Nestled in the grass of Signers Garden in Old City, the lantern barely illuminates the woman standing behind it. She wears a long black dress, trimmed with lace and fastened across the back with brass buttons. Our guide for the evening, Kate, made it herself; it’s one of two gowns she dons for these nights when she steps away from her day job as a Wawa manager to lead crowds of believers and skeptics alike on a tour of haunted Philadelphia.
She gestures for us to come closer. In the distance, four other groups, led by lantern-bearing guides, set off on different routes through Old City. It’s a little after 7:30 p.m., and while we’ll be released from haunted Philly in an hour and a half, the guides’ work has only begun. In the month leading up to Halloween, the Ghost Tour of Philadelphia company doubles its offerings on Fridays and Saturdays, adding a 9:30 p.m. tour to accommodate the extra crowds and those hoping the later hour will add an extra layer of fright.
We’ve formed a half-circle around the lantern, and Kate gestures behind her. The lights of Independence Hall flicker in the distance, and a statue of a man holding aloft a rolled-up copy of the Constitution towers above us. “I don’t think there’s any city in the United States that can claim quite as many historic sites or shrines as Philadelphia,” Kate says. “When you’re walking in these streets, you’re walking in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before you.”
She adds, “the history is true; it comes from books, interviews, articles. The paranormal activity I’m going to be talking about has been consistently documented over the last several centuries.” Kate looks out at all of us, wrapping our scarves tighter against the cold. “It’s up to you to decide whether the ghosts I’m talking about are real.”
After 12 years of leading tours, Kate’s delivery is perfect; the swoosh of her dress against the grass adds just the right touch of atmosphere. But the first ghost tour through Old City was a more subdued affair, says Eileen Reeser, the founder of the company that leads haunted walks through Philadelphia and seven other U.S. cities. It was 1997, Reeser says, and “we raised a lot of eyebrows.” Though thousands of ghost tours now operate in cities across the U.S., the fright tourism industry was all but nonexistent in the late ‘90s. Reeser suspects that hers is the second-oldest ghost-tour company in the U.S., but it’s difficult to pin down.
Reeser stumbled into haunted tourism almost by accident. Around the late 1980s, she and her husband set up a haunted house in Cape May, New Jersey, to try to raise a little extra money during a tough financial year. While haunted houses were fairly uncommon at the time, the Reesers were tapping into a nascent cultural trend, says Alena Pirok, a doctoral student in public history at the University of South Florida, who studies the intersection of ghost stories and people’s understanding of the past. A pop fascination with ghosts had begun to inflect TV, movies, and books, and traditional historical tourism was falling on hard times. “The 1990s was a challenging time for a lot of historical sites because people were becoming disillusioned with popular representations of the past,” Pirok says.
The Reesers expanded their business to launch tours in cities throughout Pennsylvania and Florida. “We were pretty conservative at first,” Reeser says. She led a lot of the early tours, and the guides she brought on to assist all wore plain clothes, and stuck to the facts. “You can’t tell a good ghost story without talking about why or how or whom—and that’s just history,” Reeser says.
But ghost tours, she adds, also feed on an attraction to the inexplicable or invisible.“We’re pretty distant from death, here in the States,” Reeser says. “No wars have been recently fought here; a lot of people are looking for a way to experience death more immediately.”
Reeser obsessively digs through cities’ forgotten stories, scanning documents for unusual deaths, and knocking on the doors of supposedly haunted places to interview the present occupants.
Occasionally, the supernatural stories get a little more tangible. Some years ago, Reeser was leading a tour though Philadelphia, and brought the group to the churchyard of St. Peter’s. As she was concluding a story about a woman who’s often seen floating through the graves, a man raised his camera, took a picture, and gasped. In the background of the photograph was a specter not unlike the woman Reeser had just described. “People were visibly shaken,” Reeser says. About half the group left the tour.
As Kate leads us from Library Hall, where a ghostly Ben Franklin reportedly walks the stacks, to Carpenters’ Hall, where one of the first bank robberies in the U.S. left a ghostly presence, the undead are merely a suggestion: the stories, Reeser says, are what really matter. But when we arrive at Washington Square, Kate tells us that “of all the places you might see a ghost this evening, this is probably one of the most likely spots.” The ground beneath our feet is a mass burial site: 2,000 dead came from the Revolutionary War, and the graves remained opened to accommodate thousands more when the Yellow Fever ripped through the city in 1793. After grave robbers began breaking in to collect cadavers to sell to the city’s medical institutions, an old Quaker woman, Leah, took to walking the perimeter to protect the dead from their pilfering. After Leah died, Kate says, people still reported seeing her cloaked figure tracing the edge of the square.
I followed Kate’s suggestion, and looked for the ghost of the old woman as we left the park for Independence Hall. I didn’t see anything.
But the thought of all those bodies stayed with me. I spent four years living in Philadelphia, and had never known that site as anything other than a patch of grass where families play with their dogs on the weekend. “Ghost tours create a world where it’s possible to understand how the past and the present live together,” Pirok says. “We get so used to seeing cities in a certain way: things are getting built and knocked down, and there’s a constant sense of change around us.” Ghost tours, she adds, “pause all of that, and give you a reason to see this building from the 1930s as the site of something that happened in the 1700s. Once the sun comes up, you begin to see the city in a new light, because you’ve opened yourself up to its history.”