Dark tourism? Have no fear

Halloween is over, but that doesn't mean interest in ghosts and haunted places wanes. In fact, the paranormal was the topic of one of the workshops at the recent MichiganFun® Convention in Port Huron.
Author Dianna Stampfler
Dianna Stampfler, author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses and Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes, hosted "Don't Fear Paranormal Tourism," one of a series of workshops aimed at helping Michigan communities create, develop or improve festivals and events. 

Stampler has been writing about haunted restaurants, hotels, attractions, tours and festivals around Michigan for years. She has frequently connected with tour operators and event planners who not only recognize the impact that paranormal tourism has on their communities but they celebrate their haunted history in a respectful, educational and entertaining way.

We asked Stampfler, who also writes for Rural Innovation Exchange, to answer a few questions about "dark tourism." 

Why has dark tourism become so popular?
 
There has been a growing number of podcasts and shows on cable TV that focus on many aspects of dark tourism, whether that’s true crime, haunted travel or paranormal investigations. And it’s not just obscure networks, you have The History Channel, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and NBC dedicating an increasing amount of air time to stories that are darker in nature. It has become more mainstream and less taboo to be interested in these subjects. You’re also seeing more books on these topics and there is even a bookstore in Lansing’s REO Town that is dedicated to this genre called Deadtime Stories

How can dark tourism help communities grow their economies?
 
There are key communities around the world who have built upon their dark histories to create thriving tourism economies – like Salem, New Orleans, London and many others. Instead of burying their darker history, they’re embracing it and attracting avid solo and group travelers to experience it. Properties like the Stanley Hotel (The Shining) and Ohio State Reformatory (The Shawshank Redemption) have built in haunted tours as part of their regular schedule. Here in Michigan, The Whitney in Detroit offers an after dark haunted tour (which starts in their third floor Ghost Bar); Eloise Asylum hosts sold out haunted tours; before being damaged by fire this summer, The Holly Hotel was hosting seances every October (along with other spirited activities). There are several companies around the state that offer haunted walks and we even have at least three paranormal conferences held in the state each year. It’s like Michiganders can’t get enough of these experiences.
 
I recently learned about a collaboration of visitor bureaus that have created the Haunted History Trail of New York State and now my wheels are spinning on how we can develop something here in Michigan that is endorsed by tourism leaders willing to explore this potentially profitable niche. I can list dozens of venues in the state – hotels, restaurants, cemeteries, museums, theaters, lighthouses and more – that have acknowledged and even promoted their ghostly side (and not just at Halloween) so it makes economic sense that communities should bank on these stories as well. I’m not talking about the fabricated “haunted houses” that show up every fall, but historic sites with longstanding or documented ghost stories. No matter the size, communities can work with paranormal teams, tour operators, property owners, historians, authors and others to develop packages that bring individual and group travelers to explore these haunted and historic sites.
 
Why do lighthouses appeal to "dark" tourists?
 
Lighthouses are among Michigan’s most historic and iconic structures, dating back to the 1820s before Michigan was even a state. They’re often romanticized for their waterfront locals for picturesque sunrises and sunsets, but they’re often found in remote and desolate areas (especially in the 1800s when they were first constructed) and there are countless stories about men who drowned when their ships sank in the Great Lakes or lighthouse keepers who died when trying to rescue those mariners. There are even stories of keepers who took their own lives for one reason or another or men who were murdered mostly tied to robbery or alcohol related incidents. Or, there are simply tales of both men and women who served for decades tending to their respective lights, and even after passing from this world they’re not willing to relinquish their roles as keeper. Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state (129) and over 40 of those have some type of ghost story attached to them.
 
What's your favorite lighthouse story? 
 
I’ve visited many of the haunted lighthouses in Michigan, but one that has eluded me is Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse near Mackinaw City. Built in 1850, it sits off a rocky shoreline area and today stands (barely) in ruins. One of the most noted keepers here was a man named John Herman. I first heard his story back in the late 1990s when I was working for West Michigan Tourist Association in Grand Rapids on their Lake Michigan Circle Tour & Lighthouse Guide.

According to legend, John loved a good practical joke and a good stiff drink. On the evening of October 14, 1900, he reportedly had been at a bar in Mackinaw City and when he returned to the lighthouse, he thought it would be funny to lock his assistant keeper in the tower. Hours later, that disgruntled assistant was still confined to the tower while Herman had simply vanished. After sending a distress signal to a keeper of another nearby light, the assistant was finally released from captivity and he was in search of John Herman (likely to wring his neck). Yet, he couldn’t be found. In fact, John Herman was never seen again. Over the next 10 years, what was believed to be the ghost of John Herman remained active at Waugoshance, much to the chagrin of the living keepers who worked there. Rumor was it was so haunted that men refused to be transferred there and the light was ultimately put out of commission in 1910.


When I was researching for my 2019 book Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses I learned an interesting bit of information about John Herman that sent chills through me. He had actually had a heart attack on Mackinac Island (while visiting his twin sister) and died on October 14, 1900 at 1:30pm. If the ghost story above did in fact happen, the possible reason the assistant keeper never found John Herman after being released from the tower was that it was his ghost that had been involved…the first of a decade’s worth of antics that are still talked about today!


 
How did you become interested in haunted sites?
 
My interest in ghost stories dates back to my childhood, when my parents managed a restaurant that had a couple resident spirits. Years later, my own daughter had a similar encounter with the same ghost in the same restaurant and I think that impacted my willingness to believe. Since that time, my interest in the paranormal has grown. As a writer and historian, I’m interested in the history beyond the ghost stories. Who were these people that have lingered on after death, why are they still occupying a particular building or space, what happened to them to keep their spirits active and how can I responsibly share their story with others beyond the tall tales and local legends. Wherever we go, in Michigan or throughout the U.S. or beyond, we are always looking for those unique places to visit, eat or stay that have a darker side…I guess I just find them more interesting. Of course, all the stories I’ve heard and minimal experiences I’ve had personally, have been pretty benign. If I were to encounter a more aggressive spirit (shadow people, poltergeist or the like) I might change my tune.

Is there a particular site in Michigan you find frightening or worth a visit?

I think one of the most interesting places in Michigan is the former Traverse City State Hospital, which is being repurposed into The Village at Grand Traverse Commons (www.thevillagetc.com) – home to amazing restaurants, coffee shops, wineries and breweries, high-end condos, offices and spaces for public events. While I’m aware of the dark stories that an asylum evokes, I’m intrigued by the architecture, grounds and stories of patients who helped keep this self-sustaining facility in operation between 1885 and the 1980s. I have several books in my personal library about this facility (both fiction and non-fiction) and often recommend it to people visiting Traverse City.

But as I said, there is a dark side. My daughter and I stayed in one of the rental condos back around 2008 and she had a ghostly encounter that night. I’ve been on tours of the tunnels that connect the buildings and several of the yet-to-be-renovated buildings. We’ve even done a ghost hunt out in the woods near the infamous “Hippie Tree”. While I haven’t had any additional paranormal experiences out there, I know others who have and believe there are likely a number of spirits in and around the complex. And while my ongoing visits there aren’t necessarily to seek out ghosts, the thought of having such an encounter while enjoying a glass of wine or a meal with friends excites and intrigues me.