(CNN) — Several localities across the United States claim to be king when it comes to Halloween. But three in particular – Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans and Salem, Massachusetts – have the haunting stories to really earn the title.
The trio of historic towns, each at least two centuries old, are charming and welcoming to the light, with cobblestone streets, well-preserved century-old structures, and other nods to ancient times.
But when night falls and the wind howls through the empty streets, these towns cast a darker spell. For many visitors and year-round residents of these three towns, their grisly history is part of the draw.
“To become familiar with the supernatural beings of a place and to become a transmitter of the supernatural lore of a place…is a way to become more involved in the stories of a place and to proclaim our own belonging to it “, said Lowell Brower, speaker. in the folklore program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches, among other courses, “The Supernatural in the Modern World”.
Each is weird in its own way, though both Savannah and New Orleans claim to be the most haunted city in America. We’ll leave that decision to those who know these towns best – the ghosts, perhaps.
“There is enormous value in sharing (and studying) what haunts us,” Brower said. “It is perhaps the best way to understand what people fear, what they wish for, what they choose to remember or cannot forget, what they are capable of and what they still might transform.”
Southern Gothic personified.
An angel watches visitors to Bonaventure Cemetery.
Scary claim to fame: The 1994 book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” put the spookies of Savannah on the national map, but locals have long spotted ghosts and encountered paranormal entities in their historic town. Just about any building over 100 years old can claim that a patron once felt a ghostly presence there.
Some haunted spots:
The Mercer-Williams House is known to “Midnight” readers and moviegoers as the house in which Danny Hansford and Jim Williams died. But even before they died, visitors reported seeing a young boy at its windows – possibly, they think, the boy who died there in 1969. The house is now a museum, where visitors can themselves test the ghostly presences.
There are several supposedly haunted hotels and bed and breakfasts scattered around the historic city center, including the House Marshala former Civil War hospital, and the Hamilton Turner Inn, which is said to have inspired Disneyland’s haunted mansion. If you don’t mind the screams of ghostly children running through the halls or encounters with the apparition of a man smoking a cigar, you can book a (expensive) stay.
old fashioned Colonial Park Cemetery, established in the 1750s, about 12,000 people are buried, although only 700 headstones remain – according to the Savannah Morning News, many graves were paved over to build what is now Abercorn Street. The cemetery filled in the 19th century after yellow fever ravaged the town, and today guests claimed to have seen ‘shady figures’ flying around the grounds. (And Abercorn Street is, naturally, home to what several ghost tours tout as one of the most haunted mansions in town.)
Colonial Park Cemetery Gate at night, with the moon shining on thousands of souls buried there.
Glen Richard/iStockphoto/Getty Images
But much of Savannah’s haunted reputation rests on racism and a legacy of slavery: Two of the city’s many plazas, Calhoun and Whitfield, are said to have been built over unmarked graves for slaves. Activists have called for the squares to be renamed in honor of the people buried there.
There is value in dealing with the harrowing and violent stories of some “haunted” monuments, Brower said: “Hauntings allow us to speak of indescribable stories in the presence – they invite and sometimes force us to see not only the place and the people who are here today, but the place as it once was and the people who stood here before us.”
Where witches were hunted – and now honored.
The Witch House is one of the few surviving houses in Salem that was directly involved in the witch hunts of 1692.
Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Scary claim to fame: All these “witches”. In the 1690s in Salem, more than 200 people, many of them women, were accused of “witchcraft” and allegiance to the devil. The accusers had little evidence for these charges, but they did have the testimony of several rowdy townspeople, mostly driven by the hysteria and religious paranoia that had infected the town. Among those found guilty of witchcraft, 19 were hanged and 4 others died in prison.
It’s a bizarre episode in American history, which the city of Salem honors today by commemorating the innocents killed in the trials and educating visitors – with a healthy dose of entertainment and occult intrigue.
Some scary places:
The Witch’s House is the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over some examinations of accused “witches” and, according to the Salem Witch Museum, “showed no remorse” for his involvement in the trials. It’s the only remaining structure in Salem with direct ties to the witch trials — and it’s open to visitors who want a taste of what colonial Salem was like.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book ‘The House of Seven Gables’ was inspired by a real house in Salem – one you can also visit. Hawthorne’s novel sheds light on suspicious events at home involving witchcraft, but if you want a fuller account of the “witches” of Salem, the Salem Witch Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum offer tours and exhibits year-round.
The House of Seven Gables inspired the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
There are also several recreations of the trials in the city, including one that features its audience as the jury deciding the fate of one Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the Salem witch trials.
There are two memorials for the victims of the trials: The Salem Witch Trials Memorialwhich commemorates the victims with granite benches indicating their names and means of execution, and the Proctor’s Ledge Memorialbelieved to be the site where the 19 convicted “witches” were hanged.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Where ghosts walk among the living in (relative) harmony.
St. Louis Cemetery contains many above-ground graves and elaborate memorials for those buried there.
Scary claim to fame: The Big Easy leans hard in its haunted history. The city has its own brand of voodoo, brought to Louisiana in the 18th century by enslaved West Africans, whose practitioners were once considered royalty, like the legendary Marie Laveau and Dr. “Bayou.” John. Although it has a malevolent reputation, the “New Orleans Voodoo” religion is primarily an attempt to connect believers on a spiritual level, and it also falls back on Roman Catholic practices.
New Orleans is also home to self-proclaimed vampires and witches and, according to many residents and guests, many spirits. Basically, if you don’t identify strictly as a living, breathing human being, you will find your community in NOLA. No wonder it’s been the setting for projects like ‘True Blood’, ‘American Horror Story’ and ‘Interview with the Vampire’.
Some Scary Places:
Even ghostly legends can’t keep New Orleans company’ The Little Theater of the Old Square steadily rising productions. In the town, there is a ghost named Caroline, an actress who performed in theaters in the 1930s and is said to have died while wearing a wedding dress, who regularly haunts her grounds.
The Petit Théâtre still produces shows, ghosts and all.
Kayte Deioma/ZUMA Press
The St. Louis Cemetery is home to elaborate crypts and above-ground tombs that house several New Orleans legends, including Laveau. Some of the spirits apparently never settled, however, as some of the ghosts are now known by name, such as sailor Henry Vignes – you’ll know it’s him by his tall stature and piercing blue eyes.
For more notable ghosts, visit the old french operawhere, it is said, lives a lady named Marguerite, who died years ago, or Former Absinthe Housee, a bar open for more than 200 years where famous spirits like to have a drink. Even the famous Café du Monde is apparently animated by occasional appearances.
Top image: Salem, Massachusetts