1 Robert C. Thompson 79 ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’: Gettysburg Ghost Tours and the Performance of Belief Robert C. Thompson Ghost tours, which purport to bring tourists They exist on the margins of more serious vaca- into situations where they may encounter the tions, relaxing and entertaining tourists after a paranormal, hinge on humanity’s near-universal long day of museums and historical sights. But fascination with the spirit world. Ghost belief has their marginal status does little to dissuade from been a contentious and ubiquitous feature of hu- their popular appeal. At the height of the tourism man culture through recorded time. The ghost as season in Gettysburg, scores of tour groups wan- a theoretical construct has spanned continents and der the main streets passing through dark alleys societies, surfacing in entertainments and rituals and fields and moving in and out of haunted alike. In America, a tradition of paranormal belief buildings. Though many may relegate ghosts to dates to the early settlers, reaches through the fa- the scrap heap of more serious ventures, people natic and controversial mediums of the nineteenth cannot seem to resist the draw to seek them out. century, and persists in modern-day psychics and To be sure, humanity’s relationship with the para- 1 paranormal investigators. Ghost tours join the normal is marked by a powerfully conflicted ghost hunter clubs, paranormal-themed television attraction. shows, amateur and ethnographic ghost story Ghost tours provide a window onto the fate collections, and ever-evolving procession of hor- of ghost belief in the scientifically rationalized ror films in contemporary culture’s seemingly and technologically sophisticated West. Although endless enthrallment with the paranormal. Get- Americans have largely exorcised the formerly tysburg is one of many locations with a burgeon- omnipresent demons, angels, monsters, and pol- ing ghost tour tradition. Salem, New Orleans, and tergeists of the past, some part of the culture still Atlanta are among the myriad American towns holds tight to the possibility of worlds and truths and cities that feature ghost tours. And in Europe, that exceed material existence. Against her or his it is not unusual for ancient castles or ruins to better judgment, the individual seeks out that make their own paranormal claims to visitors. sense of mystery that comes from an experience This is not to suggest, however, that ghost with the supernatural or paranormal. The fact that tours and paranormal tourism are the central fo- Americans do so in the context of a trivialized, cus of these destinations. At popular historical touristic, and sometimes silly ghost tour speaks to tourism sights, like Gettysburg, ghosts are only the place that ghost belief has come to occupy in rarely the main motivation for a tourist’s visit. American culture. Entertainment is the veneer, Robert C. Thompson is in the PhD program in theater and performance studies at the University of Maryland. He is the artistic . Theatre Journal director of an international grassroots theatre company and an assistant editor for The Journal of American Culture, 33:2 r 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
2 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 80 unexplainable phenomena, thereby attributing hiding Americans’ paranormal obsessions from those phenomena to the ghosts of Civil War sol- themselves. Ghost tours, like roadside psychics diers, officers, nurses, etc. and ghost-themed reality television shows, have On the surface, ghost tours are a simple com- become the refuge for an otherwise profound mercial entertainment. Tourists pay guides to need to believe in ghosts. bring them on a tour of Gettysburg’s streets and Gettysburg is arguably the most mythologized fields and tell stories that will amuse them and spot in the country or at least the most mythol- hold their interest. The complexity of the ghost ogized Civil War battlefield. It has been con- tour stems from the fact that tour guides perform structed as ‘‘the turning point of the Civil War’’ ghosts as real or potentially real, that is to say a and features more monuments than any other 2 verifiable facet of the physical world. As an au- It also bears the distinct American battlefield. dience member and as a ghost tour guide, the reputation of being a place where roughly 11,000 question I most frequently heard before a tour men and boys died. All of these individuals died began was some variation on, ‘‘Am I going to see a violently and, in many cases, horrifically. These ghost tonight?’’ This question was only occasion- deaths form the basis for the notion that Gettys- ally asked as a joke, and often implied: (1) the burg’s historic buildings, streets, and fields are asker’s willingness to believe in the possibility of haunted. Gettysburg’s haunted status has given seeing a ghost and (2) the asker’s desire to actually birth to no less than eight ghost tour companies in see a ghost. Tourists scan the shadows, sniff the the borough. The sheer volume of ghost tours in air, turn an ear to the wind, and snap scores of Gettysburg make it an ideal case study for ghost digital photographs in an effort to experience the tourism. 3 paranormal. On a Gettysburg ghost tour, a tourist joins a The fact that tourists hope to en- group of other tourists who have been attracted to counter a ghost does not necessarily suggest that a roadside stand or souvenir shop by advertise- they are inclined to believe in ghosts. Colin Davis ments that ask ‘‘do you believe in ghosts?’’ and imagines the internal monologue of a ghost be- promise to take you to places where ‘‘the veils of Haunted liever and disbeliever, respectively in the spirit open to catch a glimpse of soldiers and (2007): ‘‘I know ghosts don’t exist, but I Subjects civilians long dead, who still reach across the bar- still believe in them; or, alternatively, I don’t be- riers of time.’’ At an appointed hour (usually be- lieve in ghosts, but I don’t entirely believe my lack tween 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. at night) a tour of belief’’ (8). Even though the audience is in- guide, dressed in a costume reminiscent of the clined to doubt, their desire to have a paranormal 1860s, steps forward from her or his place behind encounter indicates that the closer they come to the stand and addresses the group. After a brief believing that encounter possible, the better they introduction, the guide takes her or his candlelit will enjoy the tour. lantern in hand and leads the group on a tour of Ghost tour guides address tourists’ desire to haunted spaces, that is, spaces said to be occupied believe in the existence of ghosts by calling on by ghosts. In Gettysburg, ghosts are understood their tour groups to activate their paranormal be- as the continued conscious presence of an indi- liefs. Activating belief should not be conflated vidual after her or his death, independent of the with suspending disbelief. A performance that individual’s physical body. Many tour guides, in calls for a suspension of disbelief has a fictional the context of their tours, talk about ghosts as content, and audience members are asked to over- existing in a separate plane that is spatially layered look the fact that the story’s characters are being on top of the world of the living. The guide makes played by actors, for example, or that the events periodic stops where she or he tells stories of in the story are implausible. Audience members ghosts and ghost encounters. Frequently, the sto- do not deny that the story is fictional but rather ries connect historical figures or circumstances hold or suspend their awareness of the story’s from the battle of Gettysburg to some strange or implausibility during its telling. The ghost tour,
