The scariest cities in the US, and why they still scare us

(CNN) – Many parts of the US claim to be king when it comes to Halloween. But three in particular — Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans and Salem (Massachusetts) — have tremendous histories to actually win the title.

The trio of historic cities, each dating back at least a couple of centuries, is charming and welcoming in the light, with cobblestone streets, well-preserved, centuries-old structures and other nods to days of yore.

But when night falls and the wind howls through the empty streets, these cities cast a darker spell. For many visitors and year-round residents of these three cities, their macabre history is part of the draw.

“Learning about the supernatural beings of a place and becoming a transmitter of a place’s supernatural knowledge … is a way to gather more into the stories of a place, and to claim belonging within ourselves,” said Lowell Brower, professor. In the Folklore program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he teaches, among other things, “The Supernatural in the Modern World.”

Each is strange in its own unique way, although Savannah and New Orleans are said to be the most haunted cities in America. We’ll leave that decision to those who know these cities best — the ghosts, perhaps.

“There’s great value in sharing (and exploring) what excites us,” Brower said. “It may be the best way to understand what people fear, what they want, what they choose to remember or cannot forget, what they are capable of and what they are still transforming into.”

Savannah, Georgia

Southern Gothic personified.

An angel watches over visitors to Bonaventure Cemetery.

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Spooky’s claim to fame: The 1994 book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” put Savannah’s spooky beliefs on the national map, but locals have long spotted ghosts and encountered paranormal entities in their historic city. Any building over 100 years old can claim that a patron felt a ghostly presence there.

Some haunted places:

The Mercer-Williams House “Midnight” readers and moviegoers know it as the house where Danny Hansford and Jim Williams died. But even before his death, visitors have reported seeing a young boy in his windows — perhaps, they believe, the boy who died there in 1969. The house is now a museum where visitors can witness the ghostly presence for themselves.
Some hotels and B&Bs are said to be scattered in the historic city center, among others Marshall HouseFormer Civil War hospital, and Hamilton-Turner Inn, rumored to be the inspiration for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. If you don’t mind the screams of ghostly children roaming the halls or encountering an apparition of a man smoking a cigar, you can book an (expensive) stay.
In the old Colonial Park CemeteryEstablished in the 1750s, about 12,000 people are buried here, although only 700 headstones remain — according to the Savannah Morning News, many of the graves were paved over to build what is now Abercorn Street. Cemetery XIX It was filled in the 19th century after yellow fever swept through the city, and today guests claim to have seen “shadow figures” roaming the grounds. (And Abercorn Street is, of course, what many ghost tours suggest as one of the city’s most haunted mansions.)
The gate to the Colonial Park Cemetery at night, with the moon shining on the thousands of souls buried there.

The gate to the Colonial Park Cemetery at night, with the moon shining on the thousands of souls buried there.

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But much of Savannah’s haunted reputation is built on racism and the legacy of slavery: Two of the city’s many plazas, Calhoun and Whitfield, are said to have been built over the unmarked graves of enslaved people. The activists have called to change the name of the squares in honor of the people buried there.

There is value in confronting the violent histories of some ‘haunted’ landmarks, said Brower: “Hauntings allow us to speak untold histories into presence; they invite and sometimes compel us to see not just the place and the people who are here today, but the place as it once was and our The people were here in front.”

Salem, Massachusetts

Where witches were hunted, and now, they are honored.

The Witch House is one of the few houses in Salem that was directly involved in the 1692 witch hunt.

The Witch House is one of the few houses in Salem that was directly involved in the 1692 witch hunt.

Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Spooky’s claim to fame: All those “witches”. In the 1690s, Salem, more than 200 people, many of them women, were accused of “witchcraft” and allegiance to the devil. The prosecutors had little evidence for these accusations, but they had testimony from several citizens who were mostly driven by hysteria fueled by the religious paranoia that infected the town. 19 of those convicted of witchcraft were hanged and another 4 died in prison.

It’s a curious episode of American history that the city of Salem today honors by commemorating the innocents killed in the trials and educating visitors with a healthy dose of entertainment and hidden intrigue.

Some scary places:

Witch House It is the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided over several trials of accused “witches” and, according to the Salem Witch Museum, has “shown no remorse” for participating in the trials. It is the only remaining structure in Salem with a direct connection to the witch trials, and is open to visitors who want to get a taste of what colonial Salem was like.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, “The House of the Seven Gables,” was inspired by a real house in Salem, which you can also visit. Hawthorne’s novel highlights suspicious domestic incidents involving witchcraft, although if you want a more comprehensive account of the “witches” of Salem, Salem Witch Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum offer tours and year-round exhibits.
The House of Seven Gables inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's book of the same name.

The House of Seven Gables inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book of the same name.

Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

There are also a number of re-enactments of trials around town, including the jury that decides the fate of one Bridget Bishop, the first person to be executed in the Salem witch trials.
There are two memorials to the victims of the trials: The Salem Witch Trials Memorialwith granite benches commemorating the victims indicating their names and the means of execution, and Proctor’s Ledge Memorialthe site where 19 allegedly convicted “witches” were hanged.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Where ghosts walk among the living in (relative) harmony.

Saint Louis Cemetery contains many above ground graves and elaborate memorials to those buried there.

Saint Louis Cemetery contains many above ground graves and elaborate memorials to those buried there.

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Spooky’s claim to fame: Big Easy bows strong into its exciting history. The city has its own brand of voodoo, brought to Louisiana in the 18th century by West African slaves whose practitioners were once considered royalty, like the legendary Marie Laveau and Dr. “Bayou” John. Despite its infamous reputation, the religion of “New Orleans voodoo” is primarily an attempt to connect believers to the spiritual plane, and it also folds into Roman Catholic practices.
New Orleans is also home to self-proclaimed vampires and witches and, according to many residents and guests, spirits galore. Basically, if you don’t identify as a living, breathing human being, you’ll find your community in NOLA. No wonder it’s the setting for projects like “True Blood,” “American Horror Story” and “Interview with the Vampire.”

Some scary places:

Even ghostly legends can’t keep New Orleans company. Small Theater in Old Square from regularly mounted productions. According to the city, there is a ghost named Caroline, an actress who performed at the theater in the 1930s and who allegedly died while wearing her wedding dress, who frequents its grounds.
Le Petit Theater still produces shows, ghosts and all.

Le Petit Theater still produces shows, ghosts and all.

Kayte Deioma/ZUMA Press

The San Luis Cemetery There are elaborate crypts and above-ground tombs that house various New Orleans legends, including Laveau. Some spirits apparently never settled, however, as some ghosts are now known by names, such as the sailor Henry Vignes; you’ll know it’s him by his tall stature and piercing blue eyes.
For more outstanding ghosts, visit Ancient French Opera Housea lady named Marguerite who died there years ago is said to have lived there, or Absinthe Old Housee, a bar that has been open for more than 200 years, where famous spirits like to have a drink. Even the world-famous Cafe du Monde is apparently staffed with occasional apparitions.

Image above: Salem, Massachusetts