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Leila Taylor explores the supernatural histories of American cities.
To haunt is to remain, and these storytellers speak for the forgotten dead that still linger.
At some point, almost everyone has had a brush with the supernatural. Whether it be spending a creeped-out night in a bed and breakfast where the walls themselves seem to have eyes, or catching a fleeting glimpse of what could only be a ghost hanging out in the corner of your bedroom, the eerie sensation of making contact with the great beyond is either something that terrifies you or, in my case, something you’re willing to pay good money for. As a lifelong aficionado of the weird and eerie, I’ve spent years exploring how horror intersects with culture, past and present. So when I visit a new city, I abandon any attempt to blend in with the locals and, for two hours, surrender myself to the sometimes campy, hopefully scary, and always educational experience of the ghost tour. Starting after sundown, usually in the oldest parts of a city (I’ve never heard of a ghost tour in the suburbs), a guide in a top hat or velvet cape leads us from one historically spooky location to another, telling true tales of terror from long ago. Every city has its share of tragedies and calamities from the past, and for me, there is no better way to get to the true spirit of a place than by walking the streets at night, listening to ghost stories.
Most major American cities have some kind of haunted tour, but there may be no place where history is more synonymous with the supernatural than Salem, Massachusetts. Salem Night Tour takes you through the iconic locations of the witch trials: the Pickman House (haunted by the ghost of an 18th-century girl locked in the attic by her father and left to starve to death), the Witch House (where George Corwin, the high sheriff of Essex County tortured and interrogated the accused), and the Old Burying Point Cemetery (burial site of John Hathorne, the judge who presided over the witch trials). Guide Roger Herson seems particularly destined for his job. In 1649, his 11th great-grandmother, Mary Oliver, was exiled to England, where she was burned at the stake for heresy. Mary’s husband Thomas went on to marry Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the witch trials. Though Herson has been giving historical tours of Salem for 13 years, he’s only recently learned of his famous ancestor. “I have been in almost every haunted location in Salem and there is only one that I have never dared go near: Turner’s Seafood [at Lyceum Hall]. It seemed like an irrational fear, but that’s the spot where the Oliver family lived and where Bridget lived before her execution.
Herson is most proud of his new project, The People’s Tour (a nod to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”), which goes beyond the typical witch tour to illuminate the politically and socially progressive history of the town. He saw the need to tell the stories of the marginalized and the forgotten, those who “sacrificed everything for the cause of social progress and justice.” They include people like John Remond, a free Black man in the late 1700s who became a prominent abolitionist and restaurateur, and more recently, Laurie Cabot who founded the Witches’ League for Public Awareness to defend the civil rights of witches. Herson wants visitors to see the best of his hometown “while admitting to our mistakes. We don’t need to hide our history anymore."
To haunt is to remain, and these storytellers speak for the forgotten dead that still linger. The Ghost Lady is a title Jennifer Pictou is particularly fond of. Pictou, of the Mi’kmaq Nation, is the owner of Bar Harbor Ghost Tours in Bar Harbor, Maine, the only Native American–owned ghost tour company in the country. The general public rarely gets the chance to hear the spirit tales she tells outside of festivals or museums, “mostly due to tribal taboos. We are the first tour of its kind to elevate Indigenous voices about spirits into a mainstream activity.”
On the tour, you’re led by a veiled woman dressed in black as she carries a glowing blue lantern through Bar Harbor village. Visitors may expect to hear stories of the Cottage-Era elite, but the four Wabanaki tribes of Maine (Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Houlton Band of Maliseets, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy) were here long before the Astors and the Vanderbilts. At the Old Burial Ground and the haunted Criterion Theatre, visitors hear tales of ghost encounters as well as ancient Wabanaki legends, like the cannibal spirits that hide behind trees and rocks, taunting their victims into the forest where they may or may not return. “Being able to tell our stories means we take back our own narratives,” says Pictou. “I get to correct misinformation and preconceived notions of Indigenous spirits or monsters in pop culture.”
It’s a unique educational opportunity, but I asked her, “Is it scary?” To this, Pictou let out a deliciously evil laugh and said, “We know what scratches on your window at night. We’ve lived with this story for thousands of years.” I’ll admit, I got a little shiver down my spine.
For Pictou, the ghost tour, “gives us an opportunity to claim our cultural landscape.” The same can be said for Patt Gunn in Georgia, owner of Underground Tours of Savannah. She is a master storyteller and slave reenactor of the Gullah-Geechee, descendants of the enslaved along the lower Atlantic coast. They retain much of their African culture, including a distinctly African Creole language spoken by the guides. The Savannah native considers herself a vessel for the ancestors, and her tours are a way of reclaiming their narrative. “We are telling our own stories.” Or as they say, “We Speak Fuh’ WE!”