3 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 81 on the other hand, asks its audience to believe that before it begins. In Gettysburg, the ghost tour is its stories are true and that ghosts are actually pres- contextualized as a ‘‘mere’’ entertainment, a friv- ent on its tour stops. Do ghost tour guides create a olous sideshow at an otherwise solemn historical performance that activates tourists’ capacity to be- tourist destination. Ghost tours are ‘‘not serious,’’ lieve in the paranormal, and if so how is this insofar as they are not taken seriously by the res- achieved? How does the activation of belief interact idents, shopkeepers, and historians of Gettysburg. with ghost tours’ surface function to entertain? Numerous tours that I both attended and gave The ghost tour guide is not only the central were heckled by Gettysburg locals, usually riding entertainment but also the central source of para- by in cars. Hecklers would shout out at tours, normal belief for ghost tour audiences. I will draw sometimes forming words like ‘‘boo,’’ other times on my field research in Gettysburg in 2007: con- screaming incoherently. One sutler (a craftsperson ducting interviews and surveys, attending tours, that creates nineteenth-century replica clothing) and training and performing as a guide myself. The talked about a video that a local student had made guide’s beliefs or performed beliefs stand in for the mocking the tours (October 2007). In a discussion tour group’s inability or unwillingness to openly with several historians of the Friends of the Na- Cities of the Dead confront the unknown. In tional Park Service, the historians expressed their (1996), Joseph Roach asserts that ‘‘performers are opinion that tours were mostly lies. When asked routinely pressed into service as effigies, their bod- what ghost tour they recommended to tourists, ies alternately adored and despised but always the historians said ‘‘none’’ (October 2007). Shop- offered up on the altar of surrogacy’’ (40). Erving keepers and residents alike complained about get- Goffman’s (1959) concept of sincerity and presen- ting around the sidewalks, being kept up by tours tation of self as well as various theories of narrative outside of their houses, and tourists’ leaving litter performance, inform an argument as to how the on their lawns. But despite all of this ill will, there ghost tour guide serves as a surrogate believer. Tour has never been any concerted effort to stop or group members hide, huddled up in their own remove ghost tours from Gettysburg’s streets. doubts, and must be guided out into the world of This is perhaps the greatest evidence for the fact possibility presented by the ghost. They must take that the Gettysburg community does not take its a ‘‘vacation’’ from their own nagging closed-mind- ghost tours seriously. They are perturbing and an edness and follow the guide both literally and met- inconvenience, but not worth the effort to address aphorically on this journey beyond death’s door. as a real problem. Ghost tours embrace their lack of seriousness and incorporate it as a prevalent theme on the Not Taking Ghosts Seriously tour. Many guides announce it from the outset, adding the ‘‘rule’’ that tourists ‘‘must have fun’’ to their introduction. Essentially, this forms the basis for the entertainment aspect of the tour. The most It is beneficial to consider first how the context blatant sign that any performance is not serious is in which the guides perform establishes an envi- when that performance incorporates humor. Ev- ronment in which they can activate belief. Richard ery tour that I attended utilized humor as a key Bauman (1977) argues that ‘‘[m]ost important as component of the performance. One guide began an organizing principle in the ethnography of his performance by giving accounts of tourists in performance is the event (or scene) within which former audiences who either did or asked some- the performance occurs’’ (27). Elizabeth Tonkin thing ‘‘stupid’’ (September 2007). Many guides (1992) goes so far as to suggest that ‘‘in oral incorporate ‘‘stupid tourist questions’’ on their [genres] occasion is much more likely to be sig- tours: How come all Civil War battles were nificant than form and style’’ (53). The context or fought at national parks? Why aren’t there any occasion of the ghost tour determines the way the bullet holes in the monuments? What time does audience is predisposed to experience the tour
4 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 82 with the not serious renders the serious that much the eight o’ clock tour start? Ghost tour guide Ed 4 It is also possible to more serious by comparison. Kenney renders characters in his stories as com- think of the not serious as having a kind of ical figures, like the girl who calls a local bed and Brechtian distancing effect. The comic nature of breakfast to order a ‘‘room with a ghost’’ (tour, the tour distances tourists from the tragedy so August 2007). Another guide, Nancy Pritt, en- that they can gain a more intellectual appreciation gaged in physical humor when she bent a tourist 5 of the scope and consequences of the battle. over and used him as a table to demonstrate how a The not serious approach also allows tourists character in one of her stories shot at his enemies to maintain a certain comfortable distance from (tour, September 2007) (Figure 1). the tour’s inherent call for paranormal belief. The not serious nature of the tours is a large Ghost tour guides must assert the presence of part of their appeal. Tourists come to Gettysburg ghosts as a possibility rather than an absolute. for an experience with a bloody and cataclysmic Tourists will doubt Gettysburg’s ghosts, and so segment of America’s history. They tour cemeter- the guide must acknowledge that doubt and in- ies and battle sites, hearing about violent deaths, corporate it into the performance or risk over- complicated military maneuvers, and political loading tourists’ capacity to believe. Paranormal speeches and eulogies. Ghost tours offer tourists belief has a certain stigma attached to it in the an opportunity to escape from the seriousness of industrialized West. Depending on the circum- the battle to the playful not seriousness of ghosts. stances, individuals who definitively assert their This is not to say that ghost tours do not