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Ghost Tourism: The Thrill of Fear (without any of the danger)
If the names Lizzie Borden or Count Dracula give your spine a few pleasant tingles, you may be part of the growing trend known as ghost tourism.
Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, these are designed to be adventures, not spiritual experiences, and should be taken as such. A pinch of fun, a dash of excitement and an intriguing experience - that's what you'll get from consorting with the likes of Lizzie or the Count.
Others may be less famous, but their homes, towns or resting places are magnets for thousands of visitors.
- A fan of the vampire author Anne Rice? New Orleans awaits.
- 17th century witchcraft trials? Salem, Massachusetts, of course.
- Some streets of London are said to still be haunted by Jack the Ripper.
- The Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast? This is where she axe-murdered her parents and you can sleep in the room where it happened.
Ghost Tourism Definition
Ghost tourism, according to Molly Swenson, includes any form of travel or leisure that involves encounters with or learning about ghosts or hauntings. Three main elements of this form of tourism include hotels that seek guests on the claim of being haunted, companies that offer ghost hunts, and ghost walks.
Another definition simply has it as a tour of places believed to be haunted.
Also called ghost travel, paranormal tourism or even haunted tourism, this type of travel takes you to places that are in some way thought to be... haunted.
History of ghost tourism
As is often the case in the world of travel and tourism, the British have been leading the way.
Scotland has a rich haunted and ghostly history and travelers have been traipsing northward for several centuries in search of ghosts and the paranormal. Over the years this type of ghost visit has skyrocketed in popularity until today, few cities who welcome tourists would be caught without some sort of guide to their most haunted places.
Of course those of us who take part in these supernatural tour don't really expect to see a ghost spirit of any kind but... you never know...
Whatever you believe - or don't believe - some places look as though they should be inhabited by spirits and provide a paranormal experience... Wouldn't you feel spooked going into this 'ghost house'?
Sightings or not, there is a certain attraction to visiting sites that chill.
It could be simple curiosity, to see a place so many people are talking about (or whispering about). It could be a love of history, because many of these sites have a historical significance, going back centuries. Or perhaps it's thrill-seeking, that desire to be jolted out of everyday banality into another world that is not known or understood.
Some of us simply love to be scared.
Yet others believe the popularity of ghost travel may be due to interest in matters spiritual.
No one quite knows why - although the increasing number of horror movies and ghost literature might be partly to blame - all the way back to such antiques as Ghostbusters, the Amityville Horror or The Exorcist.
Ghost tourism vs ghost hunting
You may hear the two terms being used interchangeably but they're not quite the same.
Ghost hunting is more interactive than ghost tourism. Rather than simply visiting the most haunted places in a destination, you actually look for ghosts. You could even equip yourself with a ghost-hunting kit – yes, there is such a thing – which is supposed to increase your chances of communicating with or "meeting" a ghost.
And while supernatural attractions like the ones I describe further down are becoming more popular, they have little to do with the investigative side of ghosts and hauntings and are a far more serious incursion into the paranormal. (You can read more about ghost hunting here.) Some specialists even lead courses, filled with history and know-how about ghost hunting and with such arcane sciences as dowsing or electronic voice phenomenon (or EVP). That said, much of this remains at the stage of conjecture...
Oh, and in case a few hours of ghost hunting doesn't cut it, you can always try the ever more popular overnight ghost hunts. (Not for me, thank you.)
Best ghost city tours and haunted tours
I became hooked on haunted places when I took my first ever ghost tour in Dublin, Ireland. It was spooky, it was different, and it made me wonder whether... you know...
We rode the bus for a few hours with a genial host who might have made me believe (a teeny bit) in what he was saying.
Much as I enjoyed this and other ghost bus tours, what I really enjoy is a good spooky ghost walking tour. (Read about it here.)
The best ghost walking tours
This is something I often do in a city. I love the usual attractions, the museums and artwork and funky neighborhoods, but I'm also curious about a city's past and, inevitably, any city's history will harbor an element of ghost history.
