One of my favorite things to do on any vacation is take a ghost tour. I’ve done them lots of places: Williamsburg, Charleston, Boston. To me, as an avowed paranormal skeptic, they provided a fun way to learn local history and stories that aren’t shown in museums. Once I started leading them myself, I discovered they’re much more complicated than they seem, because it takes hard work to balance the storytelling and managing the guests. The effort to provide a great Ghost Walk, though, is always worth it, because it shows tourists and locals alike a side of Virginia Beach they haven’t seen elsewhere.
The museum’s Ghost Walks are my first real, extensive experience guiding hour-long tours. As a graduate student and educator, I have plenty of experience lecturing in a classroom and presenting papers at conferences. Presenting history in the tour format, especially ghost tours, meant I had to adapt to a storytelling format. The hardest part is keeping up the energy; the heat gets to you, the stories get familiar, and an hour is a long time for the guests to listen. I’ve learned to combat this by not getting into too much of a routine. There are a lot of stories to tell, and we can’t include them all every walk. I change up what I tell every week—this keeps me on my toes, which I think helps the guests feel a sense of excitement about them, too. Another challenge has been learning how to manage the practical: crossing streets, keeping the time, the angle of the sun, the roar of the jets. The weather! I’ve had to learn to be adaptable and to be efficient when directing people. When you’re out on a tour and a sand storm hits, you have to make some fast decisions, get people inside quickly, pick up right where you left off, and still end on time!
Despite the difficulties, I’ve learned to love being a Ghost Walk guide. You get a do-over every week, a chance to play with or switch out stories, and an opportunity to try a new energy. You also develop a camaraderie with the participants. Each tour offers a new opportunity to hear stories from our guests directly, whether it’s their own paranormal experiences or visits to local places. Beyond that, it’s exciting to teach guests about local landmarks that they can’t read about on a marker. It’s taught me a whole new side of Virginia Beach history, too. Our entire museum tells interesting and important stories from the region’s past. Telling local history through ghost stories, however, shines a brighter light on the people. They make apparent the human cost of shipwrecks such as the Dictator, the background of Tautog’s and Agnes Simmons Winston’s commitment to Virginia Beach, and how parts of old Virginia Beach linger within the new at places like the Cavalier Hotel.
Leading ghost tours wasn’t something I ever envisioned doing when I decided to pursue history (I was much more comfortable just being an observer), but being a Ghost Walk guide this summer has been a great learning experience. It has made me better at thinking on my feet, better at managing events, and a better storyteller.