A Scaredy Cat’s Guide to Ghosts in Downtown St. Augustine

I am ghost repellent, I thought reassuringly. The screen on my laptop was open to a ticket booking page that was offering me extra creepy amenities to add onto an already creepy tour that would be taking place later in the night. “Should I rent the EMF meter to see if there are any ghosts near us while we walk the streets?” I said it in that skeptical voice with the scrunched up nose which hopefully suggests no, we shouldn’t.

“Yea! Let’s do it!” My twelve-year-old niece said excitedly. I let out a remorseful sigh as I clicked the button.

Ghost tours and I have never quite meshed. My niece—being my complete opposite—finds excitement in fear. As a certifiable scaredy cat, that concept has never made any sense to me. Nevertheless, my niece comes to visit me every summer, and every summer we have a tradition that gives me nightmares that linger for a week or so afterward: a ghost tour of downtown St. Augustine.

Last year my niece had a fantastic time communing with ghosts (as I hung on as a pale, anxious looking bystander) at the A Ghostly Encounter tour. The tour could be described as fun or traumatizing, depending on whether you are talking to a normal person like my niece, or a scaredy cat like…well, me. Naturally, I signed us up for it again.


Just Repeat After Me: I Am Ghost Repellent

“Hurry! We don’t want to miss it!” My niece said as we scampered through the eerily quiet streets of downtown at dusk on a Monday night.

Summer nights have an allure to them that I think heralds back to childhood. Very few of us did not experience the fun of strolling around our neighborhoods during summer break, reluctantly making our way back home just before the street lights turned on. Venus would hang bright in a sky that was rapidly fading to a pale blue, and the wind would gently brush against our faces like it was ushering us onto whatever adventures there might be. Cicadas sang in the trees in all directions, seeming to call out the night is young. Summer nights are appealing like that.

The night is young, I thought dryly. Or dead.

We arrived at the check-in window with a minute to spare. The man behind it seemed to grasp that the twelve-year-old was in charge, so he began giving her the instructions on the freaky ghost detection gadget I had reluctantly rented. He was saying something along the lines of “an orange light means wires in buildings, a red light means a ghost.”

We joined the crowd to meet our host. A chipper lady named Morganne stood before us, slight in stature, but looking to be fearless in the face of the dead. I didn’t see any sign of Ghostbuster-like gear for protection of her guests, so she offered me no solace.  I glanced at my niece, who was already holding out her ghost detection machine hopefully.

A Little Louder Please: I Am Ghost Repellent!

A full moon hung over the Castillo de San Marcos as we made our way to the side next to the bay, where we were told possibly the creepiest story I have heard to date—and you should know that I have managed to survive approximately four of these ghost tours.

We were then brought to a small wall covered with violent looking holes that extended up the wall to about the height of a man, should one be standing there. I had seen it many times over the years, but never before realized it was the executioner’s wall. My niece enthusiastically thrust her little gadget forward, running it the length of the gruesome place. I waited with strained face for that red light to flicker, but nothing. My niece shrugged and we carried on.

“We won’t see a single thing tonight, because I’m too afraid of it all. That’s the way this works I think—I have a repelling force around me,” I told my niece.

“No,” she shook her head like I was so uneducated. “Ghosts feed on fear.” I gave her a wide-eyed look and she chuckled.


We wondered up and down the sleepy streets of St. Augustine. It wasn’t too difficult to visualize yourself back a few hundred years—just black out the occasional car or the hum of tourists—and there you stand in days of old. You know, back when the ghosts were still alive.

Our jovial guide kept a steady stream of stories and personal experiences coming our way, which further solidified my belief in ghosts, and therefore my desire to never see one. Still, the niece perused the old streets with the ghost detector, and still nothing but a green light showed.

“I’m telling you, I am ghost repellent,” I said again.

The friendly man standing in front of us spoke up: “I am a ghost magnet. Something always happens on one of these tours when I am here.”

“Well then we balance each other out,” I belted out with a laugh that was surprisingly not hysterical sounding—I know how to put on a good front. Mentally I was determining how quickly I could put about fifty feet between us and him, just to be on the safe side.

Is This Chanting Even Helping?

Like a cat with its hair standing on end, I soldiered on. I was surprised that most of the stories were ones I hadn’t heard before, except for that old one about St. Augustine’s exploding bishop. Hearing it must be a prerequisite to becoming a St. Augustine resident. I can’t ever make it through that story without a gag, or in this case, three gags.

“Even though the bishop is no longer buried here, some people report smelling rotten flesh when walking past this graveyard,” the guide said. Some minutes later, after the niece had been waving that machine back and forth along the walls of the Tolomoto Cemetery, she stopped. A troubled look passed over her face.

“I smell something,” she said ominously. Standing within six inches of her, I cast a glance around. I smelled nothing but the vague scent of bug spray and sweat on the tourists standing in front of me. She wrinkled her nose for few moments, but then it seemed to pass.

After that, a very strange thing happened—she thrust the ghost detector at me. She suddenly wasn’t feeling quite so enthusiastic. Something even stranger happened—I thrust that thing along the metal bars of the cemetery gate. But still, there was nothing but a bright green light on our ghost sniffing machine.

Maybe it was the fact that nothing had registered on our gadget up to that point and I was feeling falsely confident, or maybe it was that the enthusiasm of the group was becoming infectious. Either way, I took over the ghost hunting. I bravely shuffled that machine around the coquina walls of the next cemetery, and I carefully inspected the city gates, but to no avail. There simply was no ghost activity. Apparently they were as sleepy on a Monday evening as most of the living residents seemed to be.


It’s Going To Be Okay…Even If I’m Not Ghost Repellent

At the conclusion of our tour the guide doled out dowsing rods to willing participants. Seeming to have regained her courage now that we stood under bright streetlights, my niece accepted the challenge. The guide told the guests that if they knew of someone that had passed away that might be lingering around, they could try to speak to them directly. 

“Should I try to talk to my dad,” she whispered. It occurred to me then that maybe my niece had a motive other than getting a thrill out of a ghostly experience. Maybe it was not just a fascination with the macabre, but an effort to find answers to life’s mysteries. Maybe it is that way for all of us.

“No,” she said, “I’ll just cry.”

Instead she tried to speak to anyone that might be present, but the rods were not enthusiastic. For lack of a better phrase, it was a dead night. Well after the majority of the guests had removed themselves, Morganne stood in her corseted costume telling tales to the couple of stragglers that were still lingering. Ironically, these consisted of my niece and I, as well as the ghost magnet guy that I had been thinking to navigate away from. I didn’t feel quite like keeping my distance then.

So…Are You Ghost Repellent?

We humans acclimate to our fears, just a little bit, over time. In fact, that little bit of acclimation is so important. It lets us look our fears in the face now and again, but also to look at those big questions in life that we are too busy rushing around living to pay any mind to. Ghost tours have a unique way of doing that, and I think Morganne puts on a pretty good show.

I’m still not sure if I am ghost repellent, but I’d better try to catch a nap. Now that our annual ghost tour is done, this scaredy cat is going to be spending a few nights working through those post-tour nightmares. 

So go on then all you scaredy cats out there, check out A Ghostly Encounter.

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