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Michael Kleen

On My Bookshelf: Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities, by Michael Kleen

Fall gives me back to school fever, and when I found out that Michael Kleen’s new book combined my love of ghost stories with my longing for school days, I had to get a copy. One of the themes of the book that really struck a chord with me is the importance of legend-tripping in college. Some of us outgrow it, I guess, but even if we do, I think we replace it with another form of travel or even possibly another thrill-seeking activity.

From haunted libraries and theaters, to even your very own dorm room, any area of the campus might have an associated legend. I caught up with Michael and he very kindly entertained my questions below:

Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities

I love your explanation of legend tripping as a form of escapism. “By confronting the imagined horrors that await them at their destination, participants expect to be changed in some way.” What are your thoughts on the importance of continuing this tradition into our adult lives?

Legend tripping, like all rights of passage, is important during adolescence and early adulthood. These trips to “forbidden” locations, confrontations with real or imagined danger, and proving one’s bravery to his or her peers can have a lasting impression on individuals and groups of friends. I recently read an insightful argument that ghost stories are intimately tied to nostalgia. Many adults who engaged in legend tripping during their formative years probably retain very powerful memories of those events. I know I do.

Continuing to seek out mysterious places in adulthood is a way to reconnect with those memories, perhaps even to reconstruct them with a new group of friends, or to share that part of your life with someone new. We can develop very real emotional connections to these places, even physical connections (such as writing your name on a wall, for example). Revisiting an abandoned building or bridge where you wrote your name as a teen allows you to encounter a visual reminder of your past.

Do you find the idea of a haunted library unsettling or oddly comforting?

I love libraries and old books–places where you can literally smell the history. When I was a kid, I used to enjoy looking in books to see the last date they were checked out. Sometimes that was several decades ago. I like the idea that something of the past remains, like a spiritual manifestation of a custodian of this collective knowledge. So to answer your question, yes, I find it comforting.

What legend do you think is the most far-fetched or hard for you to believe, and which do you find the most believable?

I treat all legends as equally believable and far-fetched, because I’m not very interested in questions about the truth or falsehood of legends. All legends are acts of creative storytelling. You could have one legend about the ghost of a suicide victim at college and it be completely made up, or you could have a legend that was based on a real suicide, but elements of the story are fictional. You have to, at some level, assume all these stories are false. However, there is a legend about a dorm that was designed to fly safely off its foundation in the event of a tornado, and I think that’s pretty far-fetched.

When I was reading the stories of the librarian ghost in Williams Hall, I was thinking to myself: “Wait a minute. That sounds likeGhostbusters!” Then you wrote the exact same observation a few sentences later. Do you see this type of phenomenon often when conducting interviews, as far as witnesses seemingly being influenced by popular culture and the media when they are reporting their stories? If so, do you think it is an innocent happening, or do you think people sometimes just mirror what they think they are supposed to say they saw based on what they’ve seen in the movies and may have already read in print?

I think media is very influential when it comes to legends and ghost stories. Let’s say someone actually sees a ghost, or encounters something they can’t explain. How do they describe something that may have only happened for a few seconds out of the corner of their eye? There may not be words in the English language suitable to describe what the person encountered. So they pull examples from popular culture–movies, TV shows, newspaper articles, stories they heard from other people–to fill in the blanks. People do this when describing crimes as well, and that involves an actual physical event! It’s been shown that reports of encounters with ghosts and UFOs increase when articles in the newspaper or TV news reports focus on those subjects. It’s not clear, however, whether people just feel more open to talking about those experiences, or whether the media somehow influenced them to be more susceptible to having those experiences. I do know that when a legend in one part of the country becomes popular in the media, it has been known to spread to other parts of the country. Those are called migratory legends. The crybaby bridge and vanishing hitchhiker motifs are just two examples of that.

Speaking of interviews, have you ever come across a participant who seeks payment in exchange for a story? If so, how do you handle this?

I have not encountered that, but I would not be opposed to paying for a story if it was something that was really crucial to my research. Some people just need that extra motivation. You always have to be careful, however, of people who are just coming forward with a story for financial gain. You can find someone to say anything for the right amount of money.

It’s a dark and suddenly stormy night and you find yourself trapped outside alone in the elements on your way back to your dorm room. Do you seek shelter in the archives of the haunted library or run for cover into the tunnels?

Hm, I would definitely seek shelter in the haunted archives. That sounds a lot cozier and you’re less likely to run into jumbo sized sewer rats.

I’m captivated by the Capital Hotel. Any news or tales you can share that didn’t make it in the book?

Yes and no. Pretty much everything I know about Vishnu Springs and the Capitol Hotel related to its importance as a legend tripping destination for students from Western Illinois University is in the book, but there is a lot of history I left out because it was just meant to be an overview. So nothing new to report, unfortunately. I would like to know when WIU intends to open it back up to the public.