address belief in ghosts are apt to be the object of ridicule very serious topics like war hospitals, battlefield and derision. If tours take ghosts too seriously, massacres, and the horrific and tragic deaths of they will make tourists uncomfortable and limit countless soldiers. In fact, ghost tours touch on all their ability to accept ghosts as a real possibility. of these things in a very reverent tone. But the The not serious nature of tours allows guides to ghost tour juxtaposes the serious with the not se- play with ghosts without demanding that tourists rious in ways that history tours do not. In some commit themselves to believing or disbelieving ways, the not serious aspect of the ghost tour al- the paranormal. lows guides to go farther in conveying the true In many ways, the guide’s approach to the seriousness of Gettysburg’s history. In the first performance with ghosts at the center resembles place, the not serious entertains and holds tour- Gregory Bateson’s (1972) concept of play. Bate- ists’ attention so that they are more likely to be son theorized that play substitutes the ‘‘nip’’ for listening closely when a serious moment arises. In the ‘‘bite,’’ which is to say play references some- the second place, the juxtaposition of the serious thing serious (the bite) in a nonserious or non- threatening way (the nip). Similarly, the ghost tour references something serious (paranormal belief) in a nonserious way (the ghost tour). If the guide openly asserts that she or he believes in ghosts without framing that assertion in the play- ful context of the performance, the assertion will prove threatening to the tour group. The ghost tour departs from Bateson’s concept insofar as the guide’s ‘‘nips’’ have a specific purpose, that is, to entertain. Bateson’s play is done for its own sake rather than with any particular function in mind. Bateson’s play does not require an audience and Figure 1. Nancy Pritt performs for her tour group the ghost tour does; thus, the ghost tour is not in a field along the main street in town. Photo courtesy of Sleepy Hollow of Gettysburg. play directly but a conscious performance of play.
5 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 83 candle lantern . . . ’cuz kids grow up hearing ghost Setting the Terms stories around a campfire—I tell them the lantern is my portable campfire’’ (pers. comm., September 2007). The lantern is an important part of keying How does a ghost tour guide establish her or the notion of the paranormal or the ‘‘spooky his function as a surrogate believer for the tour story.’’ It alludes to popular images of stories group and assert the premise that ghosts are real? around a campfire and walks through haunted According to Richard Bauman, storytellers set the castles, dungeons, and houses with a lit torch or terms of their performances through keying. Bor- candle. They are part of what generates an atmo- rowing from Goffman and Bateson, Bauman de- sphere that welcomes the presence of ghosts both fines keying as the ‘‘range of explicit or implicit real and imaginary (Figure 2). message(s) which carry instructions on how to Guides’ costumes serve a similar function. At interpret the other message(s) being communi- all but one company in town, guides are required cated’’ (15). Guides key their performances so that to wear a costume reminiscent of the middle of their tour groups will understand the conditions the nineteenth century. Female guides wear hoop- by which they are to experience, interpret, and skirt dresses and male guides wear military uni- evaluate the performance. forms or less formal antiquarian ‘‘civilian’’ clothes. In the introductions to their tours, guides will The term reminiscent is perhaps the most ac- often explicitly inform tourists that it is possible curate because there is a certain range in the style that they may encounter a ghost during the tour and antiquarian accuracy of the costumes. Ed by listing the various ways in which tourists may Reiner, proprietor and sole performer for his own have a paranormal experience. Ed Kenney re- tour company, appears in painstakingly accurate counts the sights, sounds, and smells that people antiquarian costume. One of his outfits is a Ber- experienced in Gettysburg during and immedi- dan Sharpshooter’s uniform: a green coat and ately after the battle, implying that tourists may pants and matching hat with a maroon belt, white be subject to those exact same sensations should gloves, epaulets on his sleeves, a knapsack with they encounter the paranormal during the course gold and blue print, and black shoes (tour, August of the tour. Guide and tour manager Ray Davis is 2007). As a point of contrast, when I began giving more direct. He lists the various ways that tourists tours for the Sleepy Hollow tour company, I was have had paranormal or seemingly paranormal given a pair of wool pants and a checkered shirt experiences on his previous tours (transcript, Feb- ruary 2006). The more or less explicit message in these introductory monologues is that ghosts are real, they are present in Gettysburg, and it is possible for a tourist to have an experience with one. In describing these potential paranormal en- counters, the guide not only suggests her or his own belief in ghosts but encourages the tour group to believe as well. Guides also key their performances in nonver- bal ways, establishing an aesthetic through their props and costumes. All guides carry lanterns, including guides who do not dress in antiquarian clothing. At each tour stop, the guide places the lantern on the ground between her or himself and the group to tell stories. Guide Steve Anderson Figure 2. A stand advertising Haunted Gettysburg theorizes the import of the lantern to the ghost and featuring the standard ghost tour guide lantern. Photo by Katie Lesser. tour aesthetic: ‘‘And of course I must have my
6 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 84 Roche stated that ‘‘folks want to see what ladies from the Gap, a vest that vaguely matched the looked like then and I also feel that being in pe- pants, and a straw hat. The total outfit alluded to riod dress gives you a great deal of credibility’’ an earlier period, but with far less attention to (pers. comm., September 2007). Ed Kenney detail than Ed’s complete Berdan uniform. Many offered a similar idea: ‘‘I think it adds to the ex- guides fall between the extremes, often trading perience some as the guide is not just some Joe off accuracy for practicality. Guides wear black or the street but has probably got some experience’’ brown boots but almost never walk in antiquarian (pers. comm., November 2007). Both Betty and footwear. In colder weather, female guides will Ed seem to suggest that the costume is part of wear pajama or gym pants under their skirts. what authorizes the guide as a performer. The Guide Tara Leas wears modern glasses because guide is set apart as someone with ‘‘credibility’’ she cannot afford antiquarian spectacles and and ‘‘experience,’’ thereby providing the guide ‘‘thought it best not to be walking blindly into with the