Paranormal tourism: Fun or fraud?

Loch Ness, Scotland. Willow Creek, California. Raystown Lake, Pennsylvania. Lake Champlain, Vermont/New York. Pine Barrens, New Jersey. All these locations and many more succeed in capitalizing on their famous monsters to draw in visitors.

Even a greater draw than monsters are ghosts. It is standard for historic U.S. towns, particularly in the south and northeast to have multiple ghost tours available. I have trouble tracking how many ghost tours exist in the Mecca of paranormal pickings – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. You can’t go a block without seeing an advertisement for such a business. I’ve investigated a ghost tour of a historic sea side town in New Jersey and was less than impressed.

When a town is in need of a tourist attraction, should they stoop to publicizing the local paranormal lore to draw attention?

Ghost tours attract families for an after-hours casual walking trip. It’s a fun and safe thing to do. The paranormal experience is just out of reach so as to not be particularly frightening and the guides are meant to be entertaining and not pushy regarding belief or disbelief. They let YOU decide. What’s the harm in using local legends to boost tourism?

The latest example of jumping on the paranormal tour bandwagon is Flemington, New Jersey. According to this story, Flemington is in need of economic revitalization. One businessperson is not opposed to promoting ghost stories as a way to help draw interest in the old hotel. Commenting on the request from the local paranormal group who asked permission to investigate the building prior to renovation, he explains.

LoPiccolo, who wants to cultivate all forms of enthusiasm for the hotel, is checking with attorneys and the owners to see if Cook can return with a crew. The editors of Weird New Jersey magazine are also interested, he said.

Even the paranormal investigator is open about the public’s appetite for spooky stories.

Cook [paranormal investigator] says he’d like to bring in six to eight people, including “a couple of sensitives and a psychic,” along with a recording device to try to pick up EVP (electronic voice phenomena), laser grids to detect movements or shadows, and geophones to feel vibrations. He said paranormal investigations and discoveries are good for businesses – the hard-core nonbelievers don’t care, while just about everyone else is intrigued.

I care! And I’m not particularly “intrigued”.

Subjective, worthless ghost investigation reports are available by the thousands online with permission from the property owners. A few paranormal groups will “certify” your location as “haunted”. This strongly supports the trend of businesses deliberately SEEKING this type of publicity.

Labeling a location “haunted” is silly and borders on fraud. Ghost stories are stories. Unexplained or unnerving experiences that any individuals have reported in the past can not be confirmed. Once in a while, a historic tragedy can be confirmed at a precise location but a critical point is ignored: NO ONE HAS BEEN ABLE TO DEMONSTRATE THAT GHOSTS EXIST! So, to say so matter-of-factly that a spirit lingers there that causes a visitor to get the heebie-jeebies is unreasonable speculation. Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible. Ghost stories lend a particular atmosphere to historic places. Or, one may also conclude that historic places ooze with a “haunted” atmosphere cultivated by our pro-paranormal pop culture.

Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality. I don’t begrudge businesses for offering ghost tours as a way to explore a location and it’s history (because I think there actually IS a way to do it in an unobjectionable way), but it can easily go beyond entertainment and, thus, contribute to the promotion of paranormal belief in our society. It’s the 21st century; we need to move beyond that low level of understanding.

Been on any GOOD ghost tours? Why were they good? Let me know in the comments.

About Sharon Hill

Actively skeptical since 1993. Specializing in monsters, ghosts and the fakey science that people use to justify belief in the existence of the paranormal. Visit her news blog at Doubtful News Follow on Twitter at @idoubtit
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14 Responses to Paranormal tourism: Fun or fraud?

  1. swskeptic says:

    I think this author might be taking to much of a hard line approach here. I mean lets be honest, I think the investigator is right when he says “the hard-core nonbelievers don’t care, while just about everyone else is intrigued.”.

    I think Ms. Hill is getting a little bit more worked up about this than is necessary. This “paranormal tourism” doesn’t hurt anyone as far as I can tell. Some ghost “hunters” show up and have a bunch of fun with their friends. They come out saying they saw some ghosts and “caught” some EVP’s. This creates an aura of mystery around places that may draw in a bigger crowds than it otherwise would have.

