“Is it haunted?” has always been one of my favorite questions to ask while traveling. It ranks up there with “Where is the bathroom?” and “May I see the dessert menu?” To be honest, I’m not sure what prompted my love for the supernatural, but even as a little kid I could tell you the difference between a ghost and a poltergeist; phrases like “spontaneous combustion” made it into my vocabulary long before watching This is Spinal Tap. So I guess it comes as no surprise that I love ghost tours as an adult. There’s something thrilling about gathering under a designated streetlamp at dusk to meet your (possibly costumed) guide in an unknown city and embarking to your first spectral site. But you don’t have to be an aficionado of phantoms to appreciate a good ghost tour. Here are six reasons to book one on your next trip.
1. They’re not all scary
Many people don’t realize how versatile ghost tours are. Believe it or not, they’re not all about murder, scandal, and scaring the pants off people. A more die-hard crowd may balk at a PG-rating, but folks who don’t like truly spooky stuff (or want to avoid the more gory stories) can seek out a family-friendly ghost tour, like this one in Savannah. Most companies note whether their route is fit for kids or the easily startled; if you have questions, never hesitate to contact them directly or consider booking a private tour.
2. It can be a hands-on experience
You don’t have to roll with the Ghostbusters to hunt for ghouls. If you’re worried that simply listening to all the lore will get boring, find an interactive tour. A few years ago I was in Minneapolis for a conference, and a friend and I wanted something unusual to do for the evening. So we went on a ghost hunt. Armed with a small arsenal of ghost hunting apparatus—a dowsing rod to detect spirit energy and an app that reported electromagnetic frequencies to gauge otherworldly sound—we traipsed around searching for paranormal activity. A medium co-led the tour, and the guide regaled us with tales of woe behind the hauntings. Seeing the tools in action gave me the willies, but my less-suggestible companion was not impressed. Either way, it made for a fun and memorable night out.
3. Gain a new perspective on a popular destination
Most ghost tours require a fair bit of walking—usually one to two hours. You’ll be moving slowly, but from haunted bar to haunted train station to haunted hotel, you’re exploring the city after dark in a very different way. On a City Wonders tour in Rome, we stopped at iconic spots like an illuminated Castel Sant’Angelo and a Campo de’Fiori bustling with locals having their late-night digestivi; unbeknownst to passersby, we were learning about things like the spirit of Beatrice Cenci, an unjustly executed 16th-century aristocrat who’s rumored to walk the bridge near her beheading.
4. Be a tourist in your own backyard
I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, where I also attended college. It’s safe to say I’m one of those locals who busts out tidbits of Old Pueblo trivia when out-of-towners visit. I knew we had a rich history of hauntings (did you know that Tucson is the longest continuously inhabited city in the United States?), but after a couple hours of meandering from the train station to the convention center with myriad stops in between, I had traversed sidewalks I’d never seen before and learned that there are three different hotels downtown I will never step foot in.
One distinct advantage of doing a tour in your own city is this: If you get too terrified, you can always bail and go home.
5. You can find tours in towns big and small
Ghosts fascinate people all over the world, which means you don’t have to be in a bustling metropolis to hear about apparitions that haven’t crossed to the other side. Local paranormal or historical societies often run tours in places ranging in population from 15,052 (Williamsburg, VA) to 119,230 (Cork, Ireland), so if you find yourself in a small or mid-sized city, it’s worth checking out.
That being said, there’s a reason populous and historic places have earned reputations for being haunted: walking the same London streets as Jack the Ripper, for example, is pretty creepy. And I will be the first to recommend New Orleans, home to my favorite ghost tour so far. I can never unhear what happened at the LaLaurie Mansion, true events sinister enough to inspire a depiction of Madame LaLaurie herself in season three of American Horror Story.
6. Get an insider look at the local culture
The stories a community values or fears can reveal a lot, and guides can’t tell a ghost story without giving adequate historical context. Just as a New Orleans tour would be incomplete without mention of the region’s French influence or voodoo culture, so would an Edinburgh tour without the body snatchers turned serial killers Burke & Hare, whose actions led to the passage of legislation allowing doctors and medical students easier access to cadavers. Whether it’s a legend that has been passed down for generations to keep errant children at home after dusk (like La Llorona of my childhood) or a historical report backed up by scientific research and police evidence, whatever you hear on a ghost tour will grant unique insight into the place and people.
And if you don’t feel like committing to a whole evening, take the easy route: find an old bar, or a castle, or pretty much any hotel, and ask, “Is it haunted?”