I Don’t Believe in Ghosts. But Ghost Tours Are the Best Way To See a New City.
IN 1955 IN MY hometown of Loveland, Ohio, a traveling salesman was driving out of the Branch Hill neighborhood where I get my coffee every time I go home. It was dark, and he was just crossing over the Little Miami River when he saw three figures. They were about 4 feet tall, and standing on hind legs, but they were not human. They had frog-like faces. The frog was spotted twice more in 1972, both by police officers. And in 2016, two teenagers playing Pokemon Go claimed to have seen the frogman between Loveland-Madeira Road and Lake Isabella — a little stretch of woods that I used to play in as a kid.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a Loveland Frog. Nor is there a sasquatch, nor a Loch Ness Monster, nor a Jersey Devil, nor a Wendigo. Cryptozoology, as it’s called, could have maintained its pseudoscientific facade prior to 2000 or so, but we live in an age of smartphones. If these creatures existed, we’d have pictures of some of them — even one of them now. The fact that those kids were playing Pokemon Go says that they had their cell phones on them. Why not take a picture of the famous Loveland Frog?
But I love the Loveland Frog anyway. It was spotted on a road I take every time I’m back at my parents place. It makes my hometown and childhood stomping grounds weird and otherworldly. It sticks in the imagination, rationality be damned. My friend’s brother even wrote a bluegrass musical called Hot Damn, It’s the Loveland Frog!
The first time I took a ghost tour was back in 2010 around Halloween. I was no longer living in London — I was 20 miles away, in the city of Cincinnati. And I’d heard from my friends that there were walking tours available of the beer tunnels underneath the city’s rundown but beautiful Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I liked beer, and the tunnels had just been featured in local band Walk the Moon’s awesome “Anna Sun” music video.
But the only tour left was a ghost tour. And I just didn’t give a shit about ghosts. I know — with a feeling as close as an agnostic atheist can get to certainty — that ghosts and supernatural creatures aren’t real. I know this because I’ve watched episodes and episodes of shows like Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot: Further Evidence, and I’ve noticed that they never ever find their quarry.
We’d always known Over-the-Rhine as a ghetto, and it had more or less always been one — but in the 1880’s, it was home to a large German population. A canal (now paved over) had cut across the city just north of the downtown, and because there were so many Germans along the canal, Cincinnatians named it the Rhine, giving the neighborhood its name. Germans love their beer, so local brewers built tunnels underneath the streets that could keep their casks cool.
The tour guide took us down into the tunnels and up into old abandoned buildings that were once old bars and dance halls. We heard stories of murders and hauntings and loves lost. And I left knowing my city a little bit better.
Ghost tours and travel
Since then, I’ve made an effort to go on more ghost tours. My wife and I stayed in a haunted hotel in Gettysburg. We took a haunted tour through the French Quarter of New Orleans. We even met in the old haunts of Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel, London. I have not begun to believe in ghosts, but I have learned that ghost tours are my favorite ways to see a new city. The reason is simple: regular tours give you historical facts, tales of the city’s important people, and stories of the cataclysmic events in a city’s history. But ghost tours give you the stories of the regular people at the time. They give you a glimpse into the past.
A story does not have to be factually accurate to tell you something valuable. In New Orleans, between the stories of ghosts and hauntings, we caught glimpses of the actual historical New Orleans: a place that was once overrun by pirates, that has weathered countless hurricanes, storms, and floods, that has survived mass outbreaks of disease, that has survived slavery and brutality and war and even drunken bros.
“Sometimes the only evidence of something historical is the folklore that it leaves behind,” says Aaron Mahnke, creator of the excellent Lore podcast. “It’s like a shadow in a way. It hints that something bigger and more real is there, even if we can’t see it.”
Better still, ghost stories, stories of cryptids and wraiths and shambling things, give you a glimpse into a city’s psyche. It lets you into the collective scars and neuroses of a culture. It puts you at home among other humans in what, with no stories or context, would have just been another strange or boring place.
Hot Damn, I met the Loveland Frog
Here’s what I remember:
It’s 1997. I’m 11, and me and my friend Will are in the woods next to Loveland-Madeira Road. There’s a tunnel under the road that leads to Lake Isabella. We’ve gone through that tunnel many times to go fishing. But a girl who lives up the street tells us that we shouldn’t go down there. Because someone — or something — lives in the tunnel.
We are 11, so this is not a warning to us. It’s a dare. So Will and I scramble down the hill and into the creek bed in front of the tunnel. We shout into the tunnel: “Hey! Anyone in there?” Then we start throwing rocks. We hear them slap-slap-slap-splash over the rocks and into the water. Then Will throws a rock. And we don’t hear a splash. We wait, pause, unsure of whether we just missed something, or if he threw it really far.
And a rock comes whistling out of the blackness of the tunnel, right between our heads. We turn and look at each other, eyes huge, and we scream, sprinting up the hill. We collapse into nervous laughter when we get back to our cul-de-sac.
One of three things happened:
- There was actually a man in there, and he was pissed we were throwing rocks at him.
- Will lied about the story, and he’d actually dropped the rock that whistled past us to make me think that’s what happened. I, wanting to be a full part of the story, revised the memory in my mind to include the rock whistling out of the cave. He had a history of being a fibber, and I was gullible, so this is by far the most likely scenario.
- There was something other than a man in there. Something not quite human.
I know. I did not meet the Loveland Frog. There is no chance I met the Loveland Frog. But hot damn, what if I had? Wouldn’t that make for a great story? Wouldn’t that fill a dull cement tunnel and an empty suburban woods with incredible life and color?