There are history tours — New England is full of ’em — and then there are ghost tours, featuring local history at its most macabre. On these creepy walks, getting ghosted is a good thing; guides encourage participants to be open to the presence of spirits and spectral energy. On a Dead of Night Ghost Tour in Plymouth, you’ll trek through twisting streets and a local cemetery carrying a lantern — all the better to commune with actual ghosts. (And your host will show you how to take pictures of them.) We all know that Salem has a sordid past. You’ll learn all about it, and then some, on the paranormal-themed Voodoo, Vampires, & Ghost Tour, named one of the 10 best ghost tours in the United States by USA Today. Then there’s the Haunted Boston Ghost Tour, which reveals where the bodies are buried in our fair city (hint: everywhere). The Freedom Trail was never like this. We’ve been on dozens of these tours, from European crypt crawls to Hollywood hearse excursions. Here are three local versions that will appeal to anyone who loves a good ghost story.
Voodoo, Vampires & Ghosts in the Witch City (Salem)
It seemed strange to be hearing ghost stories in broad daylight on a sunny day in Salem, but “ghosts don’t just come out at night. That’s a myth,” says host and paranormal investigator Dr. (Mike) Vitka. “If you get murdered at 2 p.m., you’ll haunt at 2 p.m.” With his skeleton-headed walking stick and hat adorned with bones and a (faux) shrunken head, Vitka looks the part — and this former freak show employee (and Salem State University student) is an actual paranormal researcher. Vitka got involved with this tour company — one of about 30 ghost tours in Salem — after his own ghostly encounter: A friend was mysteriously attacked at a Salem office building that once housed the Old Witch Gaol, an infamous spot that held people persecuted for witchcraft. “This site turned me from a skeptic to [eventually] a paranormal expert,” Vitka says.
A compelling storyteller, Vitka shares Salem’s witch history in factual way but with lots of drama, focusing on people like Bridget Bishop, the first colonist in Salem hanged as a witch—“She was unpopular, wore slutty clothes, had a messy yard and an illegal tavern,” Vitka says, so she was fair game during the frenzy of 1692. Bishop was accused of bewitching all the men in Salem and was hung (with only “spectral evidence, no physical evidence”) on Gallows Hill. That spot is so cursed, “even professional ghost hunters, and animals, don’t want to go there,” Vitka says. “It’s dead quiet.”
The walking tour, which covers less than a mile (and does not include Gallows Hill), winds up at the Charter Street Burying Ground, where benches mark each person killed during the witch trials, and voodoo practitioners leave burnt candles as offerings. Along the way, Vitka discusses Salem locales that are deemed haunted today, such as a seafood restaurant (the building was once owned by Bridget Bishop) and a local bar, where people have seen apparitions (ghostly “energy that looks like a real person”). Near Old Town Hall, where the movie “Hocus Pocus” was filmed, things start to get icky, as Vitka shares stories about blood fetishists and “true vampires” and their donors. Given this, and the stories about people being pressed to death, and the rotting corpses, we wouldn’t recommend this tour for kids.
Adults — even those who’ve heard the story of the Salem witch trials dozens of times — will definitely learn something. Plus, it’s a great excuse to visit a city where you can take a selfie with a zombie and get your aura photographed — even when it’s not Halloween. Salem’s witchy history may date back to 1692, but the story continues to evolve. “If you come back in five years, we’ll have new information, even though these events happened centuries ago,” Vitka says. “The witch trails may never be laid to rest.”
Voodoo, Vampires & Ghosts Tour runs at 8 p.m. nightly from April through November, and also at 2 p.m. Fri.-Sun. Additional tours are offered in October during Salem’s Haunted Happenings. $15; www.spellboundtours.com.
Dead of Night Ghost Tours (Plymouth)
In her former job as a paramedic, Jan Williams saw dead people — and she saw ghosts. “I needed to know who those ghosts were, and tried to figure it out. It’s like playing CSI with the dead,” Williams explains. It was her own near-death experience that propelled her to buy a hearse and start a ghost tour business in Plymouth. This seems to be a match made in heaven: “Plymouth is crawling with spirits,” according to the ghost hunter. “I’ve seen so many things that I can’t explain.”
