Do ghost tours harm the paranormal field?

Original post on June 16, 2011.

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.

12 responses to “Do ghost tours harm the paranormal field?”

  1. Oscar Kelton says:

    >It depends on the situation, as far as O am concerned.

    Ghost tours are held at my family home several times every October to benefit the local historic preservation association. We enjoy these and treat it as a party. This is the one time of year when entire groups of people come through who acknowledge our existence. The tour guides tell are history respectfully and do not indulge in ghoulishness when talking about our afterlives.

    I do agree with you when it comes to other tours, though. The same is true of respectful, true paranormal researchers versus thrill-seeking "ghost hunters."

  2. Stephanie Ann says:

    >I don't think people really interact or see ghosts on these tours. I think they are really paying to hear stories about ghosts.

    I don't have a problem with people going on a tour and hearing stories. I don't believe people should go around trying to make ghosts appear or interact with people.

  3. Teresa Thomas says:

    >I think some people like to hear the history of the places. Then there are some that are hoping to encounter a spirit but would probably freak out if they do. I think if people were going to have tours, it should be more about the history and not all about the spirits.

    As for trying to conjure up spirits etc, that shouldn't happen at all. I wouldn't want to be apart of that.

    The kind of tours though I wouldn't mind doing are places like Waverly Hills, staying the night at the Stanley Hotel and that penitentiary that was both on Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures (can't remember the name)

  4. Babs Bunny says:

    >I don't think it's harmful to spirits. Most supernatural phenomenon at places like that are residual energy anyway, so if anything IS seen, it's no more sentient than watching something on a movie screen.

  5. Nellie says:

    As one of the respectful tour guides you mentioned, I have to say, the ghosts in our museum actually seem to think of the tours as party time. They get very playful during the 2 weeks of the yearly tours, even playing pranks during the tours on occasion. With this kind of participation from them, that’s another reason to hold tours in a respectful manner. On the rare times when guests have come in (thankfully not on the ghost tours!) and treated the spirits like performing monkeys, the ghosts ignored them.

    • Caryn says:

      Why do people insist that ghosts are being “playful” or “playing pranks”. Did it ever occur to you that these “trapped souls” might be trying to get ANYONE’s attention in order to get some help? Imagine if you were trapped somewhere AND you were invisible.

  6. Jenny says:

    My mother and I were staying at the Farnsworth House in Gettysburg and we did do the “ghost tour” the Farnsworth House sponsors. The guides were two Civil War reenactors, one dressed as a Confederate and one dressed as a Union soldier, who loved to give these tours after work in the evenings. Having them dressed up in authentic uniforms really set the tone for the tour. The guides told us about the general nature of human spirits, how they can be earthbound or not, etc. and answered questions asked.

    There was a boy who was probably 11 or 12 years old on the tour who clearly had never learned about spirits before and was very skeptical. He asked a lot of questions that the guides answered with ease, and I could tell the adults were all very interested in hearing the guides answer his questions. The little boy got a little frustrated when all of his questions were answered as he seemed to be trying to “stump” the guides or get them to admit the tour was a joke.

    We walked out to where the Louisiana Tigers had fought in the middle of the town, and we asked the guides about their occupations, why they liked to do the tours, if they had any personal experiences on the battlefield, and more light-hearted things. People were eager to share their own ghost encounters as well. When we reached our destination, the guides got serious again and told us about the battle in the actual town of Gettysburg. They told us stories about seeing mysterious lights, voices, and the usual ghosty-stuff in the area.

    Afterwards we went to the basement of the Farnsworth House and were told about Victorian funeral rituals (very interesting) as well as more stories about the house. The guides showed us a table of toys left for little “Jeremy,” one of the resident spirits, and said we could feel free to leave him a trinket if we were so inclined, and they told some hilarious stories that involved skeptics or people who were being downright disrespectful on the tour changing their attitudes VERY quickly when some of the spirits began to mess with them.

