Illustration by Leeay

Illustration by Leeay

I’m kind of a scaredy-cat—when I first watched The Ring I was too afraid to go into my garage or basement or anywhere I might see that terrifying death-omen girl for a over a week. And yet I love cemeteries, for so many reasons. They’re spooky but not too spooky—you might see something, but at least you are out in the open and can easily escape if stuff gets too intense. Also, since my spiritual beliefs are kind of a make-believe work-in-progress, I’m fascinated by the afterlife. When I’m feeling reflective or lost, I think an encounter with something otherworldly will provide me with answers or special guidance. And since cemeteries are generally so quiet, they’re a good place to go when I’m seeking peace. But more often than not I’m seeking a thrill among the tombstones—whether it’s catching a glimpse of something ghostly that will leave me with a story tell or that electrical charge of being somewhere you know you’re not supposed to be after dark. Here are some of my favorites:

Jewish Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

I snuck into a cemetery for the first time in November of my sophomore year of high school. I was with my friends, and we were bored and stoned. The air was cold enough to make my nose red after 10 minutes or so, but I ignored it so I could inhale that amazing scent of fallen leaves.

The Chicago suburb of Forest Park is really close to where I grew up, and it has a ton of cemeteries. Jewish Waldheim Cemetery has a gate and fences, but one night my friends and I noticed a construction site next to it, which meant we could probably sneak in. We hid my friend’s car behind a backhoe, walked through a muddy ditch, and we were in. I was hanging out with a new crowd and dating a guy I didn’t really like, so I wandered off on my own. That’s when I caught a glimpse of something white and felt compelled to follow it. I would learn later through reading and discussing on local lore that a lot of people had seen and followed white lights in that cemetery. My boyfriend called out to me, but I pretended not to hear him, my eyes on the white light that appeared and disappeared on the ground, leading me deeper into the cemetery. I followed it until I couldn’t hear my friends’ laughter or see the glowing red embers of their cigarettes anymore. I knelt down and examined the nearest headstone; the name Hazel was engraved on it. Hazel was also the color of my eyes; I became convinced that it was some sort of message. Maybe Hazel the ghost had something to tell me, or maybe she was my guiding spirit! Before I could fully take in my surroundings, my friends caught up with me. I didn’t want to share Hazel with anyone, so I just laughed and said my eyes were playing tricks on me. The next summer when I got my license, I drove back to that cemetery on several occasions and searched high and low for Hazel’s gravestone to no avail, but the thrill of seeing something that might have been paranormal and the idea that someone from the Great Beyond might want to communicate with me inspired years of cemetery adventures to come.

“G.R.,” Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

“We’re going to G.R. tonight, if you want to come,” Simon* told me. I was seventeen and I’d moved to Madison, Wisconsin, after graduating high school early, hoping for a fresh start. Simon, the 23-year-old goth guy I’d met the night my roommate and I snuck into a University of Wisconsin dance night, definitely was an adventure. We’d gone to parties, nightclubs, an abandoned house and now…whatever this was.

“What’s G.R.?” I asked.

“It’s a cemetery in Sun Prairie. We just go there to drink and hang out. It’s up on this hill and there aren’t really any houses around. Plus,” he whispered, “I’ve seen some things.”

I hadn’t seen anything ghostly since Hazel, so I was game.

G.R. (which stood for “Grim Reaper,” so named by Simon and his friends for the big pine tree that resembled the Angel of Death) was smaller and more isolated than any of the cemeteries I’d haunted in high school. I instantly loved that—it felt classically creepy like the rural cemeteries in black-and-white horror movies like Night of the Living Dead. Simon and I thought we saw supernatural phenomena there once. We kept seeing eerie white flashes in the fields that lined the edge of the cemetery. “I don’t think we should go out there,” he warned, pointing at the lights. “I just get the feeling those spirits are malevolent.”

“But she’s not,” I said, pointing to another white light that was closer to us, illuminating the trunk of a tree. The lights in the field were like little orbs, but this one was different. Though it wasn’t quite human shaped, the curve at the center reminded me of a woman’s hips, and for a split second I thought I saw a female face and long hair. It was near my favorite grave, one I just felt drawn to: Louisa Fehrmann, November 1847 to January 1936. It was a small headstone, strangely positioned behind the large family monument. Maybe that’s why I connected with her; I assumed she was different, maybe a little bit of an outcast, like me.

