Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there’s no denying their allure. Some people latch on to ghost stories because they relish the excitement and the intoxicating appeal of the unknown. Others cling to them because the very existence of ghosts affirms their belief in the afterlife, regardless of what form it may take. And the rest just want to have the crap scared out of them.
Humanity has a long and sordid fascination with ghost stories. They feature prominently in the Old Testament and can be found in literature as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Hell, Shakespeare practically made a career out of telling ghost stories, with Hamlet, MacBeth, and Richard III all showcasing apparitions in various levels of prominence. Today, entire industries are propped up by our fascination with the undead and ghost stories can be found anywhere at anytime. Seemingly every other week, new (mostly terrible) movies hit theaters promising to scare masochistic movie-goers with tales of ghostly encounters. And cable TV sports a surplus of paranormal investigator shows, in which a group of insufferable frauds walk through dark buildings with glorified stud finders and hyperventilate when they feel a breeze.
But every year around Halloween our love of all things ghostly tends to kick into overdrive. Haunted houses start popping up like pimples on prom night, scary movies dominate TV listings and our Netflix homepage, and countless websites start producing ghost-themed click bait (hello!). There’s a reason for our phantasm obsession, though. Ghost stories are compelling and, when it comes down to it, we all like to be scared on some level. But true ghost stories – hauntings that supposedly happened in real life – have the potential to be the scariest of all precisely because they’re based in reality. The following list contains no boogeymen, demons, or monsters; it does, however, feature some of the scariest, most infamous real-life hauntings ever recorded.
10. Kate Morgan Haunts the Hotel del Coronado
When the Hotel del Coronado opened its doors in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world. Over the years it has hosted numerous high profile guests, including heads of state, A-list Hollywood actors and, if reports are to be believed, more than a few ghosts.
The most famous of these is undoubtedly Kate Morgan, who checked herself in to the Del one November morning in 1892 and checked herself out 5 days later with a bullet to the head. Or at least that’s what the authorities believed.
But something about Kate’s death didn’t add up. The bullet that was taken from her head didn’t belong to the gun that was found in her hand. She also checked in under an alias and lied about her reason for being at the hotel. While we may never know for sure what happened to Kate, one thing’s certain: she never left the hotel. Guests and workers alike have reported seeing a woman matching Kate’s description, period clothes and all, walking the halls of the hotel. And guests who spend the night in her old room report drastic temperature changes and feelings of being watched at night. Whatever Kate Morgan’s motives were for being at the hotel in the first place, she sure seems to be enjoying her stay.
9. Winchester Mystery House
If there were an All-Star team of haunted houses, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California would be leading in the rankings. The sprawling Victorian mansion in Silicon Valley is unsettling, to say the least. The mansion was built by Sarah Winchester, the superstitious widow of William Winchester. The couple amassed enormous wealth from the manufacture and sales of the Winchester rifle. After William’s death, Sarah moved to San Jose and began construction on what would ultimately become the famed Mystery House.
Legend has it that after her husband’s death, Sarah Winchester consulted a medium who told her that she would be continually haunted by the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles. She could appease the angry spirits, however, if she never stopped construction on her home. She hired several construction crews to work day and night on the expansion but she neglected to hire an architect, so the house is full of engineering oddities, like doorways that open up to 30 foot drops and staircases that lead right into the ceiling. Sarah later justified the bizarre design of the mansion, saying it was intended to confuse and mislead the angry ghosts that plagued her.
Today, the house is a popular tourist destination for amateur ghost hunters hoping to catch a glimpse of one of Winchester’s trapped spirits or, if they’re lucky, Sarah Winchester herself.
8. Ghosts of Gettysburg
If ghosts are somehow psychically linked to the locations in which they died, it stands to reason then that battlefields would have significantly higher rates of paranormal activity. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is certainly no exception. The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle of the American Civil War and saw the largest volume of casualties of the entire campaign.
Today, the battleground is often cited as the most haunted place in America. And it’s no surprise considering that thousands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict lost their lives here. Visitors to Gettysburg often report sightings of ghost soldiers and even entire ghost battles being fought.
7. Eastern State Penitentiary
Another haunted Pennsylvania landmark, Eastern State Penitentiary was a prison that was opened in 1829 and operated for almost 150 years before finally being shut down by the state in the 1970s.
For more than a century, the prison housed the most brutal murderers, serial killers, and rapists the state had to offer. And it kept them in harrowing conditions: no heat, no plumbing, spoiled food and, if the prisoners stepped out of line, the sadistic guards were all too happy to throw a little torture their way.
The penitentiary is now a museum and full-time haunted house attraction. Visitors can still see the ghostly shadows of long since deceased criminals roaming the halls of the former prison and, if they listen carefully, they might hear the cries of tortured prisoners echoing through the cell block. Some people say they’ve seen the tormented faces of past inmates in the walls of the cells. The prison has such a reputation for its ghostly activity that it has become a favorite destination of paranormal researchers.
6. The Bell Witch
Remember The Blair Witch Project? You know, that nausea-inducing shaky cam horror movie from the late ’90s about a bunch of stupid kids who get stalked in the woods by a misunderstood elderly woman named Blair? Well, that travesty of a movie was directly inspired by a real-life legend.
