B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Wausau Paranormal 102016
Rosenberry Inn owner Krista Salas with Wausau Paranormal Research Society members (from left) Bill Beaudry, Shawn Blaschka, and Nick Von Gnechten
Let’s start with a true tale about my sister, Krista Salas. In the summer of 2013, she packed her belongings and three dogs into a Toyota truck and drove cross-country to buy a bed and breakfast in Wausau. Krista thought she was prepared for the challenges of her new venture: She’d spent decades in sales and marketing, ran a nonprofit environmental foundation and knows what it takes to run a business.
The Wausau native had lived more than 20 years in California, and relished returning home to transform the aging Rosenberry Inn into a thriving travel destination. She expected to spend plenty of time painting, cleaning, renovating and rebranding the Rosenberry.
What she didn’t expect to find was the rash of uninvited guests. And we’re not talking about the paying kind.
We’re talking about the ghosts.
The first hint that anything was amiss happened a few weeks after Krista closed on the Franklin Street properties she purchased from former owners Barry and Linda Brehmer. On that hot summer night, Krista was relaxing with family members in the main building’s ornate dining room. We were winding down with a bottle of wine and pizza after a long day of cleaning and polishing the woodwork.
That’s when our brother—a sensible sort not given to fantasy—first saw the dog: a white, fluffy, tail wagging apparition that vanished almost as soon as it appeared. My brother was visibly freaked out.
At first, everyone laughed. It was the wine, someone said. Bad cheese, another person suggested. Or more likely, everyone was just tired.
But then the ghostly dog appeared again in the following weeks, along with a long string of other strange incidents that no one could explain. Guests reported hearing crashing in the kitchen when no one else was around. The caretaker repeatedly heard footsteps in empty hallways. Lights turned on and off by themselves. And that was just the beginning.
Krista says she wasn’t scared (surprisingly, guests weren’t either), but she found herself wondering what might be causing it all. The house, built for Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Marvin Rosenberry in 1908, was bound to creak and groan, as older homes do. And Krista, who holds a science degree, is usually a rational thinker. Could the sounds be caused by the house shifting? The old furnace knocking? Was the fluffy dog—seen by several guests, not just our brother—a mere trick of the light?
Krista, who describes herself as “open-minded with a healthy dose of skepticism,” wanted to know. So she called in the experts: the Wausau Paranormal Research Society.
Enter the ghost hunters
B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Wausau paranormal 2 102016
Wausau Paranormal Research Society members (from front) Bill Beaudry, Shawn Blaschka, and Nick Von Gnechten, with Rosenberry Inn owner Krista Salas
Sharon Williams first sat down with Krista in September 2013 to discuss the noises and apparitions. Williams, one of the core members of WPRS and co-author of the book, Haunted Wausau: The Paranormal History of Big Bull Falls, took careful notes, then met with the rest of her team to create a plan.
Krista had mixed feelings about a full-blown paranormal investigation. What would the guests think? But curiosity got the better of her, and on Dec. 7, 2014, the WPRS team performed the first of three investigations at the property, including two overnight stays.
They brought in a range of equipment. Still cameras and full spectrum video were used to capture images of potential spirits. They brought an infrared sensitive video camera to capture frequencies invisible to the naked eye. The team also used electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors designed to detect energy fields. (In theory, when spirits manifest they draw energy from the surroundings, creating a magnetic field.) A digital recorder with an exceptionally sensitive microphone would capture electric voice phenomena (EVP). And thermal probes measured the surface temperature of objects, even from a distance.
What the team found ultimately convinced Shawn Blaschka, director and co-founder of WPRS, that someone—or something—really could be haunting the old inn.
The first night, the group gathered in the parlor, Blaschka recalls. With the history of the house in mind, they talked about its early inhabitants, especially Judge Rosenberry and his wife, hoping he might somehow respond. They also spoke about Wausau’s early historical figures, people who Rosenberry would likely have known.
“That’s the way we try to connect with whatever spirit might be there,” Blaschka says. “We try to draw the spirit out.”
Upstairs, the group spread out. Researchers Bill Beaudry and Nick Von Gnechten tried summoning the fluffy dog, the one so many guests reported seeing.
Then Beaudry felt something.
“All of a sudden, Bill felt cold down by his legs, below his knee,” Blaschka says. “We measured a 10-degree drop in temperature, right at the spot where a dog would have been.”
The coldness quickly vanished, then reappeared next to Von Gnechten’s feet, as though the dog was moving through the house.
“Nobody saw anything, but it’s so interesting when we can actually measure something,” Blaschka says. “That’s exciting to us.”
They didn’t see any spirits downstairs, but they did hear loud footsteps from above. And an EVP recorder captured several the distinct sound of weeping and several voices no one actually heard until the recording played them back.
Later investigations revealed other curious findings, too. A photo taken on the back landing seemed to have captured the shadow of a woman. A series of knocks could not be duplicated, a crashing sound could not be explained.
