Some of America’s oldest cities are often reported to be the most haunted. Lives lost to violence, disease, and injustice are common throughout history as the living maintain an inescapable curiosity for the morbid and macabre. In recent years, the popularity of dark tourism has increased enough to have a buffet of ghost tour options for travelers and locals in the Charleston area.
But, as historians note, there is a hard line between ghost stories that illuminate historical fact and tales that pedal damaging tropes in an excuse to entertain.
“I think most people that want to go on the tours and I think most tour guides who want to give the tours have a sense of it as harmless fun,” says Scott Poole, a history professor at the College of Charleston, “but whenever you depart from the history of a place like Charleston or like New Orleans, and turn it into a ghostly theme park, then you’re almost inevitably twisting the history.”
As Halloween creeps closer and ghost tour season meets its peak, tourist resources like Yelp and Condé Nast Traveler continue to promote the Holy City as a haunted Mecca.
“There’s been ghost tours in Charleston for a very long time, but the growth of them over the last 20 years that tracks with Paranormal Activity and similar kinds of material, I think is especially important,” says Poole. “That’s kind of driving people’s beliefs that they bring to this, in a way.”
Popularity of ghost tours may not be caused exclusively by horror movies. In 2012, a YouGov poll reported that 45 percent of American adults believe in ghosts. Given that predilection for the supernatural, combined with a few spooky nighttime locations, ghost tour patrons’ vulnerability during a tour is understandable.
Tiya Miles, a history professor at Harvard University, believes that ghost tours are not inherently negative or positive, but can easily misconstrue history for tourists who are not familiar with the city they are visiting.
“They invite people in to thinking about the past,” she explains. “That, I think, is always a positive thing. The issue is how are they conducted and how are they framed so that people have an understanding of what it is they are signing up for.”
In Miles’ book, Tales from the Haunted South, she explores dark tourism in Southern cities, including Charleston, presenting the case that ghost tours often skew and misinterpret African-American history for the sake of entertainment. Miles brings to light stories told of spiritual practices, sexual relationships between white slave owners and enslaved women, and other brutalities forced upon black men and women.
Ghost tours, according to Miles, are a very emotional experience. They ask viewers to feel empathy for people in the past, which can allow them to apply their new understanding to people in the present. But, too much orientation on the emotion behind the stories can lead to misunderstandings about the past, she says.
“The issue again is, what kinds of emotional reactions are the tours set up to elicit?” Miles asks. “And are people being encouraged to think about those emotional reactions? Are they being encouraged to empathize with people who are engaging in violent acts or are they being encouraged to empathize with people who are actually subjected to violent acts?”
To properly combat historical inaccuracy, Miles encourages tour companies to establish what their tour consists of and what is based on historical documentation, and hire guides with diverse backgrounds.
Bond Ruggles, a grad student at CofC and a ghost tour guide with Ashley on the Cooper, implements those strategies in the haunted outings that she conducts.
When asked about the risks of mythologizing history, Ruggles points to one of the most famous Charleston murder stories, Lavinia Fisher. Despite the frequent claim that she was the first serial killer in America, “there is zero evidence that she was ever a killer,” says Ruggles.
“There are some where it does really matter because you see this demonized effect of a woman, whereas you’ve got the ghost of the Swamp Fox,” she explains, referencing the Revolutionary War-era legend of Francis Marion. “The male ghosts are heroes and they have a legitimate right to haunt, and the female ghosts are evil and vilified.”
Ashley on the Cooper also prohibits narratives about ghosts of enslaved Africans. “Essentially, that’s profiting off of someone else’s pain and misery,” says Ruggles.
In an attempt to find the line between history and fiction, instead of towing it, the guide says that a good ghost tour should balance fact and myth, while still being creepy.
“Some places, they’d much rather just make stuff up to make it scary,” Ruggles says about her experience. “As a historian, I’m a believer that, especially in New Orleans, the truth is always stranger than fiction. If you can twist a good story, you don’t need to get elaborate in making stuff up or creating drama where there is none.”
And, when it comes to actually building a tour for the public, Ruggles looks at the facts.
“I would definitely start with historical people,” she says. “It’s easy to do. You find a haunted Charleston book, you start reading the stories, you start searching around, you find out what’s true, what isn’t. I almost would be willing to guarantee that, while you’ll find some of it is made up, the stuff that can replace it is juicier.”