Off the main room, the walls of the hotel bar are covered with faded images of charging buffalo and pioneers struggling with overturned wagons, hand-painted there in 1940 by a guest in exchange for room and board. Alone behind the bar, George Davis polishes glasses.
"Ghosts?" he asks with a bored smile. "I've never seen a ghost in this hotel or anywhere in Alton or anywhere else I've been."
Shaking off her umbrella in the doorway a few minutes later, Cindy Kamp admits she doesn't know whether the hotel is haunted, either, but suggests it should make a great place to start her haunted tour this year. "It's such a spooky kind of place," she says, eyeing the foaming-at-the-mouth buffalo on every wall.
Kamp's tour is just one of several that will prowl through Alton this month in search of spirits. Because the Illinois river town was recently named "possibly the most haunted town in the USA" by Fate magazine, a 40-year-old national publication devoted to paranormal matters, the tour guides all talk excitedly about the expected increase in tourists who come, year after year, in search of ghosts.
But Kamp is a newcomer to the scene and decided a one-night-only twirl through town was her limit. Currently a temp worker in St. Louis, Kamp lived in Alton her entire life, and after hosting tours of the town for the local history museum, she decided a one-time haunted tour would be fun.
"I'm not really a psychic or a ghost specialist or anything," she says after ordering a Coke from George. "I mean, I'm not like Antoinette or some of the others. I just want to do this because I think it will be a blast."
When asked to define a ghost, she hesitates, then shrugs: "It could be anything, really."
Later that night, as she runs the route of the tour in her Lincoln, Cindy says she's heard that entire neighborhoods of Alton are suspected of being haunted. It is still raining as she pulls into 12th Street, where she says more hauntings have been reported than anywhere else in town. These include footsteps, toilets flushing for no reason, Abraham Lincoln walking from house to house, little darting lights and a floating head. "I don't know all of the floating-head story," she concedes, "but, you know, I don't know if I want to know."
There may be a place in town that's even more haunted than 12th Street, though. "It's called the McPike Mansion. It's empty, condemned now, and even though I don't know the owner, I'm planning on driving the tour by it, because so many weird things have happened there. Wanna go?"
The lightning-slashed drive to the McPike House is full of more ghost stories: Red monster eyes seen in rearview mirrors, the Confederate cemetery, Small Pox Island. "I don't know if I really believe in ghosts, but I think I must. I believe this is a spiritual world," Cindy says, "and maybe ghosts running around in white sheets are part of it."
Then, as the Lincoln turns the corner of 20th and Alby, a feeling heavier than the night's weather fills the car. There, washed in the eerie glow of upturned floodlights, is a three-story Victorian structure so broken, so weatherbeaten, so hauntingly beautiful in its ruin, you know without being told what it is.
Cindy shivers in the front seat. "Pretty scary, huh?"
From the eastern edge of the Mississippi River, Alton rises up on the craggy bluffs as though its builders didn't know where to put its contents. Hilly side streets -- with signs that warn drivers "Do Not Descend When Wet" -- shoot up and down the limestone slopes like greased tracks on a geologic roller coaster.
The city's location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers brought travelers to the area from as far back as 1673, when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first passed through, and the vestiges of that rollicking river time -- brick streets, stone houses and prickly iron fences -- contribute to the town's funky atmosphere. Since then, periodic natural disasters, famous murders and the treacheries of the Civil War have melded with the river heritage to create an atmosphere rich for ghost hunting. The city drips with creepy history.
Douglas Arnold, president of the Greater Alton/Twin Rivers Convention & Visitors Bureau, says he's not sure why there's so much recent interest in Alton's ghosts, but he's willing to cash in on it just the same:
"We do have these incredibly wonderful residences that have been standing since the Civil War with all their family histories. And there's almost always some ne'er-do-well or someone who died in the home, and that fosters concerns.
"The history here is immense, and the river brought a lot of colorful people to the region, and those people are part of the ghost stories," Arnold says. "The people who choose to believe in ghosts who are ghost hunters seem to find Alton fascinating."
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.
