Steve Skinner, a retired dermatologist in Alabama, has been a ghost skeptic for most of his life. The paranormal was never an interest of his. He didn’t think it was real.
In 2012 that all changed. Skinner’s daughter was convinced that the family home was haunted. To end the debate, he vacationed with his family at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, known as one of America’s busiest hotels.
That weekend, Skinner said he saw things he couldn’t explain.
“It just blew my mind,” Skinner said. “I just had to change my world paradigm. I was fascinated by the paranormal because I knew it wasn’t real. And now I suddenly found out that I was wrong.”
He started exploring more locations, but Skinner was frustrated by the amount of ghost tours he felt were staged. So in 2018, Skinner and his wife Judy bought an old house in Brumley, near the Lake of the Ozarks. The pair fixed it and began searching for the paranormal.
The Skinners have turned the place into a business they call the Haunted Castle House. They take reservations for tours and events. This year, Skinner expects to bring in around $6,000 to $7,000.
Autumn is by far the busiest time of the year. October accounts for about a third of the year’s total revenue, Skinner said.
“(When) we get into September, October, the tours that we offer usually fill up really quickly,” he said.
Businesses like the Skinners thrive in the fall. The demand for ghost tours and spooky activities increases dramatically in October during the Halloween season.
In Missouri, prior to the pandemic, old homes and mansions accounted for about 2% of the state’s tourism. According to industry group American Haunts, attractions advertised as haunted generate up to $300 million nationally.
Many locations are reporting higher revenue this year after being hit by the pandemic, managers and ghost hunters across the state said.
Every tour offered at the Haunted Castle House is fully booked for 2022, Skinner said, including overnight research, four-hour tours, hour-long tours, and a Halloween candlelight tour that’s new this season.
In 2019, its first year of opening, the home brought in $3,000. Last year, The Skinners made $500, which he says was due to the pandemic.
The home typically attracts about 100 visitors a year, he said, but the Skinners have had to turn down many requests. They still live in Alabama and are only going to Brumley for a few weeks.
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The Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City is one of the more well-known attractions among ghost lovers. Since 2009, the city has offered history tours at the prison. Ghost tours began in 2011.
The correctional facility has been through a lot in recent years, but it still attracts business for the city. A tornado ripped off the roof of the property’s oldest building in 2019, impacting the prison’s tour numbers, said Alexandra Bobbitt, communications and field services director for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Then revenue took a hit due to the pandemic. But business has bounced back, Bobbitt said.
Last year, the penitentiary brought in about $550,000. As of Friday, it had made about $783,000 this year, Bobbitt said.
Ghost tours accounted for just over 22% of this year’s sales. And the ghost tours accounted for more than 60% of October sales through Halloween weekend.
“In October with Halloween, everyone’s in this spooky fall mood,” Bobbitt said. “Income increases because our ghost tours are more expensive than our regular history tours. “
The tours vary in length and intensity. The most common tour offered is a two-hour ghost tour of the former prison for $35, but the prison offers ghost hunting classes, five-hour, and eight-hour night tours. The overnight tours, which cost between $75 and $100, are by far the most popular, Bobbitt said.
“We usually release our schedule in early February. And usually they’re the ones who drive the fastest,” Bobbitt said. “So (in September) both 3-hour, 5-hour and 8-hour overnight tours and the class are already sold out for the season.”
The prison has been featured in television shows such as Ghost Hunters and films such as The Haunting of Cellblock 11, which Bobbitt said drives customers to the prison in droves.
“It doesn’t matter if it aired on Discovery+ and later aired on the travel channel, we’re still reaping the benefits of being on TV,” Bobbitt said. “It puts Jefferson City on the regional and even the national map.”
Year-round ghost hunt
In St. Louis, one of the most popular ghost tourism destinations is the old Lemp family mansion.
Lemp Mansion hosts mystery dinners, weddings, private events and bus tours. It also offers five rooms for overnight stays and a full-service restaurant.
A popular attraction during the fall season are the ghost tours, which have been run by resident ghost hunter Betsy Burnett-Belanger for the past 27 years. The weekly guided tours offered all year round enable visitors to take a two-hour tour of the house.
“We joke a bit that people think the mansion is really only haunted in October,” Burnett-Belanger said.
An annual Halloween party, which costs about $80 to $90 per ticket, draws about 800 people, she said.
Lemp Mansion is more than 150 years old and has thrived on its history since it opened to the public in 1977. The variety of offerings helped the company through the pandemic, and ghost tours have since resumed. said Belanger.
After the Halloween season is over, the haunting business inevitably starts to slow down.
While the Lemp Mansion and the Haunted Castle House are keeping their doors open despite waning paranormal interest, the Missouri State Penitentiary is closing its doors for the season at the end of November.
The Lemp Mansion’s mystery dinners, comedy shows, and other offerings that aren’t necessarily geared towards the paranormal could distract from the ghost tours for the rest of the year. But visitors are still drawn to the possibility of the paranormal.
“You can’t separate the spirits from this place,” Burnett-Belanger said.