Some say the best way to get to know a city is to take a ghost tour. Most of those people are ghosts. The following is a review of ghost tours I have participated in, with analysis of the haunting level of each. Next week, The Toast will feature a piece by a ghost tour conductor!
Lantern Ghost Tour of Boston, 2003
Tour details: This is an evening activity for a Literary Pilgrimage I have elected to go on during my junior year of high school. The stops on the Pilgrimage range from highly literary (Louisa May Alcott’s childhood home) to confusingly not-literary (performance by the Blue Man Group). The Ghost Tour falls at the absolute zero between these two poles. Each participant holds a large lantern which I am happy to report had a real candle, none of that flickering faux-votive stuff. I quite cannily manage to land in a group with my best friend and a few other people who I trust to take something like this seriously. At one point everyone stops to take a picture with an aggrieved-looking Native American statue. As a group, we spend a fair amount of time discussing what the creepiest type of ghost is, with the males of the group claiming angry suicide victim (The Sixth Sense had come out two years prior) and girls deciding that old-woman-ghost just barely supercedes child ghost. Given the location and the stories the guide tells, we remain on the lookout for witches and/or ghosts of witches as well. Strangely, one of the highlights of the tour is seeing Plymouth Rock itself, sitting at the bottom of a dungeon-like structure intended to keep people from wearing off its carved 1620 with grimy fingertips.
Haunted Level: High. Several days prior we spent an afternoon at the Salem Witch Museum. They drove home the point that teenage girls have been highly suggestible creatures from time immemorial. As we peer around shadowy lamplit corridors and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I refuse to believe that it has anything to do with my status as a 16-year-old girl. At some points I think I hear whistling that comes from the ether, but when you go anywhere with a group of teenagers there will always be someone making unnecessary noises to distract themselves from the history they’re being forced to take in. The most surprising part of the tour for me is that the guide manages to make me care more about what actually happened and less about the legends associated, which was probably their goal all along.
Ghost Tour of Fort Erie, Canada, 2010
Tour details: My boyfriend and I decided to celebrate our three year anniversary by driving from New Jersey to Niagara Falls (the good side, in Canada). One can only gaze admiringly in the direction of the falls for so long, so in the interest of branching out from the usual attractions, I lobby for an outing to Fort Erie Ghost Encounters. I’m happy to be faced with very little protest from my boyfriend, whose main concern is actually locating the fort, as my GPS refuses to function in Canada. Mid-way through our harried drive, he asks if Fort Erie was named after the lake, and if so, that’s really out of the way. I said no. 45 minutes later we arrived at the Fort, on the banks of Lake Erie. Apropos of the setting, I receive a death glare.
Haunted level: low at actual tour, though we didn’t stay long because of swiftly-escalating crankiness levels. We were turned off by the weirdness of the tour guides who were sword fighting with canes while waiting for the next tour to start. I temporarily thought a ghost had followed us back to our hotel, but actually the entire structure had lost power and so the door to our room was perilously unlocked because of science, not paranormal activity.
Ghost Tour of Princeton, New Jersey, 2010
Tour details: This was a bar crawl/ghost tour hybrid for one of my best friend’s birthdays. Our guide was a real professional–he had ghost measuring equipment as well as decorative stop signs he used to direct his charges. For one of the first times in my life I am dressed appropriately, so I can concentrate on ghosts while other girls who have dressed less for haunting and more partying shiver. The tour begins inauspiciously at a Starbucks where we witness some paranormal detection devices. We spend time in a cemetery with Grover Cleveland’s remains. Shannon the tour guide gets to wax rhapsodically about death masks. The birthday girl gleefully joins a pack of Princeton University students at one point, abandoning the tour to sprint across a quad lined by dorms.The night ends when Shannon calls a local bar to tell them we’re coming for mozzarella sticks and nachos. He pulls the phone away at the wrong moment to reveal the he is actually speaking to no one.
Haunting level: Medium. A cold October night in Princeton gets points in terms of atmosphere and a sizable portion was spent in an actual graveyard. Any time spent discussing the Menendez Brothers by moonlight is bound to give you a mild case of the creeps. The tour guide is too bizarre to really deliver the scare, but I appreciate his high-tech, flashlight-related technology for spiritual detection. While I never felt Grover Cleveland’s presence, I did get to learn about why Hawaiian people love him so much.
Ghost Tour of Old City Prague, Czech Republic, 2013
Tour details: Despite the Fort Erie Ghost Tour Debacle, my relationship continues and I marry my husband several years later. On our honeymoon I discover that there are Ghost Tours available in Prague. We sign up, arriving at a shabby storefront on a November evening. Our guide is a petite Czech woman with a great accent and velvet top hat. She is not prepared to wrangle a small hostel’s worth of stoned Dutch teenagers, who, along with an American guy who enjoys reminding people he is a doctor, are the tour’s customer base for the night. Stops along the way include a rumored alchemist’s den (creepy), a convent (creepier), and an abandoned hospital (creepiest). The streets we wander are near-deserted at some points and there are portions of the tour where we are encouraged to peek through the windows of an old building, which is something that happens just as music swells and ghosts appear in a movie.
Haunting level: Medium. Prague gets a lot of good ghost story action partially due to age. If a nunnery with a gated courtyard has existed for 400 years you can almost guarantee that there are some truly miserable lady ghosts milling around those parts. Still, I don’t feel much spectral presence. At one point I consider adding to the ghost population by defenestrating two teenagers in our group who apparently find the combination of cannabis and cobblestones arousing. They manage to detangle themselves in time to hear the tour guide ask us all to fill out a TripAdvisor review, which would be a funny thing for a poltergeist to do, when you think about it.