The mansion has been empty since the late '50s, when its owner, Paul A. Laichinger, a superintendent at Schariff & Koken Corrugated Co. in St. Louis, died of lung cancer in the dining room. Since then, sightings of Paul's ghost have been reported on a fairly regular basis. Antoinette is particularly close with the mansion's present owner, and she promises a visit there on some other night.
All of the ghosts in Alton have stories, and except perhaps for Bernie, Antoinette knows them all. She's particularly taken with the history of the Confederate prison site, now a paved parking lot, one block east of the Mississippi River. As Marlene maneuvers the SUV to the middle of a steep, brick-lined road, its remains come into view. She parks under a streetlight.
"That is where the prison once stood," Antoinette says, pointing up to an acre slab of concrete. In one corner of the lot, a small wall of limestone brick still stands, all that's left of the original prison. From 1862-65, 11,764 Confederate prisoners passed through its gates, and almost 2,000 of them died of smallpox, typhoid and dysentery.
Antoinette stares quietly at the wall. "I think this site is haunted, but it's so paved over, there's not much of an impression. There definitely seems to be some unrest here."
Then she looks out over the river to a dark mass of land stranded on all sides by swampy residue. That, she says, is Small Pox Island, where soldiers stricken with the disease were taken once the cemetery on Hopp Hollow Road filled up. It is the newest addition to the tour this year, because the horror of its history evokes entities of all kinds.
"When these people were dying, they set up a tent hospital on Small Pox Island. But the guys knew when they were sent over there that they probably wouldn't be coming back, and there were so many people dying, they just buried them in mass graves. There aren't any memorials or tombstones or anything. I kind of feel like they're the forgotten ones."
As she again slips into silence, the streetlight blinks off and the SUV suddenly is shrouded in darkness. Antoinette laughs. "That sort of thing happens to me all the time," she chuckles.
Troy Taylor, president of the American Ghost Society, moved to Alton last year from Decatur, Ill., because of his lifelong obsession with "the unexplained." He is the author of 13 books about ghosts and history, and after exploring the haunted hills of Alton, Taylor found the town irresistible.
In his bookstore, River Boat Molly's, up on East Third Street, Taylor sits in a sweatshirt and jeans, surrounded by history books, worn saddles and metal-strapped trunks from the Civil War. He says the American Ghost Society focuses on proving to the general public that ghosts do exist and does so by collecting evidence -- photographs, videotapes, anecdotal material -- from places that members feel are truly haunted.
"We do investigations, but we're not ghostbusters. We don't go into people's homes and get rid of ghosts or anything like that," Taylor says. "What we're doing is collecting evidence of the supernatural. I do investigations not as a psychic but as a detective. I am looking for actual evidence. Then I present the evidence to the public without reaching conclusions and let them decide for themselves.
"People ask me all the time if I believe in ghosts. My answer is that I don't believe in ghosts -- I want to know that there are ghosts," Taylor continues. "Can I tell you for a fact that there are ghosts? I believe that there are, we've gotten at least to that point, but it's not for a fact just yet. I do believe there is something going on out there that we really don't understand. There are things that I don't have explanations for, but I do believe they were ghosts."
Like Antoinette, Taylor runs haunted tours of Alton during October. Unlike Antoinette, he's a newcomer to the town, but he has definite opinions about why it's so haunted. "Anywhere that you find a lot of history, you can find ghosts and ghost stories," Taylor says. "Alton has a really great background as far as history, with a lot of unusual things, including floods, disease, tornadoes, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad. Anytime there's bloodshed of any kind, there can be a haunting."
As for Antoinette, she believes the porous limestone above and below Alton works like a sponge that soaks up excess emotional energy put out by intense experiences. One evening, sitting in the kitchen of Marlene's large Victorian house, Antoinette explains that if a horrible murder takes place, like the shooting of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy on the waterfront in 1837, all of that spent emotion seeps into the very foundation of the town and stays there in the form of psychic residue.
"Everybody is constantly putting off psychic energy," Antoinette says above jazz music playing softly in the background. "This energy gets stored in the denser material around you, and limestone is very good at holding this kind of energy. If someone comes along and is psychically sensitive, they pick up on it, they sense it."
