‘It’s a distinct genre,” says theater artist Rob Thompson about the seasonal appearance of ghost tours in old New Jersey towns such as Princeton and Bordentown.
The Hamilton native, founder of the Hamilton-based Odd Act Theater Group and professor of theater at Chesapeake College in Maryland, has more than a passing interest in ghost tours: they and sacred rituals were the focuses of his doctoral work at the University of Maryland and inform his work both at Odd Act and on campus. “Religion and theater come out of the same practice. The shaman put on a great show but asked the big questions. I ask students to think about the bigger meaning of things,” Thompson says.
During a recent interview and through his writings, Thompson, 32, who also led ghost tours at Gettysburg (often named as one of America’s most haunted spaces), shares his insights on the popularity of ghost tours — especially around Halloween — and what makes one successful.
“The most effective ghost tour is the tour best able to render ghosts as a potential truth and perform potential truth as a form of entertainment,” he says.
Though tourists can seem doubtful about meeting a ghost, the job of the ghost tour guide is to persuade the tourist that she or he may actually encounter something from another dimension. “On an effective tour, the longer the tour goes, the more convinced the tourist becomes. There may be moments when doubt peeks through, but a new story or a new site convinces the tourist anew. The more convinced the tourist becomes that she or he may encounter a ghost, the more thrilling the tour.”
Sharpening his point, Thompson says, “Ghost tours do not promise ghosts; they perform them. They blend the quest for the genuine ghost encounter with the quest for pleasure and entertainment. They entertain their tour groups by enticing them to entertain the possibility of ghosts. Ghost tour guides consistently reference the number of the dead and the horrific nature of their deaths. Quantity and trauma form an important basis for the assertion that there are significant ghostly phenomena.”
A ghost, Thompson says, is the manifestation of a past presence or “a visceral encounter with the feelings and sensations that (a person) experienced in life. Haunting implies that a ghost is regularly present in that space. In other words, whether or not the ghost chooses to render a manifestation, she or he is likely to be occupying the haunted site. The ghost encounter happens when a tourist experiences a manifestation in a haunted space.”
He adds that “haunted” spaces are locations in which manifestations are more common, referring to such well known sites made popular through television shows and books: Salem, Massachusetts, and New Orleans.
According to Thompson, there are several components that make a successful ghost tour. One is for the planner to understand why people join such a tour in the first place. “The typical ghost tourist does have at least some desire for the authentic ghost meeting and often demonstrates a predisposition to believe in ghosts by sharing their own ghost stories with their guides,” he says.
While a ghost tourist may want a paranormal encounter, they understand that it is unlikely and do not demand results. Instead, ghost tourists seem to accept their lack of ability to encounter spirits on their own and enlist “the services of a ghost tour guide in order to seek out or be ‘guided’ to the ghosts. The ghost tour guide’s task is to mediate between the world of the ghost and the world of the ghost tourist in order to perform an effective tour”; however, “(ghost tourists) are content to accept a potential rather than the actual meeting,” says Thompson.
Another component is a direct contrast to the tourists’ hopes and beliefs and focuses on the ghost tour guide’s task of engaging and holding the tour group’s attention. To do this, the guide combines history and “purportedly true stories about ghosts in order to establish the idea that they might appear on the tour. The ghost tour guide, although similarly interested in authenticity (in terms of the ghost encounter), has a far greater focus on entertaining and engaging the tour group. “
The guide also keeps his audience engaged by reducing fear. “Dangerous ghosts are excluded from tours as a matter of course. Ghost narratives may discuss ghosts who are deadly or macabre, but these ghosts are never made a danger to the tourist. They remain in the narrative or manifest themselves in non-threatening ways. Cupboards are rattled, hair pulled, even clothes folded, but the walls never run with blood.”
Just as in theater, a ghost tour’s success rests on the ability of the performer. “The ghost tour guide is the central feature,” says Thompson. “There are two ways to view the guide’s performance, dependent upon whether or not we hold that ghosts are actually present in the spaces that tours visit. From a non-believer’s perspective, the tour guide can be understood as the entirety of the performance. In other words, if we hold that there never were, are, or will be ghosts, the guide’s performance is all that tourists purchase with their ticket. From the believer’s perspective, however, the guide is not alone because the ghosts serve as some portion of the evening’s experience.”
The performance is enhanced by costumes reminiscent of the era of the haunting, “not to portray a historical character but rather to make a connection with the history of the space in which they are performing,” says Thompson, adding that “two distinctive props complete the ghost tour guide’s ensemble: the satchel [which serves the utilitarian purpose of holding water, tickets, etc.] and the lantern, an important key for the guide’s performance.”
Another key is the guide’s sincerity and “ability to convince the tour group of anything, let alone the existence of ghosts. Guides create a performance persona in order to present a routine, often performed on a nightly basis during the height of the tour season. Guides’ stories are rarely ever scripted word for word, but all guides have routes that they are comfortable with and narratives that they perform regularly.”
Thompson says the implicit message for the audience is that the guide can be trusted even though the performance can not. “This poses an interesting problem for the guide’s objective to persuade tourists of the possibility of ghosts. If the tourist cannot trust the performance, the guide’s own personal beliefs become increasingly important to the tourist’s ability to believe or entertain belief.”
