Saturday night's snowstorm didn't deter aficiondos of the paranormal from attending a conference at the supposedly haunted Houghton Mansion. These Mysterious Hills columnist and iBerkshires writer Joe Durwin gave a talk on tapping into a new kind of tourism for the region.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — I gave a talk over the weekend at a paranormal conference at the Houghton Mansion, the ostensibly haunted home of North Adams' first mayor, and of the Berkshire Paranormal Group.
I couldn't help but notice the number of out-of-state plates that had come for the conference, despite the anticipated deluge of snow which began just as I began my lecture, and it got me to thinking about a new theme becoming more prevalent in this area.
This weekend marked the seventh anniversary of These Mysterious Hills, and my ongoing coverage of the "weird" beat in the Berkshires, which has since sprawled out across the column inches of the Advocate Weekly, North Adams Transcript, Haunted Times, Fate Magazine and iBerkshires.com. (More below)
Around the same time, Josh Mantello, his dad Nick, and others in the Masonic lodge that occupies Mayor Houghton's old house, began to get interested in the stories of odd occurrences that had clung to the place for years. Just a little over six years ago, they held their first paranormal-themed conference event in this old Church Street manor house.
In the intervening years, I've watched as the interest in all things haunted has grown exponentially in the Berkshires. Over the past few years, the Houghton place, The Mount, Bucksteep Manor, Whistler's Inn, New Boston Inn, and most recently Ventfort Hall have all been featured on nationally-watched paranormal TV shows, most notably SyFy's "Ghost Hunters." In 2009, the WGBY documentary special "Things That Go Bump in the Night," although about hauntings throughout New England, devoted at least a quarter of its time just to the Berkshires.
The Mount and Ventfort Hall, like the Houghton Mansion, have particularly embraced this attention, even hosting events capitalizing on their spooky legacy to bring in more visitors. Friends in the lodging business here in the Berkshires tell me that there has been a rise in guests staying with them exclusively for the purpose of enjoying their haunted history, in some cases with a little light informal ghost-hunting.
All of which begs the question, when will the Berkshires begin to fully embrace this aspect of its built-in appeal? As seen around the world, this kind of newly emerging "para-tourism" is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel business. In hubs like Salem, where as much as a quarter to a third of their tourism can come in October alone, spooky ambiance and ghostly thrill-seeking have long been established, but this industry is also growing into the multimillions in places like Boston and Savannah, Ga.
Ventfort Hall in Lenox is capitalizing on the spook tour. This month it held several haunting events, including a presentation on the findings of Chicopee Paranormal's investigation of the Gilded Age mansion.
As has been demonstrated repeatedly, the Berkshires are thick with such history. I've often claimed boldy that there are more known tales of haunted places in Berkshire County than in any other equivalent population or size area in the country, and until someone is willing to challenge me to a line item comparison I stand by that claim.
Moreover, our haunted history is already particularly ripe for tourism.
We have the haunted lodging: Cranwell, Red Lion Inn, Seven Hills Inn, Whistler's Inn, New Boston Inn, Bucksteep Manor. And while we've lost such be-spooked B&Bs as Card Lake Inn and the Thaddeus Clapp House to closings, new ones are being added to the legend list all the time. Even Pittsfield's Crowne Plaza shows sign of spectral happenings, if stories I will retell in an upcoming installment of These Mysterious Hills are to be believed.
We have the haunted culturals: aside from the aforementioned Mount and Ventfort, there's Barrington Stage, the Colonial Theatre, Hancock Shaker Village, both Highwood Manor and Seranak at Tanglewood, all said to have ghostly loiterers.
For those seeking the outdoors experience, there's the ghoulish October Mountain, the Old Coot clinging to the base of Greylock, the lost Mahican lovers Shoonkeek and Moonkeek paddling their ethereal canoe across Pontoosuc lake.
And while, legally speaking, visitors are not allowed to go within the privately owned Hoosac Tunnel, there's a fantastic little Hoosac Tunnel Museum in North Adams' Western Gateway Heritage Park. The tiny museum is a well-crafted and educational gem that is very often overlooked by tourists and lifelong residents alike.
Oh, and did I mention the Springside House, the city-owned registered Historic Landmark right in the hub of Pittsfield's 200-acre wonderland of natural beauty, Springside Park? With accounts of disturbing unexplainables stretching from more than a century ago to within the last few weeks, that site may be the most spook-a-licious of them all.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with the Berkshire Visitors Bureau about what could be done to advance some coordinated marketing efforts to take our proper place in this growing industry of para-tourism. While the Bureau seemed quite receptive, the state's elimination of all funding to regional tourism efforts followed soon after, severely hampering its capacity and resources.
As we continue in a struggling national economy in a county where every major community is now vying for a place at the table of Tourism Dollars, it is almost inevitable that there will be a more active boom in this area as more and more businesses and organizations see the potential in it, as some now have. I predict that over the next few years a whole new crop of visitors, one that makes travel plans largely independent of season or weather, will begin to become increasingly seen in these parts. In future autumn seasons such as this one, the hit we take in lost "leaf-peepers," may soon find itself replaced by the surge in "ghost-peepers."
Don't say I didn't warn you.
*Postscript: Reflecting on these 7 years of covering the weird here, it is crucial to note that this is the first Halloween we celebrate in the Berkshires without Glenn Drohan, of the North Adams Transcript and formerly my editor at the Advocate Weekly, here among us. It was Glenn who ran my first overly long, mad rambling of a feature those 7 Halloweens ago, and it was Glenn whose insight that you couldn't seem to swing a dead cat in the Berkshires without hitting a good ghost yarn, eventually lead him to talk me into starting a regular column devoted to our local mysteriousness. This whole ongoing bizarre journey is thanks to him, just one more reason he will be sorely missed in these hills.
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While I welcome public interest in the paranormal and recognize the need for a new form of local economic growth, I worry that tourist interest in paranormal sites may hinder the efforts of paranormal investigators. I know that in many "haunted" locations the beings that may be there will not make their presence known if there are too many people around as they are not a "circus act" and should not be treated as one.