In a quick detour from the Sideshows series, in the spirit of Halloween and autumn (my favorites), I’m going to address ghost hunting and paranormal research at historic sites, and particularly in historic homes. I know this has been addressed several times by many people, and it is a common discussion among museum professionals and public historians.
The popularity of this topic has been evident on professional list-servs, in discussions with fellow graduate students, and at sites in my community.
Education and Formal Training
A call recently went out on the Museum-L list-serv about a new online course for museum professionals called, “Paranormal Investigations in Museums and Historic Sites.” The advertisement claims, “This short course will introduce you to Paranormal Groups. You will learn how these groups investigate and explore, the pros and cons of developing a policy and how to include them in your programs. The Paranormal Groups also need to be educated about the perspectives and mission of Museums and Historic Sites to appreciate how we operate. There can be benefits in understanding and working with each other. We will take you through the research, methods and equipment and approaches to public outreach by the paranormal teams.” The instructor for this course is Dave Harvey, who is a consultant for the National Geographic channel and museums and an independent paranormal researcher with extensive experience on residential cases and historic sites. David is the former historian and researcher for The Pasadena Paranormal Research Society.
What is the purpose of this course, and who took it? If you did, I would love to hear about your experiences in it, and what you learned that will help you with your historic site or museum.
Thoughts from MTSU Graduate Students
Earlier this year, graduate student Rebecca Duke sent a call out to the H-Grad list (a list-serv for MTSU History Graduate students) about ghosts and the paranormal at historic sites. It received quite a few responses from the program students and facilitated a great conversation.
Her question was, “As historians, what is your opinion regarding paranormal investigators at historic sites? I had never realized it before, but apparently it is common for paranormal groups (“ghost hunters”) to contact historic sites about doing research. Do you think it affects the historical integrity of the site? Do you think it affects the public opinion of the site?”
I responded, “I think it could go several different ways… on the one hand, any publicity is good publicity, especially for places that might have low visitor counts and need visitors to stay open. So in that way, I think it is good. Museums already attract crazy people as we know, so what’s a few more? On the other hand, the site needs to be a place that is monitored and protected so damage by crazy people after hours doesn’t occur, or can be prevented. On that same note, if a place is even rumored to be haunted or looks creepy, people might be out there anyway.”
Abigail Gautreau also had thoughts on the issue: “I understand the appeal of allowing paranormal searchers to come to a site- it does attract public attention to sites that can increase visitation. At the same time, it can also offer a vehicle for interpreting the history of the site and a “teachable moment.” I, for one, would be interested in reading (who needs a thesis/dissertation topic?!) a broad analytical survey of these ghost stories to see if there are patterns that emerge in terms of gender/race/age/etc of who is supposedly haunting site and who is supposedly finding them.
As far as the impact on public opinion, I honestly don’t know that it impacts John Q. Public’s view of a site; I’ve been on a couple of ghost tours at historic sites, and generally they’re equal parts history facts and ghost stories. Because the stories revolve around who lived at the site, they tend to have historical grounding. Beyond that, people I know who seek out these ghost stories usually end up learning about the site, but prefer the more storyteller approach that ghost tours take- people want to see the site, but they don’t want to listen to the usual dry tour. Maybe this is something tour designers should take under consideration when choosing a narrative and style for tours.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that ghost hunters are like historic re-enactors. As long as they try to base some of their “adventures” in historic fact and don’t do physical damage to the site, the press they bring with them can’t hurt.”
Elizabeth Lambert, Public History PhD Student said, “My deal is that I like to go on paranormal tours for a few reasons, the main one being that I have serious history fatigue. Sometimes being a historian takes a little excitement out of visiting museums and heritage sites, and I find that paranormal tours allow me to visit places without feeling like I’m a historian. The second is that I’ve noticed that I stand a better chance at hearing about the people who were part of the site if I do a paranormal tour, and this is especially true about places that represent confinement, like hospitals, prisons, etc. And the third is that paranormal tours give me a better chance for taking pictures than normal tours, because I’m not immediately herded to the best preserved parts of a location. I find I’m more likely to see the rooms that aren’t immaculate, and therefore, show more of a change over time. I wrote my thesis on unconventional history tourism, and decided to do something different for the dissertation because I like being able to go to places and not see them as work. That said, tours of former psychiatric hospitals are some of the most controversial sites, and might turn up some interesting discussion. Several medical historians have written condemning these tours, but they don’t really account for how a lot of these institutions (usually held by a private trust) are suppose to generate income and visitors in order to pay for the upkeep of their buildings.
This blog post is a good example of that: http://historypsychiatry.com/2010/09/15/september-psychiatric-times-post-whos-haunting-whom-the-new-fad-in-asylum-tourism/”
What are your thoughts?
Weighing in on the Issues: Pros and Cons
- Getting new customers that might not otherwise have visited
- An exciting education opportunity
- Can teach visitors about the people who lived there and their lives in the past
- Earning revenue with ghost tours/return visitors
- Publicity (could also be a con?)
- Scaring people
- Does it meet the mission?
- Might attract the “wrong crowd”?
- Potential damage to historic structures and/or artifacts
- Problems with having paranormal investigator groups (lack of respect for site, history, or artifacts)
- Potential for break-ins if there is a lack of security
- Excluding some audiences (scared of ghosts or against beliefs)
- Not coming across as a serious historic site
What else would you add to this list?
So, I would love to get a conversation going about this. Should sites have ghost tours? Why or why not? Have you had a group at your site? What was the experience like?
9 replies to “Ghosts and Historic Sites”
Once upon a time, I turned up my nose to ghost tours, convinced that telling the paranormal legends took away from the “real” history. What is “real” history, anyway? I think integrating “memories” of a site, whether they are about ghosts or about legends, in the interpretation of a site is no more harmful than telling biased history or limited history at a site. In fact, when presented as a “ghost tour” or “haunted stories,” I think the public is more likely to walk away understanding that what they were listening to was closer to the side of fiction than fact. That is not always the case for those who leave historic sites that tell incomplete (or inaccurate) stories. I agree with Abigail about the similarities between ghost tours and re-enactments.
Additionally, ghosts stories are not a “new” thing; many historic sites have had stories of hauntings before the sites were “historic.” Weaving in collective memory of a place (even if the memory is not “fact”) is just another way to present the history in a manner that connects to visitors.
I saw this yesterday: http://historyatcu.com/2012/10/31/ghost-walk-2012/ . It seemed to fit in with what you were talking about (a cultural institution giving ghost-themed historic tours). Just thought I’d pass it along!
I’m on the curmudgeon side of this one. Appalachian Ghost Walk Tours contacted Tusculum College asking to include the entire campus (!) on their tour. As far as I know, the College would have received no cut of the money and our president said no. That sort of relived me of having to be the bad guy, and to be fair, this is a working college campus, we don’t need a potentially disruptive outside element to worry about. That being said I am totally down with mourning customs programs, really enjoyed the Yellow Fever tour in Savannah, and am totally down with spooky storytelling as a program element. I draw the line at presenting hauntings and paranormal experiences as truth at my site. DO NOT ask to bring an ectoplasm reader or whatever in my historic house.
There is a very rich tradition of haunted folklore in the American South which is well-documented. I would have absolutely no problem with a museum exhibit specifically designed to educate the public about these types of local legends. Oral histories on this subject have been passed down through many generations, and the storytelling can be quite compelling. These paranormal excursions, however, have nothing to do with interpreting local history in my estimation, and they only serve to diminish the public history profession…
Thanks for the great article, and for attempting to further explore a “taboo” topic. Just wanted to let you know I linked to this article in my latest blog post.