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Haunted Milwaukee: Exploring the Unexplained with Brew City Paranormal

Jul. 13, 2022 at 5:38PM

Milwaukee is a city of ghosts aplenty, or at least ghost lore. Some places are famous for tales of being haunted such as the Pfister Hotel, Pabst Mansion, The Rave, Turner Hall, and The Riverside Theater. Other places seem to float underneath the radar of haunted infamy, and to me, these are the most interesting. There’s a saying, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The same basic philosophy can be applied to the existence of ghosts: Whether you think they exist, or you think they don’t, you’re right. With about 50 percent of the U.S. population saying that they believe in ghosts, and 25 percent saying that they’ve actually seen one, you’re just as likely to run into a believer as to not.

Full disclosure, I  lean toward the belief in life beyond death in some configuration. I also believe I have seen a ghost. Can I prove I saw the ghost of a once-living cat sitting on my porch, then vanish into thin air? No. Do I believe without a doubt that I saw his ghostly presence? Absolutely. Still, my belief in post-worldly existence is tempered with a cautious amount of skepticism. Most “ghostly encounters” are explainable. Sounds of footsteps in the night are likely the shiftings of a settling house. A misty figure in a photograph is attributed to lens flare or strange reflections. Yet, some things are harder to explain away.

Though I consider myself to be a believer and have had more than one experience that I consider “otherworldly,” the topic leads me to more questions than answers. I decided to reach out to two local men who have spent over a decade systematically trying to capture proof that ghosts here in Milwaukee, and beyond, do indeed exist.

Charles Bruss and Brad Hagen are founder and co-founder, respectively, of Brew City Paranormal. BCP uses a combination of technology, what they claim are their own intuition and psychic abilities, and their wits to answer the question: Are there ghosts in here?

Brad Hagen (left) and Charles Bruss, Co-Founder and Founder of Brew City Paranormal.
Brad Hagen (left) and Charles Bruss, Co-Founder and Founder of Brew City Paranormal.

“The ultimate goal first, is to help people. But by doing that, we hope to get a better understanding of, what is it really that once you die, happens,” said Bruss, whose mother died shortly after this interview. “What is that process? What is on the other side? What’s that moment when our spirit leaves the body?”

BCP has investigated some of the most infamous spots in Milwaukee, such as Turner Hall and The Riverside Theater. They will be the first to tell you, there be ghosts there. But they have also investigated lesser-known spots with purported activity, including small businesses and private residences. One of their most intriguing investigations was at a hair salon in Bayview. It’s now the office of the Milwaukee Democratic Party headquarters, and I suppose depending on your political persuasions, that makes the space either more or less frightening.

The office of the Milwaukee Democratic Party headquarters
The office of the Milwaukee Democratic Party headquarters

BCP investigated this spot in 2013, where Bruss and Hagen say they caught some eerie results, including an electromagnetic voice phenomenon (EVP) of a voice saying, “Rafters are burnt,” in reference to some charred rafters that remain in the basement of the building from a fire in the 1950s. They also report another more menacing EVP of a spirit known as “the grumpy old man,” telling them to, “Get the fuck out.”

While purported activity at more well-known Milwaukee venues is intriguing, this particular story was one I needed to explore. So, I reached out to a former stylist (whom I will refer to as June) who worked in that space for over twelve years. I have to admit that if what June told me is true, this place is kind of creepy.

One evening after closing, June and some co-workers were enjoying an after-work glass of wine. As they sat there conversing and laughing in the dim evening light, about five books simultaneously jettisoned off of a shelf. June emphasized that they didn’t simply fall to the ground below the shelf, but actually flew away from the shelf a few feet, as if shoved by an unseen force. They were searching for a rational explanation. One suggested that perhaps it was a low-flying airplane that caused the shelf to vibrate with such voracity that the books flew six or seven feet from where they had been stored. Or perhaps that explanation is more far-fetched than just the presence of a ghost.

June also said that the salon kept a large, decorative sun hung on one of the walls. At night they would leave—the sun still hanging on the wall in its rightful place. In the morning, the sun was found 20 feet across the room, as if someone had placed it there neatly on the floor. They changed the locks and rehung the sun even more securely, only to find it at a later date on the floor yet again, undamaged but feet from where it once hung.

June explained that the activity seemed to have peaks and valleys. For months, all would be quiet. Then for weeks, the weirdness would spike. Psychics and paranormal groups get invited into the space to see if they can offer some answers or solutions. Many come. None conquer. The only thing they could tell the salon staff was that there was the spirit of an ornery man in the basement who wanted to be left alone and wasn’t afraid to let them know. Objects were moved, sometimes violently. People refused to work in the space because of an “uncomfortable vibe.” One hair stylist became more obsessed with finding ghostly answers than with hiding graying roots. Eventually, the activity just got to be too much. June told me that after someone was unknowingly scratched and patrons started getting freaked out, the salon was forced to relocate to other premises.

