If you're enchanted by ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night — or get a macabre thrill from learning about the sordid underbelly of a city you're visiting — taking a haunted tour as Halloween approaches is a spooktacular way to get into the spirit of the season. Remember, All Hallows' Eve is when the separation between the world of the living and world of the dead is thinnest. As the ancient Celts believed, it's the best time for ghosts to rejoin the living.

Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Haunted Happenings via Facebook


The Witch City’s real-life haunted history is told year-round: Several museums report how after the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693, 20 innocent people accused of being witches were executed. One even offers a live reenactment of a trial. But the whole month of October erupts with Haunted Happenings: ghost walking tours by candelight with costumed guides, witch trial trail walks, ghost legends trolley tours, a 4-D haunted house with hallucinatory special effects like walls  eceding and “ghosts” floating about, and a Halloween party at the Hawthorne Hotel with a costume contest, food and dancing. At the Festival of the Dead, you can meet practicing witches, learn paranormal investigation techniques, hear about the Horned God and the Queen of the Dead, and attend a Witches’ Circle drumming ritual on Salem Common, as well as a seance or dinner honoring your dead loved ones (bring photos and mementos).

PORT TOWNSEND, WASHINGTON

This Victorian seaport on the Olympic Peninsula once slated to be the “New York of the West” isn’t just haunted by the ghosts of lost prosperity (aka spirits who have lingered after the bust following the Panic of 1893, when the expected railroad went to Seattle instead). On a ghost walk you’ll see the Palace Hotel, a restored Victorian hotel and former brothel downtown that’s been the site of so many weird sightings and sounds, from the sea captain who built it to the “Lady in Blue” in a portrait, that its lobby has a “ghost book”; and the Ann Starrett Mansion, a beautiful 1889 Victorian inn supposedly haunted by the red-haired woman whose husband built the home as a symbol of their love. On Halloween weekend, you’ll be titillated and terrified at the adults-only Haunted Bordello at the Old Consulate Inn, a Queen Anne-style red 1889 inn, where actors put on short skits. Its owners warn: If you’re allergic to “skin, sin and scariness,” don’t go (and no touching the actors).

New Orleans

Haunted History Tours via Facebook


Often considered the most haunted city in America, New Orleans is also the birthplace of Anne Rice and setting for her vampire and witch novels, as well as Marie Laveau, a famous 19th-century voodoo queen. Walking tours of the French Quarter and cemeteries whose mausoleums are guarded by statues of angels and weeping mourners through Haunted History Tours and Bloody Mary’s Tours are an entertaining blend of history and legend. You’ll hear tales about cruel slave owners and mistresses, deadly fires and pestilences and horrendous crimes in this former French and Spanish colony founded in 1718. An eerie night tour in the humid air past lacy cast-iron balconies, colorful Creole cottages and many reportedly haunted hotels and houses, amid the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages — especially if a full moon glows behind St. Louis Cathedral — will have you believing almost anything.

St. Augustine, Florida

In the oldest city in the U.S., you’ll hear about 450 years of history in the narrow streets of its Old Town (think pirate raids, unsolved murders and hauntings), and see the Spanish fortress built in the late 1600s, all on a lantern-lit ghost walk with St. Augustine City Walks. On the haunted pub crawl, you’ll learn about methods of professional ghost hunters as well as local legends and lore. The Halloween tour covers the origin of the holiday — Samhain, the Celtic New Year — and how modern Halloween traditions, like trick-or-treating and costume wearing, began.

KEY WEST, FLORIDA

Ghosts & Gravestones via Facebook


In this free-spirited town where eccentricity is alive and well, take a ghost tour on the Trolley of Doom with Ghosts and Gravestones or a ghost walking tour with Ghost and Mysteries to hear about hauntings and legends, like Robert the Doll — a cursed and exceedingly ill-tempered toy given to a child as a gift in the early 1900s. Fantasy Fest is a themed 10-day costume bash in late October that draws tens of thousands to this southernmost island in the Florida Keys. It features a masquerade walk, a parade with floats and bands, a headdress and mask contest, and street parties in Bahama Village. This year, the theme is Intergalactic Freak show: Expect a Star Wars burlesque parody, interactive experience starring aliens attacking the Coast Guard, plus other events we blush to mention.


By Sharon McDonnell

Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based travel and food/beverage writer, also published in in-flight magazines.