I took numerous pictures in front of her grave and wrote poetry under the tree where thought I saw her. I promised her that I would write a story about her, and I did, sort of: In my first book, one of the main characters is an outcast from a small town in Wisconsin with shimmering white-blond hair. Her name is Louisa.

Lake Ripley Cemetery, Cambridge, Wisconsin

“It’s like the ultimate goth playground,” I would later tell my college friends. “There’s a cemetery, a lake, and an actual playground. Swing, swim, and get spooked. It’s the most perfect place on earth!”

Though I always felt somber and introspective at G.R., I was open to adventure at Lake Ripley. My friends and I spent more time at the lake part than the cemetery part; it was perfect for night swimming (not a lot of people want to sneak through a graveyard to swim or skinny dip). Once my friend Bran and I decided to swim all the way across the lake; we got halfway across before we realized oh yeah, we’d have to swim back. I also spooked myself by thinking about how HUGE the fish must be out in the middle where it was 40 feet deep, so I turned back; Bran laughed loudly, but followed.

Glen Forest Cemetery, Yellow Springs, Ohio

The only time I got truly scared in a cemetery was in Ohio, where I lived for a year when I was 18. There was a nature preserve on campus, thought to be a magical place where ley lines intersected and faeries resided. My friend Kirsten and I were interested in paganism and supernatural lore, so we spent a lot of time there. One night, we decided to scope out the cemetery next to the glen. As we walked up the road toward the entrance, we noticed something about Kirsten’s shadow was strange: The shadow of the chain she was wearing on her wallet kept twisting even though the actual chain was barely moving at all! As we got closer to the entrance, we saw white lights in the graveyard. We paused to make sure and they appeared even when there were no cars going by, and they did. As we reached the entrance, those lights turned red and a black figure appeared. We conferred, blinked to make sure our eyes weren’t playing tricks on us, but no, we both clearly saw a dark, human shape—a shape that zoomed toward us before we could set foot in the cemetery!

We ran off in terror, but we went back the next night, and we saw our shadows on the ground run away from us! This still didn’t deter us, and we went inside. The thing that scared us off that night was an actual person, an old man who lived in the house next to the cemetery. He came outside and clapped three times; we thought maybe he was calling a dog, but no dog appeared. He looked like he was going to speak, but then he vanished into his house and all the lights on both floors went out instantaneously!

I never had good feelings about Glen Forest Cemetery, and there were no muses or spirit guides waiting there for me. Drawn to the dark forms and eerie lights, Kirsten and I went back again and again for the thrill.

Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois

When I moved to Forest Park at 24, I made jokes about the zombie apocalypse occurred; if it was coming, there were cemeteries all around me, so I was screwed. Most of the tombstones at the front of Forest Home belong to gypsies; they’re marked with crescent moons and hands, palm out, and their relatives visited regularly to leave coins and flowers and bottles of beer and wreathes of flowers shaped like bottles of beer. Emma Goldman is buried there, and there’s a historical marker that pays tribute to the Haymarket Martyrs. In the back, near the river that floods when it rains too much, is an unmarked grave that contains the body of Belle Gunness, one of the first female serial killers—or it might be the body of one of her victims, they still aren’t sure. I learned all of this on an annual walking tour given by the historical society, where I also learned that when the cemetery was created, it was viewed more as a park; people from Chicago took long horse and buggy rides to spend the day picnicking with their dead relatives. Forest Home was close to my house, huge, not a lot of people visited, and it was considered an actual park? When I heard that I got the idea to start jogging there. It was open to the public but sometimes the maintenance workers looked at me funny; I never ran through a funeral or anything (if I saw a funeral I always I steered clear out of respect), but I guess they still thought it was weird. Being there during the day meant I didn’t see anything strange, but I was there for peace and reflection, not for thrills. Well, this time, anyway—I still peek around every tree, searching for those dancing white lights, waiting for another spirit to show me something spooky. ♦

*All names changed except those belonging to the dead