    The tour was about *both* history and ghosts, which was awesome. There was no spiritual interaction involved on the part of the living; if a spirit wanted to show up, it would have been his/her choice as opposed to us “conjuring” or “provoking” them to show themselves. The two guides set the respectful, serious mood (they would have moments of silence in respect for the fallen and for the spirits who still lingered there) and everyone respected that, even the skeptical little boy. Other than general information about different types of hauntings, most of the tour involved plain old spirit encounter stories.

    I believe that tours like the one I went on are not harmful to the spirits and do not give the paranormal community a bad name. Everyone was respectful, asked questions in a nice manner, etc. The guides REALLY set the tone for the evening right when the tour started as I mentioned earlier. This was obviously not going to be a “let’s see if we can make a spirit appear” type tour but one that focused on educating and letting the people in the tour ultimately make up their own minds about the subject. There were some really fun moments and stories too so it wasn’t all serious but it was always respectful towards the dead.

    You, my friend, would make an AMAZING ghost tour guide with your experience in the field. I think that Oakland Cemetery would love to have you!

  7. Amy says:

    A few years back, out of curiosity, my husband & I took a ghost tour in Gettysburg. There were about 15-20 of us in the group & we were all giving EMF detectors to carry through the streets with us. We walked to the front of a hotel, to a spot in a park, up & down the streets, while listening to all the different ghost stories of the locations. And that’s all they were, stories…until we got to this one spot on the street where they stopped the group in front of a storefront. The tour guide told us that they weren’t sure why or how this was happening, but they were pretty sure the pizza parlor across the street was haunted because everyone who stands, where we were standing at that moment, & pointed their EMF detector at the pizza parlor got some sort of reading. So, almost in unison, the group, standing there in a line, all raised our arms pointing our EMF detectors at the building across the street; and as promised the detectors started squealing, registering some fields. My husband & I stood there looking at one another, he smiled as he looked at me & continued to raise is arm up….we were all standing beneath the power lines. I sighed, rolled my eyes, & watched as the others in the group gasped at the “ghostly spirits” they were detecting.
    I am a huge history buff and am in love with Gettysburg; we visit at least once a year. We have never been on another ghost tour there (mostly b/c I don’t trust them). I do believe in the paranormal and have had several paranormal experiences there, & even do paranormal investigations, but I do agree with your sentiment that these tours are a carnival or horse & pony show. They do bring money into the burg, but at what expense to the honor of the lives that were sacrificed there. To me it’s a matter of respect to those & the family of those that lost their lives there. There is a need for paranormal INVESTIGATIONS (not tours) to allow for further learning & understanding in the field; I’m just not too keen on the idea of ‘ghost tours’.

  8. It is rare to find a “good” ghost tour that actually educates people and respects the spirits. I don’t think the concept itself is bad but there are more than a fair share of companies that do exploit the spirits. I think you would be an awesome tour guide, Jessica!

  9. janet smith says:

    Hi Jess,
    Just want to say you are “right on” here. I live in Gettysburg and the Louisiana Tigers died in what is now my back yard. We have ghost tours that stop here nightly, sometimes very large groups. We don’t mind the tours, they bring folks into town, we do mind the fact that some of the folks dabble in things they shouldn’t. I prefer to leave our ghosts alone and let them visit us when they want…

  10. Caryn says:

    What about the ethics involved in knowing that there is something that can possibly be done to help or free these spirits and maybe help them over to “the other side” using a psychic medium and then NOT doing anything because the trapped souls draw tourism money? This is a concept I just can’t comprehend. If a fellow living human of yours was trapped in a location and was possibly suffering, wouldn’t you try to do something about it instead of charging people money to come observe them? Shouldn’t you at least feel responsible for trying to find out whether or not they are actually trapped where they are, confused, hurt, angry before chocking their behavior up to being just something “playful” or as something exciting to experience?

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