ALTON — Monster hunters, ghost seekers and other pursuers of the paranormal materialized in force to attend Troy Taylor’s Haunted America Conference this past weekend.
The show was held in the Atrium Hotel and brought guest speakers on the strange from all over the country. The traveling event chose Alton because of the river town’s rich, haunted history.
Taylor, a noted researcher and author of many books about the supernatural, organized the event.
“My primary focus is history and the ghost stories connected to it,” he said. “I bring in people who are history people and have a story to tell. Every one of the speakers here has done some kind of TV, but that’s not how we build the conference. It’s not some sort of celebrity thing. We want people who have something to say and I think that makes it more interesting.”
As part of the scheduled events, Taylor spoke on the macabre “carnival of grief” that surrounded Lincoln’s multi-state funeral procession.
Paranormal historians Mark Nesbitt and Sherri Brake also gave presentations.
Nesbitt has authored several books on Civil War hauntings. He describes himself as a waning skeptic who got interested in ghosts while working as a Gettysburg park ranger.
“I lived in some of the historic houses on the battlefield and weird things would happen that I couldn’t explain,” said Nesbitt, who lectured on Civil War battlefields and associated ghost stories. “I would go into the break room and say, ‘I heard a baby crying in the cemetery lodge the other day.’ My colleagues suggested I speak to the people who lived there before. I talked to them and they had the same experience in the same house.”
Sherri Brake’s speech, Afterlife With No Parole, focused on the haunted history of the West Virginia Penitentiary and Ohio State Reformatories.
“I tend to be drawn to the old asylums and the old prisons,” she said. Through Haunted Heartland Tours, she takes ghost seekers on overnight expeditions in five states, as well as Ireland and Scotland.
Cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard leaped into the local lore of the Piasa Bird and other big birds in his talk, Thunderbirds. The Texas-based author and famed monster hunter has appeared on cable television programs and is a frequent guest on the radio show Coast to Coast AM. Gerhard’s interest in mysterious animals started as a child and grew into a lifelong passion.
“When I was 8 years old, I saw a TV special about Bigfoot. I was completely captivated, imagining an 8-foot-tall manlike creature running around in the woods of North America. So, I went out to the library and read every book I could find on the subject. My mother, who was very adventurous and a travel agent, took me all over the world to places like the Amazon jungle, Australia, Africa, on all these amazing vacations. I would investigate the local legendary creatures. When I was 15, I attempted my first field research at Loch Ness in Scotland with a movie camera, walking around the lake and talking to the locals. I never intended to make it a career, but as an adult I began going out with Bigfoot researchers in the United States and experienced some things that took hold of me.”
Gerhard went on to write several books, specializing on large mysterious birds and flying humanoids.
In addition to the speakers, the conference also featured a showing of otherworldly art. Kari Bergen, a Denver-based mixed-media assemblage artist, has attended the conference since 2003. She showed a collection of spooky shadowboxes, including one called Alton.
“I was really inspired by the subject of the conference,” she said. “I was trying to go for small ephemera artifacts from the area. I found a bottle from an Alton druggist from the 1800s. That inspired the piece initially. I went from there, thinking of the city’s industrial history, so there are some industrial bits in there. I tried to incorporate the feel and history of Alton.”
After hours, several special events were held around the area. Taylor led a historical tour of Alton’s more famous haunts, like the downtown Unitarian Church. A late-night séance took place in the basement of the McPike Mansion and Rosemary Ellen Guley gave instruction on black-mirror scrying for those hoping to make direct contact with the afterlife.
“I teach how to improve your psychic power, through black mirror scrying,” said Guiley, author of 61 books on paranormal subjects, specializing in contact experiences. “Scrying is an old English term, which means ‘to discern dimly.’ You gaze into a shiny black surface as a way of going into an altered state, which allows communication with the dead, and to gaze into the past and the future.”