This mixture of truth, sincerity, and potential creates what Thompson calls the “ghost connection,” or “the moment in the ghost tour narrative when the facts presented can no longer be explained without the ghost. This occurs when the ghost must be used to connect a mysterious circumstance to either documented history or a compelling piece of evidence. Through the ghost connection, the narrative asserts, either implicitly or explicitly, that ghosts must exist.”
Such moments touch an important part of the ghost tour performance: “the tenuous and fragile problem of paranormal belief. Ghost tours play with this belief, teasing tourists with questions of its truth or falsehood, dancing around the hotly contentious issue of the afterlife, but always maintaining a safe distance for fear of getting burned.” After all, he says, “Ghost tours are about fun and entertainment.”
Thompson’s way to theater and ghosts also has a tinge of mystery. A 2001 graduate of Steinert High School in Hamilton, he is the son of a Gaum Incorporated machinist father and a mother who ran Country Cousins Deli in Bordentown and now runs a house cleaning business. “I was the first artist in the family. Once I got going, it got to be like a religion and pulled the family in like a magnet. The whole family works with Odd Act. My sister teaches, and my father provides technical services.”
He says he founded Odd Act after he received his bachelor’s degree from Susquehanna University in 2006, returned to Hamilton, and worked with high school students on a school production. “I had my summer open and asked if they wanted to do a show. And we did one in Kuser Park. Then the Hamilton Township recreation department called and asked me to run their summer camp. Then Lawrence Township called. It started from there.”
Today the company, at 2103 Whitehorse-Mercerville Road in Hamilton, has a mission to create theater “by teaching children, rehearsing in parks, giving free performances, and reaching out to every neighbor in our community door by door.” The company provides classes and has a performing ensemble that creates events at its center and tours under the name of Phenomenal Animals, which recently performed in Philadelphia.
“It’s my business,” says Thompson. “We decided not to go nonprofit. We charge the least as possible. Our philosophy is to bring as many people as possible into theater. We all have jobs. It’s very important to me that we get kids interacting and empathizing. We charge because we need to pay rent.”
Thompson — who divides his time living and teaching in Maryland and running a business in Hamilton — says he got interested in theater through high school musicals. “I never played a big part and was in the chorus. I just loved it. When I got to college at the end of the first year my mentor said that I should consider doing theater professionally. I had other ideas, but (theater) took over.”
He then explored different approaches to dramatic presentation and incorporated what he learned from ghost tours and studies of sacred presentations into his work, such as his upcoming production of Euripides’ mythically and psychologically charged play, “The Bacchae.”
The approach suits him on an artistic and personal level. “I think of theater as a ritual and incorporate a lot of ritual into my theater. I like to get the spiritual aspect of theater into the performance and get audiences involved. Make it a participatory experience. I (also) didn’t want to spend my life auditioning for someone else’s art and wanted to do something in the community. So I decided to start making it and let it take me wherever it was going. That’s what I tell my students at college. You can make theater anyplace. The real accomplishment is to make art as a living,” he says.
While Thompson has not conducted a ghost tour in more than a year, he has developed ghost plays for Odd Act as well guiding the company in creating a recent murder mystery dinner performance (a parody of Nancy Drew mysteries) and the holiday presentation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Steadfast Tin Soldier,” Friday and Saturday, December 18 and 19.
Looking back on his work with ghost tours he says, “I got to know the tour owners. We sympathized. We were small business owners with the same art. The way to understand the industry was to become a performer. That’s how I finished up my research.”
About ghosts, Thompson, a member of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, says like a pro, “We do not fully understand human consciousness and its limits, and the realm of ghosts is a possibility.”
For more information on Odd Act Theater, go to www.oddact.com or call 609-577-1384.
#b#Area Ghost Tours#/b#
Princeton Ghost Tours’ Downtown Ghost Hunt and Cemetery Visit, Saturday October 31, 6 to 7:30 p.m., 7:30 to 9 p.m., and 9 to 10:30 p.m., offers “a chance to experience Princeton University campus and the surrounding neighborhood with trained ghost hunters using real ghost hunting equipment,” hear “stories from a wide range of testimonials accrued from students, faculty, police officers, and residents. All sights have been authenticated as “hot spots,” and “enter the locked cemetery of Nassau Presbyterian church” and visit “the gravestones of Grover Cleveland, Aaron Burr, Jr., Paul Tulane, and even the wealthiest undergraduate to attend Princeton. Guests will use EMF, dowsing rods and therma-meters and will interact as a group with the Psyleron Lamp to prove everyone has paranormal capabilities,” $25 per person (includes discounts at several restaurants and shops. www.princetontourcompany.com.
New Hope Ghost Tours, on Friday and Saturday, October 30 and 31, at 8 p.m., provide lantern-led walks designed by “Ghosts in the Valley” author Adi-Kent Thomas Jeffrey and include a phantom hitchhiker and “the historic inn where Aaron Burr appears from time to time and stares with sightless eyes.” Meets at Main and Ferry Streets, $10 per person, no reservations needed. www.visitnewhope.com/new-hope-lambertville-halloween-2015.