A college student standing in the hallway of an old dormitory in Waukegan feels someone behind her, breathing on her neck. She turns around. No one is there. Suddenly someone pushes her down the stairs.
It gets scarier.
On a moonlit night, several teenagers shine a flashlight on an old wooden gate along River Road in Libertyville. In the light, they see the heads of several decapitated children on the gate posts.
All over Lake County, these stories are told, especially at this time of year.
They're true, at least according to the people who tell them.
True or not, these stories make you wonder: Could there be otherworldly spirits lurking in cemeteries, old buildings, even your own home?
Ron Dolski, who owns Something Fishy Pets in Fox Lake, said he once was a nonbeliever — but not anymore.
"I was totally the biggest skeptic in the world," Dolski said.
Haunted tales are told all over Lake County, especially during the Halloween season. (Sheryl DeVore / News-Sun)
But reports of hauntings in Northern Illinois intrigued him, and he began researching them. He founded a Fox Lake based group in 2006 called Something Ghostly Paranormal.
Over the years, he's investigated public buildings, private homes, hospitals, insane asylums and other places in the county and around the nation, and he believes some of these places have been visited by spirits from another world.
There's the haunted doll in someone's home — the owners say she moves limbs at will, and he's seen it himself. He recently investigated a tavern in Fox Lake where he, a bartender and other workers heard strange voices after closing hours.
If that doesn't convince you, how about Dolski's claim that his house in Huntley is haunted by a little girl named Sally?
"One day, my wife and I were sitting on the couch, and we both heard somebody say, 'Mommy,' Nobody was there. We've had company come and they've seen and heard things, too. We've opened our house to a lot of friends who don't believe it," Dolski said. "After they spend the night, they believe."
Sally tends to appear weekly at the Dolski household, sometimes moving items around in the house, he said.
He discovered that years ago, a young girl died in a well on his house's property.
"We think because it was a tragic death, she doesn't know that she's dead. She's looking for her parents, a place to call her own. Since we recognize that spirits are real, we have accommodated her and allowed her into our family," Dolski said.
He and his wife would like her to leave.
"But she refuses to move on," he said.
Bob Jensen, who started Ghostland Paranormal in 1990 in Gurnee, said he's less of a skeptic than he used to be.
Ghostland Paranormal consists of open-minded people, he said, adding that the members are, "well-respected members of the community, including teachers, professors and federal agents."
Recently, he investigated a tattoo parlor in Antioch that had a painted glass door. "There's the story about a man who has been seen peering through the glass, looking at the girls at work there," he said.
Jensen said he has recorded a little girl's voice in the parlor, saying, "He's coming up the stairs."
"Another time, we saw a figure, a translucent individual that was squatting down by an infrared light I had set up," he said, adding that the basement is just creepy.
Jensen said he heard a story about the basement once being occupied by a man who had committed crimes in the neighborhood.
"There's always truth behind folklore," Jensen said. "There's always some form of truth."
Both Jensen and Tony Olszewski, founder of McHenry County Paranormal Research Group, have been asked to investigate the Mother Rudd House in Gurnee over the years.
The home, built in 1841 on what became Old Grand Avenue, now houses a museum for the Warren Township Historical Society. It was once a stop along the Underground Railroad, where slaves were given sanctuary on their way to freedom.
Jensen and Olszewksi said they've documented paranormal events at the home, but none were threatening.
"We heard voices of a young child — it sounded like the child was comfortable in the house," Jensen said.
But Mary Worth, a woman who lived nearby during that era, is not a benign spirit.
Legend says during the time of the Underground Railroad, Worth was murdering slaves instead of helping them. Some claim she was a witch.
"The townspeople took justice into their own hands," Jensen said. "They hung her on her property. If you walk along Dilleys Road on the west side, you'll find a huge tree stump down to the ground. That is the tree that allegedly she was hung from."
In the past few years, developers have moved an old stone that likely marked her grave, Jensen said, adding that they began losing money until they put the stone back.
Ty Rohrer, supervisor of the Waukegan History Museum, said he's heard and researched a plethora of stories of hauntings in Waukegan. Residents have told him about the haunted house on Washington Street.
"It was the home of Dr. Roberts. He was a dentist — a rather eccentric dentist," he said. "The stories are that he built his house (in 1891) in such a way as to attract spirits."
After he died, Rohrer added, the family living there reported a piano playing on its own and a figure in the attic.
"They eventually had to move out of the house," which was later razed, Rohrer said.
An apartment building on Franklin and North avenues in Waukegan is the site of the old Jane McAlister Hospital. At one time, it was a dormitory for Shimer College where two ghosts allegedly lived.
The good nurse ghost took care of students, putting her cool hands on foreheads when they had fevers. But an evil janitor ghost lived in the basement. Students felt him standing behind them, breathing down their necks, and were sometimes pushed or tripped, Rohrer said.
Older buildings with interesting histories seem to harbor the most spirits in Waukegan, Rohrer said.
That includes the 90-year-old Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, where the most famous ghost is a dog, said Larry Frievalt, patron services manager.
"When people are in the theater, they sometimes hear barking in the duct work of the heating and air conditioning," Frievalt said. Recently one of the facilities workers was in the basement and heard the sound of the dog running up behind him. He high-tailed it out of there."
Frievalt added he's heard stories that long ago, when the Genesee was used as an apartment building, a dog was left alone in an apartment for several days after his master passed away.
"The other story most people know about is the story of a young girl who likes to cause pranks in the Genesee Theatre," Frievalt said. "Every now and then, while people are in the theater, they feel a cold gust of wind running down the aisle."
Other times, he added, while staff are working at their desks, they'll find their shoes untied.
"It hasn't happened to me in a while now that I double tie my shoes," he said.
Paranormal investigators like Jensen don't believe all the tales they're told, and they don't always find signs of spirits when they visit public and private places thought to be haunted.
Years ago, for example, Jensen interviewed teenagers who drove down River Road in Libertyville at night and stopped to shine lights at a huge, tall, old wooden gate near Independence Grove Forest Preserve. "They told me there were horrible things that happened there that they never wanted to repeat or witness again," Jensen said.
According to legend, there was an old schoolhouse on the property in the 1940s, and an old janitor who worked there went insane. Jensen added that the tale goes on to report that, "he decapitated kids and put the heads on the gate. Now on moonlit nights, you can see the heads."
Sheryl DeVore is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.