Shadows of the Past in the Sunshine State: St. Augustine Ghost Lore and Tourism

By Harris, Jason Marc | Western Folklore, Summer/Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Shadows of the Past in the Sunshine State: St. Augustine Ghost Lore and Tourism


Harris, Jason Marc, Western Folklore


Founded in 1565 by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez, St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city of the New World and celebrates its 450th anniversary 8 September 2015. St. Augustine occupies the top tier of haunted cities (Perman 2010). Local tales express the region's violent history: spilled blood of Native Americans, French, Spanish, African-Americans, and Colonial Americans. Beyond the legacy of violence, St. Augustine is part of the struggling economy of Flagler county, "the 20th most economically stressed county in the nation-and it's the only county east of the Rocky Mountains to land on the Top 20 list" (London 2011). In this challenging economy, St. Augustine's heritage is an advantageous commodity: "Heritage is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past...to give dying economies and dead sites a second life as exhibitions of themselves. A place such as Salem, Massachusetts, may be even more profitable as an exhibition of a mercantile center than it was as a mercantile center" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:7). No surprise then, with its economic challenges and the precedent of a town like Salem that has harnessed its magical traditions into merchandise, that St. Augustine promotes ghostly heritage via tours, pamphlets, books, magazines, and other forms of popular culture.1

Folklorists have not yet included St. Augustine's Flagler College in studies of campus lore, such as Simon Bronner's Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life and Elizabeth Tucker's Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. However, the city is known for ghost lore, and popular books about St. Augustine's ghost tales emphasize public interest. Dave Lapham, in Ancient City Hauntings: More Ghosts of St. Augustine, claims that in the recent past, "St. Augustinians did not talk about spirits, perhaps the only subject they didn't address. Now, there are about a dozen different ghost tours" (Lapham 2004:ix). Ghost tours have doubled since then, but it's not the case that people never spoke about ghosts: "People simply had never been interviewed about them" (Harvey 2000:12). Like ghost tours, writers helped push St. Augustine ghost lore into the marketplace and the minds of Florida's public.

St. Augustine ghost tourism is also belief tourism, as defined by Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Thomas in their book Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore: "Belief tourism, like all tourism, is the marketing of the experiences of cultural 'others'..., and traditions associated with spiritual, metaphysical, or paranormal values" (Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas 2007:194). St. Augustine tourists get to hear of the phantoms of ethnic, racial, social, and political "others": the days of slavery, colonial wars with Spain, conflicts with Native Americans, and brutal punishments of outlaws and adulterers. However, in this mercantile exchange there's no quiz afterward to see whether consumers become more educated, more sensitive to local culture, or more open-minded about the spirit world. In addition, the tours can validate prior beliefs; some tourists told me about family ghost stories and encounters at other legendary sites. Such tourists expect historical events to leave spiritual imprints.

My fieldwork revealed indefinite boundaries between authentic tradition-bearing folk and pragmatic commercial storytellers. The community of St. Augustine ghost lore intersects the ghost tourism industry, Flagler College, and the range of residents' beliefs, but people still also learn ghostly tales from individuals not working for ghost tourism.2 The majority of students (63%) that I interviewed from Flagler College heard legends from someone other than tour guides or participants.3 Nevertheless, some Flagler students attended ghost tours, and a few students-theater majors in particular-worked as ghost tour guides. Notably, Flagler College students were more likely than Florida Institute ofTechnology (FIT) students (who lived several hours south in Melbourne rather than St. …

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