There's one sure way to test the tensile strength of a city's historical roots: Look for the ghost tour. Any metropolis worth its salt has at least one walking trip to allegedly haunted buildings and public areas. Some of the nation's oldest, most storied communities -- like New Orleans and Savannah, Ga. -- have several.
So when Michael Gavin announced his first Orlando Hauntings tour of scary downtown landmarks last October, the temptation to scoff was strong. Ours, it's often said, is a town without a past; how many corpses could really be lying in wait for Gavin to dig them up?
The answer -- a graveyard full -- was obvious to anyone who's listened in on the hair-raising anecdotes that are regularly passed from one night-shift worker to another. There's the story of the strange female apparition that's manifested itself to the staff at one nightclub complex; the strange sounds often heard inside a former government building; and the piano at another entertainment mall that's been credited with the disconcerting habit of playing by itself.
The deathless popularity of such folklore is the reason for Gavin's success, which has exceeded his expectations. At first a holiday novelty, his walking jaunts became a once-a-month proposition last January. They now depart from Guinevere's coffee shop twice nightly on the first and third Saturdays of every month. Sellouts are not uncommon.
"I'm not out to prove there are ghosts," Gavin says. "I'm out to tell a good ghost story and to tell about local history. A lot of people don't realize we have more history than just Disney."
That heritage extends to the ground on which we walk, which was once used by Native Americans as a final resting place for their fallen tribesmen. (And if you don't think that means trouble, you don't know your horror movies.) As Gavin's tour reveals, dark doings have continued from that vanished era up to the modern day. And even now, believers say, ectoplasmic types may be arriving in town via their attachment to inanimate objects. Welcome to Orlando, where even the dead are transplants.
A booming market invites competition, and in early May, a second spook-hunting concern, Orlando Ghost Tours, threw its shroud into the ring. Partners Jack Roth and Emilio San Martin announced their Haunted Orlando tours with bold plans to conduct excursions seven nights a week (twice on weekends), though economic reality quickly restricted their activities to one tour per night Wednesday through Sunday.
The differences between the two operations couldn't be more pronounced. Gavin is an armchair historian and former Terror on Church Street cast member who tries to keep his presentation up to show-biz snuff. Dressed in period garb and brandishing a lantern, he takes his customers to a variety of outdoor locations while relating stories of uncovered burial plots, business deals turned nasty and things that go bump in the night. Roth and San Martin are intentionally less theatrical. Their tour stresses the "science" of the paranormal, including an in-depth investigation of Church Street Station in which customers are given Polaroid cameras and trifield meters (which measure electromagnetic energy) to ferret out elusive phantoms.
The partners come to the ghost business via diverse avenues: San Martin is a TV-industry pro who works as a senior editor for The Golf Channel, and Roth is a writer/photographer employed by Harcourt Brace. Some eye-opening experiences at haunted attractions in other cities inspired them to seek out parapsychologists for informal counsel. As their interest passed from a hobby into a side vocation, their contacts became expert witnesses they now retain to inspect sites for possible mention on the Orlando tour.
"We do a very thorough historical background on these places," San Martin says. "Who built them, who owned them, who lived and died on the property. Then we bring in a team of psychics for a walk-through."
In fact, they're so reluctant to pass along morbid gossip about locations they haven't been able to fully investigate that their tour is notably light on storytelling. That situation, they say, should change over the coming months, as more and more scientific inquests are held.
But San Martin and Roth aren't likely to rethink their aversion to professional flash. Though both put in shifts as tour guides, they restrict their image-making overtures to the wearing of Orlando Ghost Tours T-shirts while on the job.
"The whole top-hat thing just doesn't work for me," Roth says.
It does for California's Jim Fassbinder, the founder and cheerfully ominous public face of the San Francisco Ghost Hunt. Since 1998, the costumed Fassbinder has been entertaining tour parties with an effective balance of civic history, folklore, parapsychology and even the occasional "spiritualistic effect" -- what is commonly known as a magic trick. His continued prosperity makes him a model of what will fly on the ghost-tour circuit.
"I think it helps up-front to tell people, ‘This is going to be entertainment,'" Fassbinder says. Although he's associated with the Office of Paranormal Investigation, he shies away from presenting tour stories as scientific fact: "At this point, the science on ghosts is not that solid. I want people to have an open mind, but not so open that their brains fall out."
Keeping credibility and goofy fun in their proper symmetry is a goal that both enterprises are still in the process of chasing. To get there, they're not averse to the possibility of working together in some capacity and at some point in the future. Gavin even refuses to term OGT "competition," instead calling their arrival "a great thing for downtown Orlando."
That's fine sportsmanship, given that OGT's introductory fliers lauded Haunted Orlando as the city's only "real" ghost tour. San Martin says the slap was "not necessarily a reference to the competition," though he does fret over a story he claims to have heard: that Gavin has run afoul of local merchants by indulging in creative embellishment.
"One of the things he indicated is that the owners of one establishment had had an exorcism performed," San Martin charges. "Which is a fabrication." (Note: Neither Gavin's May 19 nor Oct. 31, 2000, tours -- the two in which this author has participated -- mentioned any exorcism.)
For his part, Gavin says that any anecdote related on his tour has either already been published or passed along verbally by more than one source.
"I'm trying to be conscientious and not step on any toes," he says. "If I heard that someone was upset about something, I would love to talk with them."
That little dispute between the two companies seems even more minor when compared to the situation in some other tour-heavy cities. In New Orleans, for example, guides have been called into court amid allegations of brochure tampering and even tire slashing. Thankfully, no one in the emerging Orlando ghost biz is waging graveyard gang warfare just yet.
Instead, they're honing their plans for the future. San Martin and Roth have started package deals with restaurants, stores and hotels; they're also keen to launch trips to other spook-infested cities. Their Orlando tours will occasionally be joined by guest psychics (at special price points), and there's been discussion of public sleepovers at haunted sites.
Gavin is mulling the possibility of dividing his operation into separate "historical" and "ghost" tours, but by and large, he's more interested in honing his current presentation than branching out. He acknowledges that he hasn't really begun to tap the tourist market.
Perhaps locals are the only customers who can grasp the full import of the ghost tours, anyway. It was deeply felt on one of OGT's recent trips into Church Street Station, when a guest snapped a Polaroid of an upstairs corner her partner's trifield meter had identified as an electromagnetic hot zone. Moments later, they had a clear image of something that hadn't been visible to the naked eye: a distinct white arc that hung in the air, breaking into twin bands as it descended from the ceiling. Was it ... a ghost?
It sure was -- the spirit of fun returning to the fallow downtown landscape. At a time when the area's most manifest spooks are the empty shells of failed commercial forays, the tours are just what the doctor ordered: a little history and a little entertainment that add up to an off-kilter celebration of civic pride. If downtown does beat the odds and come back to life, there'll be supernatural satisfaction in watching the dead lead the way.