Thursday, April 10, 2008


By Cathy Pickens

It’s spring, full of flowers and pollen and – at least in Charlotte – little green inch worms charmingly named “canker worms” that can devour entire tree canopies with the ease of a horde of seventh-graders in a bag of Doritos. [We won’t even talk about the palmetto bug I saw in a fabric store restroom this week, except to say it could have carried me off, had I not slammed the door and run. Roaches, by any other name and in any size, are my sworn enemy. Warning for those of you not from the South: palmetto bugs are the size of skateboards ... and they FLY!]

So, in the midst of a lovely spring, why bring up scary things, like bugs … and ghost tours?

Because springtime means the start of summer vacation planning and folks looking for fun things to do outside. And because tours of the macabre are more fun than flying roaches.

When visiting a city, I hope to find a ghost walk or mystery tour. Why? Because the scary stories often tell more about who we are and where we came from than traditional “history” tours.

I love these tours and the stories so much I wrote one for Charleston, South Carolina -- Charleston Mysteries, a mystery walking tour and quirky history of one of my favorite cities.

Our Denver Adventures

In Denver last month for the Left Coast Crime mystery fan convention, my husband and I signed on for two tours that showed a side of Denver the Chamber of Commerce might have preferred we ignored.

The first was a Denver crime tour, planned by Denver mystery writer Mario Acevedo. He’d done his homework – lots of it. We rode around in a wildly decorated “Prison Party Bus” [that you, too, can rent for your next Denver event] and visited famous sites such as the driveway where the original radio shock-jock Alan Berg was gunned down by white supremacists.

Our Denver weekend ended with a trip to the gorgeous Stanley Hotel at the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park – and the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. If you have the chance, take the tour the hotel offers, full of good stories and behind-the-scenes glimpses of this historic hotel. You can also visit it by watching the miniseries filmed on location (though not the Jack Nicholson movie, which wasn’t filmed there).

Why Ghost Tours?

Ghost stories are, after all, a rich form of folklore. In the hill country where I grew up, few grandmothers today warn their young’uns about ghost dogs awaiting them around the bend on a moonlit path. Why? Because few grandmothers these days walk down moonlit woodland paths on their way home from church of a Wednesday night. How would they have the chance to see a ghost dog, speeding along a four-lane highway in their Grand Caravan or their Buick sedan?

But in my grandmother’s time, ghost dogs roamed the hills, and people whispered about how, on one mountain, the very ground itself would crack and moan. Times change, but the stories left behind tell us a lot about that lost place.

In Columbia, South Carolina, we learned about grave hidden beneath the church when it expanded, a grave with a picture window in the top, and the trap door where the family could crawl under the church to visit. The fear of premature burial, the nearness and sacredness of the departed, are values that aren’t as easily nourished in manicured perpetual care.

In New Orleans, we were met in a bar by a Chapel Hill-trained historian who’d grown up in the Quarter. With a drink in one hand and a walking cane in the other, he regaled us with tales of scandal old and new. His perspective on New Orleans and Louisiana politics did more to explain, two years later, what happened post-Katrina than any number of newscasters.

Near midnight in Edinburgh, Scotland, led by a cloaked figure, we listened to our footsteps echo against centuries-old stone walls and imagined the terror of those who could only wait for the Black Death. We stood in the lamp-lit underground passages, surrounded by tales of the man who became Doctor Jekyll. Illness and madness have different explanations these days. Are we any safer?

Underground Seattle. A boat tour of haunted Chicago. Even the Spy Museum in Washington – okay, not folklore exactly, but fun and scary at the same time.

Your Favorites?

Do you have any favorite ghost or mystery tours? Good ghost tour books you’d recommend? Share them with us. And, as you plan your summer excursions, keep your eye open for an offbeat view of your favorite destination. The kids won’t be rolling their eyes about yet another boring history tour, I guarantee it!

Book Festival Follow-Up

Thanks for the comments on the last post asking for leads to area book festivals. Good suggestions! If you have any others, hit the comment button on the February archive or comment below.

1 comment:

purpleprose 78 said...

I grew up in the woods of South old house without a ghost story is like a fresh tomato without the pepper. Tasty, but not very interesting.