Walk on the dark side: A behind-the-scenes look at one of Boston’s best ghost tours

By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service

BOSTON — Every night during warmer months at 8 p.m. sharp, visitors to the Boston Common can see a figure dressed in black carrying a lantern and waiting outside the park’s Central Burial Ground.

Creepy? Yes, intentionally so.

The figure is one of the many tour guides employed by Haunted Boston, a tour company that takes visitors on a chilling stroll through downtown Boston, accompanied by stories of witches, hangings, horrific crimes and, if you’re lucky, some paranormal experiences.

Started by historian Hillary Kidd in 2005, Haunted Boston, which ranked #10 in USA Today’s 2018 reader’s choice ghost tours, has humble roots. Always having loved ghost stories and having attended ghost tours in every city she visited, Kidd said she started the tour as a side gig to meet interesting people and learn more about the city while she obtained her master’s degree in museum studies from Harvard University.

“I’ve always been drawn to historic places and the darker side of history,” Kidd said. “There are so many untold stories.”

She added that Boston’s rich history makes it a great place for a ghost tour.

“Having an area that was actively inhabited since the 1600s, there’s celebrations, tragedies, life and death,” she said. “That amount of people and history—it leaves an impact.”

At first, Kidd ran the entire company by herself, researching and writing every story, creating all the promotional materials and giving every 90-minute tour. But due to the tour’s popularity, her company quickly outgrew a one-man operation. Today, the company employs 15 people.

Given Kidd’s academic background, the tour has always had a historic focus.

“First and foremost, all of our stories have to be factual,” said Daniel Seeger, administrative assistant for Haunted Boston and Kidd’s boyfriend. “We want people to take away a piece of history.

Kidd said all of the stories come from some kind of written record or first-hand account. She said she often uses old newspapers, public records and archived information to find and verify her stories.

For example, she said, one of the lesser-told stories on the tour is about the Charlesgate Hotel in Back Bay. The building, built in the early 1900s, was later sold to Boston University in the 1940s as a dormitory, and then Emerson College in the 1970s. The building became known as haunted when Emerson students started reporting paranormal experiences while living in the dorm. Kidd said that to gather these stories, she accessed Emerson’s archives of an old student newspaper in which students had written about their experiences.

“It’s the darker side of Boston’s history that we’re telling, but it’s still the history of Boston,”  Kidd said.

Unlike other ghost tours where guides might dress up in costume, don fake accents and have actors jump out at guests, Kidd said Haunted Boston relies on good old-fashioned storytelling and the talents of their guides to make the tour exciting.

Seeger and Kidd said they give their tour guides license to tell the stories in their own way, be that quiet and creepy or packed with corny jokes. They also allow the guides to choose which stories to tell, keeping the tour from being a cookie-cutter experience.

“It’s the guides—that’s what makes Haunted Boston so successful,” Kidd said.

But just because there are no planned scares on the tour doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Jeffrey Doucette, who has given tours for Haunted Boston for a decade now, said he and his guests have weird, unexplained experiences on the tour all the time.

The stories are strangely consistent. Both Doucette and Kidd have either felt or had guests feel a tapping on their shoulder near the Central Burial Ground on the Boston Common despite no one being near enough to tap them. They have had pictures taken of them near where the “hanging tree” used to be on the Common with strange, unexplainable green lights nearby, among other spooks.

Doucette said the strangest experience he has had was on Halloween weekend a few years ago. In the famously haunted Omni Parker Hotel, which is part of the tour, on every one of the dozen tours he gave that weekend, he smelled cigar smoke, one of the tell-tale signs of the liquor salesman ghost known to haunt the third floor of the hotel.

Doucette said he didn’t tell guests at the time, afraid it might scare them too much and cause them to leave the tour. He said one time a guest even declined to attend that part of the tour as she was staying at the hotel and thought it would scare her too much.

And it’s not just the guests who have experienced strange things in the hotel, but the staff.

“I go to the bar after every tour and every bartender there has a horror story,” Doucette said.

But the value of these experiences, he said, is that the guides can then add them to the tour, which adds authenticity.

Despite experiencing such spooks, Doucette said he isn’t afraid of ghosts. “It’s startling. It’s like seeing a snake in the garden. But I don’t think they’re like Pennywise the clown. They’re not like the evil spirits you see in ‘Poltergeist’ or other horror movies.”

Nick and Sarah Foster-Walters, who were visiting from Saint Paul, Minnesota, said they liked the tour because it brought them in front of the places where the stories actually happened. “All the stories so in detail and memorable,” Sarah said.

Though Haunted Boston gets a range of guests, from true believers to skeptics to aspiring ghost hunters who bring their own equipment, Doucette and Kidd agree that it’s the mystery of ghosts and death that brings people to hear their macabre tales.

“Death it something we don’t know about,” Doucette said. “No one has come back from that so far and it’s frightening.”

But, he said, some people also just like to be scared, and he likes to scare them.

“It’s why people love ‘Silence of the Lambs,” Doucette said. “They put their hands on the face screaming but they love it.”

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