Smalls towns can be an especially idyllic fall destination for leaf-peeping, pumpkin picking and hayrides. But in these six spooky towns, the main attraction is sometimes more macabre, with historic accounts of witches, vampires and pirates. From friendly apparitions to disembodied voices to haunted hotels, what these towns lack in population, they certainly make up for in paranormal activity. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Saint Augustine, Florida
When it comes to ghost stories, the nation’s oldest city has a leg up (and a few centuries) on some of the other towns on this list. Founded in 1565 on Florida’s northeast coast, this quaint town 40 miles southeast of Jacksonville boasts more than Spanish colonial architecture and white-sand beaches. In the late 17th century, the Spanish stone fortress Castillo de San Marcos was built to protect Spain’s claims in the New World, but today some visitors report unexplained wafts of perfume, chills in the air, nausea, the sensation of being touched and sightings of Spanish soldiers. At the Tolomato Cemetery, a female spirit is said to float through the trees, along with disembodied whispers and the sounds of children laughing. The St. Augustine Lighthouse was even featured on Ghost Hunters after purported sightings of several apparitions, most notably a little girl in a blue dress believed to have drowned on the grounds in the mid-1800s.
For a town that embraces sorcery as much as Salem does—the elementary school is named Witchcraft Heights and the police insignia feature witches flying on broomsticks—it’s hard to believe that 328 years ago the townspeople were actually hanging residents accused of casting supernatural spells here on Massachusetts’ North Shore, a half-hour drive from Boston. At the Joshua Ward House, where the sheriff who interrogated accused witches once lived, there are reports of items being pulled off shelves and trash cans knocked over. The wooded Proctor’s Ledge is where many of the accused witches were hung to their death in 1692; now visitors experience an apparition of a lady in white, disembodied voices, cold spots and orbs. There are a dozen other purportedly haunted locations, but the newest is perhaps the year-old Ouijazilla, the world’s largest Ouija board measuring more than 3,100 square feet.
Lily Dale, New York
About an hour southwest of Buffalo, Lily Dale—the 19th-century birthplace of spiritualism—is believed to house the world’s largest community of spiritualists. The folks who reside here claim to straddle the world between the living and the dead, often delivering messages through mediums, but also practicing divinations such as tarot reading, astrology, past-life regression, palm reading and spoon bending (a workshop is offered by the town historian!). The town’s Inspiration Stump (a tree stump surrounded by a cast-iron fence where public readings are held) is said to be a vortex where mediums receive the clearest messages from the dead. There are rumored sightings of apparitions in Victorian clothing in the Old Assembly Hall, and the Maplewood Hotel is said to have spirits pacing the upper floors.
With its antebellum mansions and oak trees draped in Spanish moss, Savannah has a rich history that lends itself to even richer ghost stories (it’s considered to be one of the most haunted cities in America). For example, the boutique Marshall House hotel used to be a hospital housing injured Union soldiers and later yellow-fever sufferers. Today guests report apparitions in the hallways, disembodied voices of children, and faucets turning on by themselves. Three blocks away, guests and diners at the 17Hundred90 Inn & Restaurant have encountered visions of a little boy in the kitchen, a cook banging on pots, and a former barmaid named Anna who waits longingly for her lover in room 204. Built in 1753, The Pirates’ House was once a watering hole for buccaneers who would kidnap patrons and lead them to underground tunnels and then to their ships. They were never heard from again—except for reports of disembodied voices calling out. Meanwhile, fans of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil should peek into the Hamilton-Turner Inn, which reports the apparition of a cigar-smoking man on the roof and billiard balls moving around unprovoked.
It’s been 157 years since roughly 50,000 soldiers died in the Civil War’s deadliest battle in Gettysburg. Today it’s a popular destination—and not just for history aficionados. Built in 1812, the quaint Baladerry Inn functioned as the Union’s field hospital during the battle; the current owners have collected scores of stories over the years of unexplained knocking and voices, which are rumored to be attributed to the Confederate soldiers buried under the on-site tennis court. A few miles away is the Daniel Lady Farm, which served as the Confederate hospital during the battle and today is reportedly haunted by the soldiers who died there. In 2007, detectives used photoluminescence to verify the presence of blood in the front parlor and an upstairs room. On the actual battlefield, there have been reports of uniformed apparitions roaming near the train tracks and the smell of cigar smoke.
Exeter, Rhode Island
In what came to be known as the Great New England Vampire Panic, residents in the 1800s feared that corpses were rising from their graves to suck the life out of the living. To prevent this, they exhumed and mutilated the dead. The sleepy hamlet of Exeter (30 minutes from Providence) has the most grotesque legend of all, one that led to Rhode Island being considered the Vampire Capital of America. In 1892, Mercy Brown’s body was exhumed at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, located behind a tiny white Baptist church; it was believed she was a vampire, sucking the blood out of her living relatives. Since she passed away in winter, her body was well-preserved, and it was rumored that her heart was filled with blood and her hair and nails had grown in death. Mercy’s heart was removed and burned, and the remaining ashes were allegedly served to her younger brother, Edwin, who died two months later. When Dracula author Bram Stoker died in 1912, newspaper clippings about Mercy Brown were found in his files. If you’re feeling ambitious (and packing garlic), be sure to visit the nearby graves of suspected vampires Sarah Tillinghast (Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #14) and Nelly L. Vaughn (Rhode Island Historical Cemetery #2).