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.)
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.
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.