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Haunted by Horror Stereotypes, SF Ghost Tours Evolve Their Telling of History

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A young woman poses on a dark street illuminated by Chinese lanterns.
Rose Kilgore, tour guide for The Haunt, poses for a portrait in San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

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ose Kilgore didn’t know Kelsey Fourdyce in life, but she talks about her all the time.

“She was amazing,” she says after leading a tour group around the Financial District, North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco, sitting on the steps of a church that’s built from the rubble of the 1906 quake. “She spoke three languages, she had a master’s from [Switzerland].”

Kilgore knows this because, before incorporating Kelsey’s story into her ghost tour for The Haunt, she went down a “deep-dive, rabbit-hole” researching Fourdyce’s life, not her death. In 2015, Fourdyce’s body was found in the Great Star Theater in Chinatown, an event splashed across headlines in the Bay Area. The story comes up during Kilgore’s four-minute segment on the Great Star, said to house numerous hauntings (none of them seem to be Fourdyce, though).

Kilgore felt that if she was going to recount Fourdyce’s death to tourists and local paranormal enthusiasts, she should learn a little more about who she was beyond the grisly details that remain online.

“I thought it was a responsibility [for] me to know about this woman if I’m going to be talking about her all the time,” Kilgore says.

A ghost tour guide wearing a microphone holds up an iPad in front of a guest.
Rose Kilgore, tour guide for The Haunt, checks guest in for a ghost tour in San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Kilgore’s sensitive approach is indicative of how ghost tours — once silly, campy affairs with jump scares — are changing in San Francisco as culture evolves. Ghost tours tell stories about real people who met gruesome ends, and can drift into true crime. And as true crime comes under increasing criticism for turning the worst moments of peoples’ lives into entertainment, ghost tour guides have begun putting more care into how they treat their subject matter. Instead of sensationalizing murders, many are adding historical context and using the paranormal to explore San Francisco’s fascinating, turbulent past.

More Ghost Stories

Longtime ghost tour guide Christian Cagigal has seen the industry evolve firsthand. He began working for the city’s first ghost tour, San Francisco Ghost Hunt, in 1998, and took over the business from its original owner in 2016. He’s watched ghost tours grow from a small niche into a pillar of the tourism economy in San Francisco and many major U.S. cities.

When Cagigal started, ghost tours rose from a mid-’90s fascination with the strange and unexplainable. “There was kind of, like, Unsolved Mysteries, that led to X-Files, that led to [a] pop culture [where] it didn’t matter if you were a believer in ghosts or vampires or monsters or whatnot.”

Back then, Cagigal’s audiences were largely made up of women. But lately, America has found itself in another spooky moment — Stranger Things, true crime podcasts, congressional hearings on aliens — and ghost tours now attract far more diverse groups than in years past.

“Now it’s across the board,” he says. “It’s the girlfriend buying the ticket for the boyfriend cause he’s really into it. It’s the little boy in the family who dragged the whole family of six cause he really wanted to go on this. So I feel like it’s spread across genders. It’s spreading across whether you believe in ghosts or not.”

A person holds to long metal rods while surrounded by a group of people in an outdoor urban setting.
Tour guide Rose Kilgore (left) shows Colin Rodrigues how to use dowsing rods to attempt communication with spirits during The Haunt ghost tour on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

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hat broadening of ghost-tour audiences is also shifting the way the guides deal with decades-old stories in 2023. Historically, horror has leaned heavily on tropes, some of which we now recognize as harmful: the house built on a cursed Native American burial ground, the haunted asylum. Along with a new softening of the more problematic aspects of true crime, tour guides find themselves doing what they can to counteract stereotypes while still providing thrills and chills.

For Kilgore, historical context does the trick. Her tour starts in the Financial District, right under the Transamerica Pyramid. On a warm, recent Saturday night, as she takes her group from North Beach to Chinatown, she takes a few minutes to explain racist city policies carried out against Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. And as we pause again, she makes sure to demarcate the area’s rough-and-tumble early years from its vibrant present.

“We tend to talk more about the sinister side of the neighborhood’s history,” Kilgore adds, “and we want to tell you it does not represent the neighborhood to this day, a place we absolutely recommend you stick around for. So after this tour, check it out.”

