This time of year every historic house museum—well not every, but an ever increasing number—is publicizing its haunted house tour. Even the Mark Twain House in Hartford has been running “Graveyard Shift ghost tours,” and last year had the crew from Ghost Hunters in to film an episode. These tours are popular at historic sites, but they ofen run counter to the museums’ mission to interpret history.
Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), here in Philadelphia, runs one of the most celebrated and successful haunted tours in the country—Terror Behind the Walls. ESP is one of my very favorite historic site in the city, so I’m committed to their success as an institution, but Terror Behind the Walls isn’t history—and it doesn’t contribute to their mission as a non-profit. But importantly, it does generate a great deal of the institution’s budget (as much as 65% of their annual operating costs are raised over Halloween). However, ESP is up front about the fact that these tours aren’t history, and that they, in fact, compromise their very mission as a history institution. I appreciate that they can make this admission, and that they point out the financial need that often underlies such tours. There's a great article and blog about this and Seth's Museum Class at Temple this fall here.
Other institutions—the Mark Twain House included—make convoluted arguments that these tours provide historical information and serve their missions. The Twain house countered criticisms last year by arguing that that Sam and Olivia Clemens were at times interested in spiritualism, especially after the death of their young son. Meanwhile, the tours point out that the Clemenses’s daughter Suzy died in the house. Ultimately, these tours lead to speculation about whether the houses are haunted—and they aren't haunted by literature.
Ken Finkel last week wrote a great blog over at The Philly History Blog about the danger that Eastern State Penitentiary has already or will become addicted to the funding that comes from its Halloween tours. He worries that the museum and its staff forget how to innovate within their regular tours, find new programming, or appeal to new audiences because they have a steady stream of money that comes from those who see the blood and guts at Halloween. I hope that the literary houses that have started down this route don't find themselves lost in the mire of the haunted house tour.