    A bunch of people get to hang out and have fun for a night and a local economy might get a boost from it. I’m not seeing the part where anyone should give a damn.

    Ms. Hill argues that these people are promoting a “low level of understanding”. I don’t think this is the case. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I don’t think going out and “hunting” them is wrong. Sometimes it’s fun to give yourself the creeps.

    • Sharon Hill says:

      I would counter that many more people than you think buy into the nonsense that ghost hunters call “science”. There are thousands of these groups of amateurs that think they are collecting data that represents ghosts and is “scientific”. As I note, these activities and these ghost tours, while frivolous fun to most people, are taken seriously by too many. Besides that, I didn’t even mention that some of them really suck. They get the history wrong and pass on erroneous information. They also fail to consider even normal explanations but play up the spooky experiences instead. I think it’s mostly a dubious business. Sure there are fun ones, and good ones, but most of them take advantage of people’s interest and need to believe in the paranormal.

  2. Guy McCardle says:

    In my humble opinion I think those ghost tours are a sort of fun fiction, kind of like the Easter Bunny. As long as it is kept as light fun, with just a nod and a wink to the paranormal, there is no harm done.

    • Sharon Hill says:

      Sure, to you, with a skeptical mindset.

      The percentage of Americans that believe in ghosts ranges from 20-50% depending on the poll. That’s a significant portion of the population that eats this stuff up as it’s fed to them. Uncritically.

  3. spookyparadigm says:

    I’ve never been on a professional ghost tour, and they do not interest me. This stems not only from ghostly things being my least favorite of the big three in forteana, but because they seem like such blatant cash grabs, and I would assume that, never minding any issue of any reality to claims of haunting, that I would not be able to trust that I wasn’t just being told stories made up by the tour company. I saw the earlier days of the ghost tours in Gettysburg back in 1998 (they weren’t there in the later 1980s AFAIK), and they looked a bit pathetic. A friend of mine went on one of the ghost tours in Gettysburg, and in addition to the tour guide’s normal routine, there were two guys who were avocational ghost hunters, and brought with them an ovilus. It was apparently absurdly funny, to the point of annoyance, that this thing kept spitting out words it was apparently grabbing from EVPs or something (IIRC, she said that at one portentious stop, the machine suddenly shouted out BUTTER). Moreover, I’ve seen some of them in action in New Orleans, and I was able to compare it with my own.

    One Halloween season, I conducted my own tour of “haunted and forgotten” New Orleans for a group of about 20 anthropology graduate students and faculty, mixing in some of the better known haunting legends of the French Quarter with more forgotten bits of history (including the headquarters of the United Fruit Company where it launched its exploitation of Central America, what has been called the most racist monument in America (a monument to racist white revolt against Reconstruction, which has been moved, modified, defaced, and repaired constantly by different political factions for the history of its existence), and even where Lee Harvey Oswald’s anti-Castro political office had been (better scouting in advance would have clued me in that it is now a Federal building). The whole idea was to have a bit of fun (we ended the evening at LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest building in town, the place where the LaFitte family apparently [something noted on their website, that it may be legend, but it is plausible] sold their stolen wares, and a decent bar), and engage some of my colleagues with a bit of local history they likely (and indeed) did not know.

    At the LaLaurie House, the big enchilada of haunted houses in New Orleans, we were there when several of the big professional tours rolled by. My presentation gave the story, and talked about how it had evolved through time (you can read the original accounts from 1834 in the New Orleans Bee at Nola.com, I think), with the more gruesome and unbelievable bits being added as time went, and to meet the cultural standards of the day (the most gruesome stories of medical experimentation inside the house, not surprisingly, emerge in print only a few years after the Nazi atrocities of WWII). When the professional tour came by, I quieted down, and we listened to the professionals, and they just rattled off all the stories I had talked about being apocryphal, playing up the blood and gore. I didn’t say anything until they left, since the big goth-esque tour guide had a solid-looking walking stick and had been eying our group, presumably thinking someone new had set up shop.

