Ghosts of the Mabel Tainter Theater
By Tobias Wayland; images by Emily Wayland
The Mabel Tainter Memorial Building looks haunted even in the daytime; the cold, grayish beige stone of its high walls belying the warmth of its interior. It has reason enough to be haunted, too, considering its origin. Captain and Mrs. Andrew Tainter commissioned the building to be built in Menomonie, Wisconsin to honor their daughter, Mabel, who died in 1886 of “cancer of the side”; known more commonly today as appendicitis. She was only 19. Mabel loved music and the arts, and so the Tainters wanted the building designed to serve those interests. Construction was completed in 1890, and since then it’s served not only as a theater, but also as a meeting place for Menomonie’s Unitarian Society, and, even, for a time, as the town’s library.
Emily and I hustle as we approach the sandstone edifice just after noon on a beautiful spring Saturday; I swear we somehow lost 15 minutes on the drive up, so now we’re running late. Allison Smith Steffennagen—the theater’s event planner and director of the upcoming ParaNomiCon paranormal conference—reassures us that it’s fine while we introduce ourselves, and I take a moment to admire the building’s interior. Large rooms and wide open spaces are built in rich, dark wood; while stained glass windows bathe the area in the warm glow of a cathedral.
We’re interested in collecting a few stories while we’re here, and Allison leads us upstairs to the pastor’s study—a quiet area where we can record eyewitness accounts, and one of the building’s most haunted rooms.
“I started working on plays at the Mabel Tainter when I was fifteen in about 1999” Allison tell us. “I worked on about 30 to 35 plays over the course of about eight years, and then at one point I became a tour guide and building supervisor for an additional three years. That ended in 2006, and now I’m coming back this year as an event planner and the directer of the ParaNomiCon.”
“I have three main paranormal stories,” she continues. “The first paranormal story that I have is: I was sitting in the back row of the theater, in the balcony, and to the left of me chairs just started going down one at a time along the entire row. I thought at first ‘Oh, well, it’s just this section of chairs, so maybe something bumped them and they all went down.’ But then after an appropriate amount of time for someone to have walked past the aisle, the next row of chairs started to go down—all the way to me. Then it didn’t put any chairs down next to me, and then a couple chairs to the right of me went down. In that moment I was kind of like ‘Oh, hey. Hey, Henry Doty. There you are.’ So that was sort of my biggest story.”
Henry Doty Maxson was the Unitarian reverend who convinced the Tainters to build the memorial building as a community center and home to the area’s Unitarian congregation. His attachment to the Mabel Tainter makes him a prime candidate for much of the reported paranormal activity.
While Allison insists that her first story was the “biggest”, the next two are equally impressive, at least to me; all three of her experiences involve an element of physicality that makes them difficult to dismiss.
“My first [paranormal experience at the Mabel Tainter] happened when I was very new to working at the theater as a tour guide and building supervisor,” Allison says. “I locked up after one of my shifts—probably my first shift alone—and I turned off all the lights in the theater; I bagged up all the garbage, I locked the front door, set the alarms, walked around to the back of the building, opened up the lid of the garbage can, put in the garbage, closed the lid of the garbage can, and [I noticed] there was a light on in the janitor’s room.”
A seemingly innocent enough event until she realizes the extent of it.
“I thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s weird. I’m sure I turned it off, but okay.’ So I went to the front of the building to go back and turn that light off, and, as I walked around to the front of the building, it was obvious that every single light in the entire theater was on,” she explains. “Every bathroom, every single room—not anything that’s all on one switch—were all turned on. Some of them were ones—actually, the room that we’re in right now—I had to stand on a table to turn the lights on and off, so I was certain that I had turned those lights off. When I got to this room I thought ‘Oh my! This is definitely abnormal.’ I got a little scared, but I was fine, and then my phone rang and I probably jumped about 10 feet, and quickly turned off all the lights.”
That’s not the only time the lights mysteriously turned on, and Allison wasn’t about to be alone the next time it happened.
