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Ghost tours: Is your group hunting a haunting?

Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary

Call it paranormal activity, an artifact of the human imagination, the power of suggestion or whatever else you like — ghost stories are just plain fun.

Tales of hauntings are almost as old as time itself, and it doesn’t take much looking to find a good ghost story in just about any town or city you visit. In many popular tourist destinations, lantern-lit ghost tours have become a staple of the visitor experience. But there are also great ghost stories to be found in more unusual venues across the country.

Consider the ghouls that are said to haunt Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary or the Victorian mansions of Old Louisville. Historic hotels, such as the Stanley in Estes Park, Colo., and the Crescent in Eureka Springs, Ark., also have their share of ghost stories.

All of these sites are attractions in their own right; when the sun sets, however, their considerable history gives rise to tales that will thrill your tour group members, true believers or not.

Eastern State Penitentiary
From 1829 to 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary held some 80,000 Pennsylvania prisoners. The site is now a national historic landmark, giving Philadelphia visitors a look inside the life and experiences of an inmate. At night, the eerie setting attracts throngs of ghost hunters.

“There are times when you’re here working at night that you’ll hear something or see something,” said Brett Bertolino, the site’s operations manager. “It’s a massive building in the middle of the city — an 11-acre abandoned prison. You’re in the middle of the city, but it’s really quiet and kind of eerie.”

There are several options for groups to explore the building at night. An after-dark VIP Tour gives visitors a flashlight-guided walk through the facility, without too much emphasis on ghost stories. Groups can also book paranormal investigation tours, during which ghost hunters can bring their own equipment and check out some of the prison’s spookiest places.

“There are areas where people have a consensus that there is more paranormal activity,” Bertolino said. “Every group that comes wants to go to Cellblock 12. Groups tell us that they see a shadowy figure at the end of the cellblock, usually on the second floor.”

Three or four times a year, the penitentiary hosts paranormal events, which are put on with professional ghost-hunting teams that offer numerous tours, classes and workshops for the public. Previous events have featured the cast of the “Ghost Hunters” television show.

The combination of history and haunting has made nighttime tours a popular aspect of the site’s offerings.

“Eastern State is this abandoned building, but pretty much on any Friday or Saturday night, there’s something happening here,” Bertolino said. “Our paranormal bookings sell out every weekend of the year as soon as it gets warm.”

The Crescent Hotel
Eureka Springs, Ark.
Since it was built in 1886, the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Ark., has had a number of different lives. It began as a high-end resort for wealthy patrons, who would stay for six months at a time; later it became a girls’ conservatory, and then it was converted into an ill-run “cancer curing hospital” in the 1930s. Since 1997, the property has operated as a hotel once more, but its diverse history has left it with numerous ghost stories.

“A lot of guests checked in, but not all of them left,” said Bill Ott, director of marketing and communications at the hotel. “Our ghosts come from different eras of the hotel. To be a ghost, you don’t have to have died somewhere; it just has to be someplace where you had unfinished business.”

Paranormal experts, including television’s “Ghost Hunters,” have visited the hotel and found numerous apparitions. Some theorize that the limestone used to build the hotel acts as a sort of magnetic tape, recording images that can later be seen as holograms.

The hotel’s owners have begun to capitalize on its paranormal track record, dubbing the Crescent “America’s Most Haunted Hotel” and offering ghost tours that take visitors to some of the creepiest parts of the property.

“We take them throughout the hotel and share some of the paranormal sightings and experiences that people have had in the hotel again and again,” Ott said.

“One of them is Theodora, who was a patient in the cancer hospital. She likes to take your luggage and put it in front of the door so when you come back to your room, you can’t get it open.”

The tours end in the basement morgue, where the 1930s cancer doctor did experimental surgeries and collected body parts in a walk-in cooler.

Ghost Tours of Old Louisville
Near the modern riverfront of downtown Louisville, Old Louisville is a 48-block neighborhood of more than 1,400 homes built in the late 1800s. Locals call Old Louisville the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country and know that many of those homes are reputed to be haunted.

