The interesting thing about ghosts is that they don’t exist. Not now, not ever, not on the set of Three Men And A Baby, not anywhere. They simply don’t. The non-existence of ghosts is so self-evident to me, so obvious and elemental, that it hardly needs explanation. Gauzy wisps of former human beings—all their memories, emotions, and physical characteristics somehow intact—lurking in the corners of our eyes and subtly changing a room’s barometric pressure? Come on. Let’s be adults here and admit that when we die we simply cease to be. We don’t ascend or descend to another realm, we don’t come back as someone (or something) else, and we certainly don’t hang around in non-corporeal forms, struggling to communicate with a bunch of dudes sporting night-vision cameras and cargo shorts. I mean, seriously.
The interesting thing about Shaker’s Cigar Bar, however, is that ghosts are very much real. Well, the idea—and the business—of ghosts definitely are. I’m sitting at the venerable Walker’s Point bar on a Monday night, two pricey absinthe cocktails down the hatch (Death in the Afternoon, $15 each) and another looming like a threat. In a few minutes I’m scheduled to take a tour of Shaker’s haunted basement, a tried-and-true Milwaukee tradition I’ve somehow neglected to do in my 21 years here. For whatever reason, though, I’m not looking forward to it. What seemed like a fun idea weeks before now seems unbearably silly. I’m feeling lonely, out of place, and depressed. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe I’m a little drunk. Maybe I’m just in a mood.
It’s not Shaker’s fault. The owner, Bob Weiss, has already regaled me with his spooky sales pitch: Shaker’s is haunted; Shaker’s is so haunted that it’s the fifth most haunted bar in America; Shaker’s will be featured in a Netflix special sometime next year; Shaker’s has really good food; etc. Weiss operates a number of “Hangman Tours” in and around Shaker’s, including a “Whoring ’20s” tour and a Jeffery Dahmer-themed “Cream City Cannibal” tour. People constantly report seeing at least 14 paranormal “residents” flitting through the place. For me, the spookiest thing is being three weeks smoke-free and hanging out in a bar where literally everyone is smoking.
I’m about to order that third drink when my tour guide, Noah, appears. Apparently I’m the only person scheduled for the 10 p.m., adult-oriented “2.0” tour. I’m mortified. “I’m sorry to put you through this just for me,” I say to Noah. “Not a problem,” he smiles. “I get paid either way.” He seems nice.
Noah leads me across the room to an open door that leads down to the basement. On the way, we pass a glass-topped humidor plastered with a Hangman Tour sticker. “I SLEPT WITH A GHOST,” it reads.
Oh yeah, that’s what I’m here to do, too. To spend the night alone in Shaker’s haunted third-floor penthouse. To sleep with a ghost. If ghosts existed. Which they most certainly do not.
Shaker’s was built in 1894, first serving as a cooperage house for Schlitz Brewery. Things got interesting in the 1920s and ’30s, when the building became a Prohibition-era speakeasy operated by none other than Al and Frank Capone. It was during this time, the story goes, that a jealous suitor murdered the “A-girl” prostitute working out of the third floor, 16-year-old Molly Brennan. Fast-forward a few decades: Weiss opened Shaker’s as it is today in 1986; in 2001, during a remodel, Weiss and a construction crew found human bones in the walls of the former brothel. The bones were determined to be roughly 70 years old.
I’m getting all this, and plenty more, as Noah leads me through the cluttered and low-ceilinged basement. In between tales of mysterious moving safes and mysterious pockets of energy, one thing strikes me: everyone here takes this very, very seriously. There are no corny “haunted house” gimmicks, no “666 Halloween Sound FX” CDs piped through hidden sound systems. It’s an old, leaky basement—an old, leaky basement that just happens to be haunted, if you believe that sort of thing.
That matter-of-factness, that take-it-or-leave-it-ness, trickles all the way down to the “Haunted Penthouse Stay-Over Agreement” on Shaker’s website:
I, the undersigned, agree to and understand the serious nature of the undertaking I am about to embark upon.
