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Death Makes a Holiday 

"Haunted" tourism is big business in Vermont

click to enlarge f-ghosttours.jpg

As Vermonters, we can rattle off a list of things that attract visitors to the Green Mountains: artisan cheesemakers and breweries, slopes, foliage, bike paths, antique stores, pristine pastures, poltergeists ... wait, what?

But the government isn’t alone in recognizing that where there are hauntings, there’s money to be made. A pair of enterprising Vermonters paved the way, running “haunted history” tours that have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years. For innkeepers and folklorists alike, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the ghost.

How did the state get into the paranormal activity business? Jen Butson, the tourism board’s director of communications, recalls attending a meeting earlier this year to decide on her department’s next big project. “We were having a really nice Mexican lunch with a [public-relations] firm we’ve worked with in New York, and we were like, This is it,” she remembers. “We wanted to incorporate the road trip sense of it. There are spooky stories all along the way.”

Hence the “Haunted Highways” moniker. The state press release emphasizes that visitors can travel the length of Vermont and find haunts at every stop. From the south, they can start at Forty Putney Road Bed & Breakfast in Brattleboro and spend a day at Retreat Cemetery, known for its haunted tower. Then tourists can make their way north all the way to St. Albans, where they may meet the ghost of Lora Weaver at the antique-filled Back Inn Time, also home to seasonal haunted houses and murder-mystery dinners.

Butson doesn’t guarantee any ghost sightings, and it’s too early for her to say how many tourists the promotion has attracted. But she notes that media outlets all over the U.S. and Canada picked up the press release she sent in early October. How did she know the idea would be a hit? “All those interesting TV shows with ghosts, vampires and the Harry Potters of the world,” she says.

The supernatural as entertainment was the last thing on Shawn Woods’ mind when he began his Stowe Lantern Tours in 2000. A social studies teacher for most of his career, Woods was just hoping to share a little history with summer tourists. “I always thought there was a need in Stowe to do something in the evening,” he says. “Frankly, other than Stowe Theatre Guild” — which stages its last performances in early foliage season — “there isn’t a lot to do in the evening after dinner.”

While Woods’ own interests lay in what Stowe residents did while they were alive, he quickly found visitors preferred to hear about what they were up to once they had shaken off this mortal coil. Playing to his audience, the historian makes his stories increasingly scarier as his season progresses. In July, he peppers them lightly with mentions of the supernatural. As Halloween approaches, the spooky-to-historical ratio is more like 90-to-10. At that time of year, “People definitely want to go on ghost story walks, not a history tour,” Woods says.

The new focus is working. Woods reports that his tours have grown in recent years from groups of as few as eight to as many as 60 or more. Fall guests set out, carrying heavy, antique-style lanterns, on visits to sites such as the cemetery behind Akeley Memorial Building and a grave simply labeled “Little Emilene,” where they may or may not meet Emily, the jilted 19th-century bride behind the tale of Emily’s Bridge.

The Green Mountain Inn, also a participant in the Haunted Highways program, welcomes the tour group into a front room to hear about Boots Berry, a former employee who crossed to the other side in 1902. The inn’s official pitch is that Berry learned to tap dance while in prison in New Orleans, and continues to do so on the roof above and near Room 302. (He reportedly fell to his death from that vicinity after saving the life of a young girl.) But Woods’ tour members have reported far stranger happenings.

“It’s amazing to me,” he says. “The people who call are not the ghost believers.” A skeptic himself, Woods says he nonetheless finds it difficult to doubt seeming nonbelievers who report interactions with the deceased. A down-to-earth Texas family once told him that Berry flushed their car keys down the toilet while they were eating breakfast at the inn. “It’s not just one section of the inn,” says Woods. “He seems to be moving around more now. It’s not just upstairs. He seems to come out to the dining rooms.”

Haunted restaurants? According to Thea Lewis, you can’t throw a stone in Burlington without hitting one.

Lewis has been lucky in the Vermont ghost boom. She founded her business, Queen City Ghostwalk, in 2002, offering eight tours of haunted sites in downtown Burlington on and around Halloween. Since then, she’s quit her job as director of creative services at WCAX to take a more, er, spiritual path.

Each year, Lewis has added notches to her ghostly belt. She still offers her original downtown walk, now titled “Darkness Falls,” along with three more tours: “Ghosts of UVM,” a tour of the Burlington waterfront and a candlelit stroll through Lakeview Cemetery. Each year brings a tour of a new historic burial ground. Last year, Lewis took visitors through Greenmount Cemetery, eternal home to much of Vermont’s founding Allen family. She plans to keep things fresh with a new pick in 2013, possibly the other Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier.

Lewis’ tour season begins in summer and ends with a bang on October 31. But that doesn’t mean that her spooky duties are over for the year. The History Press released her most recent book, Ghosts and Legends of Lake Champlain, in August. In November, Lewis will devote herself full-time to writing a new e-book of haunted horror fiction scheduled for a Christmastime release. When that’s completed, she’ll move on to her next History Press project and a children’s book, the sequel to last year’s There’s a Witch in My Sock Drawer! The multimedia fright maven also spearheads annual showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Palace 9 Cinemas and organizes private events, including haunted teas, Ouija parties and tarot readings. Dinner events at haunted restaurants are next on her list.

Not bad for a woman who says she was “a terrible history student” growing up. Now, armed with a worn copy of David J. Blow’s Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods and a knack for interviewing people about both the natural and supernatural happenings they’ve experienced, Lewis has joined author Joe Citro as one of Vermont’s top authorities on all things spooky.

Lewis says her ultimate goal is to “write some Stephen King sort of blockbuster and build my own mausoleum.” Pending that kind of windfall, though, she’s happy with the success of Queen City Ghostwalk. Lewis guesses one reason for her business’ rise is that people are seeking a distraction from something they fear on an even more primal level — economic breakdown.

Would flush times across America bring an end to Vermont’s ghost boom? Not necessarily, says Woods. “I think it’s that we live in a world that deals with internet, internet, internet. Maybe [ghost hunting is] an escape to a certain extent from the lives they’re living that are so fast paced,” he says.

Certainly, dead men don’t tweet, and to wait and watch for Boots and his cohorts — who tend to manifest in their own sweet time — is to experience something of a vacation from the 21st century. Perhaps we could all use the respite of a dead man’s pace.

Plus, if ghosts float tourist dollars our way, who’s going to say boo?

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About The Author

Alice Levitt

Alice Levitt

AAN award-winning food writer Alice Levitt is a fan of the exotic, the excellent and automats. She's been writing for Seven Days since 2007 and appears regularly on "The :30" on WCAX.


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