A Ghost Story Even I Can Believe

I thought ghosts were created for laughs — then I found out most who take ghost tours believe in them.

Many stories describe supernatural events that turn skeptics into believers. This is not one of those stories. I have not had a “road to Damascus” experience, though my worldview did change a little after hearing about ghosts from Will Moredock, a professional tour guide in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Will for this article shortly after Will interviewed me for a piece in the Charleston City Paper about our local secular humanist group and our billboard, 20 Godless Years in the Holy City!

Will is a member of the Unitarian Church, a secular humanist, and a Charleston guide for Ghost and Graveyard Walking Tours. Ghosts, like fine restaurants and antebellum houses, are among the many attractions in this historic city, but I thought that Charleston ghosts, as in the film Ghostbusters, were only created for laughs and commercial success. (Coincidentally, Ghostbusters star Bill Murray lives near Charleston.)

Haunted Charleston: Alley at nighttime
Alley on a Charleston ghost tour. Courtesy of slworking2.

I was surprised to hear that almost all who take ghost tours believe in ghosts. Many claim to have seen, or at least experienced, ghosts. An even more shocking report from Will is that lots of his fellow tour guides, perhaps even most, believe in such spirits.

So in at least one sense, my worldview has changed from skeptic to believer — I now believe that countless adults actually believe in ghosts.

Tour guides encourage this belief because it’s good for business. Will studied the history of local ghost beliefs and then embellished his stories. He considers himself an entertainer whose role is to make outrageous claims and tell outrageous lies to willing believers. (Perhaps Murray can find a role for Will in the next Ghostbusters sequel.)

The many ghost books and pamphlets in Charleston affirm unfalsifiable beliefs with statements like “Not everyone is capable of or allowed to see ghosts.” Another claim is that Charleston has more ghosts than any other city in America. (I’m confident that Charleston, like every other place in the world, has zero ghosts.)

My faith in rationality suffered another blow when I learned that ghosts dominated the best sellers for the University of South Carolina Press, the state’s only academic press. Perhaps it promotes books like Charleston Ghosts, South Carolina Ghosts, Civil War Ghost Stories & Legends, and Ghosts of the Carolinas to afford publishing high-quality books that are not commercially successful.

Charleston ghost stories are usually associated with people who suffered violent deaths and then “return” to fulfill a mission or take revenge. I asked Will how many ghosts are of black people, since revenge for enslavement and lynching might be in order. Will shook his head and said most South Carolina ghosts were once wealthy plantation owners, undoubtedly with large slaveholdings. Just as slaves had been invisible in life, their ghosts are invisible in tales.

If Jesus can be resurrected through stories, I think it’s long overdue for African-American ghosts to rise from their graves.

Many graveyards, where ghosts supposedly like to hang out at night, are next to old Charleston churches. I playfully asked why ghosts don’t travel more, but Will just smiled and answered, “It’s a mystery.” He says people lose faith in tour guides who say “I don’t know.” Preachers understand this way of framing responses to unanswerable questions.

If children are on a tour, Will mentions that ghosts don’t hurt people. Nobody questioned how ghosts could take revenge without hurting anyone. Since most people on the ghost tours are Christian, I asked Will how belief in ghosts fits with their religious beliefs. He said that theological inconsistencies don’t seem to be a problem for tourists. They want to believe in an afterlife, and the more kinds of affirmation the better.

ghostsign
The sign by the cemetery at St. Phillip’s Church in Charleston. Courtesy of Oliver DelaCruz.

I especially wondered if belief in local ghosts doesn’t upset those who believe in only one ghost, the third part of the Trinity. That actually is a problem for St. Philip’s Church. Established in 1681, it’s the city’s oldest religious congregation, and its cemetery is a popular stop for all ghost tour guides. Will showed me a plaque on the cemetery fence that advises, “The only Ghost at St Philip’s is the Holy Ghost. Join us and learn about the Trinity including the Holy Ghost.” I wondered how Will might respond if asked about the 3 = 1 God, and, predictably, Will replied, “It’s a mystery.” And so it is.

