Almost every major city in the U.S. now offers a ghost tour, especially around Halloween. Some of these tours develop from the popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters or American Horror Story, and the growing market for fantasy and horror fiction written by the likes of Stephen King, Jim Butcher and Sherrilynn Kenyon. But ghost stories have been with us for a long time.
The post-Civil War era in the U.S. saw a huge rise in Spiritualism as a philosophy, as people tried to cope with the losses of war. The combination of heart-wrenching history and popular love for ghostly fiction – all the way back to the Gothic novels of the early 19th century – has helped build a cultural love of the haunted.
Ghost Tours: Not Just for Halloween Anymore
While they once operated for the Halloween season, many ghost tours have become so popular, they operate year round.
“A well-done ghost tour can be a great tool to enhance local history, appealing to the dark and mysterious side of the past,” says Laura Holder of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University. “They are often a great boon to tourism, attracting residents and visitors alike to experience familiar history in a fresh and exciting way. An authentic ghost tour, based on documented experiences and well-researched stories, can infuse historic sites with an added touch of fun and delicious fright. Ghost tours are unique, offering a different window into each city’s sense of place. They draw us back to both those new and well-known places because you never know what you might encounter.”
Must-Do Ghost Tours
Some cities are so famous for their ghosts, half the tourists come just for them. Among those are Salem, Mass., home to the famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and several ghost tours; Gettysburg, Pa., where memories of the horrific battle have burned their way into the American psyche; New Orleans, La., with its history of voudoo on the bayou; and Saint Augustine, Fla., where ghosts of Spanish soldiers and Native Americans supposedly walk through the shadowed nights.
But off the beaten path, here are eight cities that are lesser known for their hauntings, but definitely worth exploration:
1. Albuquerque, N.M.
Albuquerque’s Old Town tours aim to appeal to everyone, with special tours including one on the Breaking Bad RV called Breaking Boo!, a 90-minute themed ghost extravaganza and The Spook Troop for “junior ghost hunters” ages 6 to 12. The regular tours take place nightly, with a late-night 10 p.m. tour held once a month. They promise a Western ethos, as “wild saloons, roaring dance halls, illicit opium dens and private gambling tables” spill their creepy secrets. Regular public history tours are also available.
2. Burlington, Vt.
The Queen City Ghost Walk was named one of Yankee Magazine’s Best of New England Travel in 2014. The regular season runs in summer and fall, and private tours can be arranged. Tour creator Thea Lewis – reputedly the area’s most knowledgeable resident when it comes to Burlington’s hauntings - now has three books out on local ghosts, including Haunted Burlington, and her storytelling skills are in high demand. Tour options include The Wicked Waterfront Tour, Darkness Falls Tour and Graveside Gatherings in local cemeteries.
3. Pueblo, Colo.
Pueblo’s spirited ghost walk not only raises goose bumps each fall, it also raises money for the Pueblo Domestic Violence Community Task Force, Inc. and the YWCA of Pueblo, as it has for 10 years now. The tour presents 10 incidents from Pueblo’s history, including the Battle of Cuerno Verde and the Baxter Bridge Shootout – bringing the Old West hauntingly to life. Get ready for gunslingers and cowboys.
4. & 5. Nashville and Franklin, Tenn.
Nashville Ghost Tours give you year-round amazing history while you travel throughout the city. Options include a walking tour that takes you to the old State Capitol and President James K. Polk’s tomb; the Haunted Tavern Tour, which gives you spirits with your spirits, and a Haunted hearse trip you won’t soon forget. Pick up a copy of tour founders Frankie and Kim Harris’s book Haunted Nashville while you’re at it.
Meanwhile, just a short drive away, Franklin on Foot’s Margie Theissen hosts a charming look at the town that hosted one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Does Confederate spy and famed beauty Sallie Carpenter still haunt the home she died in in 1912? Does a charming 3rd Avenue home still play host to a late favorite resident who watches us from the window? You may find out on one of these tours. Stop in nearby at Red Pony for a drink when you’re done.
6. Abingdon, Va.
Donnamarie Emmert conducts the walking tour of downtown Abingdon, and her storytelling (in which she has a master’s degree) is not to be missed. See the famed Martha Washington Inn and the Barter Theatre – one of the longest-running theaters in the U.S., and as we know, theaters almost always carry tales of hauntings. This tour reminds us that as much as place, the storytelling is what gives us the coveted shivers up the spine. Abingdon’s tour runs year round.
7. Ventura, Calif.
Ventura is a gorgeous walking town, with Spanish Mission and Craftsman architecture everywhere, and also happens to be the home of late mystery writer Earl Stanley Gardner, who created the television series Perry Mason. Each October and November, the city hosts a variety of ghost tours guided by paranormal researcher Richard Senate. Register in advance for each spooky, gorgeous walk, including the City Hall with its stunning California art collection and the special Earl Stanley Gardner tour at www.cityofventura.net.
8. Huntsville, Ala.
Huntsville, Ala. is full of scientific minds, thanks to its space program history, and this highly educated town loves its ghost tours. The Huntsville Ghost Walk runs June through November annually, starting at the old Harrison Brothers Hardware Store downtown (now a gift emporium). Take the Twickenham, Old Town or downtown walking tour, or the August through November trolley tour. It’s a great way to learn Alabama’s history and see some antebellum architecture. Plan a late dinner afterwards at Cotton Row restaurant or The Commerce Kitchen (which may or may not have its own ghost).