necessary platform to become a leader traffic’’ (Figure 3). and performer within the tour group. Guides had much to say about how the cos- In his discussion of living history tour guides, tume contributed to their audience’s experience. Michael Mayerfeld Bell argues that ‘‘the visitor Guide Eileen Hoover said, ‘‘the dress is very im- knows that the costumed guides are not ghosts, of portant in setting the mood and staging the per- course, but their presence assists in the mental formance’’ (pers. comm., August 2007). In other construction of the apparitions of place’’ (829). words, the costume satisfies the audience’s expec- The costume suggests that the tour performance tations and sets a certain tone for what is to fol- will utilize Gettysburg’s history as a backdrop or low. Guide and paranormal investigator Betty basis for its narratives. It also establishes the guide as an individual who has some connection to that history. The nature of that connection, how- ever, is indirect. The costume is not intended to communicate to the tourist that the performance will be about history or that the guide is neces- sarily a source of historical knowledge. Gettys- burg National Military Park’s history tour guides, whom tourists are most likely to hire in the course of their daytime activities, are not costumed but rather uniformed, donning dress shirts and ties. Thus, in Gettysburg the costume suggests a more theatrical and playful exploration of history rather than the professional self-presentation of the bat- tlefield guides. This is one way to account for the wide range of historical authenticity in guides’ outfits. History is not their focus and so pains- taking historical accuracy is not worth the effort and may give the wrong impression. The Performance Persona Figure 3. The author in costume as a ghost tour Having set the terms by which the perfor- guide selling tickets to a tourist before a tour. Photo by Lauren Thompson. mance should be understood and judged, guides
7 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 85 7 Achieving tered by their own performance’’ (18). at least the appearance of sincerity in the context of a ghost tour is a multifaceted challenge. Goff- man says, ‘‘[s]ometimes when we ask whether a fostered impression is true or false we really mean to ask whether or not the performer is authorized to give the performance in question’’ (59). What authorizes a ghost tour guide? As performers, guides must demonstrate a particular set of skills 8 Asserting com- that empower them to perform. petence as a performer is the first step in the guide’s assumption of authority (Figure 4). Nearly anyone can attempt to be a ghost tour Figure 4. Steve Anderson sharing a ghost story. guide in Gettysburg. Among the eight companies, Photo courtesy of Steve Anderson. numerous jobs and positions frequently open up. Ghosts of Gettysburg invites applicants to attend as many tours as they need to before giving a tour must proceed to satisfy the expectations that they to the company’s proprietor, Mark Nesbitt. Nes- have established. For guides to suggest that ghosts bitt then decides if the guide is ready to tell stories exist, they must assert the nonfictional nature of to tourists. Sleepy Hollow, the company that I their narratives. To that end, guides eschew a the- toured for, required that I attend three tours given atrical character and perform as themselves. If a by other guides with the company. Guides then performer assumes a theatrical character, the im- give an ‘‘apprentice’’ tour, but there is no final plicit message for the audience is that anything the audition. This is not to suggest that tour guiding performer says or does is bracketed as fiction. requires minimal skills or that it is easily accom- Elizabeth Tonkin argues that ‘‘it is open to any plished. Like acting or creative writing, anybody storyteller to construct a self, but because the can be a ghost tour guide, but only select indi- telling is ‘in person’ it may be risky to create a viduals can do it well. High-school and college persona which deviates too much from what oth- students are frequently hired, but they rarely ers think is one’s personality’’ (48–49). The risk continue in the job for long. I talked with, toured that Tonkin refers to is that of seeming disingen- with, and worked with nearly thirty guides during uous. Of the seventeen guides that I saw perform the course of my field research. Only one of those in Gettysburg, only one performed in character. thirty was a high-school student, and only two The other sixteen guides introduced themselves were college-aged students. The remainder of my with their own names and never took on a con- informants were adults who had been performing sciously ‘‘fictional’’ self. This removes a level of 9 ghost tours for between three and eleven years. artifice and illusion from the outset. From the audience’s perspective, guides are understood as What skills had these ‘‘veteran’’ guides developed being no different on tours than they are in daily that allowed them continue in this occupation? 6 life. Almost all guides displayed a certain preoccu- pation with capturing and holding their audience’s If guides perform as themselves, then much attention. Nancy Pritt and Betty Roche talked hinges on the guide’s self-presentation. In order about a guide’s ability to ‘‘read’’ or ‘‘see if [the for the guide to convey and activate beliefs that audience is] tuned in’’ as essential to a successful the audience is inclined to doubt, she or he must performance (pers. comm., September 2007). Tara earn the audience’s trust by appearing to be sin- Leas implied that a certain amount of technical is bor- sincere cere. This particular use of term skill aids in holding the audience’s interest by in- rowed from Goffman who ascribes it to dicating that she varies voice, movement, and ‘‘individuals who believe in the impression fos-
8 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 86 tempo in her performances (pers. comm., Sep- the persona betrays the guide’s ability to persuade tember 2007). Ed Kenney said that his tours are the audience of anything, let alone the existence of lacking when he has something else on his mind, ghosts. Guides overcome this contradiction by and that he gives his best performance when he is maintaining their personal sincerity at the expense focused on performing (pers. comm., November of their performance’s sincerity. In other words, 2007). Guides have to give a conscious perfor- guides assert throughout the tour that they are mance and the more conscious they are of per- sincere while hinting at the fact that their perfor- forming, the better their audiences’ experiences. mance may or may not be entirely sincere. They An ability to entertain also demonstrates a guide’s achieve this by rendering their performance per- confidence in her or his performance and bolsters sonae porous. Guides move in and out of the a guide’s ability to persuade the group. Individuals performance persona, blending it with their non- are more apt to believe a performer who has performed