Take a tour of the haunted South

True stories of grisly crimes conjure ghosts from Louisville to Key West
Frequented by paranormal investigators, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, hosts tours of the 130-year-old institution. 
Courtesy of Tenmile Photography

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Frequented by paranormal investigators, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, hosts tours of the 130-year-old institution. Courtesy of Tenmile Photography

For those who love a good ghost story, it’s not Halloween without a gleefully ghoulish haunted tour. The South offers plenty of hair-raising adventures sure to make your blood run cold with tales of restless spirits and supernatural occurrences. Most are a mix of fact, fiction and folklore, so take it all with a grain of salt and have some creepy fun.

Ghosts and Gravestones. “You are doooomed!” shout late-night partiers as the Trolley of the Doomed makes its way down Duval Street on the Ghosts and Gravestones Tour in Key West, Florida.

“Yes, we are doomed!” riders respond cheerfully as they hurtle into an unknown dimension.

The one-hour tour is a macabre journey into Key West’s dark side led by “Mahulda,” a costumed character fashioned after the spirit of a 19th-century artificial flower maker who died of accidental arsenic poisoning from the toxic green dye essential to her trade.

Her consumptive-like beauty and ethereal voice captivate her audience as she recounts true twisted stories like the one about Dr. Carl von Cosel and his corpse bride. Mahulda points out the U.S. Marine Hospital where the doctor became so obsessed with a young, beautiful tuberculosis patient named Elena, he stole her body and kept it in his house for seven years, going to extraordinary lengths to preserve it. He claimed his Bride of Frankenstein-like creation spoke with him and sang melancholy ballads.

When the story hit the news in 1940, some called it love. Others called it lunacy.

The Ghosts and Gravestones trolley tour takes riders to some of the most haunted spots in Key West, Florida. 
Courtesy of Ghosts and Gravestones.

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The trolley slows so everyone can get a good look at Capt. Tony’s Saloon on Greene Street, once an icehouse that doubled as a morgue. Two headstones are inside the haunted bar. Elvira Edmunds (1822) rests under the pool table and Reba Sawyer (1950) lies beneath the “hanging tree” that grows through the roof.

Next, the group disembarks at The Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum to view a cursed silver bar salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck and hear a chilling tale about a specter called “Daddy Longlegs.”

A nightcap at a downtown bar helps chase away that persistent sense of unease that remains long after the tour.

Ghosts and Gravestones Tour. Year round, $32.50, ages 13 and up. Begins and ends at 501 Front St., Key West, Florida. 866-955-0668, www.ghostsandgravestones.com

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Zombies once roamed the corridors of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston West Virginia — not the risen-from-the-dead, cannibalistic corpses portrayed in horror films, but living human beings who were victims of Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman’s ice pick lobotomies, an operation that involved inserting an ice pick into the brain through the eye socket.

The procedure made difficult patients docile, but Brandi Butcher, a guide who leads the two-hour paranormal tour, said it essentially “murdered the soul,” robbing patients of their personalities.

When the massive, castle-like hospital opened in 1864, it was meant to be a sanctuary for the mentally ill, but over the course of the institution’s 130-year history, overcrowding and experimental medical procedures made it more of a house of horrors.

Ghost hunters and paranormal investigators outfitted with K-II meters and other spirit-detecting equipment frequent Lilly’s room, ostensibly home to the spirit of an 8-year-old girl. There their devices come to life, illuminating the gloom while buzzing and crackling. Today it’s a shrine with toys and music boxes left by those who want Lilly to be happy in her Earthly home if she can’t rest in peace.

Butcher was skeptical about the supernatural when she began her job six years ago, but now she’s a believer. “I’ve had experiences I can’t debunk,” she said. “Whether you’re a believer or not, that building can give you the heebie-jeebies.”

