Whether you believe ghosts exist or not, I think most visitors would agree that if they did in fact exist, there would be a whole community of them living in Gettysburg. Upon entering the stores downtown and looking at the merchandise, it becomes very clear that store owners feed this fascination. Any visitor is bound to see the typical “got ghosts? Gettysburg does” t-shirt or similar merchandise elsewhere in town. The Gettysburg Tour Center even features a selection of books ranging from The Big Book of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories to I Met a Ghost at Gettysburg. Just a few aisles over, next to the “Heritage Not Hate” mugs, there are mouse pads, shot glasses, and even snow globes with “Gettysburg Ghosts” printed all over them.
While many historians ardently oppose the ghost tour industry for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and trivialization of atrocities, paranormal tourism remains ubiquitous in Gettysburg. What explains this industry’s success? I decided to go out into town and ask employees and visitors why they believe it is so successful, for they, not the historians, are the ones fueling it.
My first discovery was the statistic that Ghostly Images of Gettysburg sells 20,000 tickets per season (March to November). However, this company does not deliver the typical tour full of stories of almost-dead soldiers crawling up from the sewers or the stench of bodies wafting through the air. The guides bring their attendees through either the Jenny Wade Home or the town orphanage, telling the story of the history of the sites from the perspective of a contemporary eyewitness, whether it was Johnny Reb who shot Jenny Wade or the orphanage master, respectively. The guides are the ghosts themselves, making the focus more on what they are saying than the paranormal nature of the sites.
While some tour companies do only tell stereotypical ghost tales, many companies clearly make this a point to avoid. A guide of another company articulated her belief that in order to have an effective ghost tour, history must be thoroughly intertwined. She explained, “Gettysburg is not all about ghosts—it’s the history that makes the ghosts.” Without the history, the tour would just be a series of stories told one after the other with little significance and little lasting effect on the visitor. History is the reason why people come to this town, so if visitors desire to go on a ghost tour, the presence of history should certainly be central. I was told of a company down the street that once employed a guide who told the tour attendees that they were standing above what used to be the Underground Railroad, speaking of it as if it were a physical train track underground. Apparently this comment incited laughs among the crowd. This is the type of tour we should be immediately wary of, not the tours that attempt to relate history to another field of interest.
Tour attendees commented on how these tours gave them a chance to escape reality, explore the unknown, let their imagination fill in the blanks, and spend fun quality time with their family and friends. It is clear that there is a whole spectrum of ghost tour attendees. One man said, “I just like the history in them. I don’t believe in ghosts in the sense that some tour companies do, telling stories of figures being seen, but I do believe in ghosts as spirits. However, this difference clearly doesn’t stop me from enjoying the tours.”
Another family told me that the only reason why their son and daughter originally looked forward to these historical trips was because of the ghost tours. They said that though their children are mainly interested in the ghost stories, they always are eager to discuss the history mentioned on the car ride home. The father said his son even asked to visit a different battlefield for the next month after one of these tours in town. Many others explained that they fully believed in ghosts—some even brought their own equipment to do investigations of their own during the tour. Regardless of their reasons for going on the tour, each person contributes to the businesses’ popularity.
In a country based on freedom, is it right to condemn the industry as a whole and say they should not operate? There is a clear demand for these tours—people turn their day trips into overnight stays specifically to accommodate this activity, greatly enhancing the town’s economic prosperity. From a business standpoint, these companies have every right to tell their ghost stories, whether they are founded upon history or entirely fabricated.
In the end, ghosts are always going to be a controversial subject just due to the spiritual assumptions that they require. Like many other things, ghosts cannot be proven or disproven, but that is one of the reasons why many visitors are so fascinated. As a tour patron explained, “Although we may never see ghosts, it is up to us whether we believe or not.” I think this is why these tours are so intriguing—they give the visitors a chance to explore their beliefs. Another man told me how he had a paranormal experience as a child. “I don’t believe in ghosts fully,” he insisted, “but it’s hard to argue with what I saw.” The reason why so many are disappointed with ghost tours is because they don’t have experiences like that themselves, but a guide explained that you cannot go on the tour expecting something supernatural to happen. Rather, you should just see it as a “bonus” if something does happen.
I myself absolutely love going on these tours, for, like one attendee said, “It lets your mind tackle ideas that we are often discouraged to tackle in real life.” And if nothing else, ghost tours are fun! While many tours clearly do misrepresent history and should be condemned for that, the ghost tour industry should not be blamed for those who stray from the truth. If you don’t like ghost tours, then by all means avoid them, but if you do like them, I believe everyone should be allowed to enjoy them without feeling guilty for feeding an industry that is so often labeled as a sham.