She adds, however, that love is the most passionate emotion of all.
"I don't really know why ghosts exist in Alton," Antoinette admits. "But I believe that ghosts stay around primarily because of love. Either they love a person who is still here and they don't want to go on without them, or maybe they love a house, or maybe they love the earth and just aren't ready to move on yet. Most of the ghosts we encounter are friendly."
Paul, for example, haunts McPike Mansion because of his love of the house, Antoinette says. He's a friendly sort, she adds, who has a sense of humor and communicates with her on a fairly regular basis.
"It's not extended conversation or anything," Antoinette says. "It's a combination of thoughts and emotions that is very hard to explain. Like, when I go into the house, I'll say, "Hi, Paul!' and I get this real happy "Hi!' and it's here" -- she pats her forehead -- "and here" -- she pats her chest.
"I think when you're moving from one reality to the other, one dimension to the next, you're trying to communicate across some sort of barrier, so communication isn't as free-flowing as between you and I. But emotions are easier to communicate than anything else. You don't send thoughts, you send emotions."
Professional ghost-hunters around town say hauntings, like those of the McPike Mansion, are caused by physical phenomena no one yet fully understands. Especially the uninitiated.
Troy Taylor says that 90 percent of the calls the American Ghost Society gets have natural explanations behind them, including creaky floors, squeaky pipes and overactive imaginations. The remaining 10 percent can be broken down into two types of hauntings: residual and just plain scary.
"By far the most hauntings are residual," Taylor says. "It's simply energy that has imprinted itself in the atmosphere of a place. It's where sights, smells, sounds and events of the past seem to replay themselves over and over again. It's like a VCR kicking on. It's just a repetition of something that took place.
"The No. 1 place that becomes haunted in an old house is the staircase. Why? Because so much energy was expended going up and down the stairs, especially when all of the bedrooms were on the upper floors. So you have this impression of people going up and down the stairs. It doesn't necessarily mean the house is haunted, it doesn't mean that anything terrible ever happened there -- it's just a repetition, an impression of something that took place.
"Science has told us that matter is an illusion, that everything that seems solid is really particles in motion all the time. It would be really easy to make an impression on something like that."
Consider, Taylor suggests, going to the house of friends for dinner, only these friends had a fight just before you arrive. When you enter the house, you feel the "tension" in the air. That tension in the air is really the energy expended to have the fight, and it made its impression, its imprint, in the house. Residual hauntings work the same way.
Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Ghost Research Society in Chicago, adds that residual hauntings are strongest when associated with intense emotions. "It's usually an untimely death," Kaczmarek says. "It doesn't have to be a violent death, just an untimely one. It can be murder, suicide; it could be something very sudden or very traumatic or very violent."
As for the other types of hauntings, the scary ones like those in the McPike Mansion, well, there may be a physical explanation for those as well. Michael Lynch, a special investigator for Para-Vision Investigations in St. Louis -- which specializes in videotaping ghosts -- has visited the mansion on many occasions and suggests that it is the prototype of a truly haunted house.
Lynch, who runs a multimedia department at Washington University, says Para-Vision recently developed a way of detecting ghosts -- "entities," he calls them -- by catching them on videotape. At the McPike Mansion, he set up video cameras throughout the entire house and ran them for 36 hours nonstop. When the tapes were later analyzed, little white spots of "static" showed up, indicating that some sort of energy field had been detected.
Since the house was condemned years before, no electricity ran through the structure, so Lynch went back and monitored the energy with a voltage meter and found that it fluctuated incredibly. Because it was energy that couldn't be seen with the naked eye, Lynch found the correct frequency of light to bounce off it, and -- presto -- reflections started showing up.
"What we found is that there are over 100 different entities in the house," Lynch says. "There are four major phantom classes. One is the largest phantom class we've ever seen. It's about 10 feet by 10 feet in cubic volume. It's one of the dead owners, is our best guess. His name is Paul. There are also several Class Fours and two Class Eights, meaning they're 8 inches in diameter, and probably 50 or 60 Class Twos that are in a colony situation.
"So the house is severely haunted, and we're able to see them and count them as they fly through the house," Lynch says.