or ‘‘real’’ self. mastered her or his performance than one who is Tourists are introduced to the ‘‘real’’ guide be- stuttering and floundering over it. Sleepy Hollow fore the tour begins. They are asked to arrive be- proprietor Cindy Codori Shultz spoke directly tween ten and fifteen minutes before the tour’s to this issue when she told me that she had fired a scheduled start time. The purpose of gathering guide for being ‘‘boring’’ and not having a ‘‘char- early is to assure that the tour begins on time, but acter’’ (pers. interview, August 2007). Cindy’s use this gathering phase has the unintended side effect should not be understood to character of the term of establishing the guide’s sincerity. Tourists have mean a theatrical character but rather a stage access to the guide, but the guide is not perform- presence or performance persona. The perfor- ing. Although not physically in any ‘‘backstage’’ mance persona is as much a requirement as it is an space, the guide exists in a backstage state. During inevitable product of repetition. Guides’ stories the gathering phase, guides will often light their are rarely ever ‘‘scripted’’ word for word, but all lanterns, adjust their costumes, or just hang guides have routes that they are comfortable with around and wait for the tour to begin. Their in- and narratives that they perform regularly. The teractions with tourists are entirely informal. more comfortable guides become with their rou- They may talk about the paranormal or they tine, the more developed their persona becomes may talk about their day job, the best restaurants and the more capable and assertive they appear to to eat at, the weather, their costume, etc. Guides their tour groups. rarely address the entire group until the tour be- gins, and so these pretour interactions are usually one-on-one or with only a few members of the larger group. It is as if the tourist has walked The Paradox of Ghost Performance backstage at a play and had a conversation with the actors before the show. Guides return to this nonperformed state every The performance persona is an essential aspect time they move between tour sites. Guides almost of what authorizes the guide to perform, but it never speak to the entire tour group while trav- lands the guide in a difficult paradox. Goffman says, eling between sites, and their interactions with We tend see real performances as something not pur- tourists become informal and more individual posely put together at all, being an unintentional product of the individual’s unselfconscious response to again. Guides always encourage questions, and, the facts in his situation. And contrived performance because the audience’s questions cannot be re- we tend to see as something painstakingly pasted to- gether, one false item on another, since there is no re- hearsed for in advance, guides’ answers both ap- ality to which the items of behavior could be a direct pear and often are uncontrived. Even during the response. (70) course of a story, when the guide’s performance self is most firmly assumed, an unanticipated oc- Guides must assume a performance persona in currence may inspire the guide to momentarily order to command the authority to perform, but
9 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 87 phantom sightings whereas personal narratives drop the performance. Loud noises, hecklers, and focus on subtle scents, sounds, and mysterious audience reactions are common opportunities for photographs. If the guide claims to have wit- the guide to drop her or his performance self and nessed a mysterious death or come face to face respond. with a full-form phantom, the guide risks appear- An important metacommunication takes place ing fanatical and delusional to the tour group. A in these transitions from the performance self to 10 personal narrative from guide Mike Lyons’s ghost In her analysis of the nonperformance self. tour will help to illustrate this point: metacommunication in narrative performances, Barbara Babcock argues that, ‘‘the storyteller I came out here last October with about 45 sorority sisters from the University of Maryland. I don’t know must not only create an illusion of reality but where this job was when I was twenty and single but I must make certain that we are aware that it is an had the wrong job man [audience laughs]. . . . They were freaking out on this hill. As soon as we got out illusion’’ (70). Through breaking the performance, here they asked me, ‘‘who would be digging down at the guide essentially steps out from behind the the bottom of a hill on a Saturday night?’’ I said ‘‘what?’’ I couldn’t see a thing. Half of them couldn’t performance self and winks back at the perfor- see a thing. But the other half were watching three men mance, revealing it as something less real or illu- down there by the trees . . .. Three men digging away . . .. Well, what are we gonna do? What any sensible sory. This is not to suggest that guides label their person would do: get their lantern and go check it out performances as blatantly false. Rather, through . . .. I started on down the hill. Didn’t take about five seconds for them to catch up . . .. Nobody around, no breaks in the performance, the guide reveals the picks, no shovels, just shadows moving inside the tree performance to be less true than their own per- line. That’s when one of the girls felt somebody grab sonal beliefs. her arm just above the left elbow. She said ‘‘what is that?’’ I said, ‘‘chances are one of them ghosts wanted The guide’s own sincere personal belief is the to come and check you out.’’ She said ‘‘lets go.’’ I said, source of the tour’s power to persuade tourists of ‘‘alright, come on up the hill.’’ By the time we got up here four more of ’em had been taken above their left ghosts’ possible presence. The distance that the elbow. (tour, August 2007) guide creates between her or himself and the per- formance by rendering the performance playful is Mike opens his story with a joke. His tale an exercise in preserving that sincerity. As Gillian might be a bit much for his tour group to accept, Bennett (1999) suggests, individuals in western and so he begins by implicitly informing them culture are often ashamed of their paranormal ex- that he is not entirely serious about his story. periences and reluctant to talk about them for fear Then, in the narrative itself, he dissociates himself of being ridiculed. Giving a personal account of a from the paranormal experience. He does not paranormal experience or asserting one’s belief in personally experience the paranormal but rather ghosts is often accompanied by many qualifica- experiences a group of girls experiencing the tions and justifications because the speaker antic- paranormal. The guide does not see the ghosts or ipates a derisive or dismissive response from her feel them touch his elbow. That encounter rests or his audience. The guide is never ashamed or entirely with the sorority girls. The guide suggests reticent to perform her or his stories, but if the that this tale is strong evidence for the paranormal guide completely invests her or his credibility in a but keeps a safe enough distance from the narrative that the tour group deems dubious or narrative to maintain his credibility in the event invalid, the guide loses all hope of truthfully as- that the audience is not convinced. The implicit serting anything, let alone the reality of ghosts. message for the audience is that the guide can be Thus, nonpersonal narratives (in which the guide trusted, but the guide’s performance is suspect. invests minimal personal credibility) tend to be This poses an interesting problem for the guide’s more outlandish and personal narratives of the objective to persuade tourists of the possibility of guide’s own paranormal experiences (in which the ghosts. If the tourist cannot trust the perfor- guide invests a greater degree of personal credi- mance, the guide’s own personal beliefs become bility) tend to be more tame. Nonpersonal narra- increasingly important to the tourist’s ability to tives involve mysterious deaths and dramatic believe or entertain belief. It also gives greater