    I have, however, engaged in probably more than my fair share of paranormal tourism, with a trip to Roswell for their UFO Festival (with the aim of helping a piece I was writing on crashed UFO legends), a half-day wandering around the tramping ground of the Mothman in Point Pleasant, as well as some side trips to places of fortean lore that do not have a tourist industry (though Loveland does have a Frog festival now, apparently). For me, I put these in the same vein as my recent trip to New England to visit sites of interest and inspiration for horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, atmospheric excursions into an imaginary spooky realm with ties to geography, history, and culture.

    I think Sharon, your approach in the blog post is part right, part maybe not the way to go, necessarily. I’ll address the second issue first. It smacks of the old complaints I’d read in Skeptical Inquirer about all the paranormal junk in scripted tv. I’m not talking “documentaries,” and this was before the days of reality shows. People like this stuff as it both entertains and intrigues a lot of folks, and I don’t think any level of arguing “just don’t look” is going to work.

    Instead, I’d point to the tack that is emerging in skeptical approaches to cryptozoology in particular, a refocus of efforts and approach that goes beyond rebranding, to become monster investigators rather than skeptics. I am of course pointing to the folks at Monster Talk, and to Ben Radford’s recent and compelling book-length work on the chupacabra. This approach addresses the reality, that people are interested in this stuff, and that the best answer is to actually give them an answer at least as rich, and preferably much richer, than the less-well-researched ones. In regards to ghost tourism, would the answer not be that, if there are local skeptics, they might organize their own tours of “Haunted and Forgotten [wherever],” doing some research into the history of claims, and presenting it? Sure, this can’t be done everywhere, given how easy it is to just install a ghost tour (as you note). Just beware goths carrying big walking sticks.

    This would also address the part I think you’re quite on about, and that is addressing the problems that ‘researchers,’ or what you call ARIGs, present. I can see how there would be a difference between presenting a tour as just a tour, and presenting it as part of the activities of a research group. But I wonder if the best way to deal with it would not be to show the alternative, and let them hoist themselves on their own petard. While I could be wrong about this, which is going to decrease interest in ghost hunting more: a skeptic just brushing the whole thing off and “forbidding it” if you will, or two guys jumping around in the bushes with a radio shack device screaming BUTTER?

    • Sharon Hill says:

      Re: a different approach… Yes! That’s what I was hinting at when I said I think there is a less objectionable way. I’ve held the idea for a while that nonbelievers can also run entertaining ghost tours and talk about paranormal experiences just as well.

  4. spookyparadigm says:

    PS: Here’s the link to the LaLaurie stuff on Nola.com. It is not a skeptical presentation per se, but it has the original newspaper articles, dates the later stories, and so on, and therefore provides more context than the “homogenized” version you’ll typically get. I add the think because the full site doesn’t easily show up in google.

    http://www.nola.com/lalaurie/indexIntro.html

  5. spookyparadigm says:

    PPS: Nearly forgot. Since I was in New Orleans, they’ve opened the LaLaurie House up as a ghost tour, and I’ll go out on a limb and guess I’d probably be unimpressed.

  6. Frank Watson says:

    Some ghosts hunts companies do a little spooky paranormal faking but the majority really are in touch with the other side. My ghost tour company [redacted] do not fake anything, our local psychic mediums and tarot readers tell it like it is. A recent trip up Pendle Hill proved this. We also have local historians who can prove the facts are really true.
    Frank Watson, Clitheroe

  7. bryan says:

    Paranormal tourism: Skepticism in disguise
    A response to Paranormal tourism: Fun or fraud? (skeptoid.com blog)

    There is a huge interest in all varieties of the Ghostly/Paranormal topic. Because of the interest people have been jumping onto the paranormal tour bandwagon.

    This is usually a bad idea because of the people that are hosting these type of tours/events. They are usually the “Ghost hunter” type that have a firm belief in only the ghostly explanation for any as yet unexplained happening or urban legend.

    The question of what’s the harm in this type of event should be obvious. The hosts of these events are usually making some kind of profit while promoting different types of pseudo-science, but also have various products such as readings, classes, etc… that only add to the promotion of the believer mindset. Because these people are speaking from a position of perceived authority they are not questioned and the people attending these events are taken as the authorities on the subject of the paranormal.