Lynch adds that he believes the house is so haunted because it sits directly over a geodesic zone, which is a fracture in the earth that supplies a low-grade electromagnetic field that provides an enormous amount of continual energy for the entities. This geodesic zone is about 30 feet below the mansion's front porch.
"You cannot have a haunting unless you have an energy supply to feed it. Entities require a constant type of energy on a certain frequency for them to absorb," Lynch says.
"If they don't have this energy source, they break down, they slip into an alternate dimension that some people call paradise or heaven that is beyond the earth's plane. Some people call this the ethereal or astral plane. So what happens is that as long as they are earthbound, for whatever reason, they will resonate in an electromagnetic spectrum that ranges in the spectrum between light and the microwave category."
Lynch says that entities as powerful as Paul have evolved over the years by adding energy to their electrostatic exterior skin. Because the entity is pure energy, it has no form, no hands, no feet, not a flake of dandruff unless it creates them with its own thoughts.
So when Paul makes himself appear before Antoinette, as he has several times over the years, he does so through sheer desire. Antoinette says that sometimes she sees him when others around her don't, but if she even senses his presence anywhere in the room, she asks someone to snap a picture, because he'll show up later in the photo.
"Cameras are just one of the little toys we use," she says. "Another is an electromagnetic-field detector that senses any kind of electromagnetic activity in the area. We also use compasses, because if it's sitting still and pointing due north and then suddenly moves, there has to be something that made it move. It happens. A digital thermometer is used, too, because often, if there's some kind of activity, the thermometer will suddenly go up or down."
Kaczmarek of the Ghost Research Society says quite a bit of technical equipment is used, because ghosts are made of pure energy. "We use Geiger counters, negative-ion detectors, things like that, because a lot of times they're not readily visible to people, and the devices can pick up anomalous energies that are present in locations a person may not be able to perceive."
There are hundreds of gadgets out there designed to detect anomalous energies for ghost hunters, including those sold on the Internet at Web sites like the home page of the International Ghost Hunters Society. For $99, an EMF Ghost Detector, for example, allows anyone to measure energy strength. There's a difference between ghost anomalies and manmade energy fields, the advertisement reads, and "other web sites may sell this unit, but they do not provide support or instructions on what range ghostly anomalies are valid within and which range should be ignored because of man-made energy readings." There are also infrared thermal scanners for $269 and plans for building a Magnetic Field Ghost Detector for $10.
You can even get a Ghost Hunting Certification from the society by taking its $149 course, which includes instruction on "Understanding the Nature of the Dead," "The Psychology of Earth Bound Spirits" and "Understanding Orbs, Ectoplasm and Vortices."
Marlene, who's not as psychic as she'd like to be, relies instead on her growing experiences. "I always wanted to see a ghost clearly, like you sitting there only fuzzy and faded and misty. But then I learned to look at things that were clearly defined, only they had a sudden fuzziness in the corners, because that's where the ghosts are. So now, instead of looking for a full-grown man, I look for those fuzzy areas, those areas where things are smudgy. You have to change your expectations."
It's a warm afternoon, but the wind is strong and blows black-walnut missiles by the dozens from gangly trees growing wild in the front yard of the McPike Mansion. The house stands with its front door ajar, a cold wind blowing out as if just on the other side a fan blows steadily over large ice blocks.
In the front yard, sitting in white plastic lawn chairs are Antoinette, Marlene, another psychic named Gary Hawkins, a ghost photographer named Rick Dixon and the house's current owner, Sharyn Luedke. Inside, one of Sharon's friends guides a group of five paying customers -- tours of the house are $10 a person -- through the place to help raise the $1.7 million it will cost Sharyn to completely renovate the 130-year-old structure.
Sharyn and her husband, George, who is at the moment wielding an ax in the overgrown side yard, bought the house in 1994 at an auction for $42,000. Since then, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois has categorized the McPike Mansion as one of the 10 most endangered historic places in the state.
"I didn't know it was haunted when I bought it," Sharyn says, "but when I found out, I was scared to death. I didn't know anything about spirits, and then I heard about Antoinette and called her."