10 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 88 a ghost, that experience makes it that much more weight to interactions between tourists and guides likely that the guide believes in ghosts and has when guides are not performing. some basis for performing ghosts as real. Belief is inextricably intertwined with experi- Ghost Belief ence. On his tour, Ray Davis talks about tourists’ interest in his beliefs: ‘‘people ask me all the time if I’ve ever seen a ghost. ‘Ray have you ever seen a ghost, Ray do you believe in ghosts, even Ray are A question remains from Mike’s sorority ghost you a ghost?’’’ (transcript, February 2006). Cindy encounter narrative. Although he carefully navi- Codori Shultz told me that she expects her guides gates his audience’s capacity to accept his sincer- to believe in their stories enough to convey that ity, why would he bother to introduce a tale that belief to the audience. In other words, the audi- comes so perilously close to overstretching their ence should believe that the guide believes (pers. ability to believe? The skill to confidently per- interview, August 2007). Nancy Pritt said, ‘‘I form is essential to guides’ authority within the don’t think it’s necessary to believe in ghosts to tour group, but just as essential is their connection give an effective performance if one is a good ac- to what they perform. One would not accept a tor, but I think an audience can smell a ‘fake’ and friend’s diatribe on calculus, for example, if the will not tend to believe your stories if . . . you friend had no training or experience with math- don’t believe them either’’ (pers. comm., October ematics. Ghost tour guides presume to offer nar- 2007). Lack of belief requires that the guide fill rative truths about the paranormal, and so they the void by ‘‘acting,’’ or assuming a false enthu- must prove to their audiences that they actually siasm. Betty Roche suggested that, ‘‘unless you know something of the spirit world. are a trained stage or screen performer—it’s diffi- Ray Davis tells several personal stories on his cult to convey the eerie feeling they are looking tour including one where he saw ‘‘hundreds of for’’ if the guide does not believe (pers. comm., lights’’ in the distance while giving a tour. Tara September 2007). Guides must convince their au- Leas tells a story of a friend who managed to dience that they believe in ghosts if they are to capture photographs of a ghost hovering near her assert the reality of ghosts’ existence. The guide’s on a Gettysburg battlefield. And Nancy Pritt car- belief (or performed belief) forms the basis for the ries an album of ghost photographs that she shares activation of tourists’ own beliefs. with her group during the course of the tour. And yet Nancy’s caveat about the ‘‘good actor’’ When guides do not have paranormal stories of and Betty’s suggestion of the ‘‘trained stage or their own, they are encouraged to tell stories from screen performer’’ suggest that ghost tour guides tourists or other guides. Having a secondhand need not believe in ghosts in order to give an experience with a ghost is better than no experi- effective performance. A persuasive cynic might ence at all. These narratives help to establish that just as easily con the audience into believing that the guide has a legitimate claim to knowledge she or he believes. In that case, the truth of the about the paranormal and so is justified in her or ghost tour is not unlike that of the stage. The his attempt to assert the reality of the paranormal performer fabricates a belief in order to please the to the tour group. Personal knowledge and expe- audience, but the belief is no reflection on who rience validates the content of the guides’ perfor- the performer really is or what the performer ac- mances and bolsters the believability of her or his tually thinks. What, then, is the truth of the ghost assertions. Personal experience is particularly tour? To what extent do guides believe in ghosts, powerful because, as Tonkin argues, ‘‘[i]f people or, to borrow Goffman’s terminology, to what say they’ve experienced something, and the per- extent do they give a ‘‘sincere’’ performance? Is sonal quality of that experience is asserted, one there a ‘‘tour’’ truth that guides ascribe to only cannot prove or disprove what was felt by the while performing (much like actors ascribe to a other’’ (40). If a guide has had an experience with
11 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 89 happened at the Old Schoolhouse on East High Street stage truth while in character) so that the tour on three separate tours this year, I start paying more essentially amounts to a convincingly performed attention. fiction, or do guides more or less accurately rep- (pers. comm., September 2007) resent their beliefs? Ed and Steve suggest that they believe some- Some guides believe whole-heartedly in Get- thing inexplicable or mysterious is happening on tysburg’s ghosts. Nancy Pritt told me, ‘‘I do hon- the streets of Gettysburg, but they are unwilling to estly believe that there are ghosts in the places that definitively assert that ghosts are the only expla- I take my tour groups. I have seen and felt ev- nation for those phenomena. The truth underlying idence of the many lives lost here in the streets of these guides’ tours is perhaps best characterized as Gettysburg’’ (pers. comm., October 2007). Nancy one of open inquiry. They do not perform ghosts went on to relate her perception of ghosts at so much as possible ghosts or phenomena that Gettysburg to feelings of ‘‘sadness and loss’’ at might be interpreted as paranormal. Their perfor- Washington, DC’s Vietnam War Memorial and mances of belief are explorations of the unex- Holocaust Museum. Guide Bob Michels said, ‘‘I plained, and they leave open-ended any final believe in spirits. . . . Most people when they think understanding of the strange events they narrate. about it they probably realize there [were] some It is important to note that neither the true things that happened