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.
- The Grey Friars Kirk of Edinburgh, site of a bloody battle and home of what has come to be known as the McKenzie poltergeist.
Ghost Tourism Definition
Ghost tourism, according to a presentation by Molly Swenson, includes any form of travel or leisure that involves encounters with or learning about ghosts or hauntings. There are three main elements of this form of tourism: hotels that seek guests on the claim of being haunted, companies that offer ghost hunts and ghost walks.
Another definition simply sees it as a tour of places believed to be haunted − ghost sightings, haunted rooms or any other type of ghost adventures.
Also called ghost travel, paranormal tourism or even haunted tourism, this type of trip takes you to places that are in some way thought to be... haunted.
History of ghost 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 to visit.
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 that goes 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, dating back to the early days of 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...
Dublin is haunted. It has to be.
If it weren’t, why would so many people tell its haunted stories, guide you through abandoned buildings and neighborhoods, and dutifully study its somewhat frightening legends?
In the land of mythical leprechauns and faeries, I meandered into shadowy caves, eerie graveyards, and came across things that go bump in the night.
Take Hendrick Street, which has a reputation as Dublin’s most haunted street.
Number 7 was once an expensive home that became run down. Into it moved a family whose members were warned not to go downstairs at nighttime. An old lady who had died in the house was believed to still guard the front door; the sound of her bare feet running up and down the stairs was audible from midnight until five every morning.
One night, the family’s patriarch staggered home drunk. As he struggled to fit his key into the lock, he heard a rush of footsteps down the wooden stairs. The door opened, and he felt a swoosh of displaced air behind him as someone – not visible – ran past. He learned his lesson and was never out of bed again once the clock struck twelve.
At number 8 lived a disharmonious old couple who hated one another. Each waited for the other to die. He finally did. She was happy to be rid of him but would soon discover he would plague her with his presence for many years. She put up with his haunting for as long as she could but eventually sought a priest to perform an exorcism.
Perhaps even eerier is the Edmundsen Electrical Company across the street.
The building has been abandoned since the 1960s, a modern rectangle of glazed windows and fluttering blinds. A little girl has regularly appeared to visitors here, fueling the belief this was once an orphanage. The plant was also the site of many suicides. Faces can often be seen in windows.
And I know I saw a light shining in one.
Dublin is dotted with crypts, graveyards and haunted places. You could start your search for the supernatural with these:
- Kilmainham Gaol, whose story revolves around a card game and the fact that it housed the leaders of many Irish uprisings
- Dublin Castle, whose invaders were beheaded and their decapitated bodies buried below
- Trinity College, where a medical academic experimented on corpses ‘borrowed’ from nearby graves
- St Michan’s Church, whose smooth stone steps lead to a musty crypt filled with mummified corpses
- The Brazen Head, an ancient pub once frequented by rebel leader Robert Emmet, whose ghost is said to still haunt the place
- Glasnevin Cemetery, haunted by a Newfoundland dog unwilling to leave its master’s side
- A former bank building along the Liffey River with two ghosts
- The house of Bram Stoker (the one and only author of Dracula)
To some visitors, Dublin’s haunted side is a lark, something to investigate with tongue in cheek, with the utter confidence of disbelief.
To others, it’s a serious matter and the subject of much historical – and paranormal – exploration.
Here are several spooky Dublin tours you might enjoy:
The best ghost walking tours
I love the usual attractions, the museums and artwork and funky neighborhoods of a new city I'm visiting, but I'm also curious about the 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 just a few of the ones I've collected and would love to try whenever I get to these cities:
- 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 take 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 society began treating prisoners more humanely, many horrible and unexplained deaths happened within prison 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, Native Americans thought the island was cursed well 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 floating by, ordered to die by her husband King Henry VIII.
Next to prisons, hospitals and asylums house many paranormal phenomena. Whether their 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, you might find them here.
- 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 appeared 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 their owners 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. It is still operational and yes, you can hear the children’s eerie laughs in the halls of the haunted hotel. (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 this section.)
- Australia is relatively new so ancient hauntings aren't as common 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 theIsland 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. Hundreds of people have gone there 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 around 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 now 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, a former Soviet coal mining town on a Norwegian island, vacated 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.)
Abandoned kindergarten in 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. Perhaps he knew something we did not.
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