“After that I was never in the theater alone again. I always brought a friend with me to work,” she says. “I was never actually scared of what could be happening, but I still didn’t want to be alone. [The lights turning on] happened on multiple occasions. My friend Andrew was with me at work and almost the exact same thing happened. We closed the garbage can and some of the lights were back on in the theater. I’ve also been out to dinner on Main Street after having worked, walking back to my car, and some of the lights are back on in the theater—specifically, this is the pastor’s study—specifically this room, quite frequently. After that first night, after that happened, I went up to Vicki, who was my coworker at the time and I said, ‘You know, this is what happened to me, I think it’s the ghosts, they turned the lights on,’ and she said ‘Oh, yeah, that was just your initiation into the theater.’
Allison’s final story for us is yet another corroborative account—something we’re finding is exceptionally common at the Mabel Tainter Theater.
“The other kind of main story that I have is that I was working in the front office, and we could hear a piano playing,” Allison says. “My coworker and I could hear a piano playing on the stage, and we [looked at each other and asked] ‘Oh, did you let someone in? Did you let someone in to the auditorium?’ In there, there was a piano, but no one was there. So we went back out into the office and we heard the piano playing again.”
Mabel Tainter was fond of playing the piano, and the instrument with which she practiced is still kept, preserved, in the building’s basement.
The basement has its share of paranormal activity, and one particular hot spot is the old billiards room, which has been converted into one of the theater’s dressing rooms.
“Downstairs is the billiards room, and that’s where the men would smoke their pipes and cigars,” Allison says. “There are times when it could be humidity or whatever, but you can smell that smoke, that cigar smoke, you can sometimes even see it. There will be a haze…and when you go into that space there are times where [you can feel] you’re not the only one in [there].”
Allison is kind enough to introduce us to Mark, a thoroughly knowledgeable tour guide, and together they lead us through the Mabel Tainter Memorial Building’s many rooms.
The tour is exhaustive, and a full video of it is available to all members of the Singular Fortean Society on our Patreon page.
We’re led to the Blue Room, where Andrew Tainter was laid in state for the community to pay their respects, and through the theater and its balcony, where Allison witnessed her psychokinetic display. Eventually we find ourselves behind the stage, an area where people sometimes report seeing a lady in white or gray walking along a catwalk that no longer exists.
It’s here where we have our own potentially paranormal experience; the kind of equipment malfunction that is all too common in reputedly haunted areas.
Emily can see by the red light on her camera and the numbers counting down on its view screen that it’s recording, and yet, when she checks the footage later in the tour, it’s gone. She can’t explain it.
“Oh, shoot, it didn’t record backstage,” Emily says near the end of our tour. “But I’m sure it was recording!”
Before we leave there’s one more piece of evidence we want to examine—an alleged photograph of a ghostly woman sitting on the stairs leading up to the second floor.
The photograph in question was taken by one of Allison’s coworkers, and it wasn’t until later that the outline of a woman was noticed, apparently seated on the stairs visible through the door’s inset window.
I decide to take a photograph of the same location, to see if the effect can be replicated. There’s a good-sized window opposite of the door across the room, and I suspect that sunlight reflecting off of the glass could be to blame.
My photo certainly seems to show light reflecting off of the glass in a pareidolic effect very similar in shape to the original; although, as I’ve said before, using pareidolia as an explanation only really describes the ‘how’ of the phenomenon and not the ‘why’. I’m certainly open to weird possibilities when it comes to pareidolia—including it being a potential method of communication by entities who exist and/or act on the level of human consciousness—and, similarly, Allison is undeterred by my photograph.
“With the photo, even if you’re able to fully replicate it, I would still believe that it’s still potentially an entity because that’s how this energy is reaching out to us,” she says.
It’s a sentiment to which I’m not unsympathetic, and there’s enough high strangeness here that I can see it as a real possibility. The question, then, is who or what may be causing it. At this point only one thing is certain: we’ll be back to find out.
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