Why Ghost Walks Are Some of The Most Challenging Horror Experiences to Design

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, October 31st, 2014

Ghost Tour Guide Savannah

As the small group stands together on Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts overlooking the coastal town’s small harbor, the night closes in around them. Each participant has climbed the imposing hill, past twisted trees, to stand among Puritan gravestones. In the dark and guided only by swinging lanterns, the group follows a woman dressed in colonial garb as she tells the story of a famous Plymouth witch. It’s just a typical night for the folks at Colonial Ghost Tours and one of the many groups of people around the world participating in a haunted walk or guided ghost tour.

Nearly every city or town that could even be remotely considered a tourist destination offers walking tours. And among the walking tours, there are haunted variations, which have certainly increased in popularity in recent years. They’re everywhere – almost any city or town with a deep connection to history qualifies for a haunted tour. The places that you’d expect to have one, with deep, gruesome histories such as Salem, London, and New Orleans all put unique spins on the experience. For Salem it’s witchcraft, for London it’s thousands of years of compounded history, and for New Orleans it’s the voodoo angle. But you can find haunted walking tours from Paris to Boise, Idaho and in many tiny towns in between.

New Orleans Ghost Tour

On a recent trip, I took a haunted walking tour of a little village in Vermont that featured a tap dancing ghost on the roof of the local inn. That’s the beauty of this model from an experiential point of view. The barriers to entry are low; you just need a person willing to act as tour guide, some stories and imagination, and some advertising. But for these same reasons, the levels in quality and scariness vary widely.

With the right story, any setting can become spooky – from the flat prairies of Kansas to the overhanging trees of sultry Savannah. A sense of place is just one of the things that tour creators use to craft the experience, and the specific location of a tour becomes a major source of inspiration and flavor. Some of the most well-known approaches play off of the witchcraft legacy of Salem or the voodoo traditions of Louisiana, both natural fodder for storytelling and grabbing audience attention.

Plymouth MA Ghost Tour by Lantern

The best walks are usually carefully constructed experiences that take place across an entire town or dedicated section of a town. Ghost stories can range from the slightly spooky tales of someone dying in a home and lingering behind, with an occasional face in the window or flickering of lights, to the downright terrifying tales of Madame LaLaurie and bones in the backyard.

The tour itself needs to have a narrative arc, getting participants in the mood and then leading them through the area’s history, culture, and occult overtones until reaching the biggest, scariest, and most notorious tales. In other words, tours don’t just need setting and history; they also need a cadence and denouement of their own. Since most ghost tours are on foot, locations play a big role. The level of immersion varies, from standing on the sidewalk in front of a house to actually entering and exploring a building. The more tactile and in-depth the experience, the more likely it is that an audience will get swept up in the story (and hopefully, get scared!).

A new trend that’s emerging within the ghost tour world is riffing off the popularity of shows like Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters. There is an undeniable growing interest in ghost hunting shows, which has created a common vocabulary in American pop culture about dealing with the paranormal. People are starting to recognize “common ghost phenomena” such as cold spots or shadowy sightings, and tour guides are using that to play into audience psychology. Some guides are even staging their own investigations and collecting evidence. Afterlife Tours in Savannah, for example, plays audio recordings of their research from an iPad as tour guests stand outside select locations. Guests are even encouraged to take photos of locations and share them if any phenomena appear in frame. This use of technology adds another dimension of credibility (or at least the suspension of disbelief).

Salem Ghost Tour

Props and costumes can play a role in getting the tour guides into character. Being a great tour guide on a ghost tour relies heavily on theatrics. A passion for storytelling, an ability to connect the listeners with the characters that populate the scary stories, and an authentic interest in an area’s history and the paranormal in general lead to both more engaging tour material and better back and forth with guests. Doing so while dressed as a Pilgrim by candlelight doesn’t hurt either!

It’s worth noting that an offshoot of this industry has popped up, again in connection with the popularity of ghost-oriented shows. Paranormal investigation groups are opening up their overnight explorations of purportedly haunted locations to the public. For a fee, guests can rub elbows with experienced paranormal researchers, get some training, play with some of the latest paranormal research technology, and possibly have their own brush with the afterlife.

On the surface, creating these experiences may seem like low-hanging fruit compared to the advanced theming of today’s more sophisticated horror attractions. But when they’re done well, they’re brilliant. Deconstructing a ghost tour shows that the creators and executors have just a few tools at their disposal – local lore, storytelling ability, minimal theming touches, a sense of place, and maybe technology – to get into the participant’s mind and evoke a real sense of fear and doubt. In a way, it’s the ultimate entertainment design challenge.

Image source: Visit Savannah; Tripadvisor; AOL Travel; Backpacking Diplomatically

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