Ghost Hunting: What Makes a Great Haunted Research Site

People often ask me to recommend great, haunted sites for investigations.

I’ve mentioned several at this website and in my podcasts.  However, here’s a summary of what I look for, with some examples.

Great first-person stories

Urban legends are fun, and generally worth checking out, just in case.  If I visit a local hangout — cafe, homemade ice cream shop, coffee shop — etc., and every person I talk with tells me about the same site, it usually has (at best) a 50% chance of being somewhat active.

However, when someone tells me about their own chilling encounter with a ghost, that gets my attention.  If several people tell me their own, unique stories about one site, I try to visit it immediately.

That’s how I found Gilson Road Cemetery, before anyone else had mentioned it online.

Lots of ghost-related stories, over a long period of time

Sometimes, locals don’t like to talk about their ghosts.  Too much media attention and visits by obnoxious thrill-seekers… well, that can annoy almost anyone.

However, when a location attracts consistent attention for many years, it’s worth investigating.  In my experience, only about 20 – 30% of those sites are actually haunted.  When one is actually haunted, it’s usually far more haunted than I expected.  The Myrtles Plantation is one of those sites.

If you’ve listened to my series of podcasts about The Myrtles Plantation, you know that I didn’t expect much when I arrived.  And, since nothing much happened (except an odd moment in the parking lot, and the eerie, swinging chandelier) until well after dark, I thought I’d get a good night’s sleep.

I didn’t.  It’s a truly weird place. When it’s active, it’s really active.

Look for ghost stories with 50+ years of haunted history.  A site that became “haunted” after 2003, when the Ghost Hunters TV series made hauntings popular, might be trying to cash in on a trend.

You might find some sites (with good, long-term histories) mentioned among contemporary listings, including the The Shadowlands site, and the past articles I’m adding at Hollow Hill’s Haunted Headlines.

However, if you have access to old newspapers for an area — especially 19th century records (even better if they’re indexed) — a trip to the public library might be worthwhile.  Save yourself time: First, ask the Reference Librarian if he or she knows of great, old haunts that almost everyone has forgotten.  Then get into the dusty volumes of old newspapers (especially Halloween issues) or the microfilms of them.

Odd settings

A popular restaurant in the middle of town might be haunted… or that might be marketing, to get more ghost enthusiasts to visit and buy a  meal.

A restaurant that’s in a prime downtown location, but nobody seems to go there… that’s a place worth investigating.  However, it might simply be bad service, high prices, or terrible food.  Specifically ask people around town why they don’t eat there.  If they pause and look away, and then come up with some thready excuse like “I don’t like the tablecloths,” or “The chairs aren’t comfortable,” it’s worth visiting the restaurant to see what’s really going on.  (Maybe the seating is awful, but you won’t know until you check it out.)

Likewise, look into any business that should be doing well — great location in a popular town — but it seems to change ownership every year or to.  In Salem, Massachusetts, there’s a two-story restaurant/club/pub that’s immediately in back of the The Burying Point (Charter Street cemetery, next to the Witch Trial Memorial).  It’s at the corner of Central Street and Derby Street, almost directly across the street from Brothers Deli, where I usually eat when I’m in town.

The club (or pub, or restaurant… it keeps changing) at Central & Derby Streets is a location with several ghost stories (one is so grisly, it seems unlikely). I don’t bother to put the name of it in my articles because it’s changed hands so frequently.  I think one previous owner even tried to play up the haunted angle… and the place still failed.  So, that’s a site I’d love to investigate, but it’s always been closed (between owners) when I’ve been looking for new Salem sites to explore.

If I were investigating haunts around Salem, MA, today, I’d also skip the places everyone visits and focus on sites connected with the Great Salem Fire of 1914.  That includes sites around The Burying Point (Charter St. cemetery) since the original Salem Hospital — occupying several buildings at and near 31 Charter Street — burned to the ground in that fire.  Any former hospital site is often spiritually charged.  Add a tragic fire and the ambient energy of Salem, aka “Witch City,” and you have a winning combination for possible ghosts (or at least residual energy).

Abandoned and neglected sites

While places like downtown Salem are so small, most real estate is occupied, other towns, cities, and communities may have haunted locations.  Those were once popular and bustling, but now they’re deserted.  Look for the cafe on the edge of town, where traffic was heavy until the new highway went in.  At the very least, those are sites of broken dreams.  Residual energy is likely there, if not ghosts of past patrons and owners.

And, while you’re in that area, look for nearby, neglected city or church cemeteries.

