DISCLAIMER: This review is a commentary on the tour from the perspective of a skeptic. If you believe in ghosts, don’t have a strong opinion about them, or are just looking to be entertained, your experience may be different. From a service perspective, the people running the tour did an excellent job and are very nice and helpful. And our friend who is much more accepting of the paranormal than we are definitely enjoyed the tour.
My girlfriend Meg, a friend, and I decided to go on a ghost walk last night. I got a gift certificate as an off-beat birthday gift (which I lost for, like, a year), just to get that out of the way. This is my review of the experience.
Before we begin, I will point out that I do not believe in ghosts. Do I still disbelieve? Read on to find out! I bet the fake suspense is killing you!
Appalachian Ghostwalks® is a tour and ghost hunting organization in northeast Tennessee. They do tours all over the area and in southwest Virginia. We took their Jonesborough, TN tour, which according to the guide, is one of the two most popular tours (along with Abingdon, VA). Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee, established in 1779, so there’s been ample opportunity for stories to accumulate. Jonesborough is also known for Andrew Jackson having served as a judge here. He gets incorporated into the tour, which I will talk about later. The tour lasted about 3 hours (really).
One more note, just so I don’t annoy anyone: we didn’t see any ghosts. We saw nothing ghostly. We didn’t even take pictures of any “orbs,” even though our guide said we would have an opportunity to (this isn’t a criticism of him, really; we probably looked annoyed and bored by the end of the tour).
The tour began at the visitor’s center, where our guide gave a basic introduction to the tour and explained a little about the organization and what they do. Now, I’m not exactly fond of ghost hunters. Their methodologies are typically awful and they attempt to take measurements that have no established link to paranormal phenomena. Our guide made a clear point of saying that they do investigations of buildings with no background knowledge. I got the impression that they thought their methods were very thorough and deliberate. They say a prayer upon entering the building and they use dowsing rods to find ghosts or energy spots or whatever.
The tour starting going off the rails about then. First, he talked about using dowsing. People have attempted to dowse and claim Randi’s prize, but none have been successful. There’s just no reason to think that it works. Our guide claimed that the University of Tennessee teaches forensics students dowsing. I can find no evidence of this online, save for a non-credit outreach course that taught dowsing. That’s not an endorsement; those types of classes are typically offered if there are people to pay for them. He then went on to say that people only use 20% of their brains. This is absolute nonsense and anyone with basic knowledge of, well, the world should know that. The 80% is what results in psychic phenomena, he said. Furthermore, the imaginary friends of children are often ghosts, but since adults tell them they aren’t real, they eventually shut down that part of their brain. I’m surprised he didn’t say schizophrenics are driven mad by ghosts, although I think Meg would have tried to slap him had he done so.
This is sort of the thing we ran into over and over. I obviously have not been with them on their investigations and I can’t say certain things didn’t happen. If their experiences lead them to believe in ghosts, fine, I disagree and we can move on. It’s just that nearly everything else he said about their conclusions was full of obvious nonsense. For example, orbs. Our guide believed orbs were supernatural. Immediately he brought up that people say they’re just dust or water droplets. To disprove this (and he did say disprove), they took photos in a room caked with dust and photos in the rain. Only a few orbs! Really? This is your investigative method? We took pictures of dusty stuff and didn’t get as many as we thought? Meanwhile, orbs aren’t too hard to photograph. Paranormal investigators tend to shy away from them now because they’re pretty obviously not supernatural. Later in the tour, our guide told us that our eyes don’t see certain things, but they show up on pictures because cameras don’t know they’re not there. It just takes a picture. So, yeah, digital artifacts are real, people. His mention of our brains filtering things out, which is actually an interesting trait our ours, was probably the smartest thing he said, inadvertent though it was.
To belabor the point, we stopped at a building with several businesses in it. He noted that one spot had a run where numerous businesses failed after short periods of time. Coincidentally, they had found a property deed, baby shoes, and blue bones in the wall. On a visit to New Orleans, they visited a Voodoo priestess who told them that blue bones are used for curses. This information was used to leap to the conclusion that slaves had put a curse on the building. Once the bones were removed, the next business lasted! Until it went under, too. But it lasted longer! This is the sort of logical leap that makes you question any sort of “investigation” these people are doing. Shortly thereafter, we learned that a little girl was haunting a bathroom. They had expanded it to say she was haunting the nearby creek, too, because a man heard giggling. A bit thin, I think.
The bulk of the tour was wandering around Jonesborough, looking at pre-Civil War buildings and listening to ghost hunter stories. I say ghost hunter stories instead of ghost stories because, as Meg noted, the ghost stories were not the macabre sort where things are actually frightening and interesting. They were the sort where candles blow out or an umbrella stops working. These are the sorts of stories that ghost hunters tell because they’re not obviously legends told for entertainment value. They’re ones they can do some “verification” of (meaning they talked to an eyewitness, maybe). But they make for dull entertainment. As do the numerous stories related from previous tours. Is a woman’s purse strap lifting up and falling a good ghost story? No, it really isn’t. It’s also trivial to do accidentally with a marginally stiff purse strap.
We were also treated to the story of Andrew Jackson and the Bell Witch. When the primary, non-skeptic, historian of that story says Andrew Jackson’s involvement can’t be confirmed and that there’s “considerable” evidence he wasn’t in the area, I don’t think discarding the story is too hard. Not only that, the supposed Andrew Jackson quote about the Bell Witch, the only mention he supposedly made, has no primary source. Again, their investigations are one thing, but their incredible lack of critical thinking everywhere else doesn’t make them sound competent.
The tour ended at a church. We were asked to try an experiment. We were to close our eyes and walk slowly down a brick walkway towards the church archway. Our guide told us to stop if we felt “anything, no matter how small.” He would tell us to stop if we were about to hit anything. I walked and found myself a few steps away and left of the arch. Meg and our friend did the same, but to the right. Our guide told us that “sensitive” people stop before the archway without him saying. Those who are sensitive, but “just not ready,” veer off even though they thought they were going straight. This was the climax to the tour. It’s also explained by the fact that the brick walkway is really uneven, we were walking really slow, our legs were tired, and our eyes were closed. People don’t walk in straight lines under these conditions, “sensitive” or not. Oh, and he told us ghosts are linked to gastro-intestinal issues. Yes, you can blame farts on ghosts. We were ready to go home.
Unsurprisingly, we witnessed nothing supernatural. This is what normally happens when you resolve to think critically about paranormal phenomena. Penicillin doesn’t stop working if you examine it critically, you might note. But stripped of my need to skeptically evaluate ghost claims, was this a good tour? The answer is still no. Our guide, while nice, told every story over-dramatically, with terrible voices that made the stories more ridiculous than they already were. The stories are not particularly scary and while the bits of Jonesborough history we got were sometimes interesting, mixing them in with ghost tales almost cheapens them. Three hours is too long. The stories blur together and the cadence becomes clear: claimed ghostly incident, basic rebuttal of a couple objections, handful of follow-up incidents, minor incident nearby at a later date (often on a tour). How many ghost stories can you hear in a row before the basic rhythm starts to bore you?
In the end, the presentation missed the mark for me coming from a skeptical perspective. It may work better if you’re younger or just looking to walk in the dark and hear about ghosts.