Leaf peeping is one way to see a city in October. Exploring its eerie past and haunted present is another. Unlike a theatrical horror show, however, what you’ll discover here won’t make you scream—at least not right away. Rather, the experiences will creep back into your brain long after you’ve gone home, when you least expect it, like at 3 a.m., keeping you awake all night long. If you’re traveling with your family, be warned: There’s a minimum-age requirement in most of the history-based ghost tours in these popular vacation spots. Read on, if you dare.
1. Portland, Oregon
The Pacific Northwest hasn’t always been about mountain bikes and microbreweries. Lurking beneath this town, between 1850 and 1941, was an entire subterranean underworld, where humans lived and died in a complex series of catacombs known as the Shanghai Tunnels. During the day, the tunnels allowed the typical cargo to be moved without getting wet. By night, that cargo included humans. Men were drugged above-ground, then pushed down a trap door, kept in a cage, only to wake up on a ship and be forced to work as sailors until the ship’s voyage ended, often years later. Women were similarly tricked and forced into prostitution. During Prohibition, the tunnels became a convenient place to store—and drink—booze, and that only made the kidnappings easier. The grisly human trafficking eventually stopped, but some say those who died in captivity have had a hard time leaving this world. Shadowy figure have been reported not only in the tunnels, but in nearby haunts above ground. Among the most famous is Nina, a sex slave who tried to report her kidnapper, but was then thrown down an elevator shaft at the Merchant Hotel. Old Town Pizza stands in that lot now, says Jeff Davis, author of A Haunted Tour Guide to the Pacific Northwest, and guests claim to have spotted her in a white or black dress, shifting around the chairs and tables.
2. Boston, Massachusetts
Modern-day Boston Common: An idyllic respite from the stresses of city life. A vibrant green space where families and couples can picnic, ride a Swan Boat, and see an outdoor concert. Yup, you know where this is headed—things were not always so sunny. Back in colonial times, the Common was a square for public executions, where criminals and outcasts were hanged, says Sam Baltrusis, author of seven books about the area, including his latest, 13 Most Haunted Crime Scenes Beyond Boston. Women accused of witchcraft were sent there, too, along with plenty of innocent individuals who defied or offended the Puritan leadership. The Common is also the site of the Central Burying Ground, established in the mid-18th century, whose long-term residents included foreigners and British common soldiers. It’s not surprising, then, that, in 1895, workers building the Boylston T stop discovered the remains of human bodies nearby. These days, confederate soldiers have been reported to still haunt the tunnels, says Baltrusis, who also runs the Boston Haunts ghost tour. Visitors walking by the cemetery have reported the sensation of being grabbed from behind, and some say they’ve seen orbs or shadows, particularly at the site of the former Great Elm, where the hangings allegedly took place. A few have reported seeing actual ghosts, including that of a teenage girl in a hospital gown and a bonnet, who, at least in one instance, snatched the keys out of a man’s pocket. View our complete list of the most terrifying places on earth.
3. Honolulu, Hawaii
Waikiki Beach, Hawaii
A mysterious lady in red wanders the hallway and disappears into walls. Glass doors shut and hair dryers start roaring, all on their own. An attendance tracker records a deceased hotel worker clocking in, but never out—with a punch card that had long been canceled. Figures march in the distance and disappear toward Diamond Head, and a sailor boy vanishes as abruptly as he appears. Figments of the imagination after a long hot day and one too many piña coladas? Probably. But, says Robert Sepulveda, tour guide with Oahu Ghost Tours, tourists and locals accept that the island is a mystical place. Up until the 1700s, Waikiki was just a boggy area of land, where common folk lived, worked, and buried their family. (The most fertile grounds, reserved for royalty, were toward the back of the valleys near mountains.) When condos and hotels sprouted up in the last century, long-buried bones, including from temples where human sacrifices took place, were shifted or ignored and built over. Such blatant disrespect naturally angered the spirits, which, says Sepulveda, explains why this tourist hotspot is “very active” from a paranormal perspective.
4. Savannah, Georgia
Under all that southern hospitality, the gorgeous mansions, and lush green parks is a rather unsettling past. In Madison Square, dead (and some, as the rumor goes, not quite dead) soldiers were hastily buried after the 1779 Siege of Savannah. Just a few blocks away, in Wright Square, a revered Native American chief, who fostered peace in the new territory, was honored and buried in what was then a cemetery, and then unceremoniously unburied 100 years later—his sacred ground re-designated to a railroad magnate, who made the city rich. In Forsyth Park, autopsies were performed in an underground morgue, connected by an underground tunnel, to the former Candler Hospital. All these rumblings below the surface, say Maria Pinheiro, a historian and spokesperson with Ghost City Tours, make these squares particularly ripe for sightings of shadowy, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t figures.
