With Halloween costumes in the stores before Labor Day, it's obvious that the haunted mindset is pretty close to a year-round thing in Florida.
In tourist destinations ranging from Key West to St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, ghosts are a permanent attraction. In Fernandina Beach, the tales of pirates and ghosts are the main attraction on the Old Towne Carriage tours conducted by owner Rita Jackson. There's precious little science to support the spirit sightings in the historic Victorian houses on Fernandina's Silk Stocking Row, but there are plenty of stories.
Jackson herself recalls taking a family photo at the iconic Palace Saloon and then seeing a glowing, ghostly figure among her relatives. "There was no reflection off the mirror," she assures a recent tour passenger. "So I don't know what it was, but it was something."
The search for spirits is so cool that towns all over Florida are embracing it as a new way to attract visitors.
Cassadaga joins in
Even the tiny spiritualist community of Cassadaga in Southwest Volusia County, where one can receive readings from an assortment of certified mediums, is opening its arms to the public with a Halloween haunted walk on Oct. 30 and 31. That's a change from the days when the town blocked its streets to avoid being overrun by mischief from local teens and other Halloween troublemakers."Things have changed as far as people's perception of the camp and what we do," says Pat Fordham, office manager and member of the board of trustees at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. "The public is more aware of spiritualists; we're not that odd anymore."
There's a $10 admission to Cassadaga's haunted walk, which also will include a group session of readings. The money will help sustain the camp's existence.
"This is one way we generate revenue to take care of the historic buildings, offer classes and things like that," Fordham says. In addition to the Halloween event, Cassadaga offers orb tours year-round as well as classes in everything from yoga to psychometry, the process of receiving psychic impressions through touch.
Fordham says the public is infatuated with the notion of the unknown.
"It's a grain of sand, that's what science knows," she says. "The more you known, the more you realize that we don't know."
There's no shortage of ghost tales to be told in Florida:
"Robert the doll"
The Conch Republic of Key West is considered one of the most haunted cities in the United States. Attractions such as Original Ghost Tours of Key West have made an industry out of taking visitors on nighttime explorations of the town's haunted landmarks. Among the most famous is the East Martello Museum, home of the infamous "Robert the Doll."
The doll's legend is connected to Gene Otto, a painter born in 1900. Otto received the doll as a childhood gift, one that apparently caused him a lengthy string of misfortunes. After Otto died in 1974, neighbors still reported evil laughter coming from the attic in his house. Some claimed to see him peering from the attic window.
Another ghostly Key West legend is the tale of the La Concha Hotel, haunted by a man who died falling to the bottom of an empty elevator shaft. Hotel guests report feeling a tap them on the shoulder, but are never able to turn around in time to catch the perpetrator. La Concha is a Holiday Inn franchise, but the spirit is still part of the ambience.
Murder is behind the legend of the Red Rooster Inn (formerly the Delgado Mansion), where an unsuspecting husband was killed by his devious wife as he relaxed a cigar. He still roams the halls and some report the aroma of his cigar.
"A Ghostly Experience"
Nor is there any shortage of haunted hotels in St. Augustine.
The St. Francis Inn is a regular stop on A Ghostly Experience, one of the long-running ghost tour in the Oldest City in the United States.
At the St. Francis, visitors report TVs and lights turning on and off on their own as well as occasional ghost sightings. The spirits are linked to a tale of forbidden love involving military officer and his family, occupants of the house in the mid-1800s.
The aroma of cigars seems to be at the heart of many ghost stories. At the St. Augustine Lighthouse, legendary lighthouse keeper Peter Rasmussen's presence is detected by the scent of his cigar at least several times a week, according to local legend.
There's also talk that the cigar might belong to another keeper, Joseph Andreu, who died when he fell as he was painting the tower in the 1850s.
The most famous lighthouse legend revolves around two teenage girls, Eliza and Mary, who died in 1873 when they slid in a supply cart downhill into the bay and drowned. They can be heard laughing in the tower.
Horror is big business
Halloween Horror Nights, operating weekends Sept. 25-Oct. 31 at Universal Orlando, is regarded as one of the best scares nationwide by those who appreciate such things.
At Busch Gardens in Tampa, Howl-O-Scream 2009 looks to scare visitors with haunted houses, shows and other frightening diversions around every corner. It runs Thursdays-Saturdays each weekend in October.
But spirit searchers needn't drop theme-park dollars looking for a thrill.
The legendary and elusive "Oviedo Lights" has been a longtime point of interest on the bridge across the Econlockhatchee River on Snow Hill Road in this eastern suburb of Orlando. The lights don't always cooperate, but that never bothered teen visitors, who usually find something else to do in a car on a dark and stormy night.
Web sites to explore:
* Old Towne Carriage Company, Fernandina Beach: ameliacarriagetours.com
* Fernandina Beach/Amelia Island information: ameliaisland.org
* St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, St. Augustine: stjohnscountychamber.com
* Cassadaga information: cassadaga.org
* Halloween Horror Nights information: halloweenhorrornights.com/orlando
* Howl-O-Scream 2009, Busch Gardens: houseofvayne.com
* Sea World's Halloween Spooktacular: seaworldspooktacular.com
Jim Abbott can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-6213