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OPINION: Ghost Tour Ethics

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of death and suicide that may be challenging for some readers.

For the past two years, my family and I have been ghost tour fiends. As Midwesterners who migrated to the South twelve years ago, we’ve “missed out” on knowing the haunted histories of the spring break areas we’ve traveled to. I have done ghost tours in Charlotte, Savannah and Charleston. I fully admit to being a ghost believer. And yet, as I get older, the more I question the ethics of ghost tours and the industry itself. 

I was taught growing up that there needed to be some basic level of respect for the dead. Drives into cemeteries were quiet and remained quiet throughout our visits. I was not one to go “searching” for ghosts, and I never watched any ghost hunting television shows. I was disgusted by the idea of looking for ghosts in older homes, or worse, former asylums. (I still feel this way, especially about asylums.) The concept of death and after-death dignity have been explored since death itself began to exist. Ghost tours stem from that concept, an answer to the question: What is a legacy? Ghost tours stem from the natural, restless human desire to know more and more about death. My first tour was in my hometown of Charlotte right before Halloween when I was eighteen years old. After that, I have loved ghost tours. Learning more about the history of historic places that are oftentimes taught by locals is fascinating to my nerdy mind. But whose stories are being told, and what lens are they being taught under? 

Last summer, I bought a book about the women ghosts who intrigue American culture. “A Haunted History of Invisible Women” struck me from the very first page, and has stuck with me long after I finished. Intended to be a summer beach read for me, the book left me rethinking everything I thought I knew about ghost tours. Many ghost tours, especially those done in the South, have deeply tragic stories that are often reduced down to stereotypes and tropes. While a great guide can give nuance to these stories and honor the victims, the reality of these individual’s stories can completely fly over the heads of tourists. Many of these women never got a chance to tell their own stories, and even modern documentation loses the lives these women tried to live - they are simply reduced to nothing in my opinion. Oftentimes, as with life itself, the gray lines between fiction and reality overlap. In the case of Savannah’s infamous Sorrel Weed House, the main story told on tours is the one of Molly and Matilda. Matilda was the homeowner’s wife, who guides tend to claim struggled with unspecified manic-depressive episodes throughout her life. Matilda allegedly died by suicide at the home, but the story of her death is one that is overly dramatized for eerie effects on listeners. In practically every variation of the Matilda Sorrel story, her husband was having an affair with an enslaved woman named Molly, who worked at the home. While many of these details have a harder time being verified due to the length of time that has passed since the house was active, the power dynamics of Matilda’s husband and Molly were significantly unequal even if the story was true. Shortly after Matilda’s death, Molly was said to have passed away in the house as well. Both of these women’s stories are ones that are tragic and controversial, as fact-checks have become more common in the past few years on the house’s portrayal by television and tour guides. Due to historical standards of the era, neither Molly nor Matilda had an opportunity to tell their own stories. At least two-hundred years on, there are still not many details about them told from their perspectives and with a modern eye. 

Furthermore, the manner of the person’s passing influences the way their stories are told by the ghost tourism industry. In the case of Charlotte’s Dunhill Hotel, tours tell the story of how the hotel’s 1929 opening became an area where Great Depression-era businessmen died by suicide fairly frequently according to Queen City Ghosts. These victims are not given names or much dignity on tours. They are simply remembered by the manner of their deaths, and how they have turned the hotel into a haunted hotspot This is unfortunately the case for tours who highlight areas in which many people died by suicide. I believe that there is not much nuance or grace given to the victims, just tall tales that have the potential to do more harm than good. These tales tend to rely on the exploitation of those dealing with mental illness - both in life and in death. 

Many of these stereotypical stories are intertwined with the South’s ghost tour industries. In the case of Savannah, the ghost tour industry is a part of the city’s post-pandemic economic boom according to Visit Savannah. In my opinion, the sad truth is that exploitation sells. From the unauthorized documentaries surrounding Britney Spears’s conservatorship to reality television, many Americans arguably love to sell and consume tales of tragedy. To change an entire industry would likely involve having to do deep reflection in heartbreaking and largely challenging ways. For many, it is easier to simply ignore than to experience these types of reflections. 

Ghosts tell stories, even in death. Those who lead tours honor those stories. Those of who listen have a responsibility to take away the nuance and reflection that the stories of ghosts give Southern culture today. It is simply unfair to the legacies of the people whose stories are told as if they are another souvenir for a family vacation. While ghost tours and stories can be classical fun, listeners need to remain cautious of the narratives being told and remember the person behind the mythology. 

By Kat Whetstone, Staff Writer



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