As a child, I was mildly afraid of a lot of things—dark basements, mean dogs, the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys—so it’s always a bit difficult for me to think of one thing that scared me, or at least one thing that has a decent story behind it. Then I remember the time my mother and grandmother dragged me on a ghost tour in Gettysburg, PA when I was about ten years old.
We hadn’t even meant to go to Gettysburg; we were taking a trip to some other minor attraction in the area, we stayed later than we anticipated, and we decided to spend the night at the first open hotel we found. This was the Colton Motel, a small place with a good downtown location that I’m sure I didn’t appreciate at the time. The main point was that it was late, the other hotels we checked were booked, and the Colton had an available room. Score.
However, apparently it wasn’t late enough because my mother and grandmother still wanted to do some exploring, but the only tourist attractions open after about 5:00 in Gettysburg are the ghost tours. (And the number of these have only proliferated in the years since my first visit there.) Against my pleas and protests, my stubborn insistence that I did not want to go, they bought three tickets. Soon found myself walking past quiet graves and dark buildings, trying desperately to avoid looking anywhere the guide said might be haunted and clutching my ponytail tightly as he told a story about dead soldiers fascinated by playing with girls’ long hair.
Then the worst possible thing happened. We stopped in the parking lot of the Colton Motel, and the guide asked who was staying there. (Being private people, no one in my family actually raised their hands, and no one else in the group did either.) “Good, good,” the guide said, “This is one of the most haunted places in the city.” (I seriously considered clamping my hands over my ears so I wouldn’t have to find out why.) “The manager has often seen lines of soldiers marching through the parking lot, off to their positions in the battle. Mists and the sounds of horses and stamping feet fill the air and time seems to stop.” I wished we had found a room literally anywhere else.
The tour ended soon after that and, suitably terrified, I jumped into a shared bed with my grandmother and covered my head with a blanket. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed. I turned. I held a brief conversation with my grandmother who noticed my distress. I never took the blanket off my head, since everyone knows that blankets are strong protection against anything ghostly that might happen. Eventually, night passed, and I was hoping to hightail it out of Gettysburg.
My mother and grandmother had developed a sudden interest in American Civil War history, however, and insisted we go to the museum in the Visitor’s Center before we left. We looked at the exhibits of weapons and medical supplies and journals and various other artifacts, but when we entered a room full of Civil War uniforms, my grandmother looked startled and drew my mother aside.
Realizing that two grown-ups were trying to have a secret conversation without me, I, of course, hovered and tried to look fascinated by the nearest display. “I didn’t want to tell Briana,” my grandmother whispered, “but I woke up the middle of the night and I felt something in the room. So I looked at the bottom of the bed, and there was a solider standing there wearing a uniform like this one.”
That was not what I was expecting to hear. The idea that there had been a ghost at the foot of my bed, and I didn’t see it only because I’d stubbornly refused to look anywhere about the room for several hours was terrifying. I wasn’t even sure my grandmother believed in ghosts, but she seemed convinced by her own story and looked surprised to see a similar uniform in the museum. (Sadly, I don’t remember what uniform it was, though I believe it was Confederate.) I don’t think I slept for the next week.
This trip also seemed to awaken an interest in ghost stories for my mother, however, and this would be only the first of many ghost tours I would end up going on in various cities. I’ve become less scared because…well, partially because I’ve been on so many of these tours now, but also because some of the stories are pretty good, and you can actually learn a lot of history by listening to them. I also really like visiting Gettysburg, but I have no plans to stay at the Colton Motel ever again. If I’m ever in a situation where it’s the only place open again, I’m going to keep on driving.