in their lives that they can believers nor the open-minded skeptics under- never explain . . . And I think all of us being mor- stand the content of the ghost tour performance tal we do at times ponder what’s gonna happen to be entirely genuine. They may say that the next’’ (pers. interview, September 2007). Nancy ghost of this soldier or that officer haunts a par- and Bob define ghost experience in interestingly ticular building by appearing to its residents, but similar ways. For them, incidents that occur in they do not necessarily believe the entirety of the almost every person’s life are actually encounters story to be true. Rather, they believe that there is with ghosts. When an individual feels sadness at a an element of truth to the story. For example, they memorial site or experiences a strange flicker of may believe that a ghost manifests itself in less the lights at home, he or she is apt to dismiss these startling ways or that something inexplicable hap- events as natural in origin when they may be su- pens that should neither be dismissed nor blindly pernatural. The truth of Nancy’s and Bob’s ghost accepted as evidence for the paranormal. The per- tours is then a matter of lens. Through the lens of meability of the performance allows tourists a the tour, normal experiences can be viewed as glimpse at the complexity of the guide’s relation- potentially paranormal. ship to her or his narratives. Tourists see that there Another perspective on ghost tours’ truth is a ‘‘real person’’ within the performance persona comes from guides who identified themselves as whose opinions and thoughts do not necessarily skeptics but then proceeded to qualify their skep- match up with those of the persona. The fact that ticism. In a personal communication, Ed Kenney this real person either believes or is willing to told me, ‘‘I consider myself to be a skeptic, but as openly question the existence of ghosts is what I tell folks on my tours, there are a lot of things gives credence to the persona’s more outlandish that I have encountered on the walks that don’t assertions and allows tourists to explore and ac- really have another credible explanation at this tivate their own beliefs. time. I think that helps the storytelling experi- ence’’ (pers. comm., November 2007). Steve An- derson made a similar argument: Conclusion As for me, I’m skeptical but willing to be convinced. So if you show me a picture with ‘‘orbs,’’ my first thought is going to be that there were some little drops 11 But if half a dozen people’s of water on your lens. A nuanced understanding is required to grasp cameras all show an orb the same size outside the same the kind of belief that underlies ghost tour window of the same building at the same time, as has
12 June 2010 Volume 33, Number 2 The Journal of American Culture 90 through the room in the hospital where I work guides’ performances. Goffman says, ‘‘[w]hile and disappeared through the wall;’’ ‘‘the hotel we can expect to find natural movement back room that we stayed in was so haunted I and forth between cynicism and sincerity, still 12 These tales, wouldn’t go in the bathroom.’’ we must not rule out the kind of transitional and the beliefs that underlie them, might inspire point that can be sustained on the strength of a ridicule in tourists’ daily lives, but on the ghost little self-illusion’’ (21). It may be that guides tour they are accepted with an open mind. Of- indulge in a certain degree of self-illusion in or- ten, these stories become part of the guide’s der to convincingly engage in their perfor- repertoire and serve to inspire future tour mances, but they make no effort to hide this groups to abandon their doubts and engage with from their audiences. Nancy Pritt is one of many the ghost tour’s adventurous exploration of guides who tells her tour groups that they can belief. feel free to ask any questions they like during the There is still more at stake in this quest for the course of the tour, and, if she does not know the ghost. What happens if a tourist encounters a ghost answers, she will make them up. Although this on a tour? What if the tour group happens upon may seem to undermine the ghost tour’s objec- the translucent figure of a confederate soldier dig- tive to convince tourists of ghosts’ existence, in ging a ditch or hears the screams of the dying in a fact it typifies the basis of tours’ persuasiveness. church that was once a Civil War field hospital? By openly confessing that she will sometimes Paranormal belief sociologist Erik Goode suggests exaggerate and fabricate elements of her perfor- that, ‘‘if even a single instance of any one of these mance, Nancy sends the almost paradoxical phenomena exists or works, the paranormal prin- meta-message that she is going to be forthright ciple is valid’’ (58–59). Suddenly, ghosts become an with the group. She does not necessarily believe empirical part of that tourist’s or tour group’s all of the outlandish ghost stories she tells out- world. Suddenly, their conception of life, death, side the context of her performance, but that and the very nature of the universe is fundamen- does not mean that she does not believe in Get- tally altered. Perhaps that is why ghost tours tysburg’s ghosts. It is simply that the ghosts she choose to address ghosts in a playful and enter- believes in do not always make for the most en- taining way. Perhaps people need this seemingly tertaining stories. frivolous entertainment if they are to so much as Theghosttourperformanceservesasaplay- attempt to address the great unknown of the para- ful signifier for the signified ghost beliefs that normal encounter or the still greater unknown of underlie it. The guide’s playful and ironic stance death. It may be too frightening, too paralyzing to toward her or his performance allows tourists to look the ghost straight in the eye and ask ‘‘what are entertain the possibilit y of ghosts without in- you and why have you come?’’ If the individual vesting their credulity in the paranormal. But, as were to address the unknown so directly she or he the tour progresses, and the guide’s beliefs begin might lose her or his nerve, break down, and to surface in and around the performance, many crumble in the face of the void. And so Americans tourists drop whatever irony they may have tell stories, make jokes, and bury belief in the ipation and commence to brought to their partic playful performance of the ghost tour. search for ghosts in earnest. They compare pho- tographs, point off into the shadows, and even offer anomalous sensations with the guide and the group. By the end of the tour, some tourists Notes grow so comfortable with the open environment that the guide has created that they share their own ghost stories: ‘‘I was poked by an invisible 1. My argument is concerned exclusively with the industrialized hand at a restaurant in town;’’ ‘‘a blue-tinted West. Ghost belief is trans-historical and cross-cultural, but different apparition in nineteenth-century dress crossed cultures understand and interact with ghosts on widely different terms.
