The ethical dilemmas of Fells Point Ghost Tours

Ghost tours, also known as “dark tourism,” developed from a long European tradition of visiting haunted sites—particularly, the 19th-century British fascination with ghosts of the decaying upper class. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, haunting narratives matter because they refract present-day concerns—our anxiety, trauma, privilege, and prejudices—through the lens of historic characters and events. When local history gets the ghost-tour treatment, residents have a stake in whose concerns are represented.

It helps that America is haunted by history that essentially happened yesterday, comparatively speaking. Europe has castles with medieval knights, damsels, and so on as resident specters. We're haunted by stuff that's still happening now. This country is so deep in the end game of all discourse that we might actually be ghosts pre-emptively haunting ourselves.

Two competing ghost-tour services both operate in lower Fells Point, one of the city's most homogeneously white and wealthy-to-upper-middle-class neighborhoods—and also, conveniently, its most haunted. I usually avoid Fells because I don't have tons of money to spend at bars and restaurants. Fortunately, both tours promised to acquaint me with local history while having family-friendly, non-alcoholic, mildly spooky fun.

Ghosts are not cheap, so I scrutinized their websites before pulling the trigger. “Tired of made up stories, rushed tours, and dubious history?” asks one company, Baltimore Tours and Crawls. Fortunately, the Walking Ghost Tour of Fell's Point was created by “noted ghost experts.” The company's founder wrote the book on “Haunted Annapolis.” Their competitor, the Original Fell's Point Ghost Walk, sells a somewhat sexier image of heavily-mascaraed pirate wenches, but still boasts a research process of “knocking on doors, talking to residents and bar owners, and combing through documents at libraries.” I bought tickets for both tours.

My agenda in exploring ghost tourism was to discuss how this industry channels the gender, race, and class anxieties of mainstream American culture through the voices of the dead. I had serious ethical questions about whether they trivialize the country's violent history in the name of entertainment. I'd heard enough about ghost tours in other cities (my native Philadelphia, for instance) to expect sensational tales of murder and revenge starring prostitutes, pirates, Native Americans, slaves, Civil War soldiers, and escaped criminals/mental patients.

Such stories tap into real histories of injustice but rarely go below the level of superficial creepiness attached to an “Indian graveyard” or an old asylum—audiences may not make the connection that an Indian graveyard would be haunted because of the messed-up shit perpetrated against Native Americans, or that an asylum is scary because people were warehoused against their will for reasons not always legitimate. Instead, these are just sinister ghosts doing what sinister ghosts do.

Perhaps it's a good thing for Baltimore that our ghost-tour industry isn't even mediocre enough to deliver a coherent version of this sanitized narrative. Two successive Baltimore ghost tours threw me and my companions into a deep spiritual malaise—or maybe it was just terrible, terrible boredom. The Original Fell's Point Ghost Walk felt less like a jumbled speed-read of Wikipedia than the Baltimore Tours and Crawls experience, but otherwise, they felt more or less the same.

Both tours covered the same five-block radius and hit most of the same spots. The “ghost stories” we heard weren't stories, just vague allusions to the fact that sailors and prostitutes used to live around here so it must therefore be haunted. We learned about the founders of Fells Point—their spirits might still walk these streets, though the tour guides didn’t explain why they might bother. And both tours mentioned in a generally ominous way that immigrants passed through the port, but beyond a humorous anecdote about a Polish bar owner who liked to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' we had no idea why those immigrants were spooky.

The Saturday night Original Fell's Point Ghost Walk, which happened to coincide with the rescheduled Fell's Point Fun Fest, triggered our fears of inebriated young adults yelling at each other, taking their shirts off, and barfing on the sidewalk. At least we were prepared for this: “Don't stray too far from the group,” instructs the Original Baltimore Ghost Tours page, “because you never know when you'll find yourself face to face with the unknown.”

The tours are clearly glorified pub crawls, because all but three of the stops were at haunted bars, but as a member of our group wondered, “could we drink enough to forget the misinformation?”

The tour guides worked with their scripts, and did their best as actors to hold our attention. One guide brought along a “ghost meter” to jazz things up; waving it over the Fell family grave, he confirmed that “there are ghosts here right now!” Another guide told us at great length about a phantom she saw while working as a waitress in Delaware in the 1980s. They could not overcome the underlying research problem: You can't tell a ghost story without a story.

I learned two related things from these ghost tours: First, haunting originates in the structural violence of capitalism; therefore, hauntings today mainly afflict the service industry. To the first point, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Fells was a shipping hub that housed many sailors who were exploited by unscrupulous sea captains. The area's sex workers also tried to wring some benefit from the “trickle-down” economic impact of booming Atlantic trade. Even while alive, they were forcibly dispossessed of their own bodies and labor. When these people on the bottom rungs of the economy died sudden and violent deaths, they couldn't proceed to the Judeo-Christian afterlife because of their immoral choices and instead became ghosts.

In this sense the ghost tour attempts “history from below,” representing marginalized people whose voices don't appear in textbooks. However, the tour interprets the lifestyles of the dispossessed as sexy fun. Fells Point ghosts enjoyed rollicking, bawdy exploits that the white-collar tourist might envy from a safe remove, drinking craft beer in an overpriced bar with nautical shit on the walls. Scantily clad ladies once traded sex for money all over Fells, and they loved their dehumanizing service-sector jobs so much, apparently, that their fully dehumanized ghosts still return to seduce the living.

Today, shipping and manufacturing are mostly gone from Fells and its main business is the service industry. Its workers are not only cursed to labor for less than minimum wage—they're haunted by the ghosts of their exploited predecessors to boot. Most of the ghost-tour stories were attributed to bartenders or wait staff and involved storage rooms, kitchens, and supply closets. We were told that Edgar Allan Poe passed out in a gutter in front of the bar currently named The Horse You Came In On, and that a waiter looking for a bottle of ketchup saw the ghost of a little girl in the attic. A bartender at Bertha's apparently has some great spirit photographs on his smartphone.

It's maybe almost subversive that the ghost tours' authors collected stories from service workers and re-sold them as entertainment to the same tourists who the service workers serve. Ultimately, tours are a service industry too—at the end, the guide passes a hat around for tips—thus completely enclosing a timeless, placeless economy of consumption, exploitation, and affective labor within a few square blocks that might represent the entirety of Baltimore for some visitors.

To be fair, Fells Point is the city's most tourist-friendly neighborhood that also has old buildings and fits into a theme-park-pirate-bar aesthetic. If you're trying to make money, I guess it doesn't pay to mention that slave ships preferred to anchor at Fells Point because they feared the large number of free blacks who worked in the Inner Harbor; that slaves were marched down Pratt Street to the water in long shackled columns; or that free blacks had to live in constant fear of arrest and enslavement under false pretenses. Neither tour mentioned this part of the neighborhood's history.

I worried about going on a ghost tour because it feels like the most fucked-up thing you could possibly do for entertainment in a town where hundreds of people are murdered every year. The tours trivialized violence and death in a way that was profoundly oblivious to Baltimore's complex history. Depicting a quaint “old time-y” Fells Point populated by quarrelsome sailors and sex-hungry prostitutes whitewashes many good reasons for the place to be haunted.

Haunting is political. In folklore and popular culture, ghosts appear when someone has died unjustly; spirits linger as long as crimes against them go unpunished. An actually scary ghost tour would confront locals and visitors with the ongoing tragedy of inequality in this country—the deep history of structural violence that makes some deaths notable and others insignificant. It would explore the forces of evil that drain civic life in subtle, invisible ways. There's horror all around us—happy Halloween.

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
37°