Halloween is a time for ghost tours – but these days ghost tours are popular year round. The ghost niche is hot and guided tours that take guests through areas known for paranormal activity and unexplained “events” have never been more popular.
As a ghost tour guide and as someone who has been on scores of ghost tours from New England to Savannah, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, New Orleans and California, I can tell a good tour from a bad tour, and 90% of the quality depends on the guide. A good ghost tour guide will tell you the history of the place, will know the details of the haunted tale (what happened there), and will be able to tell you what people say today- what kind of paranormal events or experiences occur or have occurred in that place. Those three things are the heart of a good ghost tour.
The dramatics of a ghost tour guide being dressed in costume or driving guests in a hearse offer only surface thrills. If you’re deciding which ghost tour to take, or reviewing a ghost tour for TripAdvisor, or offering a ghost tour in your area….. keep these seven elements of a good ghost tour in mind.
1. Enthusiastic, Knowledgeable Guide Who Can Speak Publicly
You’d think this would go without saying, but I’ve been on tours where the guides may be college students or young people – not that young people can’t do tours – but often they are hired cheap by companies that don’t really care. A guide should be trained well on how to speak so guests can hear, trained on the history of the tour region, and trained on the ghost stories which should be well researched. To me, the guide has more influence on the ghost tour experience than any other element.
2. Ghost Tour Should Include the History of the Tour Region
The history of the haunted area is the back story, the setting. It’s crucial for getting the full effect. We can know that women were executed for being witches in Salem – which is reason enough to haunt a place. But discovering more about the the Puritan culture, the methods for carrying out justice (torture, religious implications) in 1692, the way prisons were kept then, the subsistence lifestyle of families during that era that led people like Cotton Mather to misuse power and neighbors to use slander as a weapon for gain – these historical details shape the entire experience. They put the “ghost” in a rich setting.
3. The Guide Should Know the Details of the Haunted Tale
Knowing specifics of the actual tale is also crucial. I’ve seen guides focus solely on today’s paranormal activity or apparitions, and couple that with dramatic gestures meant to scare. It just leaves people asking more. They want to know the details. Who were these ghosts when they were alive? What exactly happened to them? Where was the injustice or the pain that may cause spirits to linger?
In the context of Salem, MA – The guide should know that there were 24 executed in Salem, that the executed were hanged not burned, that hundreds were accused, they many were tortured during interrogation and one (an old man) died from that torture by being pressed to death with a boulder, and that the entire ordeal took only eighteen months. The guide should expose as much as possible about who the likely ghosts were, and any personal details – what might have looked like, how they may have dressed, what kind of characters they were in their communities – or any likely reason for coming back to haunt the place.
4. The Guide Should Recount the Details of Today’s Paranormal Activity
What are people saying today about the haunted place? Who saw what apparitions? Where is the terror (in any) of this world encountering the world of the dead? What has shown up in photographs and electromagnetic readers? Where are the spots that got the most photographic captures BIG BONUS – When the guide has a photo on hand to show and / or the guide honestly recounts a personal experience…. honesty being the key… it makes the ghost tour experience so much richer.
5. Guide Should be Sensitive to the Needs and Safety of the Guests
The guide should be careful about those with disabilities who may not hear well or be able to walk long distances or stand for long. The guide should quickly assess the needs of the group, and keep the hard of hearing near the front, warn guests about steep stairs, allow for a sit down periodically on a walking tour, and escort guests when crossing streets. This cuts down on the pushing and shoving by guests who want to be in front and others who get lost because they are left behind. Managing a group – especially while walking takes skill.
6. The Ghost Tour Company Should Give Clear, Updated Information About Tour Details
This is often where ghost tours fail. A good tour will have tour updated tour information in print that includes times, prices, accepted methods of payment, the tour meeting place, the length of time the tour takes, provisions for inclement weather, physical capabilities required (lots of walking, standing, steep stairs), and what the tour will cover. If sites are mentioned, then they should be on the tour. There should also be a phone number where potential guests can talk to a person. Outdated brochures and poor websites are an indication that little attention is paid to detail. Tours are all about detail, so this isn’t a good sign.
7. A Good Ghost Tour Should Leave Guests Wondering
The guide should strive to make the guests feel that they are images participating in an unseen landscape. The guide’s role is to bring that unseen landscape to life for the guests by providing details of the history and stories of the people who once lived there – and then sharing the unexplained events, apparitions and paranormal activity. That weaves the past in with the present and leaves guests with a sense of wonder, of touching the other side. If guests have that sense of wonder, there will be questions at the end. The more questions – the greater the sense of wonder.
What is NOT Important for a Good Ghost Tour?
- Theatrics – guides playing a character, dressing in period costume, jumping out an scaring people.
- Walking vs. driving – A ghost tour can be just as rewarding from a bus / carriage as it can be walking.
- Made up crap – Avoid guides who make stuff up or want to keep telling you about what “this guy told him about that house over there” or “how I grew up in a haunted house in New Jersey so I know ghosts.” Guests see through this.
- Dark vs. daylight – A ghost tour can be just as rewarding in the daylight as it is at night.
That’s my less-than-humble opinion as a guide and a patron of ghost tours. I check out ghost tours in every city or town I travel to. The best ghost tours I’ve been on have been in Charleston SC, Harpers Ferry WV, Cambridge MD, Winchester Mansion in CA. The worst – Gettysburg PA, Salem MA. I’ll write more about the good ones in following posts.
How about you? What are the best ghost tour experiences?
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Hi Mindie, this was an excellent post! I live in Fort Collins Colorado and am offering a local ghost tour starting August this year. Your insight is excellent and a wonderful help. Thank you. If you ever come to Fort Collins, you have a ghost tour on the house!
Thanks, Michael. You know when I was in Colorado in 2010 and 2012 I looked for Ghost Tours around Denver, Estes Park, Grand Lake, Colorado Springs … couldn’t find any, other than the Stanley Hotel, of course. And I attended that one… wouldn’t say it was one of the best.
Glad you found this information helpful and if you visit the Eastern Shore, I’ll return the favor. Best of luck on your ghosts tours and keep us posted.
Mindie I couldn’t agree more regarding your opinion on Gettysburg ghost tour. I think we took the same one and we walked around the block & our guide barely spoke and he was a BORE. One would think a town with extensive tragic history there would be much to share.I always get annoyed when I leave a tour feeling like “thats it?” & I expect a guide to have a genuine interest and often they don’t. Savannah,GA has never been disappointing but some are better than others & you always want to walk around for a better experience. Have you been to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly? If not, I’m in whenever you want the history is FASCINATING
I should have added in this post that lots of these towns have several ghost tours (including Gettysburg and Salem), the one I took wasn’t good. I’d love to do Eastern Penn. Right now I’m especially interested in Point Lookout in Southern Maryland. It was a Civil War prison camp. A former State Park superintendent told me it was definitely known for unexplained events.