American Ghost Walks shine a light on Madison’s supernatural past

Michael Muckian takes readers along on a haunted tour of Madison with Ghost Host Lisa Van Buskirk.
The hauntings at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.
Patrick Stutz
Lisa Van Buskirk, who leads Madison's American Ghost Tours, tells the story of "The Spooky Room" (pictured behind her) during a tour stop at The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.

It was a night like any other on Madison’s Capitol Square — not the dark and stormy kind favored in horror films — as nine of us waited breathlessly downtown. We had all voluntarily signed on to “King Street Spirits,” one of three Madison-based tours offered by American Ghost Walks. We did not yet know what terrifying fate might await us.

Suddenly, a shadowed figure appeared down the street. She wore a long black cape with purple velour lining, her unnaturally pale face accented by dramatic makeup. She was bedecked in macabre jewelry and wore enough fantastical rings for all of Dracula’s brides. On her left foot she wore a large plastic boot and moved slowly, the leg perched on a knee scooter.

“Hello,” she said with a sly smile, missing only the sharpened canines that would have completed her persona. “I’m Lisa, your ghost host with the most. Who’s ready for some ghost stories?”

Lisa Van Buskirk — born on Devil’s Night in the same Detroit hospital where 39 years and one day earlier magician Harry Houdini died — spent 25 years as a Madison firefighter. Now retired, Van Buskirk seeks out the strange tales of ghosts, goblins, sea creatures, ghastly murders and UFOs that have become part of Madison’s history. Her boot-and-scooter accessory was temporary — she had broken her foot recently. But she kept pace as we took a leisurely two-hour stroll, conjuring stories of the supernatural along the southeast side of the Square and its environs.

American Ghost Walks, founded by siblings Allison Jornlin and Michael Huberty, began in Wisconsin and now operates in several states. For Van Buskirk, who has guided would-be ghost hunters part-time and seasonally since 2013, the evening walk contained as much Madison history as it did supposed hauntings. Two of the evening’s sites were within a scream of our group’s meeting place at the corner of King and Webster streets.

The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. is housed in the former Fess Hotel (which was the original home of Madison Magazine). Like most hotels once teeming with life, this one seems to attract more than its fair share of alleged paranormal sightings. Purported visitations, phones ringing inexplicably and other phenomena have all supposedly occurred around closing time. Once, a pair of Great Dane bartenders counting up the evening’s take reported a line of pool cues jumping off the wall one by one. There is also what Van Buskirk calls “the spooky room,” a storage area so “creepy” that many staff members refuse to enter.

“One day they’re going to let me into the spooky room,” our guide promised. “I just have to keep working on them.”

The next site on our tour was the Majestic Theatre, founded in 1906 as a vaudeville house that still showcases many of its own spirited performances. The Shadow Man, as Van Buskirk calls him, tends to make regular appearances in the right balcony, his silhouette characterized by extra-long arms that reach to the floor. Sightings of a man staff have nicknamed “manager” have also been reported, in the same auditorium seat they believe he used to occupy when he was still alive.

There were more sites to visit that night, including the Capitol building itself, but to reveal more would take away from the tour’s spontaneous fun fueled by Van Buskirk’s humor and creativity. The weekly walks continue through October. Whether you’re a skeptic or true believer, an evening spent on a ghost walk is the perfect way to celebrate the Halloween season — if you dare.

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Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.