In the Dark

For a feature article appearing in the October issue of Jetstar Magazine (forthcoming), I recently spent a few weeks attending a number of ghost tours (one at Pentridge Prison; one at 'J Ward Lunatic Asylum' and one in the CBD) to research the way the Victorian ghost tourism industry is assembled to engender the experience of fear in tourists.

It was a delight to observe other tourists engaged with what they perceived to be ghosts but I had no such encounters. Not that it mattered. The Pentridge and J Ward buildings were theatres of awe-inspiring institutional atmosphere. If places should be haunted, these are it.

On the J Ward tour, our tour guide took us to a bathroom said to be so infested with poltergeists that a number of guides steer a wide berth.

A bathroom at J Ward: a hotspot for supernatural beasties, ghost tour guides say. 

A bathroom at J Ward: a hotspot for supernatural beasties, ghost tour guides say. 

Interestingly, the majority of our group did too. Although I consider myself a non-believer in ghosts, my visit to the bathroom was nevertheless hasty.

One of the interview subjects for my feature, Dr Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, is a fountain of perspective on why. Kerr is presently travelling the globe to participate in a slew of scary/thrill-seeker experiences to research how and why people enjoy thrilling and scary situations, for her forthcoming book, SCREAM: Adventures in the Upside of Fear. In our interview, she shared a lot of interesting insights into the inherent scariness of ghost tourism. I couldn't include it all in my feature, so I have included the extended interview below.


During my tour of J Ward, old strait jackets, beds and medical instruments were positioned around the institution to give the appearance they had been left untouched since the institution closed down. When these types of props and artefacts appear to be left untouched in this environment, what impact do they have on the intensity of the atmosphere?

In my visit to Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, they did a lot of this type of set design. For example, they had a coffin in the morgue and it was obviously a prop - not a real artefact. When customers are on a ghost tour and in that state of suspended disbelief, these props can enhance the immersion in the space and further the thrilling nature of the experience. They can help customers imagination set the scene and really “see” the space as the story describes it.

However, if the customer thinks too much about it and takes themselves out of the story it can actually work against the thrilling experience. For example when I was touring Hillview in New Castle PA, everything looked exactly as it was when it was abandoned and I was in awe of the beauty that can be found in abandoned spaces. And then I saw a bunch of stuffed animals on a bed. That immediately took me out of the moment as I realised it was staged and wondered what else had been modified, which took away from my appreciation of the history of the buildings. It’s OK to modify a space to show what it was like for historical accuracy - for example, Eastern State has a few cells that are set to look as they did when it was open - but in those instances it is very obvious and stated that this is a recreation meant to educate.

You needn't perceive or believe in paranormal activity on ghost tours to feel reluctant to go into certain spaces alone or in groups. If you were scouting for an allegedly haunted place in the hope you'd successfully spook even the staunchest of non-believers, what characteristics would you be seeking?

I think that if the goal is to scare customers on a ghost tour, then essentially the owners are running a haunted house attraction.  The serious ghost hunters I’ve interviewed (people who have travelled hundreds of miles and spent thousands of dollars searching for ghosts) do not actually go in wanting to be scared; they want to find ghosts and have an adventure.

The places that have been called “the most haunted”, like Hillview, West Virginia Penn, Eastern State Penn, and Trans Allegheny, all have very different approaches to how they run their ghost hunts.  Hillview, TALA, and West VA Penn do purposefully play up the whole "haunted" nature of the space and take customers to pre determined areas where usually there are props and tight spaces, rooms in states of ruin and themed lighting. The tour guides talk about especially haunted areas, tell ghost stories and talk about the best ways to find ghosts.

ESP on the other hand simply allows ghost hunters to come into the space. There is no programming or "ghost tour". Tour guides are there only for supervision; they are prohibited from telling ghost stories or telling people where ghosts have been seen. If a space is haunted, and you believe it’s haunted, you don’t need any set designs or props to prove the point. 

What was the most intense moment you experienced on the Eastern State Penn tour?

I don’t actually believe in ghosts, but observing the paranormal investigation with the group did get my heart rate going. It definitely is all about that suspension of disbelief and allowing yourself just for a moment to think maybe, maybe something is going to happen. When we were down one of the cell blocks the psychic in the group began talking to a ghost she was seeing at the end of the hall. Everyone fell completely silent and waited and watched. It was a great moment of anticipation and it was exhilarating to just think about the idea that something was about to happen. As one of the investigators said when I asked her why she does this: "It’s so much fun, it’s an adventure every time."

Some ghost tours require tourists to be over 18. What does this say about the nature of the atmosphere the tourists would be experiencing?

A lot of tours happen in buildings that are in a state of ruin and they don’t want the children to get hurt. They are also at night in large groups and concerns over who is responsible for watching the kids and keeping them safe is a real question (parents or owners?). Restricting age to over 18 can also bring down liability insurance, so there is a financial incentive. Rarely it’s because the content is "too extreme", unless they’ve done a lot of set design, bringing it more in line with a haunted house rather than a ghost tour. The ghost tour I went on the Central Cemetery in Bogota however was very intense. They had live actors recreating scenes of death that would probably have been to much for a child. I also went on a really fun ghost tour in North Carolina that included a lot of R rated comedic interpretations of ghost stories, so the content wasn’t too scary, it was too explicit. 

To stage a ghost tour that engenders a really energetic and intense response from participants, what would be your ideal type of participants?

If the goal of the tour is to provide a fun, entertaining, and thrilling experience, then you really want customers who are willing and eager to suspend their rational and logical thought and let their imagination go wild. People who actively work at NOT engaging with the stories that they are hearing, and who do NOT imagine what it might have been like in the space they are touring are not going to have as much fun. Anyone who wants to enjoy these types of experiences needs to just let themselves get lost in the story, then it can feel like you’re starring in your own scary movie.  

Are you able to give any insight into why a rationale mindset is overridden by an irrational mindset in scenario's like these?

Madeleine Doran talked about the variety of ways we can experience the marvelous, ranging from full belief that what you’re seeing is real (ie. I think a ghost is in front of me and it’s scary); they deny what they are seeing or hearing is real but do feel that gut reaction telling them to be scared and finally they can completely suspend their disbelief to experience the moment. The most fun is the complete suspension of disbelief of course. 

What's good fear versus bad fear on a ghost tour?

Good fear is all in the meaning making, meaning it’s up to the individual to cognitively interpret the experiences as enjoyable or traumatic. The same experience can be interpreted entirely differently by two people. For some having a tour guide tell a descriptive story of a tragic death which left the space haunted by the spirits can be a really thrilling to hear and they’ll interpret their own scared response as enjoyable. But for others, who may have the same physiological reaction, that story is interpreted as too tragic, too traumatic and NOT fun. Enjoyment of thrilling material is incredibly individualized.

At the end of the day ghost tours can be a really fun way to learn about the history of a building or a place, especially for folks looking for something a little bit more exhilarating than a dry historical tour. But companies should take special effort to inform customers of fact vs. fiction and make it clear whether a ghost tour is for entertainment or actual ghost hunting. The perpetuation of false and sensationalised information can actually be really detrimental to the institution hosting the tours. I think Eastern State is a great example of how to do this right. They very clearly differentiate their historical and educational programs from their facility rental offerings (which is essentially what a ghost hunt is), and their program's meant to thrill and entertain, which is Terror Behind the Walls. Trying to mix these goals or sensationalise stories in a dishonest way to increase the intrigue, in my opinion, really degrades the integrity of the institution.