Michael Kleen has a great fondness for the Midwest, a Master's degree in History, and an insatiable thirst for ghost stories. Lucky for us, he has been able to skillfully combine all of his passions in his new book, Paranormal Illinois.
Painstakingly and lovingly compiled, Kleen's books will be sure to become indispensable primers for both Midwestern ghost hunters and local folklore buffs alike. Michael will be appearing at Barnes and Noble this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. to discuss and sign copies of Paranormal Illinois. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions:
Smile Politely: Your book, Paranormal Illinois, came out recently, but it looks like you have written several others on the topic. Where does your interest in the paranormal come from? Did you have an experience that motivated you to learn more?
Michael Kleen: You know, people ask me this question all the time, and I'm never quite sure of the answer. I've often thought about why I'm interested in this subject, but the fact is, I always have been. When I learned to read, some of the first books I sought out on my own were about ghosts. I must have read every single collection of ghost stories that was at the library when I was in elementary school. World's Most Spine-Tingling "True" Ghost Stories, World's Weirdest "True" Ghost Stories, and of course, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, were all favorites. What I like most about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is that the author took common folktales and rewrote them in a way that kids of my generation would love. That's what I try to do with my books: I want to tell the stories, but I also want to show that they are tied to history and culture. They are windows into a side of history that is usually ignored or covered-up. Ghosts are, after all, remnants of past generations that linger long after they are physically gone. Perhaps they have something to tell us.
Smile Politely: How did you research the book? Do you participate in paranormal expeditions a la Ghost Hunters?
Michael Kleen: Let me tell you, Paranormal Illinois is one of the most thoroughly researched books on this subject ever written, and I am not just saying that because I wrote it. This is the first book of its kind to be footnoted so that the readers can go back and check my sources. I draw from interviews, books, magazine articles, and newspaper articles to paint a complete picture of all the places I wrote about in Paranormal Illinois. Using the skills I learned in the history grad program at EIU, I poured through every recounting of each story and compared what past authors had written, with surprising results. It is often the case that things previous authors have written about the history of these places simply aren't true, but no one has ever challenged them on it. One author claimed, for instance, that many bodies of young women have been found around Maple Lake (southwest of Chicago), when in fact there was only one young woman found murdered there, and the overwhelming majority of people who have died in and around the lake have been men. I actually bothered to search through the newspaper archives to uncover the truth. Paranormal Illinois also contains the only chapters ever written about Airtight Bridge and Ashmore Estates, places of interest in east-central Illinois. Again, I not only write about the stories, but I go into detail about the history of each location.
Smile Politely: What is your favorite Illinois ghost story of all time? Do you have any good stories about Champaign/Urbana?
Michael Kleen: I can't really say that I have a favorite, since it's hard to choose from so many. Champaign does have some interesting stories. Of course there is the "Blue Man" of Clements Cemetery, the ghosts of the University of Illinois, and Urbana High School's "haunted tower." Probably my favorite from the area would have to be Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. It's interesting not just because it's an abandoned military base, but because people have told me about how, when they lived on the base, they would sneak into the hangers at night to try and get a glimpse of the "ghosts" of pilots in the cockpits of the planes. Others have seen uniformed officers walking around, and in one strange incident in 2001, a police dog jumped to its death off the roof of White Hall while pursuing something no one else could see.
Smile Politely: You seem to have a deep love for the Midwest: you're also the owner of Black Oak Media, which celebrates "Middle-American Culture". What, in your opinion, makes Illinois such a great place to live?
Michael Kleen: People forget what a giant Illinois is in the social, cultural, and political history of the United States. Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, General (and President) Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Pryor — all of them were born or raised in Illinois. Let's not forget that President Obama began his political career here, and Hillary Clinton graduated from Maine South in Park Ridge (my high school's rival). Chicago will always be the greatest greatest city in America. Mayor Daley is almost universally despised, but what Illinoisan didn't feel some pride when he told the Feds to "Go swim in the Potomac"? We are independent people who can take care of ourselves. If there is a problem here, it is in our power to fix it, we just need to be reminded of the things that make us unique. It makes me sad when I see small towns losing their heart and soul, and people look around and ask themselves why. We are the cause and the solution — no one is going to come here and do it for us. Civic pride, art and culture, clean energy, thriving businesses, safe schools and neighborhoods — it's all there if we are just willing to work for it. Illinois has all the resources we'd ever need.
Smile Politely: What can people expect to come away with from your presentation at Barnes and Noble on Saturday?
Michael Kleen: I hope they will come away with a copy of Paranormal Illinois. But seriously, I hope people will come away with a sense that where they live is interesting and unique. These are our stories, they teach us something about our past. Every time I talk about local folklore and ghost stories, I hope to spark an interest in our own culture here in the the Midwest and Illinois in particular. Everywhere I go, people complain about their hometown, but honestly, there is always something interesting out there, you just have to know where to look.
Michael will be at Barnes and Noble, (65 E. Marketview Drive, Champaign) this Saturday, June 12 from 2-4. See you there!
Photo of Michael Kleen by Greg Inda.