June and others who worked in the salon and those who investigated the claims of activity swear by and say they have the evidence to back up their experiences. But evidence is not proof. Can it be proven that places like this actually have a surly spirit in the basement, or as some claimed, an open portal that was causing paranormal activity in this space?

Bruss and Hagen have an arsenal of paranormal tools-of-the-trade at their disposal to try to capture evidence of spirit activity. Turn on any ghostbuster-type show on the Discovery Channel, and you’ll see the array of equipment the BCP use. Including video cameras that can “see” in the dark, Bruss and Hagen use K-II (pronounced K-2) and electromagnetic field (EMF) meters to pick up on any electromagnetic anomalies that could indicate paranormal happenings. Digital recorders are used to pick up disembodied voices or EVPs when a spirit is trying to speak. One of Bruss’s favorite tools is the spirit box, a device that rapidly sweeps the frequency channels of radio stations creating a white noise effect. This is said to allow spirits to use and manipulate this energy to form words or even phrases. The BCP website and YouTube page have examples of the results they have captured from investigations. But evidence of this type is bunk to a non-believer.

Charles Bruss using a Mel Meter which registers electromagnetic fluctuations
Charles Bruss using a Mel Meter which registers electromagnetic fluctuations

Indeed, there is a stigma attached to sharing paranormal experiences, discussing one’s own sightings, or even beliefs about ghostly activity in mixed company. The stylist at the Bayview salon wasn’t comfortable with me identifying her. While many people will believe you, many will think you are exaggerating, or that there is some logical explanation that you didn’t uncover. Or, they will presume you’re just downright bonkers. Some might accuse businesses—such as Milwaukee’s own Shaker’s Cigar Bar—of being in this for profit, by selling tickets for ghost tours of their haunted brothel to gullible patrons. There’s money in them thar ghosts.

You have to give a nod of approval to Bruss and Hagen who won’t take a dime for any of their investigative work. During the pandemic, they led a series of investigations at The Riverside Theater. The Riverside charged the public to participate in these ghost hunts as a way to offset losses during the pandemic, but when offered, Bruss and Hagen refused any money. “There are no experts in the field. We come in, we do what we think we are doing right,” said Hagen. “We do use science behind it. But we don’t see how you can charge somebody for something that, at least at this point, is not recognized as a true science.”

“True science.” What does that even mean anymore? Is true science Ivermectin or Pfizer? Is global warming true science, or is it environmental hysterics? Is the only protection against a bad guy with a gun, a good guy with a gun? Just try to prove something to someone who doesn’t want to believe. Some truths are far easier to prove than others. Some beliefs are far more harmful than others.

I think people who believe in life after death, and even ghostly phenomena, want answers to what happens after we die, even if we can’t prove it scientifically. They are simply looking for something—anything—that will provide some comfort and perhaps evidence of the continuation of our spiritual essence. We want something that will give us hope that we will once again be reconnected with our loved ones. Or perhaps it’s a yearning that if we cannot find peace, justice, and make sense of things in this life—that somehow, somewhere on the other side of that veil between life and death, there is something better that awaits.

Bruss has theories on why spirits may hang around in an earthly manner, or at an earthly manor. “I believe there are attachments to homes and objects. I mean, imagine you had a home that you lived in all your life. You have all these fond memories. Whatever that moment is [that] you die, whatever happens, maybe you have a choice to go toward the light,” said Bruss. “But maybe you say, ‘I love it here.’ Then the door closes. Now you’re here.”

Bruss and Hagen caution people not to believe everything they see on television, a medium they say has done much to help but has also hurt their work with the paranormal. Chances are, Bruss says, whatever you are experiencing is probably not a demon. Maybe there is just a grumpy old man, living in your basement who wants to be left alone. So don’t panic.

“Everybody wants to talk about the stuff that’s spooky and scary,” said Bruss. “They don’t want to talk about maybe Grandma’s still here, and she’s awesome.”

So, what do you do if you think you’ve got a ghost? Hagen and Bruss recommend keeping a journal of any activity that might indicate patterns, including specific locations, times, type of activity, and who experienced the event. Then, if you feel like there is truly something going on, they suggest you give BCP a call and they will do a walk-through of the premises. If they determine there is something they can investigate, they will come back in, cameras and equipment at the ready to capture evidence.

And finally, what do you do if you are a ghost, and you’re reading this article? Just go toward the light. Even if it isn’t heaven, it’s got to be better than hanging out in a dingy, old basement scaring the bejeezus out of people for the rest of eternity.

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.