A few years ago when I went to Gettysburg for the first time, I saw a folding board advertisement outside of an old house on Steinwehr Avenue spouting Gettysburg Ghost Tours. I had heard of ghost tours before but I had never seen such a thing in person. At the time, I remember that it struck me as odd because the building had Halloween decorations all over it and the whole thing seemed cheap and exploitative to me. Someone told me there were other tours on Baltimore Street that were operated by Mark Nesbitt, a former Gettysburg National Park ranger turned author of the Ghosts of Gettysburg books. I think there are twelve of those books in the series now. I have always had mixed feelings about Mark Nesbitt and what these books and tours represent but I was on my way to somewhere on Baltimore Street that afternoon. I soon forgot about the Gettysburg Ghost Tours.
Late that night, my friends and I were walking to a Civil War reenactment ball and we happened upon one of these ghost tours in progress. Costumed interpreters lead groups of tourists by lantern on walking tours talking about all of the hauntings and apparitions along the way. Of course, it’s all for a fee. I watched it for a minute while the tourists watched me too (it’s kind of hard to miss me in a Civil War ballgown). Something about these tours really rubbed me the wrong way and I left not long afterward. There was an element of a circus freak show to it.
Step right up, folks! Pay a few dollars and see the ghost of a dead soldier!
I don’t know. Maybe I was a little too overprotective of the thousands of spirits still lingering around Gettysburg and I was being too cynical. I do understand that most of Gettysburg’s local economy is based on tourism and television shows describing the ghost stories have really piqued the interest of people everywhere. It’s natural that people with an entrepreneurial spirit would find ways to cash in on that public interest. I just chalked it up to the nature of the tourism beast and let it go.
Since that initial introduction to ghost tours, however, I have watched them spread all over the world like a plague. It’s gotten so out of hand that I can’t seem to look at ghost stories in any city online without sorting through dozens of advertisements for this or that ghost tour, all claiming to be the best in that city. In fact, the straw that broke this blogger’s back was trying to look for notoriously haunted places in Boston since my readers like the research but all I found were pages and pages of different ghost tours in the city. It has become a full-fledged commercial machine. Anyone with a centralized historical location can throw a shingle on their door, buy a lantern and offer tourists ghost tours of their area. People eat this stuff up like candy. I’m seeing it everywhere I go when I travel as time passes.
Step right up, folks, indeed.
It all seems very harmless, but from my vantage as a medium, I can’t help but wonder why people are missing the fact that it is all completely exploitative of the spirits that are the subjects of these tours. Once a person dies, they almost cease to be human. They lose value as something to be honored, respected and protected. There is indeed an element of a zoo exhibit or a circus freak show about the way the living treat the dead. Sometimes I want to say, “Would you be happy with people paying a tour guide in hopes of seeing the ghost of your mother, father, or grandparents?” I’m guessing most of the time the answer would be a resounding no. What is the difference between the recently dead and, say, a soldier that has been dead since 1863? Has that soldier lost enough humanity that it makes it acceptable to go on a tour hoping for the thrill of seeing his spooky apparition? These questions bother me quite a bit. In my case, I find it intolerable that people try to lure out my former husband, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in Gettysburg like he’s a dog performing tricks to give ghost hunting tourists their money’s worth. Just an example. I find it all very seedy and dishonorable to the memory of the men who were killed so that this country might live. It’s not just Gettysburg though. It’s every ghost tour in every city exploiting the souls of people who lived very normal lives and deserve respect in death.
Although ghost tours are showing themselves to be good for local economies, I don’t see much value in the field of paranormal research. Those of us in the field are never going to be taken seriously as long as there is this element of circus freak show involved. The same could be said for some “paranormal investigators” out there who treat it more like a social club than a research endeavor. Note: I said some, not all. The serious lack of respect for the dead and the circumstances of life and death is becoming worse as “ghost hunting” becomes a bigger fad. I have seen it with my own two eyes. The scientific research is extremely important when it is explained beforehand to the entities but science only goes so far. Science is not helping the trapped souls find their peace. There is an element of selfishness in all areas of paranormal interest in that most people seem to not care about the spirits anymore once the evidence is collected or the trill has been achieved. If I was stuck somewhere, I would want help.
In my work as a medium, I have several guidelines about the way I deal with spirits. I never conjure, summon, or hold seances. I find those practices to be dangerous and disrespectful. To me, conjuring, summoning, and seances are no different than the act of making kissy noises to bring your dog to you and then find yourself shocked when the dog bites you. I simply open my senses at the beginning of a session and whomever is meant to come through will do so. When I have to ask for signs of a presence, I explain why – that we are trying to find out if they are there and if they need help. My goal in paranormal investigation is to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, and that encompasses scientific evidence collection, assisting people in communication with loved ones, and assisting spirits in finding peace. In none of my three goals is there room for ghost tours or poorly conducted ghosts hunts for the cheap thrill of getting scared or having fun. Ghost tours don’t fit into my moral compass. If that makes me an old fuddy duddy, then so be it.
Update on October 29, 2012.
I was just going through my old blogs today and found this one. I got curious and searched ghost tours again to see if the epidemic is still spreading out there. Like the plagues of old, ghost tours are still raging on strong not only in America but in the United Kingdom and Australia as well. There weren’t so many ghost tours across the pond the last time I looked over a year ago. I’d like to say I’m surprised but I’m not.
For the most part, I still feel that the majority of ghost tours are exploitative of the honored dead and are harmful to paranormal research in that they draw people to the field who have no experience and then present themselves as experts. However, I have noticed a slight shift in the ghost tour industry of late. Several friends of mine have inserted themselves into those jobs in order to ensure that things are presented responsibly. I have one friend in Ohio who is both a historian and a medium who works in her local historical society and now also works with a ghost tour near her too. Someone like her who really does know what she’s doing has great potential to lead tourists through such tours in a manner both respectful to the dead and educational and entertaining for the tourists. I have another friend who is also very well-versed in history and paranormal research who may be joining one of the ghost tours in Charleston. These people helped me realize by their example that it’s not necessarily the ghost tour industry that I find so upsetting – it’s the inexperienced tour guides doing it either for the wrong reasons or simply because they don’t know any better. The solution appears to be not totally ending ghost tours but getting knowledgeable experienced tour guides hired who are both educated in local history and paranormal research.
I am a woman of action. Next year, I plan to see if Oakland Cemetery by my house will have me as a tour guide for next year’s Halloween ghost tours. People with local knowledge and experience in paranormal things should be reaching out in the community to help tourists understand the truth.