Incidentally, St. Philip’s Church is appropriately located on Church Street, which runs parallel to State Street. This is one example in South Carolina where we truly have a separation of Church and State.

Tourists often take pictures of our churches and graveyards. If you can see this resident ghost at St. Philips, then your eyes must be more supernatural than mine.

There are many reasons to visit Charleston, recently voted #1 tourist destination in the world. However, don’t expect to see any ghosts — unless you believe in them. That’s always the case with faith.

Lead image courtesy of Martin Kalfatovic.

Herb Silverman
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  • RichardSRussell

    “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
    —H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), American journalist, essayist, editor, and critic

  • Ed Buckner

    I don’t believe in ghosts, but i do believe Charleston, SC, is worth visiting. But I didn’t ever have to take that on faith–my wife and I have visited Charleston several times, and if you’re interested in history, architecture, seafaring, slavery, justice, or idyllic settings, it’s a great place to go. Especially if you can get Herb and Sharon Fratepietro to show you around.

  • Will Moredock

    I am now out of the ghost tour business, but i would be happy to take Ed Buckner on an abbreviated tour the next time he is in town.

    • Amy

      I want to go, too!

  • Amy

    As a resident of the Holy City, I have enjoyed Charleston’s many ghost stories and have even been lucky enough to be on one of Will Moredock’s fascinating tours (though it wasn’t a ghost one). I love a good ghost story as much as the next person, but Herb’s article brings up a point I had never considered: the lack of ghost stories about black people. “Just as slaves had been invisible in life, their ghosts are invisible in tales.” This thought makes me very sad.

    • Scott Plumer

      I’ve heard plenty of stories about African-American ghosts, and ghosts of former slaves. I visited a plantation in VA that had stories of slave ghosts, and a sorority house in Athens, OH, is purported to be haunted by a slave named Nicodemus.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    To Charleston: How can Paris claim to be the number one tourist destination, on earth, if Charleston happens to be?

    To Herb: Your best column (I have read) yet.

    It’s just too bad, you didn’t discuss the difference between the “Holy Ghost,” and the “Holy Spirit.”

    It’s my understanding, and correct me if I’m wrong, that just as the major difference between god and the devil, is in the public relations; the same principle applies to the difference between the “Holy Ghost” and the “Holy Spirit,”

    Due to movies, such as “Ghostbusters,” and Halloween, the Roman Catholic Church (in 1776, so I have been led to believe) “metamorphized” (or, transubstantiatiated ?) the “Holy Ghost” into hte “Holy Spirit” and one is unable to determine, from this (Herb’s) column, if a “spirit” means the same thing as a “ghost.”

    But the Protestants (who used to oppose whatever the Catholic church did, in regard to “Ghost-stuff” ) went along with this “metamorphosis (if there is an ecclesiastical term for this, please share it with us in a future column) with a few noticable exceptions; one , St. Phillips, was noted in your column; and two, Mel Gibson, who finally brought entire story of the crucifixion to life (The Passion of the Christ) also continues to call the “Holy Ghost” the “Holy Ghost” — regardless of what the position that his “Mother Church” has to say in this regard.

    Herb: You should devote an entire column, to determining why most Protestant churches, in Charleston, allowed the Roman Catholic Church to compel them to metamorphize from the traditional “Holy Ghost” to the “Holy Spirit” — or was it just done in the “spirit” of ecumenicalism?”

    • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

      Just FYI: Both “Spirit” and “Ghost” are translations of the same Greek word, pneúma,which can be translated either way, or as “wind” or “breath”. The difference between “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” is just a difference in translation. The “metamorphosis” that you describe is simply because of changes in *English* over the years. In the days of the first English translations of the New Testament, “ghost” and “spirit” were basically synonyms — as they sometimes still can be, though today there are different connotations.

      (An alternate translation, especially when taking into account the Old Testament’s use of “spirit of God”, could be “breath of God” or “God’s wind”. Oh, the things you learn and argue about in Bible College.)

    • nwcolorist

      From my experience, the two words mean the same thing. The English word “ghost” comes from medieval German ‘geist’, meaning spirit.