5. Chicago, Illinois
Chicago’s troubled past—violent mob-related murders, fatal disasters on a grand scale, and chilling cold cases—makes for restless spirits. But what makes ghosts speak “especially loudly here,” says Ursula Bielski, owner of the Chicago Hauntings tour company, is the city’s history of covering up the tragedies. In a grassy area on North Clark Street, you might hear barking, when there is no dog in sight: Believers say that it’s Highball, the German Shepherd that was tied to a post while his owner was executed with a machine gun, along with six other rivals of infamous Chicago crime boss Al Capone. Ghosts are said to haunt Death Alley behind the Oriental Theater, formerly the Iroquois Theater, where almost 150 plunged to their death as a fire broke out; hundreds more perished inside. Even Oprah, apparently, is not off-limits: A “Gray Lady” allegedly drifts about her Harpo Studio, which, back in 1915, was an armory where 844 victims of the Eastland Disaster lay dead, waiting for loved ones to identify them. (Their ship, heading for a company picnic, suddenly rolled over while tied to a dock on the Chicago River.) Perhaps the most spine-tingling is the tale of Resurrection Mary, who was killed by a hit-and-run car, after leaving Willowbrook Ballroom on Archer Avenue. Drivers have reported picking up a young, dazed, blond woman in a white dress, asking to be dropped off near Resurrection Cemetery—only to have her vanish into thin air upon arrival.
6. San Diego, California
What do you get when you cross a storied past and gorgeous spaces? “Real,” not staged, haunted houses. “When you have rich history and cultures, you’re going to get ghost stories,” says Charles Spratley, who wrote Piercing the Veil: Examining San Diego’s Haunted History and runs Haunted Orange County tours. This may be why visitors say they’ve heard loud footsteps at the Whaley House, once the home of a prominent 19th-century family. Public hearings—and hangings—reportedly took place on the grounds before the Greek-revival-style house was built, and Yankee Jim, whose ghost stomps around upstairs, or so the story goes, was hanged on the property. If reports are to be believed, the family, too, never left. Violet Whaley committed suicide, but visitors report spotting her, as well as her parents, who presumably refuse to rest in peace while their daughter still roams among the living. Those seeking a closer encounter of the paranormal kind look to book room 3327 of the Hotel del Coronado, the most requested room at the hotel. In 1892, 24-year-old Kate Morgan checked in under an alias, only to shoot and kill herself days later. Current-day visitors report odd occurrences, like the TV and lights turning on and off by themselves, the sound of footsteps, inexplicable breezes and scents, and a woman materializing and vanishing in the garden—and hallways—before their eyes.
7. New Orleans, Louisiana
Hauntings abound in this deeply mystical city. A violent and often tragic past—including a slave market larger than any other in the country, the massive fires of 1788 and 1794, and ferocious epidemics of yellow fever—fuels the ghost lore. Inexplicable orbs and “screams in the dead of night” have been reported from current-day Jackson Square, says Pinheiro. Today, it is a French Quarter landmark, facing the Mississippi and surrounded by the St. Louis Cathedral and a complex of shops, galleries, and high-end apartments. But during the 18th century and into the first half of the 19th century, it was a public square and the site of atrocious executions of criminals and slaves. The sounds of anguish, it’s said, are either coming from those hung in the gallows, or the guilt-torn clergy in the nearby cathedral who refused to save them.
8. San Antonio, Texas
By day, visitors flock to the San Fernando Cathedral, eager to check out the oldest standing church in the state and maybe even attend its El Mariachi Mass on Sunday. But a stroll alone on the grounds of this Gothic Revival cathedral at night is more of a dare. In 1936, construction workers renovating the church unearthed bones, nails, and tattered military uniforms near the altar; some believe that they belonged to three fallen soldiers of the Alamo, while others dismiss this as myth, given that the dead were extinguished by fire. This apparently does not deter ghosts from showing up, however: Visitors over the years have reported shadow figures and orbs in their photographs and fleeting glimpses of ghosts in the back of the church itself, including a man dressed all in black and figures in hooded, monk-like garb. (Visitors have claimed they initially thought they were fellow tourists, joining the group late—only to witness them disappear into walls.) According to Haunted History of Old San Antonio the remains of numerous Texans are, in fact, entombed in the walls—which “explains” why mysterious faces have reportedly appeared there. View our complete list of the best places to visit in the U.S.