I agree to hold-harmless the management, staff and owners of Shakersmilwaukee, Inc. as well as the property at 422-424 South Second Street, dba/ Shakers Cigar Bar, dba/ Hangman Tours, LLC, Milwaukee, Wisconsin for any injuries, damage, harm, death or psychic calamity which may occur during, or after my attempted Stay-over in the extremely Haunted Penthouse above Shakers Cigar Bar.
I further agree to indemnify all parties mentioned above while my party and I are at this location participating in a Séance, Paranormal Investigation or Ghost Tour.
The absinthe is doing its job and suddenly our hour-long tour is over. Noah and I are back in the bar. I grab my things and sign the agreement. Noah hands me a key attached to an LED flashlight keychain. He leaves. I walk upstairs and lock the door. I’m alone. It’s 11 p.m. I have no idea what I’m doing.
I was seven years old when I first encountered death. My cousin committed suicide at 17. He was a decade older than me and lived in a different town, but we had been friends—I remember the two of us hanging out and playing video games, messing around with firecrackers and battery acid. Everything I took away from his death was wrong: I thought his decision was a very adult one—he was 17 years old, after all—and that the anger and confusion my family was feeling was misplaced. He knew what he was doing, I thought. He was brave. He was a grown-up. It took me decades to shake those bad ideas.
Another thing I remember: sitting in a church, at his funeral, wondering if he was still there. I closed my eyes and convinced myself that if I heard an unexplained noise in the next few seconds—a knock, a bump, a hum—it would be proof of his presence, proof that part of him lingered. I remember waiting for a long time. I wanted to hear something, but nothing came. Eventually I heard a bird chirping.
I decide to take a look around. The $350-a-night penthouse is actually a full-floor apartment complete with a queen-size bed, a working fireplace, a modern kitchen, and a handful of sitting rooms. It’s nice, but not too nice. The fireplace is original but the washer and dryer in the kitchen definitely aren’t. The bathroom is a little scuffed-up, buy hey, it has a jacuzzi. Everything smells like dust and goths with disposable income. It’s not a hotel, but it’s fine.
It’s also filled with a lot of inexplicable shit. A rollout bar sits in the corner of the kitchen, a bunch of bedding and random junk dumped out on the floor behind it. A mannequin torso decked out in a Hangman Tour T-shirt stands in plain view of the bed, killing whatever unnerving atmosphere the room might have. A closer inspection of a Mardi Gras-themed painting reveals a decidedly lo-res digital print. On top of a dresser I find a glass shard, some chopsticks, and a Polaroid of a girl with a shaved head—a dead ringer for Stranger Things‘ Eleven. No spoilers, please; I just started the second season.
I fiddle with some dowsing rods I find lying on a coffee table. I root through a utility closet. I’m still unsure of what to do. I’ve only been gone for a few hours but I miss my family. I stand in the middle of the room, staring at nothing. It’s just after midnight. I don’t know. Maybe I listen for a knock.
How odd is it that ghosts have changed their M.O. in recent decades? Here’s a little thought experiment: What do you think of when you think about Amityville Horror-era hauntings? Floating beds, flying furniture, bleeding walls, demonic voices, the whole nine yards. And why not? It was the ’70s; these ghosts knew how to party. Now, what do you think of when you think about modern hauntings? Quiet bumps in the night, errant voices buried in static, slight changes in room temperature. What happened to the floating beds? The bleeding walls? The demonic voices? How unfortunate that the spirit world apparently decided to cool things down just when everyone started carrying around high definition cameras in their pockets. What a crazy coincidence.
It occurs to me as I’m lying in bed, 20 minutes later, that experiences like this depend almost entirely on the participants. Forget the undead—it’s the living that have to put themselves in the right frame of mind. If, for instance, I continue to stare ahead into this darkened room, I’ll surely freak myself out at some point. But if I pick up my phone and start watching, say, a bunch of old Vines (maybe that flying lawnmower soundtracked to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”), nothing will happen. Should I just do that? Should I just give up? Where’s my phone?
Before I throw in the towel I flash back to a few hours ago, sitting at the bar. One of Shaker’s tour guides, Michelle, was asking me a question: “What’s your experience with ghosts?” Well…
I don’t remember how old I was, but I was very young. I was lying in bed, alone in my bedroom, when I saw something on the wall. It was a shadow of a man in a long trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat. I knew it was a man, knew it was a person that didn’t belong in my room, but I called out for my mother anyway. “Mom?” I whispered. “Mom? Is that you?”
