Savannah, Ga. After night falls, the open air trolley, painted black and decorated with fake spider webs, goblins and a stuffed black cat, winds through the city's downtown squares, stopping finally at a stately stone mansion that is said to be haunted.
Lexi, the spirit conductor for the Ghosts & Gravestones tour, ushers the amateur ghost hunters off the bus, warning them of the apparitions they might encounter inside the Sorrell-Weed House, which gained national recognition two years ago when it was featured on the Sci Fi Channel's "Ghost Hunters" show.
People are said to have experienced at least three ghosts here - a man in a dark suit, perhaps Francis Sorrell, a wealthy coffee merchant who lived in the house in the 1800s; a woman dressed in white, perhaps his wife, Matilda, who jumped to her death from the second floor balcony after catching her husband in bed with a slave woman; and Molly, the slave, who was found hanged a short time later.
War, murders and voodoo
Savannah, a city whose 274-year history is marked by slave lynchings, Revolutionary and Civil wars, famine and chilling tales of brutal murders and voodoo curses, was designated America's Most Haunted City in 2002 by the American Institute of Parapsychology. And the city's tourism industry wasted no time taking advantage of it.
With more than 30 companies offering tours of dozens of haunted sites, from haunted hotels to cemeteries, Savannah has become a leader in the growing business of ghost tours. Ghosts and Gravestones has about 200 patrons each night. But there are so many tourists looking for ghosts in Savannah, from walking tours to riding in a hearse, that they sometimes bump into one another.
Cities and small town across the country have jumped on the ghost circuit bandwagon, and thousands of ghost-hunting clubs have sprung up, turning ghost tourism into a multi-billion dollar business that thrives beyond Halloween.
Some offer overnight packages, where guests can spend the night in a haunted hotel. Others allow guests to wander through haunted buildings, armed with hand-held ghost-detecting meters or night vision goggles, searching for proof of paranormal activity.
While the interest in paranormal always has been high, experts said, in the last decade the proliferation of television programs such as "Ghost Hunters" and the PBS series, "Southern Haunts," has given Americans a new fascination with the subject.
"Interest in the paranormal has grown because times are tough right now and people are looking for answers. People are becoming more spiritual," said Chip Coffey, host of a new A&E Television Network series "Paranormal State." "If you look at the whole aspect of it, if ghosts are real and spirits are real, people have the knowledge that the soul exists after the body is dead."
One thing that makes Savannah unique, said Joseph Marinelli, president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, is that the city is built on ancient burial grounds of Africans who were brought here as slaves and of Indians who first inhabited the land.
While some haunting stories are more recent, many have been passed down through generations. Though figuring out exactly who the ghosts are can be challenging, everyone from professional ghost hunters to amateurs with digital cameras, tape recorders and even the human eye have documented their existence.
"Like anything else that has to do with history, along with that comes embellishment and having a good time," said Marinelli, noting that about 10 percent of the 7 million visitors to Savannah this year will take a ghost tour and add around $200 million to the local economy.
Shannon Scott, owner of Sixth Sense Savannah, said there is hardly any place in Savannah that is not haunted because the area seems to be a magnet for the paranormal.
While the ghost tour extends through much of downtown Savannah, an area of million-dollar renovated homes and social activities that appeal mostly to the white middle class, the root of the ghost tales comes from the Gullah people, descendants of African slaves who were brought here in the 1700s, Scott said.