In the beginning, it is explained to the reader that the legends are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others. And yet, the most chilling truth of all is presented later in the form of the fate of Shannon McNamara. “As Shannon McNamara’s murder taught a whole generation of my fellow EIU alumni, you can be intelligent, popular, athletic, and happy, and evil might still find you.” This sentence stuck with me, and still covers my entire body in chills. This is the scariest story to tell in the dark because it is real, and there is really nothing you can do to guard against it other than stay strapped, I guess. This isn’t really turning into much of an interview question, but I guess I just want to listen to you talk about this theme/truth some more.

We like to think of the college years as carefree. For most people, it’s a time to party, experiment, and reinvent yourself before moving on to adulthood. It is definitely all of those things, at least in contemporary American society. But there is the flipside of the coin. Some students experience loneliness, social rejection, disappointment, failure, and broken hearts. Most of the legends and ghost stories on college campuses focus on these unfortunate individuals. Ghost stories tell students, “this could happen to you if you’re not careful,” which is an especially poignant message among people who are still in denial about their mortality. But as you point out, this turns out to be a false hope. In reality, tragedy also befalls normal, happy, and well-adjusted students. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to prevent a killer from striking, or a tragic accident befalling someone. That is the real horror. It is a reality almost too horrible to face, so we tame it by turning it into a story with a neat little moral at the end.

Any upcoming announcements? Any updates on the witchcraft in Illinois book?

I’m currently deployed overseas, so I don’t have any upcoming events. My book on the cultural history of witchcraft in Illinois is still in review at the publisher. It is an academic publisher, so the editing and revision process is especially long. Even though it can be discouraging at times, in the end, I think this process will make it a much better book. As for right now, I’m continuing to try to promote Ghostlore of Illinois Colleges and Universities as best I can.

Tell us how to keep up with you.

People can keep up with me through my websites, http://www.michaelkleen.com and http://www.mysteriousheartland.com.

On My Bookshelf: Haunting Illinois, 3rd Edition, by Michael Kleen

I used Michael Kleen’s 2nd Edition of Haunting Illinois and Paranormal Illinois back in 2012 when I was researching Ashmore Estates in connection with Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums. I was a little late in picking up the 3rd Edition, but when I realized it was on the market, I quickly ordered it! I love guidebooks for paranormal tourists, and this is a “best of the best” in my experience. For each entry listed, Kleen cites sources and gives directions to the locations. I love how the book is organized too, with “creep factor” symbol codings, and broken down by geographic sections of the state.

Kleen answers his fan mail, and was kind enough to answer my questions below:

Tell us about the process for revising this edition. I’m almost betting it is an easier process to create from scratch vs. revise!

The third edition of Haunting Illinois was three years in the making. The second edition came out in 2011 and listed 200 haunted and mysterious places in Illinois, and I always told myself that if I made another edition, it had to be worthwhile for people who owned the previous edition to buy the new one. Not only did I scour more books and articles for new places to include in the book, but I traveled all over the state getting pictures for some of the new places and some of the old. Then, of course, I had to update some of the previous listings to reflect recent events. Sunset Haven outside Carbondale, Illinois, for example, was torn down in 2013. It was a lot of work, but it was fun and I enjoyed revising everything. I’m a perfectionist. The new edition of Haunting Illinois contains a listing of 260 places and 120 photos and illustrations.

Do you consider yourself a paranormal enthusiast or a ghost hunter? (If paranormal enthusiast, have you done any ghost hunting? If so, what was your take on the experience?

I like the term “paranormal enthusiast” but I consider myself to be a folklorist or a folk historian. I take no position on the truth or falsehood of these stories. Ghost hunters or paranormal investigators are concerned with finding out the truth behind paranormal phenomenon. That just doesn’t interest me anymore. I don’t believe science has anything to say about ghost stories or the paranormal any more than it does about my subjective feelings towards a painting or a movie. I have been on plenty of paranormal investigations and consider many people who are interested in that to be my good friends. But frankly, it’s become so boring and obnoxious. Everyone tries to get their 10 seconds on TV and then they act like they are so much better than everyone else. Why can’t we just appreciate these experiences and stories on their own terms?

Tell us how Ashmore Estates changed your life.

I wouldn’t say Ashmore Estates changed my life necessarily, but it did open a lot of doors and create some interesting opportunities. I went to Eastern Illinois University from 2000 to 2008, which is located in nearby Charleston. When I first started researching Ashmore Estates, it was just an old abandoned building in a cornfield – “the asylum.” Then Scott Kelley purchased the building and opened it as a haunted attraction. I consider Scott and his family to be good friends and they were very accommodating to me while I continued my research. Because of them, I got to appear on Ghost Adventures and in some other documentaries. I’m also proud of the work I did in piecing together a (nearly) complete history of the building, which I included in my book Paranormal Illinois (2010).

