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How did ghost tourism start?

Ghost tourism in the U.S. first solidified as an industry between the 1840s and the 1890s, a time when society lived under the shadow of death.

The innumerable casualties of the Civil War, along with the spread of infectious diseases in newly built towns, had Americans looking for solace in pastimes that suggested life after death.

People attended seances in public theaters and visited mediums in an attempt to communicate with spirits — and that desire to communicate with the "other side" is still the main reason ghost tourism remains popular today.

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'Nobody knows for sure'

Giovanni Alabiso, actor, owner and tour guide of Salem Historical Tours, says, “I think it's the supernatural, paranormal aspect of this that draws people, because nobody knows for sure. You know, ‘What is a ghost? What happens after you die?’ The more evidence they get, they can come up with something in their own lives that makes sense.”

Even though Salem sees 30% of its annual tourists in October, according to Alabiso, “The rest of the year, you'll see a lot of people coming, because it's such a compelling story.”

Salem, of course, is the setting of the Puritan witch trials — but in a city that is 400 years old, there are plenty more ghosts to be had.

“I've had a few things happen here in the building,” says Alabiso. “Stuff, like, flying off the shelves. We're in an old building that's from 1805. One woman died on the property when she ate bread laced with arsenic. So, you know, it could be her.”

A few more stories to whet your appetite

Although there are innumerable ghost destinations throughout the U.S., here are two of the country’s best-known horror houses, one on either coast, waiting to welcome you with their open, skeletal arms.

The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA

Sarah Winchester, widow to the heir of Winchester rifle company, had her 160-room mansion under construction from 1884 to 1922.

The castle is a labyrinth: doors and staircases that lead nowhere, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windows. It was allegedly built out of a sense of guilt — Sarah did not want the spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles to be able to find her.

A few months after she died, it was opened as a museum. It is estimated to bring in as much as $5 million a year.

The Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, MA

Or, if you feel like potentially breaking bread with the ghosts of acquitted murderers, there is the opportunity to stay at the Victorian-era furnished, Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The B&B, in operation since the 1990s, was acquired by “U.S. Ghost Adventures” in 2021.

Before the pandemic, it was estimated to make $750 million in annual gross revenue, and entertained about 54,000 visitors each year.

Overnight guests have reported seeing shadowy figures in the corners of rooms, empty rocking chairs suddenly start to move, and felt someone, or something, tugging on their ears.

While being scarred for life comes free of charge, the continental breakfast costs extra.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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