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Year round. $40, ages 12 and up. 71 Asylum Drive, Weston, West Virginia. 304-269-5070, www.trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com

A guide recounts spooky tales on the 5-in-1 New Orleans Ghost & Mystery Tour. 
Courtesy of Haunted History Tours.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

5-in-1 Ghost & Mystery Tour. Beneath the soft glow of gas street lamps in the French Quarter, those with a love of the macabre traverse the same cobblestone streets as one of New Orleans' most notorious citizens ― the Axeman.

The courtyard of the Haunted Hotel (that’s the actual name) on Ursulines Avenue is said to be haunted by the jazz-loving serial killer that terrorized the city for year beginning in 1917.

One of the most sensational aspects of this unsolved case is a letter that appeared in The Times-Picayune from someone claiming to be the axe-wielding murderer who left behind a gruesome, blood-splattered scene after every ambush. He warned that his next rampage would be March 19, 1919, but he promised to spare any homes playing that new-fangled jazz.

A copy of the letter is displayed in the hotel’s front window.

New Orleans was one big frenetic jazz concert that night, and true to his word, the Axeman took the night off.

That’s just one aspect of the 5-in-1 New Orleans Ghost & Mystery Tour. As the name implies, it encompasses five subjects: vampires, voodoo, witchcraft, ghosts and unsolved mysteries.

The tour includes a stop outside a shop called Voodoo Authentica, where guide Toast Korozsia gives the lowdown on what he says is a misunderstood religion.

“I discuss the myth of voodoo versus the reality,” said Korozsia. “Some believe it’s a dark, evil cult, but it’s not. It’s an African religion brought over by enslaved people that melded with Catholicism.”

Other noteworthy stops on the two-hour tour include the house where the 1994 movie “Interview with the Vampire” was shot and filming locations for “The Originals,” a spin-off of “The Vampire Diaries.”

5-in-1 Ghost & Mystery Tour. Year round. $14-$25, ages 6 and up. Departs from 723 St. Peter St., New Orleans. 504-861-2727, www.hauntedhistorytours.com

Millionaire's Row is prominently featured in the Old Louisville Ghost Tour. 
Courtesy of Franklin and Esther Schmidt

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Old Louisville Ghost Tour. Old Louisville is an elegant neighborhood widely heralded as one of the country’s most well-preserved Victorian districts, but what’s charming by day can seem sinister after dark.

David Domine, author of “True Ghost Stories and Eerie Legends from America’s most Haunted Neighborhood,” leads a 90-minute walking tour where ghostly shadows waver in the windows of turrets and towers, and gargoyles glare grotesquely in the moonlight.

But you don’t have to believe in ghosts to get a spine-tingling chill at the “murder house,” a key stop on the tour. The home was the site of a grisly crime that rocked Louisville in 2010. Kinky sex, a drag queen and illegal drugs weave a story that proves truth is stranger — and in this case, scarier — than fiction.

When police responded to a domestic dispute at the residence, a terror-stricken Jeffrey Mundt said his boyfriend, Joseph Banis, tried to murder him. Then he made a chilling confession: Banis had murdered before, and the body was buried in the basement.

The couple met drag queen Jamie Carroll on a gay adult website and got together for a drug-fueled orgy that ended with Carroll shot and stabbed. Mundt said he was forced to help bury the performer. Perhaps Mundt confessed to his role because jail was preferable to being Carroll’s eternal companion in an unmarked grave.

Not every house has such a sordid past. The Pink Palace is home to a helpful ghost named Avery that warns residents of danger.

Domine not only provides tours of Old Louisville, he lives there. He’s so fond of his spooky Old Louisville home, he joked he might hang around forever. “When I’m gone, I plan on coming back and haunting the neighborhood to make things more interesting for future tour guides,” he said with a laugh.

Old Louisville Ghost Tour. March 15-Nov. 15. $25, ages 12 and up. Departs from the corner of South Fourth Street and West Ormsby Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky. 502-718-2764, www.louisvillehistorictours.com