Antoinette, wrapped in a light-green shawl with her cane resting against the chair, nods sympathetically: "It was very scary."
After touring the house for the first time, Antoinette says she felt the presence of many negative spirits. "I think it was because so much of the original house is still there. There's a lot of residue still there, whereas something that is paved over or drywalled doesn't hold the residue so well," she says. "The house is old and dilapidated, but it still has the original floors that they walked on. And over the years there was a lot of negativity associated with the house. Because it's a limestone foundation and brick walls, it's going to absorb whatever negative energy is there."
She proceeded to oust the negative spirits from the building by cleansing the house three times with special prayers.
"But Paul stayed," Antoinette says, smiling, looking affectionately up at the front door. "We're not sure why."
Gary Hawkins says he has seen Paul, too, though he admits his psychic abilities aren't yet as strong as Antoinette's. Dressed in blue jeans, a red shirt and sneakers, Gary explains that this side of his life -- he repairs computers during the day -- consists of honing his ability to catch ghosts, whereas Antoinette specializes in finding and communing with them.
"I've got the ability to, when I find one, get my hands on it and force it to stay down," Gary says, eyeing the black-walnut trees above his head suspiciously.
"Usually they're female ghosts," Antoinette says, laughing, unconcerned about the large nuts dropping all around her.
Gary shrugs. "I catch the ghosts, and anybody that's around can come up and feel it. You should see their eyes light up when that happens. I don't chase them off, though. I'm not a ghostbuster. Even if a ghost wants to leave, as long as I've got a hold on him, he's staying."
The people touring the house inside step out onto the front porch and adjust their eyes to the brightness. They've heard Antoinette is sitting in the yard and want to know if they can meet her. "Of course, bring them down," Antoinette says, graciously waving her hand in the air.
Whereas Antoinette specializes in communing with ghosts and Gary with holding them down, Rick Dixon, a medical technician by trade, has learned how to take photographs of things the eyes can't see. In his portfolio are photos that he says show a family of ghosts in the Alton City Cemetery, a crouching figure on Small Pox Island and several of Paul's shadowy form standing at the front door.
Rick rarely uses a flash for anything, he says, ducking his head quickly as a walnut zooms by, and most of the time he just shoots a lot of film, guessing at the exposures.
He holds out a photo of large white figures floating above a tombstone. It is supposedly the ghost family in the Alton City Cemetery. "I was not shooting with flash on this one, and there was nothing that could have reflected that type of energy. There was a group of us just standing in a circle, and I got a feeling, and I shot. This is what I got, and I'm always surprised when I find something. It's something you never get over.
"It's a way of fearing death less. I don't fear death anymore," he says. "I've come to believe, after being in contact with all of this stuff, that there is something there."
Antoinette is talking with the five people who just toured the mansion.
"Did you see anything?" she asks matter-of-factly.
They nod in unison, and a young woman explains. "It was in the cellar. It was like a white mist that was hard to see, but we definitely saw it."
Antoinette smiles as a shower of black walnuts rains down. Everyone ducks and covers.
"Whew," Gary says, "we'll be seeing stars instead of ghosts."
You have to step sideways along dank walls of limestone to get down the steep cellar steps of the McPike Mansion. The sudden drop in temperature hits as suddenly as the darkness, and the beams from eight flashlights only provide fleeting passes of the packed earth floor.
Antoinette leads, followed by Gary, and they talk over details of the upcoming tours as if walking down a sunny street rather than through the bowels of the most haunted house in the most haunted town in America. Dust rolls in the light beams. Cobwebs hang like drapery. The psychics offer soothing words, but as the procession descends deeper into the house's unlit soul, it becomes increasingly hard not to shy away from thin air.
Antoinette stops in front of two metal doors, hanging open on rusted hinges. Behind them is utter darkness.
"This," she says, waving her flashlight toward the gap, "is the wine cellar. It's where most of the activity of the house takes place."
She uses her cane to feel her way toward the first step down, then motions for the group to follow.
"There's absolutely nothing to be frightened of," Antoinette coos. "This will be fun. Come on."
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.
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."