Blaschka and the other WPRS members say they believe ghosts exist, but take a data-based, scientific approach to their investigations. They evaluate competing hypotheses—ghosts exist versus ghosts do not exist—and determine which is best supported by the evidence.
In the vast majority of cases, WPRS members find mundane causes of “mysterious” sounds, cold spots, apparitions and other paranormal-suspected activity.
“Our first course of action is to find that explanation,” Blaschka says. “Maybe it’s a creaky furnace or a trick of the light.”
Blaschka says the group is nothing like the fictional characters in the movie, Ghostbusters, and he bristles a bit when the idea is presented.
“We’re not busting ghosts,” Blaschka says. “We’re hunting them. We’re trying to connect with them, to coexist. And we’re trying to understand them.”
What’s really behind most paranormal experiences? It’s not ghosts, and Blaschka is the first to admit it.
Behind nearly every shadow, poltergeist, disembodied voice or spooky sound, there’s usually a perfectly rational, science-based explanation. Some common experiences:
Ghostly presence: Have you ever been alone in a room, only to feel the presence of someone else? For decades, a Canadian neuroscientists, Michael Persinger, has been studying the effect of electromagnetic fields on human perception. Basically, Persinger’s research found that certain patterns of weak magnetic fields can create the perception of an invisible presence, when in fact, there is not.
Cold spots: When a ghost has nothing better to do than appear out of thin air, it needs energy, according to prevailing theory. So the ghost draws heat from its surroundings to manifest. But cool air drafting in through chimneys or windows are more likely to blame, especially in older homes such as the Rosenberry Inn.
Orbs: These balls of light could be the spirits of people who have died, but haven’t quite passed on. Invisible to the naked eye, these orbs can be seen only in photographs. The problem is that even a dust speck or a bug can show up as a blurry mystery object. That’s why even ghost hunters are skeptical about orb photography.
Phantom footsteps: This is one of the more common phenomena, especially on wood floors and metal staircases. But old large buildings creak. Plus, scientists say our senses are heightened in the dark and quiet, making background sounds more prevalent. Most phantom footsteps are probably just floors and walls contracting with temperature changes.
Shadow people: These dark beings are seen out of the corner of the eye, then vanish. True believers say they’re demons or time travelers. But Swiss researchers say it might be a glitch of the brain’s left temporoparietal junction, which processes language, external information, and social perception (that is, assessing other people). This part of the brain can be over-stimulated and create the illusion of a shadow person. The phenomenon is more frequent with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and paranoia, but even people without such maladies can have these experiences.
Ouija board: It’s creepy fun to gather around the game board with friends, only to have the board spell out answers directly from the spirit world. (You swear you were hardly touching it!) Scientists say the Ouija movements are really caused by the ideomotor effect, where players move the cup unconsciously. These small motions cause movement that seems to come from a supernatural source, but really don’t.
In 90-95% of the cases the Wausau Paranormal Research group investigates, scientific explanations absolutely do apply, Blaschka says. But the rest, he says, is the “neat stuff.”
There’s a religious aspect to Blaschka’s belief in the spirit world. He sees paranormal activity as interaction between the living and the dead. “When you die, you’re not a bug on a windshield,” Blaschka says. “I know there’s more to it than that.”
Blaschka and his friends aren’t the only true believers. A 2013 Gallup poll shows that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts, and 37% believe in haunted houses.
The WPRS itself has been researching paranormal activity for about 16 years throughout the state. The group’s current and former members come from a range of fields: criminal justice, social work, business administration, communications and academia. Their mission is to help their clients coexist with paranormal phenomenon in their homes and businesses, while providing a greater understanding of ghostly events. The group conducts about a dozen investigations each year, always free of charge.
They’re also big history buffs, and every October for many years have led the Wausau Ghost Tours, held Saturdays in the weeks leading up to Halloween (see sidebar for details).
Between 600 to 800 people each year attend WPRS’s walking tours. The 90-minute stroll is part ghost stories, but also a fascinating history lesson on local landmarks and historical characters, and also serve as a fundraiser for local charities.
So far, no one has actually seen a ghost while on the walking tour, Blaschka says, and but plenty of people on the tour, and even passers-by, share their own experiences with the many ghosts of Wausau. A few years ago, the tour group came upon a young man sitting outside on a break from his job at the Elks Lodge. He asked what the group was, then nonchalantly talked about his experiences with a well-known haunting in the lodge: The ghost would mess up playing cards set out on tables and move chairs. The man told the group that ghostly happenings even was addressed in his employee orientation.
Blaschka says some who show up for the tours are skeptics, and that’s okay.
The Rosenberry Inn is one of just a handful of places in Wausau Blaschka considers truly haunted, though the spirits there don’t seem angry, just curious.
As for Krista? She still isn’t 100% sure that ghosts are real. But evidence continues to mount. Last year, a guest who was related to the Rosenberrys confirmed that the family did, indeed, have a white fluffy dog.