Speaking of cemeteries, remember that early towns often put their cemeteries on what was the edge of town.  They didn’t want reminders of death in plain sight.   That’s especially true of non-religious cemeteries where “paupers” and criminals may have been buried.

Depending on how the town or city sprawled, you can find good, haunted cemeteries in the middle of town… or in an area long abandoned as the population moved in a different direction.

Of course, deserted areas are always risky.  Take sensible precautions.  Explore those sites with a group, never alone or with just one other person, especially at dusk or after dark.

Forgotten historic sites

I’ve mentioned that hospital sites — now abandoned or replaced with something else (like the condos in Danvers, MA, not far from the Salem) — can be very creepy and worthwhile investigation sites… with permission.

Those aren’t the only locations that are usually haunted, if only with residual energy.  (Remember: We’re not sure if residual energy is responsible for some EVP.  So, don’t overlook residual energy sites for interesting results.)

Former sites of jails, housing for 19th-century factories and mills, funeral homes, and estates that were destroyed (for any reason) can be surprisingly good. If you can find an old theatre (for stage performances or even an early movie house), that’s usually reliable, as well.

You’re always looking for locations connected with one or more of these “hot” topics for hauntings:

  • Money
  • Power struggles
  • Drama
  • Tragedy

Money can be about control, greed, or poverty.  (Extremes usually add power struggles, drama, and tragedy, almost by default.) It can also be where the will was read, and rich old Aunt Hazel left every cent to her favorite chihuahua.  So, never overlook where lawyers’ offices used to be.

Power struggles may have occurred at the main office (or in the yard) at 19th-century factories.

If you’re looking for drama, find out where banks had been located… the ones that collapsed in the Great Depression.  Also find out where soup kitchens were in that era.

Sometimes, the “tragedy” aspect is a fire, a shifting population, the complete failure of a business (manufacturers of hooks for high-button shoes, for example), and so on.  At other times, the tragedy occurred at home.  In the 19th century and earlier, suicides often occurred in carriage houses and other outbuildings.  In strict families where the younger daughters couldn’t marry until the oldest daughter did, you might find residual energy (or ghosts) in their former homes.  (You’re also looking for broken hearts — and people who remained single — because they weren’t allowed to marry across social, religious, or ethnic boundaries.  That’s not just the 19th century and earlier… it wasn’t unusual through the middle of the 20th century.)

In general, start with popular (and forgotten) “ghost stories” and then look into local history for sites that match the profiles listed above.   Most communities have at least two or three overlooked haunts.  They might be obscure, or hiding in plain sights.

Ghost Hunting – Mind Your Manners!

Regency Manners - 1798Ghost hunters should be aware of the rules of etiquette and manners of the ghosts they hope to contact. Of course, it helps if you have an idea of the era when each ghost lived. Manners changed considerably, from time to time.

Remember, through much of the 19th century — and even today, in some cultures — when someone flagrantly or consistently broke rules of etiquette, people with good manners usually ignored them… quite deliberately.

So, learn the manners of the time if you want to establish rapport with a specific ghost.  I discussed this briefly in my earlier article, Consider the Ghosts’ Contexts.

At right is a specific example.  It’s a list of “ill manners” for anyone attending a party or dance in 1789.  These kinds of manners will apply to ghosts from 1750 – 1850, and perhaps a wider time frame.

What might offend your ghost so much that he or she will act as if you’re not there?  Here are a few things not to do, mentioned in the 1789 guide.

  • Arriving with your hat on, and — even worse — leaving it on, indoors.
  • Whispering.
  • Laughing loudly.
  • Tapping or drumming with your hands or feet.
  • Leaning on a chair that a ghost might be sitting in.
  • Throwing something to another person in the room, instead of walking over to them and handing them the object.
  • Ridiculing anyone.  That includes sarcastic comments about other people who aren’t in the room, or making fun of someone else, even as a joke everyone enjoys.
  • Smiling too much.  Frowning (or looking concerned) too much.

If you want to establish rapport with your ghost(s), know the etiquette of their time.  That’s not just about avoiding bad manners, but keeping good manners in mind.

  • Knock before entering a room that might be occupied by a ghost.
  • Introduce yourself, and explain what you’re doing there.
  • Once rapport (any kind of communication) is established and someone else enters the room, you should do the introducing, since you’re already known to the ghost.
  • If you do something that might startle the ghost, apologize.
  • When you’re preparing to leave, explain why you’re leaving, and whether or not you plan to return.

