By Marty Roney, USA TODAY
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In Wilcox County, Ala., it's known as "The Billie Hole," where in antebellum times, a female slave is reputed to have jumped into a wooded pool because she didn't want to be sold.
Stories abound that on nights of the full moon, Billie can be seen to rise up out of the hole wearing a long white dress.
Officials in Alabama's historic Black Belt region hope that story and others like it will make tourism rise as well. In an effort to cash in on the history of things that may or may not go bump in the night, city officials here and across the USA are increasingly turning to ghost tales and trails to boost tourism.
The Southwest Alabama Regional Tourism and Film Office is working to establish a ghost trail stretching through the 18 counties that make a swath through the middle of the state starting this summer. Named for its rich black prairie soil, the Black Belt was where cotton was king before and after the Civil War. "The Black Belt is rich in the history and culture of the Scots-Irish settlers and the African Americans who toiled as slaves," says Linda Vice, of the tourism office. "Both cultures valued story telling as a way to preserve their history, and both cultures understood the concept of second sight and a spirit world. So we have plenty of stories of ghosts and 'haints' to chose from for our trail."
Tourism is big business in Alabama. In 2008 it generated an economic impact of $9.6 billion, according to Edith Parten, communications director for the Alabama Board of Tourism. Last year there were about 22 million people who visited the state, she said.
While there are no national statistics on the subject, paranormal tourism is becoming increasingly popular in communities across the country are taking advantage of haunting pieces of folklore and legend to bring in business, tourism officials say.
•Richmond, Va.: Demand from visitors was so high this year another tour was added to the May through October Haunts of Richmond schedule, says Sandi Bergman, who started the company with her husband, Scott in 2004.
•Cape Fear area of North Carolina: The city of Wilmington has nightly ghost walks that travel through the 275-year-old alleys and streets of the port city. This year an additional two routes are being added to the ghost walks, says Connie Nelson, communications and public relations director for the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
•Long Beach Island, N.J.: Lantern lit ghost walking tours will return this summer to the Town of Beach Haven, says Maggie M. O'Neill, who started the tours as a way to inform visitors of the town's history. The tours began last year.
•Houston: Discover Houston Tours added cemetery tours this spring, held each Sunday, says Lindsey Brown, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
For most people, the attraction to scary stories is just natural, says Dr. Allen K. Hess, a psychology professor at Auburn University Montgomery.
"If life were all vanilla it wouldn't taste good," he said. " Whether its boredom or curiosity, seeking arousal is part of being human. We are attracted the unknown and a certain element of danger. We are after the thrill being scared provides."
The Black Belt trail is planned to be a self-guided driving affair. The ghost stories will also be told on video that will be posted on a web-site. The trail set to open this summer with stories from Dallas, Perry and Wilcox counties. The effort is gathering stories from each of the counties in the region, which will be added to the tour as work is completed.
The stops include the St. James Hotel on Selma's Water Avenue. Overlooking the muddy waters of the Alabama River, the building's history goes back to 1837. Corner Room 301 is said to be haunted by the outlaw Jesse James. He and his brother, Frank, visited relatives in the area after the Civil War and stayed in the hotel, says William Ezell, the hotel's manager. Jesse James stayed in the room and the light is said to be his ghost looking out the window watching for the law.
"Jesse stayed in that room several times, because it offered good views of the streets around the hotel," Ezell says. "His brother stayed in a separate room in the hotel, so there was always a chance of one of them getting away."
In the Black Belt, it's common for people to be accepting, even welcoming, of spirits seen as benevolent. That's the case with Charles and Jenny Holmes of Marion, a Perry County town about 30 miles northwest of Selma.
In 1978 the Holmes moved an antebellum home about four miles down the road to their farm. The renovated the home and in 1980 they moved in. This year they opened a bed and breakfast in the home. Jenny Holmes says she has seen a mist-like form, wearing a white gown, several times in the front hall.
"I guess when we moved the house, she decided to come along," Jenny Holmes said. "I've never felt any fear or have doubted what I had seen. We have three sons, grown and moved away now. Of course my husband and boys wondered about me when I first told them what I had seen. But my oldest son has seen her too, so we just accept her."
Roney reports for The Montgomery Advertiser.