www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002
Erik R. Seeman, associate professor of history at SUNY-Buffalo, is writing a book entitled Final Frontiers: Cross-Cultural Encounters with Death in Colonial North America.
"Compared with most heritage tourism, ghost tours—by turns campy and didactic—offer visitors unblinking and, no doubt, at times unwelcome views of the skeletons in the closet of early American history: slave coffles, Indian massacres, debtor's prisons, and the sundry other sad and sorry fates of people you might expect would want to haunt America's cities."
If you dare take the Ghost Talk, Ghost Walk in Savannah, Georgia, and are willing to fork out ten dollars for an evening's entertainment, guide Chris Connelly will try to horrify you. Pointing to the placid Savannah River, he will paint a scene of frightened slaves disembarking their stinking ships, trudging in chains toward a tunnel, leading to a holding area where they will suffer the indignity of intimate examinations before being auctioned to labor-hungry Georgia planters. Connelly, an earnest young man with a soft Georgia accent, will tell you that even today people who stand on this spot hear the ca-tink, ca-tink of clanking chains and the moans of miserable slaves carried on the wind.
Few historians will be surprised to learn that slavery caused untold suffering in Savannah. After all, this was the town about which the African-born slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano said, with considerable understatement, "I had not much reason to like the place." Equiano had traveled the world from Africa to the Caribbean, from Turkey to Greenland, and perhaps in no place was he subjected to greater cruelty than Savannah. There he was beaten within an inch of his life in 1765, threatened with flogging in 1766, and, even as a free man in 1767, spent a night in a Savannah jail for no real cause.
What is surprising is that Connelly tells his horrible ghost story at all. Mainstream heritage tourism in Savannah shies away from slavery the way a Southern matron avoids the subject of money in polite conversation. Brochures and tourist offices would rather focus on Spanish moss hanging lazily from live oaks and the lovable oddballs of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. If they venture into the world of early American history at all, Savannah's mainstream tour guides are most likely to wax eloquent about the heartwarming friendship between Georgia founder James Oglethorpe and Creek leader Tomochichi.
This is the strange position of ghost tours in the U.S. and Canada today. Compared with most heritage tourism, ghost tours—by turns campy and didactic—offer visitors unblinking and, no doubt, at times unwelcome views of the skeletons in the closet of early American history: slave coffles, Indian massacres, debtors' prisons, and the sundry other sad and sorry fates of people you might expect would want to haunt America's cities.
Ghost tours are a relatively recent phenomenon in North America. Such tours have been around in England for as long as anyone involved in the trade can remember, but the first on this side of the Atlantic was Richard T. Crowe's Chicago Supernatural Tours, which started in the mid-1970s. Crowe was well ahead of his time: the real boom in ghost tours began only a few years ago.
Today, it seems, every city with a vigorous tourist trade has ghost tours year-round (or nearly so). Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia. Sure, all those make sense. But Orlando? Is there a less spooky city in America? Yet there in the town that Mickey built, a "professional, costumed guide" leads weekly, year-round tours. If you're lucky the guide will tell you about the time spooks took over the controls at Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion and replaced the usual soundtrack of screams and moans with something even more horrifying: a never-ending loop of "It's a Small World After All."
And once October rolls around every even vaguely historic hamlet looks to cash in on the craze. In my own little corner of western New York, Halloween means hunting spooks in the sleepy Erie Canal town of Lockport, listening to ghost stories in Forest Lawn Cemetery, or summoning the courage to visit "Fortress Possessed" (or Old Fort Niagara as it's known the rest of the year) to hear guides work through their psychological issues related to years of dealing with poltergeists within the fort's dark stone confines.
Perhaps because of the remarkable growth of ghost tours in a short period of time, they follow a fairly standard format. You go to a designated location in the city of your choice: a haunted hotel, perhaps, or a landmark on the site of a grisly murder. Evening tours are most common but daytime tours are not unheard of. You pay your fee, in cash, usually ten to twenty dollars—kids under five free! The guide then tells you ghost stories while taking you on a short stroll. And I mean short in distance, not time: either in deference to Americans' appalling lack of fitness, or because garrulous guides prefer talking to walking, ghost tours rarely cover much ground, even though they last two or even three hours.
Let me be frank: even for me, who confesses to a nearly bottomless fascination for history, ghost tours can be tedious. Guides vary widely in their historical knowledge and storytelling ability. And, because the tours follow geography rather than chronology, they offer a jumble of anecdotes covering several centuries with no particular connecting thread, except that the tales all relate to a single, small city neighborhood.
But, other than restless toddlers strapped into strollers, skeptical and disappointed paying customers seem to be in the minority on most tours. On ghost tours I've taken in the last few months, I've paraded through spooky streets with mostly contented customers. In San Francisco, a local mother and her ten-year-old son, celebrating the boy's birthday, traded stories with the guide about ghosts they'd seen. In Toronto, a hulking Filipino-Canadian man named Raff insisted quite earnestly that he felt the presence of a spirit as we trudged through the cold rain past a haunted house in Chinatown. For those open to the possibilities of the paranormal, ghost tours offer a pleasant blend of haunts and history, not to mention a sense of community, as they can meet others similarly inclined to ascribe unusual feelings or events to the activity of ghosts.
If you ask guides why they think there has been such a proliferation of ghost tours, they sound more like sociologists than ghost hunters. Some point to the flowering of New Age beliefs in angels and spirit communication (what religious studies folks call a turn toward "spirituality" rather than "institutional religion"). Others mention the broader growth of heritage tourism, of which ghost tours are a relatively small part. In a postindustrial world, cities manufacture not transmissions and tires but images of their historic past.
Another reason there are so many ghost tours is that it requires very little capital to start a tour outfit. Jim McCabe, founder and chief storyteller of New England Ghost Tours, looks like a banker because he was one, until the Bank of New England went belly-up in the recession of the early 1990s. Rooting around for something more fulfilling than credits and debits, McCabe thought historical tours were a perfect match for his love of history and his Gaelic flair for spinning tales. Other tour outfits were similarly put together on a shoestring and have since grown into thriving operations. But many guides still aren't about to give up their day jobs in museums and retail sales.
Students and salesmen: ghost tour guides are a more ordinary lot than you might have imagined. Indeed, most go to great lengths to distance themselves from the psychics of late-night TV that many tourists seem to expect. Chris Connelly of Savannah has the demeanor of a librarian (and a degree in architectural history to go with it). My tour guide in Washington, D.C., Elaine Flynn, has as much of the air of the paranormal as a suburban soccer mom. And the founder of Toronto's A Taste of the World, Shirley Lum, wears dark-rimmed glasses and carries a three-ring binder and looks uncannily like a graduate student.
Copyright © 2002 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved