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Indeed, the American Society of Ghost Writers held its annual convention at the Stratford Hotel this year, and ABC is planning to film part of its upcoming documentary World's Scariest Ghosts: Caught on Tape at the McPike Mansion.
But not everybody in Alton buys into the town's newfound paranormal notoriety. "I just wish people would come to Alton for its legitimate history, instead of all this ghost stuff," says a local historian, who asked not to be quoted by name.
The road is called Hopp Hollow, and as the SUV sweeps up and down the densely wooded bluff line, the headlights bounce through the rough spots, offering disconnected, darting glimpses of the mass of tangled trees on either side. There are few indications of a human presence on this unlit road, save for a few old houses hidden up on the limestone hills and a road sign marking the end of Alton's city limits.
Antoinette Easton would probably say the sign marks the end of one reality and the beginning of another, but at the moment, planted in the front passenger seat with a walking cane resting against her aching knees, Alton's foremost psychic is mulling over last-minute changes to her tour instead.
"We've got to get the Tiki torches," Antoinette says to her business partner, Marlene Lewis, who is steering through the night.
"There are still a lot of things we have to do," Marlene says. Antoinette and Marlene's haunted tours is one of several competing for the more than $200,000 spirit hunters are expected to spend in Alton this month, according to the local tourism bureau. But because all of the tours book up fast, the contest is not so much for the dollars as it is for the tour guide's ability to find the phantoms.
Antoinette is considered one of the best. Having lived and worked as a professional psychic in Alton since 1978, she claims to have developed a personal relationship with many of the town's ghosts over the years; more important -- because any good tour includes visits inside haunted houses -- she also communes regularly with the owners of the homes they haunt.
Antoinette gazes out into the night as the SUV scrapes by branches that reach out on either side of the road like the arms of the needy. The night is warm, windy and clear, and because the harvest moon is in full cooperation, shards of its low, gold brilliance fall onto the road. Toads, blowing leaves and two black dogs escape the headlights, and Antoinette sweeps her well-manicured hand along the windshield.
"There are supposed to be bodies buried all along here," she says.
The remains belong to Confederate soldiers who died by the thousands of smallpox in Alton's federal prison during the Civil War. Back then, Hopp Hollow Road was used daily to cart the dead bodies to the backwoods cemetery.
The cemetery still remains, though all but one of the headstones has long disappeared. Now a towering obelisk stands on moonlit nights as a glowing memorial to the thousands buried below, and earlier in the evening, when Antoinette visits the site, she runs her fingers along the names engraved at its base and claims to sense the presence of several ghosts.
"Ghosts are around in full daylight, but you can't see them because the light is too bright," she says, as the wind whips dead leaves and the scent of her rose perfume high into the night air. "It's the same way if it's really dark -- you probably won't be able to see them. You see them in low light, when there's some contrast, like tonight, when there's a full moon."
The cemetery stretches out in the moonlight across several acres of steep hills and ancient oaks dropping acorns in the wind. Antoinette stands looking out, resting on her cane.
"When you stand here on top of this hill and look across to the tops of the other hills, you can just sense that underneath you are all of those people," she says.
Despite ideal conditions, there will be no sightings in the cemetery tonight. Antoinette and Marlene don't apologize, though. There's no need, they say: Alton is haunted to the gills. As the SUV pulls away from the cemetery on Hopp Hollow Road toward the old prison site, Antoinette and Marlene point out all the haunted houses that will be on their tour along the way.
"This house is supposed to be very haunted by a little boy named Bernie," Marlene says, nodding toward a small, gingerbread-trimmed house surrounded by frail, creaking elms. Marlene is not a professional psychic -- she works as a community- relations professional for a local hospital -- but she is a true believer. "The neighborhood kids around here have seen him, even play with him, but no one knows his story."
Although Marlene and Antoinette categorize the places as "not very haunted," "haunted" or "very haunted" for purposes of the tour, one house is at the top of their list as "very, very haunted." It is the McPike Mansion, lying in wait on 12 wooded acres up on Alby Street, where everything from flying orbs to phantom children have reportedly been seen.
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