Monday, October 11, 2010

Chicago Historian, Author, and Paranormal Researcher shares her Story

Ursula Bielski is the founder of Chicago Hauntings, an author, historian, and parapsychology enthusiast. She has been writing and lecturing about Chicago's supernatural folklore and the paranormal for nearly 20 years. Here she shares some thoughts about her interest in the paranormal and her new book There's Something Under the Bed. This book differs from many others on the market in that talks to parents specifically about helping their children with instances of the paranormal and urging them to not dismiss these events out of hand.


New Page: I know you've recently published There's Something Under the Bed. I'm very excited to talk about that, but first can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Bielski: I’ve been investigating the paranormal for more than 20 years, but my interest started as a little girl growing up here in Chicago. I really learned about Chicago history, which I love, through the ghost stories surrounding some of the city’s past events, both famous and little known. There’s Something Under the Bed is my seventh title, and the first title I’ve written for a national audience. I first began writing for practical reasons: to document the largely word-of-mouth stories I’d heard since my childhood. As an historian I was concerned that the stories might be lost. My expertise thus far has been in local haunted history and paranormal experience, so I am now branching out to reach a wider audience. For the past seven years, I have co-owned and operated Chicago Hauntings Ghost Tours, which takes passengers on tours of Chicago’s most actively haunted sites. A lot of my insight comes from my academic background. I hold an MA in cultural and intellectual U.S. history, and much of my work in this area centered on the history of paranormal experience, religion and science, and how the relationship among these has changed in American culture over the past 400 years.


New Page: There's Something Under The Bed centers largely on children's experiences with the paranormal and how they are often much more intense than those of adults. What do you feel was the most interesting story or experience you discovered while researching for the book?

Bielski: By far the most fascinating body of research for me is the work done by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, who spent decades interviewing children who [had] memories of past lives—in particular, [I’m thinking of] the presence of birthmarks on…children at the site[s] of the death wounds of the people whose lives and deaths they remember[ed]. For example, one child remembered dying by having his fingers amputated by a farm implement. The child was born with stunted growth in his fingers to the point that his fingers appeared to have been lost in an accident. Similarly, children who remembered dying from gunshot wounds had birthmarks at the point[s] of entry—and sometimes also at the point[s] of exit—of the bullets. [When he tracked] down the medical records of the people named by the children, Stevenson often found detailed evidence of the deaths remembered by the children.


New Page: What was the most frightening paranormal experience of your own childhood?

Bielski: As a child, the earliest memory I have is of being literally woken up by the sound of footfalls on the stairs leading from the foyer to the second floor, where our bedrooms were. This sound—without an apparent source—went on every night for almost 12 years, so the paranormal was sort of always with us. Many people say, “Oh, so you were used to it, it wasn’t scary.” But no, it was very frightening, very destabilizing, and we never got used to it. I do credit that experience with giving me a unique take on life in general. I grew up never quite knowing what was normal and what was paranormal, what was real and what I was supposed to see as unreal. It really helped me in my ability to empathize with people who were afraid to share their experiences for fear of being laughed at or discredited. It really gave me the insight to be able to look at things with an open mind far beyond childhood.



New Page: You're the founder of Chicago Hauntings, Inc., which has a reputation for hosting one of the most authentically creepy ghost tours in America. Can you tell us a little bit about the sites on the tour route?

Bielski: We are so proud to have been named one of the top 10 ghost tours in America for years running. We think a lot of our success comes from focusing on the history behind the ghost stories. I have always felt that the true events of the past are a lot more unsettling and frightening that most ghost stories, and so we say that our guests always leave “haunted,” if not by paranormal experiences, [then] by the true stories of Chicago’s history. Our tour guides are great historians of Chicago and…sincere students of the paranormal, and each has his or her own unique take on the tour. However, we do try to hit the hot spots on each tour: the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; the site of the Eastland Disaster; the site of the Iroquois Theater Fire; the death site of Chicago’s most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary.


New Page: What advice would you give to people who are interested in getting involved with parapsychology or paranormal investigations, but may not know where to start?

Bielski: It was tough when I was starting out, due to the stigma surrounding paranormal research at the time, and also due to the lack of means to finding similar-minded people, even in a big city like Chicago. Today, would-be researchers are so fortunate to be living in a climate of great hospitality toward ghost hunting, and also to have access, via the Internet, to others who want to learn more about it. A great place to start learning is online, with organizations such as the Rhine Research Center,…and also popular sites like GhostVillage.com, a clearinghouse of information about everything paranormal, including information about amateur ghost hunting and research groups all over the world. Another great way to start out is by joining one of the Meetup groups in your area, which you can find by just Googling “ghost Meetup groups” for your city. Most of these groups welcome beginners and are very friendly and encouraging to all.


New Page: On a more personal note, is there a specific book or author you've read that had a substantial influence on your life or the way you view the world?

Bielski: One of the most unlikely: Jack Kerouac. I was so intrigued by him as an undergraduate discovering his work. His ability to be “in the moment” and to appreciate the way people—all sorts of people—were living in any particular moment: interacting, enjoying, learning, expressing, just being. He had a profound respect for the experience of the moment, and that’s what it feels like to have a paranormal experience: time stops and all of the universe is captured there, sometimes for a split second. I often think of him when I listen to others tell of their experiences. There is a joy and wonder of the moment which Kerouac was so good at. I try to think of him when I retell the experiences of others.

Interview by Kristen Zimmer

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