GHOSTLY DETROIT: A hometown writer shares her favorite Motown haunts

By Zo Villegas

It was a romantic gesture, and he was a slouching, thin and criminally insane classmate. The gift he handed me that day was a list of the top 40 best horror films from Movie Mania, the local movie rental spot. Its handwriting slanted from left to right, varying in size like it was written by a death-row inmate scrawling out an inventory of vengeances to be exacted.Topping the list were “Faces of Death 1-4”, “Traces of Death” and “Leprechaun in the Hood”. He handed it to me with affection—like a cat who delivers a rat on its sleeping owner’s pillow.

For anyone growing up in Detroit, a healthy love of horror is absolutely essential to the youth experience. Maybe the attraction comes from a desire to battle the terror that living in the most dangerous city instills. You sit back and watch violence at your own will, walking away unscathed as a story that victimizes someone else unfolds; and somehow you feel both powerful and vulnerable. You are able to understand both the victim and the perpetrator. It might be sick, but this is the power that horror has to creep into our psyche. Psychologists say that nightmares are a coping mechanism that allow our subconscious minds to rationalize fear. Perhaps that’s why we like horror: it’s a chance to rationalize the senseless.

With our love for horror films come stories about lonely customers getting their ankles slashed under the car while they were pumping gas, fingers showing up in someone’s Chicken McNuggets and butcher knives hidden in the playpen “right over there on 8 Mile”, “at that one on Livernois, my friend was working there when it happened.”

This is what growing up in Detroit is all about. In the 1990s, it really did seem like it was always gray out and always dirty and dangerous. There was no way to escape a love for the macabre, or else it might eat you up. Into my adult years, I still think of Halloween as my favorite time of the year. Here I’ll dig into the memory of the folklore of the city and the thrill of our city’s ghosts. Though it’s a bit late, the skies are still gloomy and fall isn’t that far-gone. So I would like to pay tribute by making a short list of haunted places, according to urban legends and local interviews.

JOHN KRONK STREET – Nestled deep into Southwest Detroit, this road lies parallel to a set of train tracks. The road is paved but the emptiness and the obsolete feel of the tracks, wild foliage and the hundred-year old homes adjacent give John Kronk all the feel of a dirt road. Local legend has it that at night the ghosts of car crash victims reenact the sounds of their last moments and eerie noises of cars colliding can be heard.

THE COLE HOUSE – If you head down just a couple short blocks on John Kronk and head directly onto Martin Street, there is a notoriously haunted brick-framed home that is well over 150 years old. According to the National Directory of Haunted Places, residents have experienced a foul smell and terrifying visions of a woman who was murdered in the home. Police were called repeatedly to the home after the appearance of a ghost with a bludgeoned face appeared. The directory notes that the current residents do not like to be bothered. So take heed.

TRUMBULL AND ASH INTERSECTION – Residents have seen the spirit of a man who appears in this alley way as they are driving at night. They report hearing the sound of a thump—as though they have hit a pedestrian—and seeing a figure who then disappears. Drivers are left in confusion, as their panic turns to fear.

CASS MUSIC SCHOOL – My twin sister took violin lessons when she was young at this elegant but dilapidated school on Cass. The receptionist, Mrs. Hammond, who was 90 years old at the time, recalled seeing the spirit of Harry Houdini every Halloween like clockwork. Houdini’s last days were indeed spent in Detroit. He died on October, 31 1926. The building was once used for embalming and mortuary science and is said to be the place where his remains were taken before funeral services.  

FISHER BUILDING – The Fisher building has a rich history shrouded in mystery. Home to some of the most ornate Art Deco architecture in the country, it was built in 1928 and was the biggest building in Detroit at the time. Home to plenty of Masonic activity, no doubt, employees in the Fisher Building report seeing apparitions in the basement. Employee lockers open by themselves and security guards have noted locked doors unlocking themselves and sounds of laughing and fighting. The night shift is not for the faint of heart.

SKILLMAN LIBRARY – This was the site of the last public execution by hanging in Detroit. The Skillman Branch was once a jailhouse. Visitors and employees of the Skillman Branch Library have heard sounds of disembodied voices and experience a feeling that they are being watched. The sounds of chains and moaning have been heard coming from the stacks.

FORD WYOMING DRIVE-IN, Dearborn – The Ford-Wyoming is legendary for being one of the only drive-in theatres that operates year round. The theatre opened in 1950 with a 3,000 car capacity and was one of the largest of its kind. To this day, the drive-in is a staple for Detroiters who set up grills or brave feet of snow to see movies on the giant screens. If you do go in the summer, however, you may be one of the many moviegoers who venture into the woods adjacent and experience the feeling of something unknown tugging at their feet and shoelaces. Whatever unseen force exists at the Ford-Wyoming, certainly has a flair for the dramatic.

Good luck to you all as you brave the haunted streets of Detroit!

Zoë Bones Villegas is a Detroit writer.