Though most ghost hunters have success without following all (or any) of these guidelines, consider trying this approach to see if it improves your results.

For a wider range of manners and rules of etiquette, visit your public library.   Some of the best authors for our work will include Emily Post and Letitia Baldridge, as well as Miss Manners.

For further reading:  Consider the Ghosts’ Context

Finding Haunted Sites Using Old, Online Books

In my earlier article, Using History to Find Haunted Sites, I talked about visiting the public library to study dusty old books.

You may have similar success using old books that are online.  From Gutenberg to the Internet Public Library, you can search for references to forgotten haunts at book- and magazine-related websites.

Generally, I start my search with the name of the location.  I want a site I can visit, easily.

Then, I add words such as:

  • ghost, ghosts, apparitions, specters, spectres
  • haunts, haunted
  • tragedy
  • murder
  • massacre

(The latter three terms are because most hauntings relate to one or more of four themes:  Money, power, drama, and tragedy.)

Next, I browse the results to see if any seem worth further study.

For example, I wanted to find forgotten ghosts in Lexington, Massachusetts.  So, I entered “lexington ghosts haunted” … and found a ghost story in Germany.

Konigsmark’s ghost – Germany

It seems that Philipp Christoph, count von Königsmark, vanished in 1694 after a presumed affair with Sophia Dorothea, wife of the future George I of Great Britain, and mother of George II.

One version of the story claims that Königsmark was killed on the orders of George I’s father, and the body was weighted with stones and thrown into the river.  Another version says that the body was found, either strangled or in pieces (or both), beneath the floorboards of Princess Sophia’s dressing room.

According to the Quarterly Review (Volume 89) published in 1851, “It was long believed that Konigsmark’s ghost haunted the palace where we now know his body lay—and Mr. Cressett, in a subsequent letter, relates that it was supposed to have appeared on so incongruous an occasion as the ballet at a court opera.”

Sophia was divorced by her husband, and she was imprisoned for the rest of her life.  So, her story adds to the tragedy.

I’m not sure if the haunted castle is Hanover Castle, Leineschloss, and — so far — I’m not seeing any modern reports of ghost hunting at that site, or in connection with this tragic tale.  If I were in Germany, I’d definitely look for additional information.

Note: As I continued researching Konigsmark’s ghost stories in dusty old books, I found this odd reference — not to Konigsmark, but to ghosts in general, from 1852 — “Reichenbach says, that ‘thousands of ghost stories will now receive a natural explanation,’ from his discovery that the decomposition of animal matter is accompanied by light, or luminous vapour, which is visible to certain sensitive persons.”

I’ll go back and study this research, later.  For now, it’s an interesting theory and I’d want to see supporting evidence.

Narrowing the search for ghosts

Next, I narrowed my search with the words “lexington massachusetts ghosts haunted” and discovered ghost references related to Henry David Thoreau, Henry James and William Dean Howells… at Boston’s Beacon Hill.

Noting those for future research, I continued my search and discovered — in a magazine from 1873 — “…there are four distinct visitations which defy exorcism. One is the Newburyport school-house visitor; a second is a woman who haunts the tenders of the locomotives in Central New York; a third is a mysterious comer, always seen shovelling snow at dawn in certain villages of Massachusetts; a fourth is one who plays pranks with telegraphic instruments in Dubuque.”

I’m pretty sure that I know the Newburyport story — set at Charles Street Schoolhouse — since debunked.  The other tales sound a little vague (and therefore incredible) but they might be worth additional research.  I’ll keep them in mind if I see a second reference to any of them.

The research road leads to Concord

Finally, I found a reference that mentioned a ghost in Concord, Massachusetts.  It’s near enough to Lexington that I stopped my search there.

Though the story sounds like fiction, a few reference points might be worth exploring.  I’d be looking for the home of Jerusha Billings (b. 1818), and I’d also look for maps of the early highways around Concord, particularly the ones that are dirt roads today.  I keep seeing references to multiple haunted houses — perhaps abandoned sites — along those roads.

So, during a two-hour search this morning, I didn’t find detailed ghost reports that I can use for immediate paranormal investigations.

However, I found enough odd references to ghosts that my time was well spent.  Those are stories I’ll research in more detail, as time permits.

I hope that gives you some ideas for finding unreported and under-reported ghosts and haunted places near you.  Online or at the public library, you may find some great, forgotten, true ghost stories.

Photo credit: Castle Hill in Quedlinburg by Kriss Szkurlatowski

Ghost Hunting and Meals

Should you eat before ghost hunting?  Can a full (or empty) stomach affect your research results?