My Dublin experience triggered a search for haunted attractions and paranormal tours. Here are the ones I've collected and would love to try:
- The Ghosts & Legends of Old Town by McGhee’s Ghost Tours of Prague sounds intriguing, with its “stories of death and betrayal, dark arts and demonic visions.”
- The Market Ghost Tour will lead you around this Seattle Market, which once housed the city’s first mortuary, a cemetery and a brothel.
- The Salem Witch Walk features the Salem witch trials but also a witchcraft-related ceremony (I say "related" because I don't think a walking tour would feature the real thing...)
- Since the city is one of the most haunted in the US, any of these Savannah ghost tours on offer would do me fine.
Scared behind bars: haunted prisons and captive in the asylum
All kinds of places can be haunted, but prisons make a popular choice for ghostly beings. Particularly before the days of more humane treatment of prisoners, many horrible and unexplained deaths happened within their walls. Here are some of the more famous "haunted institutions".
- Alcatraz Island, home of a federal penitentiary where some of America’s worst criminals were imprisoned, has always been rumored as haunted. In fact, the Natives thought the island was cursed before the prison was built in 1934.
- The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (the city of “brotherly love”) was the first to use solitary confinement on prisoners, which often led to insanity. You might hear all kinds of eerie sounds, from cackling to footsteps to whispers if you visit.
- Although perfectly friendly during daylight hours, the Tower of London has a history of torture and executions. You might see the headless body of Anne Boleyn, ordered to die by her husband King Henry VIII.
Next to prisons, hospitals and asylums house many paranormal beings. Whether deaths were natural or the result of gruesome “treatments,” the ghosts that inhabit these abandoned buildings don't seem to want to leave.
- Considered one of the most haunted buildings in the world, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky, which used to treat tuberculosis patients, welcomes daring visitors for tours and even a ghost-hunt.
Centuries-old castles and fortresses
These ancient structures often housed underground dungeons filled with treacherous prisoners or victims of love-stories-gone-wrong. If you're looking for long-lost souls who might still be lurking, these ancient structures are a good bet.
- According to legend, a black magic sorcerer cursed the Bhangarh Fort in Bhangarh, India after the woman he fell in love with rejected his affections.
- The Castle of Good Hope in South Africa might sound cheery, but it’s been home to all kinds of paranormal activity including the ghost of a black dog and a bell that chimes at will. (It's part of the yellow route of this tour).
- The most haunted castle in Europe, Dragsholm Slot in Denmark still welcomes guests to enjoy a luxurious stay despite their paranormal visitors. According to legend, Mary Queen of Scots’ husband died chained to a post in the castle basement.
- A man and his wife go to work for the French King Francis I, then living in the, Chateau de Chateaubriant. The wife becomes the king’s mistress and under mysterious circumstances (likely poison) dies. Of course, it is believed that her husband murdered her out of jealousy and that she still roams the castle’s halls today.
But perhaps the most famous haunted castle of all is Bran Castle, in the province of Transylvania in Romania. On a recent visit I tried to capture 'that haunted feeling' and although I enjoyed my visit, there were no ghostly apparitions on offer. Perhaps the sheer number of tourists scared them off.
Bran Castle and the Dracula Myth
There's a myth about Bran Castle and Dracula, the character in Bram Stoker’s novel. The castle is located in Transylvania, on a high rock overlooking a river. It's often thought of as 'Dracula's castle' because it's the only castle that fits the description in the book. But the author never visited Romania and based his own description on that of a book on Transylvania.
The name Dracula leads to confusion. Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) was also known as Vlad Dracul. He was a prince and lived in a nearby castle, now in ruins. He had a tenuous link with Bran Castle, with whose lords he was on unfriendly terms.
In some nearby villages, people still remember the evil spirits (steregoi) who were normal in daytime but left their bodies at night to torment villagers until dawn, when their powers faded.
