Visit even the smallest of towns in the U.S. and you’re likely to hear some local ghost stories and discover a few haunted houses. But some American cities have gained the reputation for being particularly ghost-ridden thanks to their rich and often bizarre historical backgrounds. The following are ten of the most haunted cities to steer away from—or toward, if you dare—this Halloween.
10. San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s rich cultural makeup, large immigrant population, and a history of natural disasters like earthquakes have helped it develop a reputation as a Mecca of all things haunted. Chinatown alone is home to countless ghost tours and creepy folklore, but the city also boasts a wealth of haunted hotels, mansions, and army bases. Of these, one of the most famous is the Queen Anne Hotel, which served as a school for girls in the 1890s and is said to be haunted by the ghost of its former headmistress, Mary Lake. There are also a number of stories concerning Mary Anne Pleasant, the so-called “Voodoo Queen of San Francisco,” who was a former slave and abolitionist who used a knowledge of the black arts to gain wealth and influence among the city’s elite. Even the trendy San Francisco Art Institute, which is rumored to have been built on top of a graveyard that housed victims of the 1906 earthquake, is said to be the home of several ghosts who have frequently been seen climbing the stairs to a tower that overlooks the ancient cemetery.
Most Haunted Place: Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks, but the former maximum-security prison is also home to some of the city’s weirdest ghost stories. Visitors to the island often claim to see apparitions walking the cellblocks, and sometimes hear voices emanating from what was once the cafeteria.
9. Key West, Florida
Sunny Key West might not seem like the most probable setting for haunted houses, but this small beach community is home to some of the oldest—and downright creepiest—of all ghost stories. The city’s rich history of buccaneers and rumrunners provides the backdrop for a lot of these ghosts, like those that are said haunt Captain Tony’s Saloon. Before it was a bar, Captain Tony’s was supposedly the location of the island’s morgue, and the tree that grows through the building’s center is said to have been a major site for lynching pirates and other criminals, and many are said to still haunt the premises today. Other local ghost stories concern the writer Ernest Hemingway, who kept a home on Key West for some thirty years. Hemingway’s house, now a museum dedicated to his life and work, is said to house the novelist’s ghost. Some visitors and workers claim to see him walking the grounds, while others have heard the clicking of his typewriter coming from inside the main house.
Most Haunted: Robert the Doll
The island’s art and historical museum isn’t haunted, but it does contain one of the creepiest artifacts of Key West’s history in the form of Robert, a large doll that many claim is possessed. The doll was given to painter Gene Otto in the early 1900s, and the young boy soon became deathly afraid of it, as he said it would often threaten him and wake him in the night by throwing furniture around the room. The boy’s parents would often swear they saw the doll moving, and neighbors claimed they often spotted Robert pacing in front of the windows of the house when the family was away.
8. Athens, Ohio
Athens, Ohio is a small town that is home to the Ohio University as well as some downright strange ghost stories. This small, otherwise peaceful community has inspired stories of hauntings that include everything from a headless train conductor to pagan cults and the violent murders of livestock. Many claim that when plotted on a map, the city’s five major graveyards form the symbol of a pentagram, and strange rituals are at the center of many of Athens’ most famous ghost tales. A lot of these stories date back over a hundred years, when the town became associated with the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s. The most famous tells of Jonathan Koons, a poor farmer who was instructed by ghosts to build a “spirit room” in which apparitions would then manifest and communicate with him from beyond the grave.
Most Haunted Place: Athens Lunatic Asylum
There’s nothing creepier than a good old-fashioned insane asylum, and Athens has one of the most famous in the form of the Athens Lunatic Asylum, which operated from 1874 until 1993. The hospital held many violent patients, and is notorious for being the site of hundreds of lobotomies. Since closing, the hospital has been the at the center of numerous ghost stories, most of which are kept alive by the students at the university, which now owns the asylum grounds. The most famous of these concerns Margaret, a deaf-mute patient who supposedly escaped from her room, accidentally became trapped in an abandoned ward, and eventually died of exposure. Her decomposing body was found weeks later, and supposedly the stain that was left on the floor of the ward can still be seen today.
7. Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon has developed a reputation as the most haunted city of the Pacific Northwest thanks to its bizarre history and high number of ghost sightings. One of the city’s most famous haunted houses is Pittock Mansion, an ornate house that was built in 1914 by a wealthy businessman and his wife, both of whom died shortly thereafter. Visitors have claimed to have seen apparitions and heard footsteps coming from empty rooms, and doors and windows will sometimes open by themselves. Weirdest of all, a portrait of Mr. Pittock, the man who built the house, will inexplicably be found in different parts of the house, as though it can move itself from room to room. In addition to the Pittock house, other Portland haunted places include the Bagdad theater, a movie theater built during the roaring 20s that supposedly houses a number of spirits, and the Willamette river, where in recent years a phantom rowboat has been spotted by several people.
