Ghost stories are so much fun they are even creepy on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I went on my very first ghost tour on May 4th in Marshall, Michigan, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The guide from Marshall Carriage Co. & Ghost Tours said that ghost tours are part of "dark tourism" that is a $3 billion industry. I know I liked contributing my $25 to that pot.
Marshall is a small town in Southern Michigan founded in the 1830s. It fell short of becoming the state capital by one vote, so it missed its chance to transform into a seething pit of lobbyists undermining civilization. Now it's an interstate stop for antiquing.
Marshall can easily claim to be among the largest historic districts in the country with at least 850 19th century homes and businesses clustered around its historic downtown.
And, so I'm told, enough ghost stories to rival the ancient burgs of Europe.
Marshall Ghost Stories
The tour guide said that his town has an unknown number of bodies buried throughout the historic residential areas. Some people were even buried in basements. At the haunted house he lives in, a weathered tombstone is the back step to his porch. In years past kids used it as a baseball home base so its original location is lost to living knowledge. He specifically chose to own a haunted house, so he thrives on hearing voices in the middle of the night and mystery feet clomping through the house. Apparently house hunters can have their pick of paranormal abodes in Marshall, but it's good to be picky because there were some places that my intrepid poltergeist addict considered "too creepy" to live in.
Some ghosts are friendly, or at least still rather concerned about their property. One ghost in Marshall called 911 twice until the fire department finally found a rag left in a can of varnish. I learned that a rag left in varnish may spontaneously combust. The home owners claimed not to have called 911, but emergency services spoke to someone.
Switching to the sordid, there is a mansion on a hill where a knocked-up servant took a fatal tumble down the grand staircase. No one in town knew if it was the husband or the wife who introduced her to gravity, but their social life suffered nonetheless. That must have been devastating for them.
At one point on the tour our ghost-stalking man-in-charge announced that we were coming upon the creepiest house on the tour.
It did not disappoint.
I know you want to see a picture. (Damn it woman, why didn't you take a picture of it for your blog?)
Sorry. I'm GLAD I didn't take a picture of it. I don't want those pixels in my computer, so my story shall have to suffice.
We ghost hunters labored up the hill toward a pinnacle described as the "highest point in town" and...
Gnarled elder trees of various species leered and staggered in a place of ragged turf like an ent moot gathered at a funeral.
A cheerless home with long narrow dormers hunkered on the hill. Dingy white paint clung to batten plank wood siding. The place did not seem quite alive yet it was right there with flowers blooming.
The guide began his lecture about the threat of Indian attack when the house was built and then dropped the bomb that the family that had resided here forever was heavily into the occult. With their seances they had summoned spirits to the home.
There's even more to this creepy place, but I think I would be ripping the guy off to write it here.
Ghost tours are on the lighter side of the dark tourism industry. They offer people a spooky frolic at the crossroads of imagination and history. And it's good to think about death and the beyond too. We're all going to join these ghosts, so it's psychologically important to engage with the mystery of death and the spirit from time to time.
Ghost tour destinations can add substantially to the local economies where they operate. The October 2012 article "Ghost tours are scary big business" at the blog of ThunderTix stated that they were worth $300 million annually to operators and local economies.
So where did my guide's figure of $3 billion come from? Well dark tourism gets a lot darker than ghost stories outside the elaborate homes of 19th century shopkeepers. Dark tourism also includes trips to horrible places like the killing fields of Cambodia, New Orlean's 9th Ward, and Auschwitz. A May 2012 article at the International Business Times "Dark Tourism: Understanding The Attraction of Death and Disaster" explored why people visit places of horror. Executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research Philip Stone explained that death is supposed to be part of the public domain. Currently it is privatized and cloistered by the medical industry, so dark tourism lets people process their mortality.
It's nothing new really. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages visited tombs and the death places of martyrs. Death makes interesting stories and gives people a strong emotional touchstone that helps them remember their trip.
Why did I go on ghost tour?
I thought a ghost tour would be a stimulating experience that appealed to my love of history. Like most people, I had no expectation of seeing a ghost although the tour host encouraged people to take pictures because something might show up in them.
My expectations were very typical, as supported by this survey published by Boroughs of the Dead - Macabre New York City Walking Tours. Among that company's patrons, 60 percent reported that having a paranormal experience like seeing a ghost was "not at all important" to their enjoyment of the ghost tour. People were much more interested in hearing entertaining stories and learning accurate history about the neighborhood they were exploring.
I'm a novelist and therefore seek a variety of experiences. I knew my imagination would feast on a ghost tour, and it did not disappoint. I have a longing to write a spooky tale for the Halloween season and thought this would be a good way to get the juices flowing.
My experiences get filed for future reference when I'm writing. I took a tour of a cave nearly 20 years ago, and I just recently applied that experience to a chapter in my work in progress.
Although I'm primarily a fantasy writer instead of a horror writer, paranormal phenomena, folklore, and superstitions contribute to my magical tales. I strive to be a logical and rational person but still make room for the unexplained because these things are part of human existence.
Interesting activities, especially of an alternative nature, keep my mental toolbox full so I can build stories for others to enjoy.
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