The Bell Witch Hauntings began in the early 19th century in Adams, Tennessee. The Bell family, led by patriarch John Bell, Sr., were supposedly being pestered by a local witch named Kate Batts. The haunting started off innocently enough, with members of the Bell family hearing scratching noises coming from the walls. But events quickly escalated: Soon, family members were being slapped and pinched, their names were being screamed by unknown entities from deep in the woods, and animals were being mutilated and left for the family to find around the home.
No one knows exactly how or if the hauntings eventually stopped. One thing’s for sure, though, we finally have someone to blame for the ungodly amount of found footage horror films that currently plague our society: the Bell Witch.
5. Resurrection Mary
This one has become such an iconic horror movie cliche that it’s almost surprising it’s actually based on a real story. Resurrection Mary is a real ghost who lives (non-lives? remains dead?) at the Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois. The story goes that Mary got into a fight with her boyfriend while out dancing one night. She stormed out and, while walking home, was struck by a hit-and-run driver and killed. She was buried in Resurrection Cemetery.
Ever since her death, numerous motorists driving along Archer Avenue in Justice have reported picking up a beautiful blonde hitchhiker who always asks to be let out in front of Resurrection Cemetery, at which point she promptly disappears. Resurrection Mary has become something of a local celebrity and she’s been the inspiration for countless other stories and legends.
4. The Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel is famous for inspiring one of the most celebrated works of horror fiction: Stephen King’s The Shining. The hotel is located near Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. King had the inspiration to write the novel after staying in the nearly empty hotel the night before it was scheduled to close for the long winter. The eerie confines of the deserted hotel creeped out the king of horror (see what we did there?) so much that he thought he’d scare the rest of us, too, just so he wouldn’t be alone. (We were going to make a “misery loves company” joke there, but thought better of a second King pun.)
But the Stanley’s connection to the paranormal goes back far beyond King’s novel. The Stanley is said to be haunted by numerous spirits, most of whom are harmless, like the ghost who enjoys playing the grand piano in the lobby late at night. Others, however, are decidedly more sinister. Guests in some rooms have reported waking up in the middle of the night only to see dark figures standing over their beds. Once the guests are awake, the spirits calmly and silently walk out of the room… through the walls.
3. Chloe at Myrtles Plantation
Chloe was a slave girl who worked for Mark and Sara Woodruff at Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. According to legend, Mark Woodruff caught Chloe eavesdropping on a private conversation between the owner of the plantation and some business associates and, as a punishment, he had her ear cut off. After she recovered, Chloe took to wearing a green turban wrapped around her head to cover her disfigurement.
In retaliation, Chloe baked a cake with boiled down extract of oleander, an extremely poisonous plant, and served it to the Woodruffs. Her intent was to exact revenge on Woodruff and his wife. But Mark never ate the cake; instead, Sara and her two young daughters ate the cake and promptly died.
There is some doubt as to the veracity of this tale. Nonetheless, visitors and plantation staff alike report seeing the image of a young ghost girl wearing a distinctive green turban wandering the grounds at all hours of the night. She’s not alone, either. It’s believed that there are as many as 12 different ghosts that haunt Myrtles Plantation.
2. Madame Delphine LaLaurie
One of the earliest and most prolific serial killers in the United States, Delphine LaLaurie was a singular kind of evil. She appeared to be an upstanding member of the New Orleans social elite in the early 1800s and, by all accounts, was a perfectly pleasant person as far as antebellum South societal standards go. But despite her genial outward appearance, Madame LaLaurie was an uncompromising sadist who brutalized and tortured dozens, if not hundreds, of slaves over the course of several decades.
LaLaurie tortured her slaves in the attic of a grand mansion she had built for her and her family on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The mansion still stands and has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in New Orleans.
Docents say they can still hear the screams of tortured slaves emanating from the attic and more than one has reported seeing the portly ghost of LaLaurie herself menacing visitors who trespass on her property. Fun fact: Nicolas Cage briefly owned the home several years ago, officially making the LaLaurie mansion the craziest place in New Orleans.
1. Lizzie Borden
Everyone knows the folk rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
The Lizzie Borden murder case was the O.J. Simpson trial of the 19th century. Andrew Borden, a prominent businessman in Fall River, Massachusetts, and his wife, Abby, were murdered in their home on the morning of August 4, 1892. Lizzie, their spinster daughter, was the prime suspect and was eventually tried for the murder of her parents. After a lengthy trial, Lizzie was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
No one was ever convicted of the murder of Abby and Andrew Borden. Lizzie lived out the rest of her life in a new house in Fall River, eventually passing away in 1927. The house where the murders took place, however, still stands and now operates as a rather morbid bed and breakfast.
Guests who have stayed at the inn claim to hear footsteps and see ghostly apparitions walking the halls. Visitors brave enough to stay in the room where Lizzie’s mother was killed have reported being awoken by blood-curdling shrieks coming from the floor on the side of the bed: the exact spot where Abby was bludgeoned to death.