Most Haunted Place: Shanghai Tunnels
Portland’s coastal location established it as a shipping hub and port of call for sailors during the 1800s. This eventually led to the rise of a practice known as shanghaiing, wherein unsuspecting men and women were kidnapped from bars or hotels, shipped to the Orient, and impressed into slave labor or prostitution. Portland was notorious for this practice thanks to a series of labyrinthine underground tunnels that run beneath the city streets, which were used by the Shanghaiiers as a safe way to capture and transfer victims to the harbor without being seen. Today, the tunnels are said to be haunted by the ghosts of the people who were kidnapped, many of whom were never seen or heard from again.
6. Charleston, South Carolina
Known as the “Holy City” for the church spires that dot its skyline, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the U.S., and also one of the most haunted. Victorian mansions line the downtown area known as the Battery, which was a protective artillery installation during the Civil War, and it is here that many of the city’s most haunted houses can be found. Perhaps the most famous is the Battery Carriage House Inn, a hotel where people have reported seeing everything from strange lights, to the gentlemanly ghost of a student who died after leaping off the roof, to a headless torso that appears at guests’ bedsides in the middle of the night. Charleston is also known for a number of ghost stories that originated with the Gullah, a West African culture that populates parts of South Carolina and Georgia. The most famous Gullah horror stories usually center on Boo Hags, a type of blood-red vampire that wears human skin as a mask and feeds on its victim’s energy while they sleep.
Most Haunted Place: the Dock Street Theater
Charleston is full of buildings with a checkered past, and one of the most well known is surely the Dock Street Theater. Built in 1809, the theater is said to be the home of two spirits. The first is Nettie, a poor prostitute who was killed near the theater after being struck by lightning. The other is the ghost of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor who is more famous today for being the father of John Wilkes Boothe, the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. Both spirits are said to wander the backstage area of the theater, and many workers and performers claim to have spotted them.
5. Salem, Massachusetts
In 1692, Salem, Mass. became the sight of a series of infamous trials after three local women were accused of using witchcraft to terrorize a trio of young girls. The trials soon escalated into mass hysteria, with townspeople vehemently accusing neighbors and acquaintances, almost all of them unmarried women, of being witches. Over 150 people were arrested and charged, and as may as 19 were eventually executed by hanging. Today, the town of Salem encourages its reputation as “Witch City, USA” and has one of the biggest Halloween celebrations in the country. Alongside the tourist shops and museums, though, stand several infamous ghost stories related to the witch trials. One in particular concerns Gallows Hill, the site of several hangings, which is said to be haunted by the spirits of the 19 people lynched for being witches.
Most Haunted Place: Joshua Ward House
Known as one of the most haunted houses in America, Joshua Ward House is built on the foundation of the home of George Corwin, the man who served as Sheriff during the Salem witch trials. Corwin is infamous for his role in the death of Giles Corey, a local man who was charged with witchcraft. When Corey refused to enter a plea in court, Corwin used an old English legal precedent and placed him under a board piled with rocks in order to coerce him into talking. Corey never relented, and was eventually crushed to death under the massive weight. To this day, many claim that Corey and Corwin, who is rumored to be buried beneath the foundation of his old home, haunt the Joshua Ward House.
4. Chicago, Illinois
Thanks to its famous great fire and history of gangsters and underworld criminals like Al Capone, Chicago has developed quite a reputation for being haunted. The city has a number of well known ghost stories that are whispered among the locals each Halloween, and perhaps none is more famous that the story of Resurrection Mary. As the story goes, Mary was a young girl who was hit and killed by a car while leaving a dance hall with her boyfriend. She was buried in nearby Resurrection Cemetery, and ever since she can be periodically seen wandering the streets in her white burial dress, still trying to find her way back home. Another famous story concerns what has come to be known as the “Devil Baby of Hull House,” a child born with scaly skin and a pointed tail who supposedly haunts the house once owned by famed activist Jane Addams.