Answers will vary but, in general, it’s wise to eat a light meal or snack before leaving for an investigation.

If you’re hungry, you’re not at your best.  Worse, your growling stomach can affect EVP recordings.

At the other extreme, if you’ve eaten too much and you’re uncomfortable, you won’t be able to focus on your research.  Keep your team members in mind if your indigestion will be obvious to them, too.

Breath mints are a good idea if your meal featured onions or garlic.  A glass of tomato juice can also offset a poor dietary choice.

Speaking of garlic: Some people think garlic repels all entities, not just vampires.  I’m a garlic enthusiast, and — so far — that hasn’t affected my research.  Your results may vary.

Most exercise coaches and meditation experts recommend eating a large meal no closer than two hours before an activity.  Physically and mentally, that’s smart preparation for ghost research, too.

A light meal — particularly one with “live” food such as a salad — might improve your focus and research results.  For most evening investigations, I’ll usually eat a very light supper about an hour before the research begins.

Carry healthy, light snacks with you.  Sometimes, a ghostly encounter can deplete your own energy. Take a break. Restore your energy with healthy munchies.

  • Fruit juice can provide a quick lift. I like fresh squeezed (not from concentrate) orange juice. Others prefer apple juice or something nutrient-rich like blueberry juice.
  • Chocolate can settle nerves. Some people insist that chocolate counteracts excess negative energy at a haunted site.  However, monitor your sugar intake; the buzz can make you easily distracted.

It probably doesn’t need to be said: Never consume alcohol before or during an investigation.  That’s not just about weakened judgment and response times. Its caloric content can affect you as sugar does, too.

My basic suggestions are:

  • Eat lightly before conducting research.
  • During the investigation, healthy snacks can be helpful.
  • Staying hydrated — with water or juice — is important, too.

Join your team for a hearty meal — and discussion of your experiences — after you leave the research site.

That’s the best combination for most researchers.

Ghost Hunting – Look for What’s Weird

Ghost hunting can be a science.  We follow precise steps for the best results.

What do you do when you first arrive at a site that might be haunted?

If you’re smart — and you probably are — you get a sense of what’s where.  You do a full walk-through of the site, whether it’s outside or indoors.

At first, you’re getting your bearings and looking for any safety hazards, such as a low doorway,  a hidden hole in the ground, weak or damaged boards in a stairway or attic floor, or signs of vandalism.

After that, your next step is to look for what’s odd.  Don’t go “lights out” or begin working with your research equipment, yet.  First, see what doesn’t make sense.

In simple terms:  Look for what’s weird.

Of course, that’s is difficult to describe in a checklist.  However, here are a few examples.

  • At cemeteries, always look for graves outside the cemetery walls.  After all, people are supposed to be buried in the cemetery, right…?  Well, if you’ve read my book, Ghost Hunting in Haunted Cemeteries, you know why those weird, “outsider” graves can be the most active.  (Those graves are one of two — or sometimes three — kinds of hyperactive locations just outside most cemetery walls.)
  • At the Franklin Historical Society (NH), a former home for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, one — and only one — interior doorway displayed a mezuzah.  That’s a Jewish symbol, most often seen at the front door of a home. According to research by EPNE, that’s one of the most active rooms in the building.
  • In Austin, Texas, one of the most haunted guest rooms in the Driskill Hotel was sealed for many years.  Why would one of Austin’s most elegant and popular hotels actually close off a lovely room?  For ghost hunters, that’s a red flag bringing attention to a room that’s rich with haunted history.
  • At the Spalding Inn‘s carriage house (Whitefield, NH), a disconnected phone kept blinking as if a message was waiting.  Even after that was fixed, an upstairs room attracted flies in winter… when the (uninsulated) carriage house is closed.  Many people believe that the carriage house is the most haunted part of that hotel.
  • Probably the most abundant example of “what’s weird” in a very haunted site is at California’s Winchester Mansion.  Almost everywhere you look, you’ll find stairways that lead nowhere, and doors that serve no purpose.

So, immediately after (or during) your orientation walk-through of any haunted site, note what’s weird.

Then you can begin your formal investigation.  For the best results, you’ll probably start with the areas that seem weirdest.

There’s always a reason — sometimes a paranormal one — why people allow (or create) something odd at a haunted location.  Maybe it’s their way of coping with ghostly energy.  Maybe it’s something else.

To find the most active locations at any haunted site, look for what’s weird.  It’s an anomaly, and it may lead you to other, ghostly anomalies, too.