Real-life ghostbusting at the Tally Ho tavern

It takes an old country restaurant, a few amateur investigators, and a bagful of consumer technology to assemble a TV-worthy ghost hunt. We tag along to see the results.

John Lewinski
Crave freelancer John Scott Lewinski covers tech, cars, and entertainment out of Los Angeles. As a journalist, he's traveled from Daytona Beach to Cape Town, writing for more than 30 national magazines. He's also a very amateur boxer known for his surprising lack of speed and ability to absorb punishment. E-mail John.
John Lewinski
5 min read
The Tally Ho tavern in Erin, Wisc., is reportedly haunted by a young prostitute possibly buried in its basement. John Scott Lewinski/CNET

ERIN, Wisc.--Break out the proton packs and keep an eye out for "orbs." We're going ghost hunting.

Obviously, Halloween is the season for haunted houses, so I decided to visit an alleged real one with the sort of ghost investigators we see all over TV these days on shows like "Most Haunted," "Paranormal State," and "Ghost Hunters." Viewers enjoy plenty of green-tinted night vision video and grown-ups taunting would-be poltergeists in empty rooms, but good luck spotting proof of a ghost. In fairness, in this age of CG enhancements and photo manipulation, we could end up with a high-def image of a transparent Abe Lincoln writing, "I'm a ghost, you four-score and 20 idiots!"--and we'd scream "ILM!" I would trust only my naked eyes.

So, earlier this month I tagged along with the Washington County Paranormal to get an idea of the methods and homespun technology they use to chase down ghosts.

The target was the Tally Ho tavern in the rolling hills of Erin, Wisc. About 30 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, the tavern was originally built in the 1800s and served as everything from a roadhouse to a brothel before becoming a country road restaurant. It sits in a proper dramatic setting for a haunted joint, with the Holy Hill national Catholic shrine looming over the nearby countryside like a medieval castle.

When I got out of my car in the Tally Ho parking lot, I could see why locals might assign ghosts to the joint. You are truly in the sticks, with the only illumination coming from the infrequent passing of a lonely car.

Any ghost hunters knows that motion sensor cameras like this one are key to the enterprise. John Scott Lewinski/CNET

The interior is classic rustic Midwest as the modern tavern's designers kept as much of the original woodwork and decor as they could. The building holds a main dining room, a bar, a downstairs party room, and upstairs living quarters for any resident caretakers.

The wood floors still creak underfoot, and the well-worn stairs shine with old boot polish. When the lights go out, the Tally Ho's far corners get very dark--and darkness is what that night's ghost hunters wanted (though why ghosts would only choose to appear under "spooky" conditions is beyond me).

Washington County Paranormal is a group of average, working folks who share an interest in the paranormal--everything from ghosts to strange creatures like Wisconsin's Bray Road Beast. They were poking around the Tally Ho because it's evidently well-known around Southeastern Wisconsin as a haunted hot spot. It couldn't have been much of a media stunt as I was the only non-WCP member visiting the place (unless you count any disembodied spirits hiding in the shadows).

These investigations are a labor of love for WCP, and the group gathers as often as its members can find would-be haunts to explore. They didn't charge the Tally Ho for their services on the evening I joined them, but they own any evidence they might take away. Five members of the group took turns setting up equipment, searching the tavern's multiple rooms and levels, and monitoring video feeds. I was asked to stay well back and out of the fray so as not to throw off the vibe. We got started around 10 p.m. and didn't see fresh air again until 3 a.m. the next morning.

Tagging along with ghostbusters (photos)

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We were in search of the Tally Ho's resident ghost legend, Emily--supposedly an ill-fated young lady who died under suspicious circumstances on the property during its days as a brothel and boarding house. Some say she could be buried in the basement. As ghost stories go, that seems to have all the necessary ingredients. You can't go wrong with a forlorn young woman suffering a violent death against a backdrop of sex. A haunted yarn about some janitor named Earl who choked on a hoagie while changing a furnace filter wouldn't have staying power.

The Tally Ho's basement would serve well as a restless spirit's home. The cold brick walls and uneven dirt floor had that dank "it puts the lotion on its skin..." feel. But creepy or not, the only spirits I saw down there came in bottles.

Tally Ho owner Chaz Hastings firmly believes in Emily, claiming she's messed around with his employees: "We've had kitchen staff say things have flown off of the shelves at them."

I sat in quietly on the long night vigil while members of WCP searched for Emily. I was asked politely not to cause a disturbance with too many questions so as not to disrupt any spirit energy--which is a fair enough request considering the disturbance I've been known to create in bars. The resulting silence was oppressive and interrupted only by the occasional distant call of an investigator trying to coax "electronic voice phenomena" out of Emily.

To fill the decidedly ghost-less hours, I inspected the technology collection WCP had to fund on its own dime. It was all consumer tools cobbled together from different manufacturers. From motion detectors to video surveillance cameras to digital voice recorders, you can get a look at some of WCP's equipment in our gallery above.

The primary inspection tool of choice for these ghost hunters seems to be the EM Field Detector, a handheld device that's supposed to sense the electromagnetic field disturbances created by spirits. To WCP's credit, they used these gadgets with a dash of skepticism, since proposed ghosts aren't the only things with EM fields. Everything from TVs to lightbulbs to your own body sends out EM radiation, so a ghost would really have to be laying out a disturbance to make a dent.

In fact, WCP members maintained skepticism on all fronts, preferring to investigate their collected data before making any pronouncements on the "hauntedness" of the Tally Ho.

In the end, I hung out in a dark bar for a few hours and didn't see anything remotely resembling a ghost. You could call that a failed ghost hunt or an average Friday night, but WCP vowed to return to the Tally Ho soon for another crack at finding its lost spirits. I don't think I'll join them, but I hope Emily does next time.