What happened next sounds incredibly silly and odd in retrospect, but it scared me in a way I had never been scared before, and have never been scared since. The shadow moved, and I heard a voice—a creaking, mechanical, alien voice. It said one word, and it drew that word out until I was completely paralyzed with fear: “OCTOPUS.” The shadow disappeared. I lost my mind.
It wasn’t until college that I spilled my ghost story. I told it to a girl I had a crush on, the two of us alone in a darkroom, developing film. I was embarrassed but she nodded and held my hands. She told me she talked to spirits all the time.
An hour later and I’m out of bed, roaming. I can’t sleep. It’s almost 2 a.m. and I’ve reached the point where I’m looking through dresser drawers for some reason. My search is mostly futile, though I do discover evidence that my lodgings haven’t quite shook their brothel origins. Some things, apparently, never change.
Now I’m pacing, taking pictures of every nook and cranny in the place. Pictures of scuff marks on the walls, pictures of pictures, pictures of nothing. The only restless spirit here, it seems, is me.
The first thing I thought of when I held my daughter for the first time was death. It had been a harrowing delivery, sure—there was an hour or so when I was convinced I would be leaving the hospital alone—but it wasn’t that. It was the sight of new life that made me think of death. New life that would grow old itself, new life that would leave everything dead in its wake. I started crunching the numbers: When my daughter turned 30 my parents would be in their 90s, dead or dying. When my daughter turned 50 my wife and I would be in our 90s, dead or dying. She, too, would eventually be dead or dying. Her children, her children’s children, on and on. Unrelenting. Impossible to escape.
I’m still pacing. I’m never falling asleep. I should have brought sleeping pills. Why am I thinking about any of this? Where are the goddamn ghosts?
I was 27 when I had a moment of complete and total consciousness, complete and total presence. My family and I were camping and I was sitting in the back of my cousin’s boat as he pulled my brothers around in an inner tube. It was a nice time but wholly unremarkable. I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t high, but suddenly, out of nowhere, I could feel everything, hear everything, see everything. Everything made sense. I was completely at peace.
The moment didn’t last long, but it stuck with me. I’ve been hyper-aware of the present ever since, grateful for what I have and mindful of the time I have left. Let’s face it: I’m getting old. Everyone around me is getting old. Things are slowly starting to wind down. Life is starting to take more that it gives. But not yet. Not now.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I’m ignoring the inevitable and whistling past the graveyard. Maybe I’m ignoring the death all around me right now and whistling past the walls stuffed with bones. Maybe I’m doomed. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I‘m back in bed, staring into the middle distance. Nothing is happening. I’m scared and I don’t know why. I finally fall asleep, just after 3 a.m. If any dreams come, I don’t remember them.
The sound of morning traffic wakes me up around 6. I peer out the window. It’s a quiet, peaceful morning. The sun is out. I think of how much this neighborhood, Walker’s Point, has changed in the last two decades. If the ghost of Molly Brennan does exist, she’s clearly upgraded to a $1,750-a-month luxury apartment.
I get out of bed and gather my things. I’m getting dressed when I notice it: my glasses, which I swear I had placed on my book bag near the fireplace the night before, are on the floor.
There’s a scene in the original Ghostbusters where Venkman inspects a “supernatural” stack of books. “You’re right,” he says, “no human being would stack books like this.” I think of that scene as I lock up the third-floor penthouse, lock up the main door of Shaker’s, and drop my key through the mail slot. No human being would knock over a pair of glasses like this. My night at Milwaukee’s most haunted cigar bar is officially over.
And what did it amount to? I’m not sure. Was I visited in the middle of the night by an eyewear-adverse poltergeist? I doubt it. Was the ghost of a long-dead brothel girl there all along, purposefully invisible to my skeptical senses? Probably not. And if she was, isn’t it convenient that that’s how the spirit world works? Give me flying beds and bleeding walls any day.
No, I was alone. Alone in a room. It wasn’t what was there that scared me, but what wasn’t. I walk out of Shaker’s alone, too, but not for long. I walk back into the world. I walk back into the world of the living. I walk home.