Ghost stories and horror movies give us ways of confronting the darkest parts of our history, and these visits through our haunted past show us truths some would rather forget. There are numerous ghost and plantation tours in the South, but they often romanticize and sanitize their history. Gunn decided to start her own tour company to illuminate the real history of Savannah and pay tribute to her forebears. On the “Slaves, H’aint & Boo Hags” tour, you’ll hear African-American ghost stories while visiting former slaveholding bins and auction blocks, sites of real horror. The tour also takes you to Calhoun Square, where the bodies of thousands of slaves were buried without coffins on unconsecrated ground. It’s said to be the most haunted place in Savannah, and the stories of those spirits who may linger deserve to be heard, voices that seem to say, if Savannah won’t tell you our history, we will.
‘Is it scary?’ To this, Pictou let out a deliciously evil laugh and said, ‘We know what scratches on your window at night. We’ve lived with this story for thousands of years.’
Ghost tours can provide an opportunity for cultural understanding and healing, and they can also be fun and thrilling. A safely chaperoned visit into a real-life ghost territory can bring some macabre drama into an otherwise ordinary trip. No mention of supernatural tourism would be complete without a visit to New Orleans and, as it turns out, vampire tour guide Lisa Andresen — aka Rose Sinister — and I have similar origin stories. After both reading “Interview with the Vampire” as children, our lives were changed forever. I became obsessed with its queer gothic melodrama and the glamorous angst-ridden monsters who stalked the streets of Anne Rice’s hometown. For Andresen, it became a way of life. Hers is the kind of passionate personality that one commonly encounters in ghost tour guides. “I really am the gothy witchy vampire-obsessed weirdo character I come across as on my tours. I got drunk once and convinced myself I saw a rougarou, a Louisiana werewolf, on the levee. Turns out it was an escaped backyard alpaca.”
During Rose Sinister’s vampire tour via Haunted History Tours, you’ll walk through the dark streets of the French Quarter following in the footsteps of New Orleans’ famous vampires “real and fictional.” She tells the story of the slaves murdered by Delphine LaLaurie in her infamous mansion on Royal Street, and how local vampire mythology has its origins with the Casket Girls at the Old Ursuline Convent. In 1728, as the story goes, young women from France were sent to New Orleans as prospective wives for the colonists. They brought nothing with them but what they could carry in a cassette (a small trunk). They lived on the third floor of the convent, the windows of which had been sealed shut with nails supposedly blessed by the pope. Cassette morphed into casquette, which became casket, leading to rumors that the girls had more sinister motives than marriage.
Andresen describes her twist on the typical historical tour like this, “Imagine a flashlight, illuminating objects in a darkened room. I put a colored gel over that light, and suddenly everything is bathed in a blood-red glow. I lower the angle of the light, getting down into the dirt of things, so that shadows become ominous and distorted.” She provides the luxury of fear without danger, a taste of the uncanny on an otherwise mundane walk. On one tour, a five-year-old boy, afraid but determined to be there, carried a single clove of garlic in a sandwich bag, confident that he would protect them all. Just in case.
It is a delicate balance, that line between education and entertainment. As a New York City history buff and fan of the macabre, I’ve been on several Boroughs of the Dead tours (I recommend “The Forgotten Dark Histories of Lower Manhattan”). Tour owner Andrea Janes says, “You want to educate without being pedantic, and you want to entertain without being exploitative, maudlin, or crass.” The people taking you on these nighttime strolls are passionate about what they do. They want to show you their city the way they see it and tell you the stories they love — and maybe freak you out a little along the way. They are storytellers, historians, entertainers, and voices for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
A good ghost tour is more than just a spooky history lesson. It offers an insider perspective of your surroundings that you may not get elsewhere. You get to know a place by learning its darkest secrets. Ordinary spaces feel different after a tour like this. A balcony window, a vacant theater seat, or the back corner in a bar become ominous voids. You find yourself staring at an empty chair a little too long, hoping you’ll see something you can’t explain, knowing that someone who sat there long, long ago might still be there, watching you.
In the mood for more fright? Leila Taylor shares her ideal itinerary for a haunted world tour.
Eastern State Penitentiary Ghost Tour
Walking through the ruins of one of the most famous prisons in the country is an eerie trip back in time, and will also make you keenly aware of the issues with the current U.S. correctional system.
Lizzie Borden’s House
Lizzie Borden’s house is now a bed & breakfast. After the tour they offer, I attended a seance in the living room where Lizzie (allegedly) gave her father 40 whacks; I can’t say for certain there was a ghost, but I for sure felt something I couldn’t explain.
The Stanley Hotel
“The Shining” is probably my favorite horror movie and this is the hotel that inspired The Overlook. If I wanted a place to procrastinate on writing my novel, it would be here.
The Gates of Hell
On almost every continent there are caves, tunnels, and holes in the ground that are said to be the doorway to Hell; visiting these ominous voids would be a great way to see the world and freak myself out.
Leila Taylor is a writer and designer whose work is focused on the gothic in Black culture and horror. She is the author of "Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul." Her work has been published in “The New Urban Gothic” and “The Repeater Book of the Occult.” She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is creative director for Brooklyn Public Library.
Jennifer Dionisio is a London-based illustrator and artist whose work is influenced by film noir, pulp mystery, and science fiction.
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