Cuba Road sits nestled between the towns of Lake Zurich and Barrington, Illinois in Lake County, northwest of Chicago. The main portion of the road runs between Route 12 (Rand Road) and Route 14 (Northwest Highway) and is home to a veritable cornucopia of legends. The ghost stories that seem to literally pour out of the mouths of visitors led famed author Ursula Bielski to proclaim, “For Chicagoland ghosthunters, Cuba Road is the single most notorious haunted site north of southwest suburban Bachelors Grove Cemetery.”
Along Cuba Road, a few yards west of Route 59, sits the most frequently visited spot along Cuba Road: White Memorial Cemetery. There would, arguably, be no other legends along the road if it wasn’t for the alluring power of this cemetery, which was the first to attract the attention of curiosity seekers and paranormal enthusiasts alike. Dale Kaczmarek called White Cemetery, “the most haunted location on the north side.”
White Cemetery is one of the oldest burial grounds in Lake County. It dates back to 1820, when Barrington’s mighty mansions were nothing more than farmer’s fields or untamed wilderness. Like many other cemeteries in Illinois, this one developed a reputation during the 1960s as a place to get drunk, smoke pot, and “just be.” Not all the activity at the cemetery was harmless fun, however. According to Dale Kaczmarek, in 1968 vandals spray painted swastikas on many of the headstones and knocked down many more.
The vandalism led to the cemetery being locked up at night, but as it can be seen clearly from the road, that hasn’t prevented the curious from trying to catch a glimpse of the mysterious, white balls of light that are said to hover around the burial ground. In More Chicago Haunts, Ursula Bielski claimed that “luminescent figures” have occasionally accompanied these spook lights.
I grew up in the northwest Chicago suburbs. Des Plaines to be exact. Home of the famous Choo Choo Restaurant, the first franchised McDonald’s, and the stomping grounds of John Wayne Gacy. When my friends and I wanted a scare, we usually trekked out to Cuba Road, a lonely avenue north of the Chicago suburbs, about a good half hour drive from my home. My sister, being four years older than I, was the first person I ever heard mention the road. She had just gotten her driver’s license, and like many teens, wanted to take her new found freedom somewhere thrilling. Cuba Road was such a place.
It was dark and remote, filled with mansions set far back from the road, and where one never knew what was lurking around the bend. There were rumors of abandoned insane asylums, phantom cars, haunted cemeteries, and a whole host of things that went bump in the night. For added danger, a few of the more fool hardy visitors turned off their headlights to see how long they could drive along the inky black avenue before common sense, and fear, got the better of them.
Cuba Road sits nestled between the towns of Lake Zurich and Barrington, both upper and upper-middle class retreats. The main portion of the road runs between Route 12 (Rand Road) and Route 14 (Northwest Highway) and is home to a veritable cornucopia of legends. White Cemetery, located along the western half of the road, has its spook lights. The avenue itself hosts a phantom car (or cars), a pair of spectral lovers, and a vanishing house. Rainbow Road, a side street off Cuba, had the distinction of being home to an abandoned mansion that some believed was either and old asylum or a getaway for gangsters. That building has since been torn down and the property is being redeveloped.
The ghost stories that seem to literally pour out of the mouths of visitors led famed author Ursula Bielski to proclaim, “For Chicagoland ghosthunters, Cuba Road is the single most notorious haunted site north of southwest suburban Bachelors Grove Cemetery.” Those familiar with the notoriety of Bachelor’s Grove understand the challenge of filling shoes of that size. Scott Markus, who has done impeccable research on the folklore of the road, dubbed it “the Archer Avenue of the North Side,” because of the variety of stories.
It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Outside the sleepy town of Byron, Illinois, the massive cooling towers of the nearby nuclear power plant were still under construction. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. As her driveway neared, her mind wandered to thoughts of getting inside and cooking a hot breakfast.
Without warning, she noticed a young woman around the same age walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts. Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.
Between mid-December and early January, dozens reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.
Kim Anderson was one of the first to spot the scantily-clad woman, but other reports soon followed. Register Star correspondent Diane Moats diligently collected dozens of eyewitness accounts from what she described as “credible” regular folks, “not the kind you’d think would make up something like this.” Years after the sightings, she told Bill Rowe of Rockford Magazine, “Each of them claimed to have seen the woman walking alongside the road. By the time they stopped to see if she was OK, she had disappeared.” The woman was always described as being inappropriately dressed for the weather, and occasionally barefoot.
While many encounters with “the phantom” seemed down to earth, many more crossed the line from reality to fiction. At least 20 individuals with whom Diane spoke fell back on a familiar folklore motif; that of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. They told the reporter that they each knew someone who picked up the young woman and drove her home, only to find out upon arrival and after speaking with her mother that she had died years earlier. In all instances, the mysterious hitchhiker vanished from his or her car when they arrived at their destination.
While those particular encounters were obviously driven by hearsay and wild speculation, the majority of sightings were simple and straightforward. Many of the passing motorists were genuinely concerned for the young woman and turned their car around to ask her if she needed help, but she was then nowhere to be seen. For all, it was too incredible to believe. What would a living, breathing person be doing walking along the roadside in the dead of winter, and how could she just disappear? “Usually if you meet someone just walking along the road, there’s a car out of commission somewhere, but there was no car on the road whatsoever,” a waitress and eyewitness named Betty Lingel told the Register Star. “I thought it was kind of goofy, just walking down the road like that. It was cold, below zero.”
In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:
A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”
When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”
After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.
The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”
Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”
American Vampires: Their True Bloody History from New York to California by Dr. Bob Curran is an interesting look at the darker side of American folklore, but ultimately falls short as a guide to American vampire lore. Published in 2013 by New Page Books, American Vampires is 254 pages and retails for $15.99. It contains 14 chapters (including the intro and conclusion), and includes stories from Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Wyoming. It is beautifully illustrated by Ian Daniels.
American Vampires takes a multicultural view of American folklore, drawing from American Indian, British, Irish, and African sources to explain the origins of many of our tales. Readers will be treated to a rich tapestry of myths, all of which merge together to form the foundation of our own unique American folklore. This reminds us that certain themes about mortality—and what lurks in the darkness, are universally human. It is a fresh perspective that Dr. Curran, as a native of Ireland, brings to this book.
However, American Vampires suffers from a major thematic problem. Although Dr. Curran argues that vampires are more diverse and complex than often portrayed in popular culture, he stretches the definition of “vampire” to the breaking point and beyond. He describes any supernatural or folk-entity that drains energy or tastes blood as a vampire, and entire chapters go by with only passing reference to a “vampiric” creature.
First published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.
Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.
Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.