Views of the Weird

A look at the ghosts of Alton -- and the people who believe in them

It's three steps down into the wine cellar, and even though it's small and there's not much to look at -- a dirt floor, limestone-brick walls and a low, arched ceiling -- the rest of the group circulates as though at a cocktail party. Everyone shares stories about things they've seen down here at one time or another, including bouncing lights, a foggy mist and Antoinette's walking cane, mysteriously moved from one side of the room to the other when the lights were out.

"Let's see if we can get Paul to come down," Antoinette says with a smile, slightly sly, spreading across her face.

The group forms a circle, holds hands and turns off the flashlights so that nothing in the sealed tomb, not even a hand before a face, can be seen.

"There's absolutely nothing to be frightened of," says Alton psychic and haunted-house tour guide Antoinette Easton.
Jennifer Silverberg
"There's absolutely nothing to be frightened of," says Alton psychic and haunted-house tour guide Antoinette Easton.

The air is cold and clammy. There is no adjusting to the darkness; it's just there, all around and completely impenetrable, and the feeling pervades that this is what it must be like to be buried alive in a coffin.

Then the group is instructed to sing its invitation, to the tune of "Buffalo Girls Won't You Come Out Tonight," three times:

"Spirits of the light won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight? Spirits of the light won't you come out tonight, and dance in the wine-cellar room?"

Then, as if on cue, Gary announces: "Antoinette, I think there is something appearing behind you."

Antoinette delivers a maternal and stern command: "Do not let go of your neighbor's hand."

Behind her, as if mocking what's left of sensibility, a vague white shadow moves from one side of Antoinette's head to the other.

"I see it," someone says.

"I see it, too," says another.

It does, indeed, seem to be there, a slowly wafting, shapeless form that can't seem to get a grasp of itself. It gets bigger, then smaller. It opens in the center, then closes in on itself again. It floats and coils around like a big, bagged snake suspended in the blackness.

There are no beams of light directing the thing behind Antoinette's head, and there are no cracks in the ceiling or walls. Everyone in the circle describes what he or she is seeing, and every description is the same.

Antoinette, not able to turn around without breaking the handhold, asks what the light is doing.

"It looks like it's wrapping itself around your shoulder," Gary says.

"I sense that it is friendly," she says.

Antoinette asks the photographer's assistant to please stop squeezing her hand so hard, then predicts he will soon pee in his pants. No one laughs, though, because the thing behind her head is moving farther to the left, then the right. It's vague one second, sharp the next. Left, then right. Up, then down. It seems to be playing a game. Maybe it's showing off. Maybe it's a ghost. Maybe it's Paul.

"I see it! I see it," a member of the group cries, as the light does a jitterbug in this hardcore psychic sock hop.

Just then, in the midst of the fervor, the photographer stammers that she left her battery pack on -- and boy, oh boy, is she ever embarrassed -- it appears that this apparition from beyond the grave, this short-wave superspook on the wall, might just be a reflection from the light on her camera equipment.

All flashlights click on.

"Well, we always want to rule out everything else first," Antoinette says, not skipping a beat.

"I don't know," Gary says, shaking his head. "Did you see the way it was moving?"

The photographer admits that she moved her shoulder to make sure it was the battery pack and not the spirit of Paul issuing the light.

"That's OK," Antoinette assures her. "Maybe it was you," she shrugs. "And maybe it wasn't."

As Cindy Kamp's Lincoln idles in the rain on 12th Street, she says she hopes she can coerce some of the homeowners into letting her tour go through their houses.

"But you know, I understand if they don't want to do it," she says. "I mean, most of the people who live on this block have stories, but they don't go around advertising them because, you know, they live in these houses. Could they ever sell a haunted house? Plus, do they want to appear crazy?"

Alton's director of tourism, Douglas Arnold, says the point isn't whether there are real ghosts or not. "I don't in any way tell someone that they have to believe or not believe in this. However, it is a lot of fun, and we tell people that they have to take what they see as a personal experience.

"But I did go on one of Antoinette's tours," he adds, "and I have to tell you that I felt very strange."

Troy Taylor, of the American Ghost Society, says he won't shove the "reality" of ghosts down anyone's throat, either. "It's all about history, and the ghosts are just a spoonful of sugar for the history."

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