to be the den of devil worshipers, a bit of road where dead kids are supposed to push you over the tracks, or something like that. Mine were no different. Especially back in the 80s, when I was a kid and news outlets were saying that every other day care center was a front for a satanic cult.
One of the most compelling parts of your book The Ghosts of Chicago was the chapter on Resurrection Mary. It features a breakdown of all Mary sightings and categorizes them by type. What do these experiences tell you about the Resurrection Mary story?
Well, the basic elements of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story were isolated by folklorists decades ago – she’s usually picked up in a ballroom, and the driver goes to her house the next day and learns it’s a girl who died in a car wreck years before. Sometimes he finds some outerwear on her grave. And when people tell the story of Mary, they’re usually just telling the Vanishing Hitchhiker story. But if you look at the actual first hand accounts, there’s some disconnect. For the first 40 odd years of the story, people generally just met her on the side of the road and had her vanish without really saying anything. They never found out who she was the ghost OF or anything. So there’s that. Most of the sightings don’t really fit into the model like it should.
A lot of books have been written about Chicago ghostlore — what makes Ghosts of Chicago unique?
There sure are a lot, aren’t there? And most of them are just rehashing Richard Crowe and Ursula Bielski, with little or no original research. Mine is sort of a critical study – an attempt to trace all the stories back to the primary sources and find out what we know and how we know it. It’s more down to earth and humorous than a lot of the other ones out there, and doesn’t make much of an attempt to persuade unbelievers. It’s a “just the facts” sort of treatment, with new information on a lot of well-known stories.
What’s next for Adam Selzer? How can our readers get in touch with you if they want to go on one of your tours?
My next novel is called Play Me Backwards; it’s sort of like a Christian YA novel, only for young adults who worship the devil (though I imagine Simon and Schuster would probably prefer it if I stopped describing it like that!). My next ghost book will be about Abraham Lincoln ghost lore; Llewellyn will be putting that one out around 2015, I think. I also did a book about the silent film industry in Chicago with Michael Glover Smith that’s going to be really cool! I hope to have more news on that one soon.
I run tours these days through Chicago Hauntings – just ask for me when you make a reservation, and they’ll try to accommodate you.
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