Before I lay me down to sleep...
You might think haunted hotels would shutter their doors and run for the hills but no, many have decided to capitalize on their 'scary hotel' status and provide you with (some) shut-eye should you choose to spend the night...
- Remember “The Shining”? How could you forget. Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the spot that supposedly inspired that spine-chilling tale, is still operational. And yes you can hear the children’s eerie laughs in the halls. (They have some ghost specials deals too.)
- This one is both a hotel and a former hospital in Arkansas: The Crescent Hotel & Spa (you could even get married here). At one point in its history it was a fake cancer hospital, where an evil Dr. Baker experimented on living and dead patients. He was later jailed for fraud, but his patients still roam the halls.
Haunted places veering to the macabre
The next few are far too macabre for my taste and don't qualify as 'fun', at least not in my book, but they are popular and ghostly so I'll mention them. (Sensitive souls please skip.)
- Australia is relatively new so ancient hauntings aren't the first thing you think of here. Yet the Monte Cristo Homestead in Junee, New South Wales, witnessed many mysterious and terrible deaths, including two as a result of falling off the balcony, and one burning in the yard.
- Few things on earth are creepier than dismembered doll parts, making the Island of Dolls off Mexico City an especially eerie locale. Hundreds of dolls and their parts hang from trees on a island where a girl drowned (or perhaps, was drowned) many years ago.
- Aokigahara, Japan, or “Suicide Forest” lies at the base of Mt. Fuji. There hundreds of people have gone to end their lives (officials link this to a book which names Aokigahara as the place where two adulterous lovers go to commit suicide). Now signs about the forest urge visitors not to take their lives.
- Devil-worship, human sacrifice and orgies all are rumored to have taken place at Montpelier Hill in Dublin, and the Ancient Ram Inn in Gloucestershire, built first in 1145, is thought to be the home of child sacrifices and devil worship. (The current owner of the building says he’s experienced all kinds of visions, voices and apparitions since he took over the inn in 1968, but he has fought efforts to destroy the place.)
Top 10 famous ghost towns and deserted towns around the world
A hugely popular form of ghost tourism is visiting abandoned towns. Not only are large groups of empty buildings eerie, but people have often reported feeling the presence of long-gone souls, many years after their death. Narrowing this list to ten doesn't do the many sites I've left out justice.
- Visit the Turkish city of Kayakoy, whose Greek and Turkish residents left after World War I and the population exchange that followed.
- The Spanish Civil War was in the 1930s but the town of Belchite, in the province of Zaragoza, was destroyed and left standing as a monument to war.
- Not too far from where I live in France is Ourador-sur-Glane, whose 642 inhabitants were massacred by the Germans in 1944 and which lies abandoned.
- The town of Kolmanskop in Namibia was once a diamond-mining center but once the glittering stones ran out, the population followed the next strike, abandoning everything behind.
- Like many ghost towns, St Elmo, Colorado is a former mining town, abandoned when the mines stopped yielding.
- Then there's Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet coal mining town on a Norwegian island, abandoned when the Soviet Union broke apart and government subsidies disapepared.
- A disaster of another kind, a nuclear power plant breakdown, shut down the city of Pripyat in Ukraine, site of the Chernobyl power plant disaster. (If you're in Kiev, you can visit Pripyat on a day tour.)
- At a completely different level if you've ever visited Pompeii in Italy you'll understand that feeling of being surrounded by people who disappeared nearly 20 centuries ago, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. (Here are examples of tours you can take from either Rome or Naples.)
Pripyat: near Ground Zero for Chernobyl
You may not see an orb or an aura when you take a tour and you might not sense the departed souls of abandoned cities, but I doubt you'll leave these sites utterly untouched.
These unusual experiences make for fascinating travel.
After all, even a scientist like Thomas Edison thought there might be life after death and that you could communicate with the spirits.
Have you ever visited a haunted place? Give us a shiver and tell us about it in the comments below!
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