What paranormal locations are on your wish list of places to explore?

All of them, lol. Every time I travel to a new city, I look for places nearby to explore. Over the holidays I was in Marco Island, Florida and found a number of really cool places in the area, including Monroe Station (http://floridafringetourism.com/listings/monroe-station/) in the Big Cypress National Preserve. I would love to do a book like Haunting Illinois for the entire Midwest, but with my career in the military, I don’t think that’s likely to happen any time soon. However, if I’m stationed in Europe I plan to visit a lot of cool places, including Dracula’s castle.

There are several haunted hotels listed in your book. Do you have a particular favorite or see a lot of reports generated for any particular one?

Not in Illinois – there are some famous hotels in Chicago that are believed to be very haunted, but I haven’t stayed in them. I did get to stay in the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, AZ, Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, SD, and the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, SD. The Bullock Hotel was really cool. I love the history of that town.

Which deceased famous person do you wish you could have met and what would you have asked him or her?

This is a tough question! When I was a kid, I loved Davy Crockett. I think he would be a great guy to go on adventures with. But at the same time, I think I would like to meet a Saint so he or she could answer some of my theological questions.

Looking back, how hard was it to get your first book deal, and what have you learned over the years about publishing and marketing?

Ugh, I could write a book about this. The first books I published were through a print on demand company called Xlibris, and I did not have a good experience. I decided to go into publishing for myself, and marketed chapbooks for a while. Over the years, I grew my small publishing business into a company called Black Oak Media, Inc. You could say I finally achieved my dream of creating a business out of something I loved, but it was short lived. The company operated for three years before I had to close it for personal and financial reasons. So I did publish some of my own work. But I guess my first book deal was with Schiffer Books, which publishes a lot of paranormal titles. I actually approached them with an idea for a book on the legends and lore of the Embarras River Valley, but they didn’t think that would sell well. Instead, they came back and asked me if I wanted to write a book about the entire state, so Paranormal Illinois was born. I originally self published Haunting Illinois as Haunting the Prairie, and approached Thunder Bay Press to publish an expanded version under their label. Thankfully, they agreed. I’ve learned a lot about publishing and marketing over the years. Probably the most important aspect to publishing is making a lot of personal connections. Marketing is vital to success. A lot of authors think just because they get a book published, it’s going to sell, so they sit back and do nothing. I use my website, personal appearances, interviews, and Facebook to relentlessly market my books. Even then, it has mixed results sometimes.

Have you ever had any undeniable personal paranormal experiences anywhere?

Nothing is ever undeniable, especially when it comes to the paranormal. But seriously though, I’ve had some unusual experiences, but nothing that has really stood out as being completely convincing.

What is your opinion/consumption level of pop culture? Any guilty pleasure shows or beach fiction you can’t resist?

I have a love-hate relationship with pop culture. I think contemporary pop culture is symptomatic of the degeneration of American society and the advanced stages of the collapse of western civilization. At the same time, I love shows on VH1 like “I love the ’80s” and stupid Seth Rogen comedies. I don’t really read fiction, but I like TV shows like The Sopranos, Hannibal, Dexter, Weeds, Californication, etc. I can see myself as a sober Hank Moody.

Take us through your writing process for a non-fiction book. (Do you write by hand or always type? Do you keep a writing schedule? Do you have a certain number of drafts you complete before turning in final copy?)

I usually start with some kind of outline or idea in my head about what the final product will look like, then I do a lot of writing on paper. I almost always do a rough draft with pen and paper, then I type it up and edit it three or four times. I set that chapter aside for a week or so, then I edit it again. Every time I add something or make changes, I edit the entire chapter to make sure it flows well and makes sense. To me, the editing process is one of the most important parts of writing. Sometimes I have to do research while I’m writing, to confirm something, and it’ll end up taking me hours to write one paragraph. Then, some days, it’ll just flow and I’ll get a whole chapter done in one day. Of course, since I joined the Army I’ve only been able to write for a few hours at night and on the weekends, but in some ways it’s made me become a lot more focused. I’ve noticed that I’ve become much more productive and I almost have too many ideas.

Tell us how to keep up with you and about your upcoming projects.

People can keep up with me through my websites, www.michaelkleen.com and www.mysteriousheartland.com. I just finished a book on the ghostlore of Illinois colleges and universities, which should come out later this spring. I’m also finishing up a book on the cultural history of witchcraft in Illinois for Southern Illinois University Press. It should be ready to go by the beginning of March and then come out later this year. No one has ever devoted an entire book to these subjects before, so I’m very excited. I have been working on these projects for years and it feels great to finally see them come to fruition.

Michael being an author:

Kleen

Michael serving our country:

Kleen army

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