SAVANNAH IS BOTH uniquely charming and characteristically haunted. Romantically saturated in southern gothic style, Savannah is often recognized as one of the most paranormally active cities in the country.
Steeped within its rich, 287-year-old history are the entrenched ghost stories and spiritual tales that attract visitors and curious ghost-hunters from around the world. Locations such as the Moon River Brewing Company, The Pirates’ House restaurant and of course, the most haunted hotel in the country – The Marshall House are but just a few of the local businesses that boast legendary inhabitants from the otherworldly realm.
Anyone who has been in Savannah for more than a few days, can’t help but notice throngs of ghost enthusiasts following closely behind one of an ever-growing ensemble of paranormal tour guides. From the converted, jet-black hearses creeping down dark side streets, and the decked-out trollies bouncing down River Street to the Haunted Pub Crawls and “Dead of Night” walking tours, these processions have become as common to the city of Savannah as Spanish moss and pecan pralines.
Within this cast of characters who are often seen leading curious groups of wide-eyed ghost hunters, perhaps none is more famous than Jackie Westfall of Ghost City Tours.
We spoke with the Ohio native and self-confessed paranormal aficionado among the gravestones and crypts at Bonaventure Cemetery to get a little insight on what it’s like to be a ghost tour guide in Savannah and what attracts someone to this unusual profession.
CS: Jackie, what lured you into such a unique line of work?
JW: Well, prior to moving here, I had been involved in retail in one form or another –visuals, retail management, etc. I was so "over" retail! On our way to Savannah, we stopped at the welcome center between Georgia and South Carolina. There, I noticed a whole end-cap of flyers for history and ghost tours. I thought, that's what I'm going to be! So I sent an email introduction to six different companies, then decided to be 'secret shopper'. I took all of the tours as a guest and chose the company with the best tours.
CS: What do you like best about being a ghost tour guide?
JW: I like that I get to share the history and the spooky stories with people – seeing their eyes light up when they make a connection to a story that I'm telling or seeing them flinch when I get to a scary part – all that's quite a great deal of fun. They're enjoying their vacations and it's just wonderful to able to share that fun with them – to be part of that.
CS: What is your favorite ghost story?
JW: My favorite ghost story is definitely Alice Riley. Alice Riley is an amazing story – she is the first murderess in the colony of Georgia and she is the oldest ghost in Savannah. She has been here since 1735, haunting Wright Square, where she was hanged on January 19th of that same year.
CS: What is the craziest thing that has happened to you on a ghost tour?
JW: Are we talking crazy guests or crazy paranormal?
JW: As for guests, I think the craziest thing that ever happened to me was outside of 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant. I was telling a story, and some of the guests were getting a little loud (it was after all, a hunted pub crawl) another guest shushed them because he wanted to hear the story, he wasn't rude, just "shhhh," so they quieted down. I finished the story and as we were heading into the bar, I'm holding the door open and I was going to thank this tall man who shushed them. I wanted to thank him privately, as I didn't want to make a big deal about it, but I'm waiting...this tall man doesn't come in. I noticed I don't have my thirty guests – where is everybody? So I go outside, and apparently the six that he shushed were now beating him up in the middle of Lincoln Street, right outside of 17Hundred90. So now there's a huge seven-person, fisting-flying brawl on the ground in the middle of the street – right in front of the bar! I had to wade in, and I started pulling people off – I ordered them "in the bar, in there!" and I'm just giving people orders left, right and sideways, while pulling them out of the pile.
CS: So you're being a referee at this point?
JW: I was like THE referee! A WWE referee to be exact. As for paranormal, I think the most interesting thing that happened was at 432 Abercorn near Calhoun Square, which is the one of the most actively haunted locations in Savannah. This was way before they sold the building, and it had been empty for decades. I was telling a story – I was actually facing the house and I noticed these blue lights moving around it...but I finish the story (I'm thinking it has to be a reflection from some headlights, as newer model cars often have that blue hue). However, when I finish the story, one of the guests asks, "What's with all of those blue lights?" I said, "Ma'am, I have no idea, but I'm certainly glad you saw it too!" So we all go walking over, and we're standing right in front of the house, on the sidewalk, and these blue lights are moving all around the lower level of the house. It lasted for well over five minutes. It gave skeptics an opportunity to try to figure out some explanation for it (not that they did) and it gave all of us enthusiasts a real treat!
CS: Finally, what is the most common question you get from guests?
JW: "Have you ever really seen a ghost?" is by far the most commonly asked question.
CS: To which...
JW: Absolutely! With my whole entire tour group – at least 28 to 30 times. I kinda stopped keeping track, but it happens. It doesn't happen very often (I've been touring now for four years) but it does happen. If it happened every night, it might not be as exciting.