Madison Ghost Walks

By Tobias Wayland

It’s a beautiful late October afternoon when we arrive at the meeting place across the street from downtown Madison’s Great Dane Brew Pub. Our tour guide, Lisa Van Buskirk, is already there. A true showman, she’s outfitted herself like gothic nobility; all flowing black and red clothing with long, dangerous rings on each finger. Lisa gives us a brief history of the city, and leads Emily, me, and the rest of the tour party across the street.

The tour is long—in a good way—and you can tell that Lisa has a real passion for the project as she leads us from spot to spot. Several of the stops are bars—we are in the capitol of Wisconsin, after all—so if you’re of a mind to stop for libations then you certainly may. Naturally, we partake. There are so many good haunted tales it’s hard to keep track, but I manage to jot down a few favorites along the way.

The Great Dane has long been considered haunted by its employees. Over the years, the stories have continued among them as they come and go, and it seems to be something of a living tradition. There is a room in the basement used for storage known as the “spooky room.” It’s rumored to be constantly cold, and evokes a feeling of dread so intense that few can stand to be in its presence. The bar receives phantom phone calls as well, and in true horror movie fashion they always appear to be coming from the in-house line. It’s even experienced poltergeist phenomenon, as one employee witnessed a set of pool cues being knocked from their rack, one by one. Don’t let this scare you off, though, because the Great Dane is still a great place to grab a beer—just don’t do it in the spooky room.

Another favorite stop for me is the Majestic Theater, and it has one of the eeriest stories on the tour. Multiple witnesses over the years have reported a strange, misshapen shadow man roaming the vintage venue. One such story comes from a pair of college coeds who were taking a study break up in the balcony. One of them stood up to stretch her legs, and saw behind her what she described as a “putty man” made of shadow. She brings the nightmare manifestation to her friend’s attention, and as she does, the thing appears to grow larger and larger, causing the young women to scream and beat a hasty retreat. Theaters are often rumored to be haunted, and nobody can say for certain why, but make sure to ask Lisa if she’s heard any theories when you take the tour.

And because all things good and bad come in threes, here’s one more story. This one comes from the restaurant Tempest (formerly Magnus). It is said that the boyfriend of the former owner of the building that houses Tempest was something of an odd duck. This former owner allowed him to live there while the building was being renovated, and he was known for making the people working on the property extremely uncomfortable. As it turns out he was even weirder than anyone imagined, since he decided to hang himself in the basement after failing to rendezvous with the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult out west. Now, the current restaurant employees report having seen some unearthly presence moving the dishes and fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

There are so many stories that I missed or perhaps even misremember, that Emily and I are sure to go back. And as we say goodbye to our talented tour guide and the new friends we made along the way, we can’t help but remark to each other what a beautiful day it is for a walk—a Madison ghost walk.