‘They saw something they couldn’t explain’: the strange case for ghost sightings in the U.S.

Stories of hauntings surround Victoria's Black Swan Inn in San Antonio, Texas. Courtesy of Jo Ann Marks-Rivera

By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service

The Cutler Majestic Theater at 219 Tremont Street in Boston Common has been around since the 1900s. Now owned by Emerson College, the theatre was renovated in 2003 and stood as a gilded beacon of the arts to all passersby. But beneath its high domed ceiling and countless “string of pearl” lights, the theatre’s bones remain unchanged since 1903 and its restoration serving only as a veneer for the 117-year-old building. And like many buildings in Boston, it comes with a history.

You see, the Cutler Majestic Theatre is haunted. 

When Christina Harrington, the director of business operations for the office of the arts at Emerson College, leaves the theatre for the night, she is always sure to say goodnight to the ghosts. According to Harrington, four regular apparitions grace the Majestic. She’s even seen them, she says or has at least seen some things she can’t explain. 

Two of these ghosts are “the young couple.” Legends around the theatre say that the couple died in a car accident on their way home from a show and their spirits returned to the theatre. They are often seen in Victorian clothing walking through the lobby, seated in the house and even talking to patrons before vanishing. Harrington said she thinks she’s even seen them from the box office. One day, earlier in her employ at the Majestic, she sat at the desk, head bowed and felt a presence approach. But when she looked up, they were gone.

“There are people who see ghosts and people who don’t,” Harrington said. “I think it depends on what you allow yourself to see.”

Then there is also the little girl, who is often heard laughing or crying from the orchestra when the theatre is empty. Some stories say she is the child of the young couple. Others say she fell from the balcony and died, though there is no evidence one way or the other.

Perhaps the most popular ghost story at the Majestic is “the mayor,” an older man dressed in 1910s clothes which is said to have died in his seat at a show. He now often appears in the upper opera box seats, the most recent being a 2019 staff meeting, which Harrington attended. 

“A reasonably high member of our staff was speaking in a staff meeting, and stopped mid-sentence, and said, ‘oh my god, there’s a ghost in that seat right there,’” Harrington said with a laugh. 

Besides the specifics, there have been other strange occurrences within the Majestic. Doors that were shut will open on their own and seats in the house will lower themselves, almost as if someone were sitting in them. 

“Sure, you could say the spring is out. But, no, because you put it back up, and the spring is working fine,” Harrington said. “Generally, when that happens, if you put your hand over the seat, it’s cold. It’s like 10 degrees colder than the rest of the theatre.” She explained that when this happens, it’s an act of respect not to sit in that seat. Instead, you choose the next seat over, and as you pass, you say, “excuse me.”

Old theatres, like the Majestic, are known for their ghosts stories and superstitions. Many even leave out what’s called a “ghost light” for the spirits so that they can perform when the rest of the cast and crew have gone home for the night. 

“All theatres have a ghost,” Harrington said. “They have to!” 

But Cutler Majestic Theatre isn’t the only haunted spot in Boston and Harrington isn’t the only person to claim to have seen a ghost. According to a new report from Slotsourse.com, as many as 20 states in the U.S. have experienced ghost sightings, with Massachusetts only ranking at 16. Slotsource’s data estimates that there have been 1,233 ghost sightings in Massachusetts, which is only 0.0179% of the state’s population. 

This is surprisingly low considering how old the city is. There are even ghostly tours dedicated to some of the most haunted spots in Boston’s historic district. For instance, Ghosts and Gravestones Boston, a trolley tour for which Will Munoz is a guide. The trolley visits multiple locations from the Cutler Majestic Theatre to the burial site of Paul Revere, the American Revolutionary from the famous Longfellow poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

According to Munoz, one of the most haunted areas in all of Massachusetts is the Boston Common. Munoz explained that it was the site of things like duels and public executions, as well as being a potter’s field. Munoz said that the Common was built over an unmarked burial ground of anywhere from 20 to 40 thousand people, though the exact number is not known. 

His favorite Boston ghost story, however, is that of the “lady in scarlet.” The story goes that Mary Burton was fleeing the siege of Boston in 1776 when a stray cannonball fired from the British blockade killed her. But even after being laid to rest on Boston’s Long Island, she still appears, donning the scarlet cloak she was buried in and a very visible cannonball wound on the back of her head. 

“A couple years back, I had the crew of a tall ship on my trolly,” Munoz said, “and as soon as I said, ‘woman in a scarlet cloak,’ they all started whispering to each other cause they’d all seen her.” 

Yet, despite this and many other tales, Massachusetts is outranked by none other than the Lonestar state itself, Texas. Slotsource.com’s data shows that there have been 6,845 ghost sightings in Texas. This is followed only closely by California, at 6,444 sightings, with all the other states at significantly lower numbers, ranging only from 2,555 to 1,036. 

So why is Texas such a haunted hotspot? The answer is unclear, but Jo Ann Marks-Rivera of San Antonio, says she thinks it could be because of the state’s overall diversity. 

