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The spookiest cities in the US — and why they still scare us

Oct 16, 2022, 10:00 AM | Updated: Oct 18, 2022, 2:30 pm
Two pumpkins covered with snow for a cold Halloween night (Photo courtesy of Getty)...
Two pumpkins covered with snow for a cold Halloween night (Photo courtesy of Getty)
(Photo courtesy of Getty)

(CNN) — Several locales across the US claim to be king when it comes to Halloween. But three in particular — Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans and Salem, Massachusetts — have the haunting histories to truly earn the title.

The trio of historic cities, each of them at least a couple of centuries old, are charming and welcoming in the light, with their cobblestone streets, well-preserved, centuries-old structures and other nods to days of old.

But when night falls and the wind howls through empty streets, these cities cast a darker spell. For many visitors and year-round residents of these three cities, their macabre history is part of the draw.

“Becoming acquainted with a place’s supernatural beings, and becoming a transmitter of a place’s supernatural lore … is a way of further weaving ourselves into the stories of a place, and proclaiming our own belonging within it,” said Lowell Brower, a lecturer in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Folklore program, where he teaches, among other courses, “The Supernatural in the Modern World.”

Each is eerie in its unique way, though both Savannah and New Orleans claim to be the most haunted city in America. We’ll leave that decision up to those who know these cities best — ghosts, maybe.

“There is huge value is sharing (and studying) that which haunts us,” Brower said. “It might just be the best way to understand what people fear, what they wish for, what they choose to remember or can’t forget, what they are capable of, and what they might yet transform themselves into.”

Savannah, Georgia

Southern gothic personified.

Established: 1733

Spooky claim to fame: The 1994 book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” put Savannah’s spooky bonafides on the national map, but locals have long spotted ghosts and encountered paranormal entities in their historic city. Just about any building over 100 years old can claim that a patron once felt a ghostly presence there.

Some haunted spots:

The Mercer-Williams House is known to “Midnight” readers and film viewers as the home in which Danny Hansford and Jim Williams died. But even before their deaths, visitors have reported seeing a young boy in its windows — perhaps, they think, the boy who died there in 1969. The home is now a museum, where visitors can test the ghostly presences themselves.

There are several purportedly haunted hotels and B&Bs scattered about the historic downtown, including the Marshall House, a former Civil War hospital, and the Hamilton-Turner Inn, rumored to be the inspiration for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. If you don’t mind the cries of ghostly children running through the halls or encounters with an apparition of a man smoking a cigar, you can book a (pricey) stay.

At the old Colonial Park Cemetery, established in the 1750s, an estimated 12,000 people are buried, though there are only 700 gravestones left — per the Savannah Morning News, many graves were paved over to build what is now Abercorn Street. The cemetery filled up in the 19th century after yellow fever tore through the city, and today, guests have claimed they’ve seen “shadowy figures” flit around the grounds. (And Abercorn Street is, naturally, home to what several ghost tours tout as one of the most haunted mansions in the city.)

But much of Savannah’s haunted reputation is built on racism and a legacy of slavery: It’s said that two of the city’s many squares, Calhoun and Whitfield, were built on top of unmarked graves for enslaved people. Activists have been calling to rename the squares in honor of the people buried there.

There’s value in facing the upsetting, violent histories of some “haunted” landmarks, said Brower: “Hauntings allow us to speak unspeakable histories back into presence – they invite and sometimes force us to see not only the place and people that are here today, but the place as it once was and the people who stood here before us.”

Salem, Massachusetts

Where witches were hunted — and now, are honored.

First settled in: 1626

Spooky claim to fame: All those “witches.” In 1690s Salem, more than 200 people, many of them women, were accused of “witchcraft” and allegiance to the devil. Accusers had little evidence for these charges, but they did have the testimony of several vocal townspeople, mostly driven by hysteria, and religious paranoia that had infected the town. Of those convicted of witchcraft, 19 were hanged and 4 others died in prison.

It’s a bizarre episode of American history, one that the city of Salem today honors today by memorializing the innocents killed during the trials and educating visitors — with a healthy dose of entertainment and occult intrigue.

Some spooky spots:

The Witch House is the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over some examinations of accused “witches” and, per the Salem Witch Museum, “showed no remorse” for his involvement in the trials. It’s the only remaining structure in Salem with direct ties to the witch trials — and it’s open for visitors who want a taste of what colonial Salem was like.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, “The House of the Seven Gables,” was inspired by a real house in Salem — one you can visit, too. Hawthorne’s novel highlights suspicious goings-on at the home involving witchcraft, though if you want a more comprehensive account of Salem “witches,” the Salem Witch Museum and Peabody Essex Museum offer tours and year-round exhibits.

There are several reenactments of the trials around town, too, including one that casts its audience as the jury deciding the fate of one Bridget Bishop, the first person executed in the Salem witch trials.

There are two memorials for victims of the trials: The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which commemorates the victims with granite benches noting their names and means of execution, and the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, believed to be the site where the 19 convicted “witches” were hanged.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Where ghosts walk among the living in (relative) harmony.

Established: 1718

Spooky claim to fame: The Big Easy leans hard into its haunted history. The city has its own brand of voodoo, brought to Louisiana in the 18th century by enslaved West Africans, whose practitioners were once viewed as royalty, like the legendary Marie Laveau and Dr. “Bayou” John. Though it has a malevolent reputation, the “New Orleans voodoo” religion is primarily an attempt to connect believers with the spiritual plane, and it also folds in Roman Catholic practices.

New Orleans is also home to self-proclaimed vampires and witches and, according to many residents and guests, plenty of spirits. Basically, if you don’t identify strictly as a living, breathing human being, you’ll find your community in NOLA. No wonder it’s been the setting for projects like “True Blood,” “American Horror Story” and “Interview with the Vampire.”

Some spooky spots:

Not even ghostly legends can keep the company of New Orleans’ Le Petit Théâtre Du Vieux Carré from regularly mounting productions. Per the city, there’s a ghost named Caroline, an actress who performed at the theater in the 1930s and allegedly fell to her death while wearing a wedding gown, who regularly haunts its grounds.

The St. Louis Cemetery is home to elaborate crypts and above-ground graves that house several New Orleans legends, including Laveau. Some of the spirits apparently never settled, though, because some of the ghosts are now known by name, like the seafarer Henry Vignes — you’ll know it’s him by his tall stature and piercing blue eyes.

For more notable ghosts, visit the Old French Opera House, where a madam named Marguerite who died there years ago is said to dwell, or the Old Absinthe House, a bar that’s been open for more than 200 years where famous spirits like to grab a drink. Even the world-famous Cafe du Monde is apparently staffed by the occasional apparition.

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The spookiest cities in the US — and why they still scare us