      Over the years there have been hundreds of Biblical words that have gone out of usage or morphed into different meanings. The changeover from ‘Ghost’ to ‘Spirit’ seems to have occurred during the last century. Examples of other changes include ague (fever), lintel (door post), mote (a small particle), flagon (a cake of pressed raisins).

    • nwcolorist

      From my experience, the two words mean the same thing. The English word “ghost” comes from medieval German ‘geist’, meaning spirit.

      Over the years there have been hundreds of Biblical words that have gone out of usage or morphed into different meanings. The changeover from ‘Ghost’ to ‘Spirit’ seems to have occurred during the last century. Examples of other changes include ague (fever), lintel (door post), mote (a small particle), flagon (a cake of pressed raisins).

  • John Smith

    The phenomenon that all Charleston’s ghosts are those of rich white people or little white girls is very similar to the phenomenon that no one recalling a past life was ever a baker or cab driver or cowherd. They were always Joan d’Arc, Henry VIII, or Isabella of Spain or somesuch.

  • Iodized_Pepper

    “I was surprised to hear that almost all who take ghost tours believe in ghosts.” I am surprised at your surprise!

  • http://deusxed.wordpress.com/ jcdenton40

    Another question to ask is why ghosts are always wearing “modern” clothing (i.e. from the past several hundred years), when that represents just a small fraction of those who have ever died?

    Also, what about all the ghosts of prehistoric humans? And even the non-homo sapiens? Just imagine the scientific implications if someone were to capture an anatomically correct homo habilis ghost on film!

    Of course, the traditional concept of ghosts falls flat on its face when you consider that:

    1) They’re supposedly immaterial, yet…
    2) They’re still subject to gravity in order to avoid flying off into space, yet…
    3) They somehow avoid being pulled into the Earth’s core.

    One of my favorite ways to “troll” ghost believers is to say that ghosts are indeed real, but because they lack mass they don’t follow the Earth as it revolves around the sun; that’s why so many ghost sightings (in fact, the only “real” ghost sightings) occur on the anniversary of a person’s death, since that’s when the Earth intersects the point in space where the ghost exists.

    • http://www.miketheinfidel.com/ MikeTheInfidel

      >since that’s when the Earth intersects the point in space where the ghost exists.

      The sun also moves in space, as does the galaxy itself. Earth has never occupied the same place twice.

      • http://deusxed.wordpress.com/ jcdenton40

        “The sun also moves in space, as does the galaxy itself. Earth has never occupied the same place twice.”

        Yes, exactly my point.

        • http://www.miketheinfidel.com/ MikeTheInfidel

          Except that you said “that’s when the Earth intersects the point in space where the ghost exists,” which isn’t true, because the Earth never passes through the same point twice.

          • http://deusxed.wordpress.com/ jcdenton40

            Allow me to clarify. It’s an intentionally absurd explanation, which attempts to incorporate scientific reality (gravity, inertia, Earth’s orbit) into something ridiculously unscientific. But as you noted, it only goes halfway. And when you consider the full scientific implications of it, it completely collapses, thereby illustrating just how absurd the concept of ghosts really is.

            It’s kind of like how people will try to rationalize prayer by trying to introduce logical concepts, but it ends up just shedding further light on how grossly illogical it is to the core. For example, there’s actually a Jewish scripture which says you shouldn’t pray for things that have already happened, so for example if you see a house on fire in the distance, it doesn’t do any good to pray that it’s not your house because whether it’s your house or not has already been established. Which makes logical sense at first glance, of course. Yet we’re going to apply logic in that way (while ignoring the fact that if God is omnipotent, he obviously has the power to change the past), yet ignore how inherently illogical it is to telepathically communicate with the omniscient creator of the universe and ask him to change his mind and alter the future?

            Of course many Christians go a step further when it comes to the question of future vs. past prayers, and say that it’s OK to pray for the past to be changed as long as you don’t KNOW what the outcome was yet. Which, of course, introduces all kinds of further absurdities (i.e. then I guess you’d better do everything in your power to avoid finding out the truth about everything, just so you can maximize your opportunities to pray for the outcomes to be changed before you find out what actually happened and it gets “locked down”)…