A group of people across the street from a brightly lit building in an outdoor urban setting.
The The Haunt ghost tour stops in front of the Great Star Theater in San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Kilgore is a second-generation ghost hunter who started out investigating Civil War battlefields with her father. Her tours tend to focus on turn-of-the-century life in San Francisco, rather than convincing guests there are specters around every corner or playing up grisly details for gasps. “[There’s some] people who just wanna glamorize it…like really exaggerate it, in a way,” she says of some ghost-hunting enterprises. “And a lot of these things [that are supposedly hauntings] are just scientific phenomena.”

Cagigal, too, tries not to let himself get too wrapped up in the pursuit of a good ghost story if there just isn’t one there. This helps keep his tour grounded in history, and keeps him open to interrogating his own work. “History is a living entity,” he says. “I have a number of biographies that I’m telling, and there was a certain way we would tell them 25 years ago, and now we know better.”

He encounters this the most when it comes to his 15-minute opener on Mary Ellen Pleasant, an abolitionist and businesswoman of early San Francisco who is said to haunt the site of her former mansion. “I’m a non-Black male telling a story of a maligned Black woman,” he says. “In 2016, as I was telling the story every single night, I was still telling the old version of the story, the old script I had in my head, because it was just the easiest to do. But as I would hear my own words, I’d be going, ‘Hmm, let me rethink that one for a bit.’”

Two people close their eyes in the center of a group of people across the street from a brightly lit building in an outdoor urban setting.
Levi Peterson (center) and Pamela Price participate in a cleansing ritual as part of The Haunt ghost tour on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Though the Haunted Haight Pub Crawl incorporates ghost-hunting elements — participants are issued electromagnetic frequency readers, devices said to sense spirits — owner and tour guide Tommy Netzband primarily sees ghost stories as a conduit for a city’s history. “History and ghosts, they go hand in hand,” he says while he waits for tonight’s tour group of eight, backlit by the garishly-decorated smoke shop behind him.

His aim with all his tours isn’t to put on a dazzling performance — though he does, to a lot of laughs and wisecracks from the audience. He makes side-eyed observations about psychics (“They never have a last name, do they?”), gives out raffle prizes and attempts to summon lost souls through his friend’s invention called a miracle box (the strange, hushed noises that come out of it are actually eerie). But his goal is mostly to help guests feel more connected to the city by telling the stories of people he can prove lived — and died — here.

“I think it’s important that history be the focal point of whether a ghost is real or not. I love all this equipment, but history is history. You know?”

A person holds a device in their hands and looks intently towards a building in an outdoor urban setting.
Pamela Price uses an EMF meter to test for ghostly activity during The Haunt ghost tour in San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

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ut that history sometimes straddles the line between flashlight-under-the-chin campfire tale and gratuitous gore. Halfway through the tour, he proffers a trigger warning before telling the story of two women brutally attacked and killed on Waller Street in the late ‘60s.

The ethics of recounting such horrific details is something Netzband mulled over before including this story on his tour. “I grappled with, ‘Did I wanna include this?’” he says. “I told their story because I really believe that you’re not truly dead until you’re forgotten. So I don’t want [that to happen to] these women, who suffered from the hands of these killers. Some didn’t even get justice. … I really grappled with it, but I’m happy I did, because I think I’m letting these women’s story be told.”

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That’s a common refrain among true crime fans — that telling victims’ stories may bring about justice. But some critics take issue with podcasts and Netflix specials profiting from the worst moments of a person’s life, no matter how long ago they lived. While ghost tours are, at heart, built on such a thing, this crop of guides is updating the local folklore canon with a newfound studiousness and sensitivity — an approach that, considering our history of being socially ahead of the curve, feels very San Franciscan.

“You know, you become very empathic in this line of work,” says Netzband. “Hopefully I’ll change peoples’ perceptions on ghosts. That is my goal.”

The Haunt offers ghost tours daily. San Francisco Ghost Hunt‘s tours take place Tuesdays-Sundays, with a special VIP magic experience happening Oct. 28-31. The Haunted Haight Pub Crawl takes place Oct. 27-31, with new tours coming soon.

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