STOUGHTON — Shoppers can find a trove of antique goodies at Elsing’s 2nd Hand Shop, but there is a chance they’ll also hear mysterious noises coming from nowhere or happen upon some old souls.

Before Vicky and Phil Elsing purchased their building at 421 East Main St. in Stoughton in 2004, they had been told by employees of the pizza restaurant that occupied it that weird things went on and they shouldn’t buy it — rumor had it that the building was haunted.

“We didn’t believe any of it,” co-owner Vicky Elsing said.

That disbelief remained until the Elsings modified the building and peculiar things started happening.

“As we remodeled, things would happen and it scared us,” Vicky Elsing said. “I would hear talking and Otis my dog would be sleeping on the floor next to me and he’d start barking and growling — I was in the building alone with him.”

Between the unexplained sounds like pots clattering or dishes breaking and items coming off the shelves, it didn’t take long for the Elsings to believe.

So, they began inviting paranormal investigators into their store to figure out what they were dealing with.

One investigation team early on was able to use the Elsing’s previous boxer Otis in an investigation. They got Otis into the basement after some coercion — he hated the basement— and he reacted strongly to whatever was down there.

Based on several investigations, it’s believed that several entities reside in the building’s basement.

“Otis started running in a circle crying and sniffing like a hound dog — boxers aren’t sniffing and howling dogs,” Vicky Elsing said. “When he got to the last room in the basement (where previous tenants reportedly heard a girl weeping) he looked into the darkness and just started crying.”

Then one night the Elsings left Otis alone in the building with an audio recorder.

He ran up and down the basement stairs, which he never did, as if something was chasing him, Vicky Elsing said.

“He was howling and screeching and I said ‘never again,’” she said. “I don’t know if he was scared of the spirits, but they’ve never done anything like that to me.”

The spirits never did anything to Vicky until she was alone in the store for the first time when Otis became ill and was out for a bone biopsy.

“All this stuff was going through my mind and the tears started coming,” she said. “All of a sudden my hair stood on end and I got cold. Then I felt the ghost (pat my hair) and I turned around and said ‘I know it’s you.’”

Then the sensation stopped. She went back to reading the paper, started crying and felt the phenomena happen all over again.

“I said ‘I know it’s you, I know what you’re doing and thank you’”, Vicky Elsing said. “(The spirit) never did it again after that. It was a really emotional and wonderful feeling.”

Believe it or not

The Elsings are among the estimated 45 percent of Americans — based on a 2013 survey from Huffington Post and YouGov — who believe in ghosts and they aren’t afraid to tell their experiences to the public, particularly now that their building is up for sale.

“We aren’t hiding it, but we aren’t running around yelling ‘it’s haunted’ either,” Vicky Elsing said.

Like roughly 25 percent of Americans surveyed by Huffington Post and YouGov in 2013, it took personal experiences for the Elsings to believe in the paranormal.

There are two basic reasons that people believe in the existence of ghosts, according to Marc Eaton, assistant sociology professor at Ripon College.

“One is the more existential level of people wanting to believe there is something after death,” Eaton said. “...the other surface level reason is that people believe they’ve had an experience that proved it.”

Eaton, who teaches a sociology of the paranormal class and published an academic paper on paranormal investigation as spiritual practice, has spent a lot of time picking the brains of investigators about what drives their interests in the unknown.

One such paranormal investigation team, Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee (PIM), is led by Ripon College alumnus Noah Leigh, a scientist who moonlights as an investigator.

PIM’s very first investigation was at Elsing’s and they returned to the location nearly a dozen times until their final investigation there in 2011.

At least eleven other investigative teams have been at the shop and many of their investigations are summarized in Vicky Elsing’s book “The Grand Hotel Legacy: a story of ghosts and spirits within these walls” which outlines the Elsings’ time at the shop until its publication in 2008 and the history of the building.

As a scientist, Leigh isn’t interested in simply labeling a location “haunted.” He diligently tries to find the cause of “anomalies.” Floating particles are often deduced to be dust or bugs while many random noises are chalked up to passersby or wildlife.

Leigh considers himself “skeptically optimistic” when it comes to the paranormal because “it’s important to be skeptical.”

“However, it’s important to keep an open mind about things,” he said. “Let evidence lead you to the conclusion and don’t let your conclusion close you off to the possibility.”

A possibility being something like an event that occurred during a co-op investigation at Elsing’s.

In an attempt to elicit a response from the spirit of a little girl believed to be in the shop, members of the other team encouraged her to play with a toy horse they brought along.

“We heard a commotion like someone was upstairs and we didn’t see anything out of place until we went into the tool aisle,” Leigh said. “There was a metal horse in the middle of the aisle that was not there when we started the investigation.”

As part of investigation prep, teams take photos of the shop and upon looking at the photo of the tool aisle they spotted the metal horse on a nearby shelf.

The horse was placed way in the back and it was top heavy with two of its feet on the base and the others in the air, Vicky Elsing said.

“When the horse landed it was straight up (on its base) and standing,” Vicky Elsing said. “It would have had to have been picked up and placed there. There’s no way that it could’ve pulled up off the shelf and fallen like that.”

Unfortunately for the team, the video camera they placed faced the next aisle over and didn’t catch the movement of the horse.

Photographs and videos are important evidence to show the curious since revealing paranormal beliefs can sometimes bring judgment.

In the beginning “we didn’t want anyone to know that we encountered things,” Vicky Elsing said.

Now the Elsings have a DVD player at the ready with a video from paranormal investigators of a white figure in one of the store aisles in the the middle of the night, getting too close to the camera and ultimately disrupting the recording.

“I’ve never seen (an apparition),” Phil Elsing said of the video. “I’ve just seen things happening, but not the spirit itself.”

And visitors are more than happy to divulge their paranormal experiences with the couple because they know they’ll be understood.

“You can see it in someone’s eyes if they really believe something,” Mike Huberty of Madison Ghost Walks said. “A lot of ghost stories are very personal things and a lot of times it’s someone that the person has known.”

In the case of the Elsings, they may not have personally known the spirits before purchasing the building, but the spirits may have known them from times when the couple patronized previous establishments in the building.

“We had two mediums say that we were picked for this place,” Phil Elsing said. “The spirits picked us.”

However the working relationship came to be with the building’s otherworldly occupants, the Elsings have relished the unforeseen experience.

“It’s been quite the journey I never expected to take,” Vicky Elsing said. “It’s been a fun journey. We’ve enjoyed every day of it.”

“One is the more existential level of people wanting to believe there is something after death ...the other surface level reason is that people believe they’ve had an experience that proved it.” Marc Eaton, assistant sociology professor at Ripon College
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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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