Most Haunted Place: Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery
Rumored to be one of the prohibition-era gangsters’ favorite places to dump bodies, Bachelor’s Grove is an old and decaying burial ground that has been the site of countless stories about ghosts, spirits, and devil worship. Several headstones in the cemetery seem to move at will, and many claim that the spirits of the dead often materialize and walk the grounds at night. The most famous of these is the “White Lady,” the ghost of a young woman who is always seen in a white dress, often cradling a baby in her arms. Photo: http://www.bachelors-grove.com/
3. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
In July of 1863, the small college town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the site of the biggest military clash of the Civil War, which to this day remains the bloodiest event to ever occur on American soil. Over 150,000 total soldiers converged on the scene, and when the battle was over as many as 50,000 were killed, wounded, or missing. The shadow of the battle still stands over the town today, and many claim the ghosts of dead soldiers haunt the battlefields. What’s unique about Gettysburg is the sheer amount and frequency of its ghost sightings. Some places in the town, like the home of Jenny Wade, a woman who was killed by a stray bullet from the battle, supposedly experience paranormal activity on a daily basis. Elsewhere, there have even been reports of lone visitors to the battlefield park stumbling across what they assume to be a battle reenactment, only to later learn that none took place that day.
Most Haunted Place: The Devil’s Den
The Devil’s Den is a rocky outcropping of boulders and shrubs that was the site of one of the clashes of the second day of the battle. The spot is famous for being the location of a small skirmish that took place when a Union artillery unit returned fire on a Confederate sharpshooter who was taking shots at them from behind the rocks. They later found a body, and photographer Alexander Gardner took a photo of it that has since become one of the most iconic images of the battle. But recent evidence suggests that the body in the photo was not the man responsible, and some even claim that Gardner dragged the corpse of another man to the spot in order to stage the picture. Supposedly, this man’s ghost now haunts the Devil’s Den, and to this day visitors to the park often have a great deal of trouble trying to take photos anywhere near the site. Pictures often come out blurry and unusable, and cameras have a strange way of suddenly dying whenever they are turned on in the area.
2. Savannah, Georgia
With its many cemeteries, gothic mansions, and trees covered in hanging Spanish moss, Savannah, GA fits the bill of a haunted city about as well as any town in America. It was one of only a few places that escaped being burned during Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” during the Civil War, and so it still contains a good deal of antebellum architecture that serves as a perfect breeding ground for ghost stories. One example is the Pirates’ House, a restaurant that in the late 1700s served as a pub for a notoriously rough clientele of sailors and buccaneers. As in Portland, shanghaiing was a common practice, and unsuspecting or drunk patrons were often waylaid and then dragged to the harbor via a series of underground tunnels connected to the bar’s rum cellar. To this day, many consider the cellar to be haunted, and it is said that at night the sounds of drunken sailors singing can still be heard.
Most Haunted Place: The Hampton Lillibridge House
The Hampton Lillibridge house is an assuming three-story building that was built in 1796 and originally served as a boarding house. It was purchased in the 1960s by a builder who hoped to restore it, and it was then that strange phenomena began to occur. At one point during construction, a portion of the roof collapsed, killing one of the workers. Other builders claimed they would hear voices and footsteps whenever they were alone, and that pieces of construction equipment would often be thrown across the room. Even creepier, they said they often spotted a man in a black suit staring at them from inside the house. Countless exorcisms and investigations have taken place at the house since, and it has gone through several owners, but the presence that haunts it is said to still remain there today.
1. New Orleans, Louisiana
All southern port towns have their share of ghost stories, but none more so than New Orleans, which has truly embraced its reputation as a center of all things paranormal. All of the criteria that tend to produce ghost legends—a coastal location, a checkered past, a rich cultural history, and a potent mix of old and new world religion— can be found here. The city is full of haunted mansions, taverns, and graveyards, and you can’t go far without hearing stories of cursed pirate ships, Civil War-era spirits, and voodoo hexes. In this realm, one of the most famous figures is undoubtedly Marie Laveau, a Creole woman who gained a massive following during the 1800s as one of the first practitioners of voodoo. She died in 1881, but for years after many people claimed to see her walking throughout the French Quarter, and more than 120 years later many ghostly legends about the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” still persist.
Most Haunted Place: LaLaurie House
In the heart of the French Quarter lies an ornate mansion that in the 1800s belonged to physician Louis LaLaurie and his socialite wife Delphine. As the story goes, it was rumored at the time that the couple treated their slaves viciously, and there was evidence Lady LaLaurie was responsible for the murder of a 12-year-old girl. The rumors were validated when one night a fire broke out in the mansion’s kitchen. Firemen raced to the scene, and when they kicked down a door to the slave quarters they were astonished to find several slaves chained to the wall in a kind of makeshift dungeon. Many have since claimed that the LaLaurie’s were performing grotesque surgical experiments on the slaves, but modern evidence suggests that this is probably an exaggeration. Either way, the sadistic couple is said to have soon fled the city, and Lady LaLaurie eventually disappeared. The mansion where the horrors took place still stands today, and several ghosts have been sighted, among them the spirits of both Delphine LaLaurie and the young slave girl she is said to have murdered.