    We have witnessed these types of Para-Stupid on several occasions.
    A case that not only shows the lack of critical thinking but the promotion of unethical and dangerous behaviors can be seen in the article Rest in Peace http://www.karenstollznow.com/Karen_Stollznow/Home/Entries/2011/6/13_Rest_In_Peace.html this example is of a team who hosts a “haunted tour/investigation” of a local cemetery but relies on pseudo-scientific practices and confirmation bias to promote their additional classes & equipment sales that they offer.

    Another example is that of a local walking tour who has added on to the urban legend stories of locations to increase the scare for more ticket sales. They have added stories of Satanic rituals, human sacrifice and even accused State historical figures of grave robbing.

    We understand that there will always be an interest in these kind of events and have decided to approach those who are interested from a different angle to help them expand their critical thinking skills and promote skepticism while still offering historical facts and telling ghost stories.

    This is done by hosting “haunted tours” and then using the colorful histories of locations to keep the interest of the people on tours but still offer the “ghost stories” to them as urban legend and personal experiences had by other people. This keeps the Haunt in the Haunted-Tour while exposing the general population to ways of thinking that they would not be able to get on any other Haunted-Tour.

    We always explain that there has never been a single case of a reported haunting that has been proven to be a ghost, while exposing them to other possibilities which may have caused such reported phenomena.

    Comments from guests on our Haunted Tours show that this approach works:

    “Though there are unexplained stories and incidences, it does not mean one can jump to supernatural conclusions.

    To understand the real history and comprehend the development of paranormal claims is far more satisfying than simply believing the story at face-value.

    It is important to rely on the facts and investigate the real events that have led to the stories.
    Misinterpretations, speculations, and embellishments are common amongst stories of the supernatural. It is therefore important to maintain a skeptical outlook.”

    “As we departed for our first creepy destination, we were reminded by our tour guides, Bryan Bonner & Matthew Baxter, that the most important tool we need to enjoy our evening is a critical mind. Hearing this on a Haunted tour was a bit ironic at first, but would prove to be valuable later on.”

    “Being a native of Colorado and the Denver area, I knew some of the history and some of the urban legends… but the guys from Rocky Mountain Paranormal set some of the facts straight and sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and more interesting. These guys are the real deal. It has renewed my interest in Denver history.”

    By just ignoring the people interested in this type of event or even the television shows that are based around the Ghost Hunting fad we are not helping people grow their critical thinking skills. It is an unfortunate fact that because of the huge exposure para-stupid gets in the media that people are interested and it is not going to go away. So why don’t we use this opportunity to help people understand the reality behind the claims and maybe even make a few more ex-believers Skeptics?
    This tourism portion is only the beginning of the issue. There are many other types of similar issues in this Para-stupid field. What if a person believes that they have some type of paranormal activity in their home? Who can they call that will not feed into the beliefs that they already have about the home?

    We need to promote skepticism through outreach and this means getting into the trenches with the believers, speaking their language and helping them understand facts vs. fiction.

    • Sharon Hill says:

      Thanks, Bryan. You guys do great outreach work. This is the kind of ghost tour I mean when I say it can be done right. Not only can the participant learn some genuine history but also some critical thinking skills and a primer on how they can be fooled. Love it.

  8. Sharon Hill says:

    I found this report by Karen Stoltznow regarding a ghost tour in a cemetery. It illustrates a bit more about what I was talking about. And, it shows just how disrespectful people can be of shared historical areas. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1349-a-grave-matter.html

  9. eccentric says:

    This is the most ridiculous indictment of ghost tours that I have ever heard. People go on these things to be entertained. If they already believe in ghosts, they will continue to believe in ghosts regardless of whether they take a tour. If they don’t, they will either be amused by the tales as folklore, or they will spend the whole tour rolling their eyes and acting so superior. If someone truly is so easily swayed that they suddenly believe in ghosts just because they went on a ghost tour, they’ve got far bigger problems than whether or not they now believe in ghosts.

  10. I’m personally acquainted with many who take such tours completely seriously. I took one aboard the Queen Mary and very few people thought it was all in fun. Some even held an impromptu seance on their own in the middle of the tour, hoping to talk to the ghosts. I’m sure my anecdote is not the only one.

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