Making a Killing with Macabre Properties

Imagine—you’re the owner of a bed and breakfast and your property is in the throes of major renovations. Everything seems to be going smoothly, but then your contractors open up a 100-year-old wall and find—to their horror—human remains.

This exact scenario played out in 1987 at the Foley House Inn in Savannah, Ga. And now, there are rumors of ghosts. Guests see a man wearing a top hat who walks around the courtyard at night. Things break when no one is in the room, a phenomenon that the staff often credits to the deceased former owner of the building, Mrs. Foley. While many innkeepers would want to keep such fearsome details under wraps, Grant Rogers, who has been innkeeper at the Foley House for the last nine years, did not want to sweep the history of the building under the rug. Instead, he saw an immense opportunity. “There is a certain type of clientele who are very interested in morbid events and ghosts,” he explains.

According to Rogers, there is a measurable demand for macabre lodging facilities. When he checks the search engine terms that direct guests to the Foley House, two of the top five terms involve the words “haunted” or “ghost.” “We research over 400 different search terms, so for these words to consistently appear in our top five is a very big indicator of people’s interests,” Rogers says.

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Perhaps the reason that these properties appeal so strongly to guests is that nearly half of Americans—45 percent, according to The Huffington Post—believe in ghosts and the supernatural. Those who are looking for proof of their beliefs are drawn to properties that were once the scene of grisly murders or are supposed to have supernatural entities dwelling within the walls.

With such a large percentage of the U.S. population interested in the paranormal, hoteliers who are looking to capitalize on their properties’ gruesome histories can attract sizable business from both clientele seeking paranormal experiences or a taste of the property’s dark history. The industry is starting to catch on. In fact, ghost-seekers can peruse more than 60 “haunted” properties on the Historic Hotels of America website.

Lee-ann Wilber, owner and innkeeper of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, has been catering to guests seeking a macabre experience for more than a decade. Located in Fall River, Mass., the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast was the site of two ghastly murders in August 1892. Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother of Lizzie, were brutally killed with a hatchet. Lizzie was accused of committing the murders and arrested, but she was acquitted when the case went to trial. No one else was ever charged. The murders and subsequent trial were sensational, attracting gawkers and tourists as far back as the 1800s. “People would take the train to Fall River, take a carriage past the house, and then turn around and go right back to the station,” Wilber says.

For more than 100 years the property has attracted people from all walks of life—lawyers, history students, judges, and even celebrities. “In the ’70s, Liberace came by the house to see it. Just 10 years ago Mickey Rooney came by. There’s a wide range of appeal,” Wilber says. Today, the building is not just a B&B, but also a historical museum.

Though the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast opened to the public in 1996 and has never been shy about attracting tourism with its history, it was much more recently that the property embraced the world of “haunted” lodging, as the building has a reputation for lots of ghost activity. “We started the paranormal tours of the property only a couple of years ago for Halloween and they were a hit,” Wilber says.

Typically, Wilber only offers the paranormal tours in October and keeps them separate from the historic tours to appeal to the widest range of visitors. The exception is the tours given to overnight guests, which mix the historical and paranormal for a complete experience. And, of course, guides will talk about the B&B’s ghosts if the tourists ask.

“Some people just want nothing to do with the ghostly aspects of the house, so we want to be able to offer them an experience as well,” explains Wilber. This sentiment is echoed by Rogers, who explains that for every guest who asks to stay in one of the Foley House Inn’s haunted rooms, there’s another who wants to be as far away from the paranormal action as possible. “They’ll say that if there’s been any activity in a room, they won’t book it,” he says.

Being able to please both types of guests is key to driving business in these properties. Rogers adds, “You can’t just market to one group. People visit a property for all different reasons, so you have to be sure that you’re able to appeal to everyone.”