13 Robert C. Thompson ‘‘Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?’’ 91 2. In These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped 8. According to Bauman, ‘‘performance as a mode of spoken American Memory (2003), Thomas Desjardin argues that, although verbal communication consists in the assumption of responsibility to Gettysburg was a cataclysmic and important Civil War battle, the an audience for a display of communicative competence’’ (11). dominant understanding of Gettysburg as the most important bat- 9. This is likely a product of the fact that I began my field re- tlefield sight is largely a construction based on the work of ‘‘a few search after the busy summer season in July, but it provides a more or novelists and journalists’’ (188). He writes that, ‘‘the nation in 1864 less accurate reflection of those guides who perform most often and did not see Gettysburg as the pivotal event on which the entire war for the longest duration each year in the various tour companies. swung. Instead, this perception grew and developed into a common metacommunication 10. The term comes from Barbara Babcock belief after the war ended’’ (199). Desjardin suggests that historian who defines it as ‘‘any element of communication which calls atten- John Badger Bachelder invented the idea that Gettysburg was a tion to the speech event as a performance and the relationship which turning point in the war based on Bachelder’s agenda to locate ‘‘the obtains between the narrator and his audience’’ (66). war’s decisive event’’ (86). The fact that the war continued for two years after Gettysburg serves as Desjardin’s main point in debunking 11. Orbs are small white circles that appear anomalously in Bachelder’s claims. photographs. Orbs are said to be one of the many shapes that a ghost can take. Many guides will specify that orbs are subject to skepti- 3. Ghost photography, based on the premise that although a cism. Dust reflecting light, for example, will often appear as orbs in ghost may be invisible to the naked eye it might still produce an photographs. image on a digital camera, is so popular that some ghost tour com- panies have based their business model on enticing tourists to pho- 12. These are all paraphrases of stories that tourists shared with tograph ghosts. me in my role as a ghost tour guide after the tour had ended. Some approached me with stories, and others came out with them on the 4. The ghost itself serves a similar purpose if one thinks about the walk back to center of town. seriousness of the mass deaths that happened during the battle of Gettysburg. Ghosts offer proof of an afterlife, reassurance that death is not the end of the individual. Without some hope or belief in an afterlife, the tragic and untimely deaths of roughly 11,000 lives is difficult to fathom and to justify. Ghosts offer a way to make these Works Cited deaths more palatable. 5. Although there is a notable resemblance to Brecht’s (1957) alienation effect insofar as the performer seeks to create a critical distance from the performance, the ends sought by the ghost tour are Babcock, Barbara. ‘‘The Story in the Story: Metanarration in Folk very different from those that Brecht theorized. Distancing is a Narrative.’’ . Ed. Richard Bauman. Verbal Art as Performance technique that ghost tour guides use to persuade the audience of their Love Grove, IL: Waveland Press Inc., 1977. 61-79. personal sincerity. Ultimately, guides want to convince their audi- . New York: Ballan- Steps to an Ecology of Mind Bateson, Gregory. ences of the possibility of ghosts rather than inspire debate on the tine Books, 1972. paranormal. Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance . Love Grove, IL: 6. Guides in Gettysburg were mostly Caucasian. They were both Waveland Press Inc., 1977. male and female, with neither gender clearly predominating. They ranged in age from seventeen to seventy, but most of the guides that I Theory and Society Bell, Michael Mayerfeld. ‘‘The Ghosts of Place.’’ encountered were in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Guides in 26.6 (1997): 813-36. Gettysburg were generally from the middle class and toured as a Alas, Poor Ghost!: Traditions of Belief in Story and Bennett, Gillian. part-time occupation or ‘‘summer job.’’ Guides were full-time col- . Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1999. Discourse lege students, retirees, teachers, writers, hotel clerks, actors at living and natural history museums, history tour guides, sutlers, advertising Brecht, Bertolt. . Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic executives, office managers, sales associates, and massage therapists. Trans. and Ed. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957. Avocationally, I encountered guides who are also paranormal inves- Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, Davis, Colin. tigators, Civil and Revolutionary War re-enactors, and psychics. . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, and the Return of the Dead Many guides had bachelor’s degrees in a number of fields including 2007. history, theatre, and education. One guide had a master’s degree in Desjardin, Thomas A. These Honored Dead: How the Story of Get- American History and another was pursuing a master’s in Art Ed- . Cambridge, MA: Da Capa tysburg Shaped American Memory ucation. Guides were intelligent, well-spoken, and forthcoming in- Press, 2003. dividuals, and I had little difficulty getting them to talk at length about their jobs, lives, and experiences. Guides were often charis- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman, Erving. . New matic, engaging, and inclined to tell stories even when they were not York: Doubleday, 1959. performing for a tour group. Goode, Erich. Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction . Stony 7. Although Goffman’s study focuses on the more or less un- Brook: State University of New York, 2000. conscious presentation of self, it applies to the ghost tour insofar as Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance . the tour purports to be a sincere performance of self. The guide’s New York: Columbia UP, 1966. challenge, as I will address in a later section, is to overcome the consciously contrived nature of her or his performance in order to Tonkin, Elizabeth. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of persuade the audience that the performance is sincere. Oral History . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
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