“Texas is a big mixing pot,” said Marks-River, who owns not one but two haunted attractions in the state. “Maybe that’s part of it, that you’ve just got all of these cultures that are really interesting people that are open to it.”  Marks-Rivera’s home, also known as the Victoria’s Black Swan Inn, was built in 1867 on the historic site of the 1842 Battle of Salado and has “been a home to some of the most prestigious people in San Antonio’s history,” according to their website. Marks-Rivera has lived there with her family for over thirty years.

When she first purchased the property, she was warned it may be haunted, but she didn’t really believe it. After only a few weeks, however, strange things began to happen that she could not explain. Maybe the plantation house was haunted after all. 

Nowadays, Marks-Rivera tries to open her home to the public as often as possible. She hosts masquerade parties, weddings, festivals, and even allows ghost investigators to book overnight stays at both the hotel and her second haunted property, Yorktown Memorial Hospital. Many have reported experiencing strange happenings including cobweb touches, shadow people and what’s called “doppelganger activity,” which is a ghost that looks like someone you may know. 

“Sometimes people have an experience and they don’t even realize that it isn’t like a real time experience until after the fact when the person they thought they were talking to actually walks into the room and they realize they were never there. They didn’t have that conversation,” Marks-Rivera said. 

One of the most common ghost sightings at Victoria’s Black Swan Inn is a little girl with blonde curls, a blue dress and a bonnet. She most often appears to men, usually sitting on a bed, playing or singing. 

Victoria’s Black Swan Inn, built in 1867, has been host to some of the most prestigious people — and hauntings — in San Antonio history. Courtesy of Jo Ann Marks-Rivera

“They’re very emphatic,” Marks-Rivera said. “They’ll fuss at me about, you know, ‘who left that little child up there by themselves?’ And there’s no child. But they can describe her, and they always describe her the same way.” 

Many people travel from all around the U.S. to Victoria’s Black Swan Inn, wanting to have a paranormal experience. Though they can be unsettling, Marks-Rivera said that a ghost story could also be reassuring to people.

“People want to know what happens after we die,” she said. 

She had her own personal experience when “Ghost Adventures” visited the Black Swan. Her mother had died only three months prior and the crew wanted Marks-Rivera to attempt to contact her. “Before my mother had passed away, I told her, “you know, mom, I’m going to want to talk to you,’” she said. “So, we came up with a code word that only she and I knew.” 

They placed a light on the bed and told the spirit that if she drew near, the light would go off and they would know she was there. Just when Marks-Rivera and the team were ready to give up, “there was an energy shift in the room.” 

“I felt it cross my legs,” Marks-Rivera said. “I could hear a whisper, I heard a voice.” 

When they played back the recording, a voice could be heard very clearly saying, “Bossier,” the name of the place where Marks-Rivera’s mother liked to go gambling and also, their code word. 

A lot of visitors to the Black Swan hope to have contact with their own lost loved ones. 

“The unique thing about the Black Swan Inn is that it seems to be a place where you can communicate with people that have passed on pretty easily,” Marks-Rivera explained. She thinks that may be due to the property’s location. The home sits atop limestone with water underneath and creaks on either side. 

“We’re in this triangle of energy,” she said. “There are railroad tracks and radio towers all within a five mile radius. So, we’ve got this electromagnetic field that the house is sitting right in the middle of.” 

This is not an uncommon theory. According to Derrick Paxton, an electrical engineer for GhostStop: Ghosting Hunting Equipment in St. Cloud, Florida, the mechanics of ghost hunting are rooted in theories, such as changes in temperature or in electromagnetic frequencies. 

Paxton helps to design and create technology that is built to detect these environmental fluctuations.Recently, he helped engineer the “GS2 laser grid sensor,” which displays a laser grid in a dark room in order to help see 3D space and detect temperature and movement.

“If you ever watch any of those shows on Travel Channel like ‘Ghost Nation’, ‘Ghost Hunters’, anything like that, they are 100% mostly using our equipment,” Paxton said. “Ghost Adventures,” the show that visited Marks-Rivera, is also cited as one of the organizations that uses GhostStop’s equipment. 

He was surprised to hear that Florida was 11th on Slotsource’s ranking for “Most Haunted Hotspots in the U.S. ” Despite being home to the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Florida is listed as having only 1,591 sightings. However, it is unclear how Slotsource.com classifies what constitutes a “ghost sighting.” 

So, does any of this prove that ghosts are real? It’s hard to say. It’s certainly interesting to think about, especially this time of year, but still there are no definitive answers. “There really isn’t a clear cut answer as far as a standard ghost,” Paxton said. “No one has actually caught a ghost.” 

Still, in his time with GhostStop, Paxton’s belief in the paranormal has definitely increased. 

“Everyone has a ghost story,” Paxton said. “I wouldn’t have thought so until I got this job, and people started telling me their ghost stories. I’ve yet to meet someone that said they didn’t have some sort of experience they can’t explain.” 

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