David Domine, a local author and historian, has written three books on the ghosts of Old Louisville and personally guides ghost tours through the neighborhood.

“I’ve researched more than 100 hauntings out here,” Domine said. “We’ve got 1,400 old structures, most of them Victorian mansions, so it’s sort of conducive to ghosts. You can’t go more than half a block without encountering a haunting.”

Domine offers lantern walks in Old Louisville on most evenings and can also escort a motorcoach group as a step-on guide. During the tour, visitors enter several of the private homes in the area that are said to be haunted. For bus groups, an actor will also come onboard and portray a ghost, telling the story of his haunting in the area.

“That’s one of our most popular stories, the ghost of Alfred Victor du Pont,” Domine said. “He was killed by a mistress, and the du Pont family covered it up. Ever since, his ghost has wandered the neighborhood looking for justice.”

Tours visit the First Church of Christ Scientist, where the ghost of a young lady is said to wait on the stairs for the fiance that never arrived the 1814 night when they were supposed to marry.
Although Domine isn’t necessarily a firm believer in ghosts, he enjoys researching the area’s ghost stories and using them to help visitors get to know Old Louisville.

“We use the ghost stories as a vehicle to educate people about the neighborhood, the architecture and the colorful characters that make it what it is today,” he said.

The Stanley Hotel
Estes Park, Colo.
Now 101 years old, the Stanley Hotel was built by F.O. Stanley, owner of the Stanley Steamer Co., as a place to entertain friends in the Rocky Mountains. In its time, the hotel has housed numerous notable guests, some of whom reported paranormal experiences during their stays.

“Steven King stayed at the hotel for a night in 1974,” said Callea Sherrill, the Stanley’s resident paranormal investigator. “He had so many experiences wandering our halls that he wrote ‘The Shining’ based on his experience here at the Stanley Hotel.”

King is said to have based the twin ghosts in his novel on two children he saw on the fourth floor of the hotel. Hotel guests today still report hearing the sounds of children playing on that floor, and room 401 is considered the most haunted room in the hotel.

Ghost stories have become a big part of the Stanley’s hotel. Sherrill conducts weekly, five-hour ghost hunts at the property, using high-tech electromagnetic meters and thermal imaging equipment. She also guides daily ghost tours, during which hotel guests and visitors from outside the hotel learn about the Stanleys and other characters said to inhabit the property.

“We have quite a few ‘residents’ here at the hotel,” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Stanley still wander the halls. Mrs. Wilson was a maid, and she still takes care of our guests in 217, which is the Steven King Suite. She likes to unpack your suitcases. If she doesn’t like you, you’ll find your clothes strewn all around the room.”

Pike Place Market Ghost Tours
For more than 100 years, Pike Place Market has been a Seattle landmark, where farmers, fishermen, craftspeople and others gather to sell their goods, produce and wares. The market district is recognized as a national historic landmark, and many locals also believe that the market is haunted.

“The land was part of the story — it used to be a graveyard,” said Mercedes Carrabba, owner of Pike Place Market Ghost Tours. “And families pass on the business here through generations, and that connection to lineage creates some of the hauntings.”

Five years ago, Carrabba and her father began collecting some of the ghost stories from business owners in the area and giving haunted tours of the market. The 75-minute tours begin at dusk so that participants can see both the bustling daytime scene and the quieter, more eerie evening landscape.

During the course of the tour, guests see some supposedly haunted sites, such as the city’s first mortuary, which is now an Irish pub, or former brothels that became the targets of a 19th-century serial killer. But the tour also includes more lighthearted and educational moments as well.

“We approach it from paranormal, scientific, metaphysical and just storytelling points of view,” Carrabba said. “We talk about the old hotels, the architecture and the neon lights.

“We have a lot of art that people don’t even realize is here, like a huge mural from 1914 advertising a spiritualist. There are things here that are weird and wonderful.”