Williams shares stories she’s heard from local folk, who do renovation projects (perhaps digging up a basement) and rile up the spirits. Some people find bones in their cellars, she notes. Centuries ago, “when the ground froze, you couldn’t bury the dead, so you’d put them in the cellar,” she notes, “or people would put nana in a chair by the window to keep her fresh” until springtime. Williams tells homeowners to make peace with their ghosts. “Your ghosts have been here for 400 years, so burning a little sage is not going to get rid of them,” she says. Plus, they’re fairly harmless. “I haven’t met one bad ghost,” she says.
As you wander the streets of Plymouth’s downtown on this after-dark tour, carrying a lantern, Williams shares iPhone photos taken of ghostly figures that appear in a the windows of some of the city’s historic buildings. These were taken by tour-goers. (Her best advice for taking ghost images: Keep your flash on, and don’t zoom in.) Stopping points include the Old Courthouse — now a museum — home of the old jail. “For an intense experience, visit the ladies’ room,” she advises. “You might hear a sound like Michael Jackson moonwalking.” But no — it’s the dragging of bodies; frozen sailors from the brigantine General Arnold in 1778, stranded in Plymouth Harbor during a nor’easter, and stored in the building until they could be pulled out and buried on Burial Hill.
Burial Hill is the last stop on the tour, the final resting place of numerous Mayflower descendants. This is where Williams really comes alive, describing centuries-old burial customs as her assistant, Bob, wields an electromagnetic field reader (EMF) to look for static charges released by spirits. One of Williams’s best — and creepiest — stories involves the phrase “saved by the bell” and its connection to people who were accidentally buried alive. Hearing this tale in a dark cemetery might send tingles up your spine. But the scariest part of this tour is surely the owner’s Curiosity Shop, open only to tour-goers. The creepy dolls in her collection would frighten even Pennywise.
Dead of Night Ghost Tours, nightly at 7:30. Year-round, weather permitting. 90-minute tour, $15; two-hour tour with admission to two historic houses, $20. 508-866-5111; www.deadofnightghosttours.com.
Haunted Boston Ghost Tours (Boston)
“Boston has bodies buried everywhere,” says guide Aline Kaplan of Haunted Boston Ghost Tours. In fact, you may have strolled over Colonial-era corpses on your way to the tour’s meeting place, Central Burying Ground on Boston Common. While digging up Boylston Street to put in the subway’s Green line, city employees made a gruesome discovery: hundreds of bodies and body parts, comprising a mass grave of British soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War. One of them is still around, it seems. “To this day, conductors coming around the corner will see a British soldier with a musket. But of course, there’s nobody there, it’s just a spirit,” Kaplan says. The ghost stories told on this tour are documented — “everything is fact-based,” the guide notes. But, unlike other ghost tours in the city, “nobody is going to jump out and try to scare you!”
(If you do want some jump-scares, opt for the Ghosts & Gravestones tour — www.ghostsandgravestones.com. They share some of the same stories but add costumed characters and crazy theatrics to the experience.)
This walking tour goes from the entrance of Central Burying Ground on Boylston Street (“spook central,” Kaplan calls it) through Boston Common to Beacon Hill, and winds up at “the city’s most-haunted hotel,” the Omni Parker House. These local haunts take on a decidedly creepy feel after dark, as Kaplan reveals their backstories: the corner of the Common where the Puritans staged hangings; the tombs dug up by grave robbers (who sold the corpses to doctors at Mass General to practice on); Boston’s own “phantom of the opera” at the Emerson Colonial Theatre; the book bound in human skin in the Boston Athenaeum. You get the idea — Boston has as many ghost stories as we have championship titles. And that’s saying something.
Haunted Boston Ghost Tours, nightly at 8 p.m. to Nov. 10, rain or shine. 90-minute tour, $18. 6177-401-0520; www.hauntedboston.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.