Boo! On Halloween, real stories of the afterlife in Central Florida

In Mount Dora, two doomed lovers from the 1930s are still seen strolling arm in arm through the halls — and straight through the doors — of the Lakeside Inn.

In Orlando, an 8-year-old girl plays with visiting schoolchildren while she waits for her parents, as she has since the 1970s, to retrieve her from the grounds of the Orange County Regional History Center.

And in Kissimmee, a Confederate bugler is occasionally heard playing near the site of an old encampment on the shores of Lake Toho.

If local lore is to be believed — and there's no better time for believing in ghosts than Halloween, after all — Central Florida is crawling with spirits of the not quite departed.

On a recent evening in Kissimmee, a couple of dozen people walked the quiet streets of downtown hearing tales of victims of the "hanging tree" at the old courthouse, cowboys killed in long-ago stampedes and women murdered in the 1940s who make their presence known at what's now the city's library.

Such "ghost tours," which blend local history with spectral stories, have taken off across the area and nationwide, perhaps helped in recent years by the popularity of shows such as "Ghost Adventures" and "Ghost Hunters International" and the "Paranormal Activity" movies.

The tours draw a blend of history buffs, true believers and skeptics who still like a good scare.

"They love the history, and they didn't know things like that could happen in a town that's relatively young," Ashley Spinola, a tour guide and co-owner of Kissimmee Ghost Tours, says of her customers. "And I always tell them, 'No matter how old or a young a town may be, it will still have secrets.'"

In Orlando, business spikes around Halloween for American Ghost Adventures.

Owner Thinh Rappa has been conducting tours in Orlando for about a decade in the downtown area. Among the "regulars" on the tour, she said, are Maximilian, a protective spirit who dwells in the Harp and Celt Irish Pub, and David, a young boy from pioneer days who lingers in the Bumby Arcade at Church Street Station.

Jana Mathews, an associate professor at Rollins College, is teaching a class this semester on the confluence of science and pseudoscience, to which ghost stories are relegated by academia. Even in our increasingly secular and scientific age, she said, such tales have a strong resonance and appeal.

"Ghost stories are firmly ingrained in the Western tradition, but it goes back to antiquity — the notion of having somebody walk you through life who's been there before," she said.

Mathews saw firsthand how powerful the effect can be when she had a self-described psychic medium visit her class.

"These are honors students, mostly premed majors who come in with a critical eye," she said. "And we had people visibly moved to tears as she's communicating, or professing to communicate, with the spirits of deceased loved ones."

Rollins itself has a few alleged spectral inhabitants, she added, including a sorority sister who met an untimely end and actress Annie Russell, who's said to haunt the campus theater that bears her name.

"We don't like the idea of dying and not knowing what happens to us," Mathews said. "The idea of forging a connection with those who have gone before us, that allows us to ease the transition between this life and what we like to term the afterlife."

For Susan Ramirez, it's not about forging a connection with the great beyond — it's about strange goings-on at her workplace. She's the owner of Susan's Courtside Café, a house-turned-restaurant in Kissimmee that's long been said to be haunted by a husband, wife and two children who died in a murder-suicide.

Though she's never seen anything herself, customers report seeing members of that tragic family, especially a man in a black hat who tends to enter and exit through windows.

But one incident a few years ago involving her granddaughter, then 3, made her believe they were something more than stories.

"She was in her car seat, and we were pulling out of the parking lot, and she said, 'Grandma, stop, you almost hit them,'" Ramirez recalled.

"And I looked around, and there was no one there, so I asked her who she meant.

'It's the dad with the little boy and the little girl. They're walking in front of you.'" or 407-420-5189

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