by Kathy Mitchell
Don’t let the name—or the fact that it takes place in an antebellum Southern mansion setting—mislead you, Stone Mountain’s A Tour of Southern Ghosts isn’t a haunted house experience. It’s a storytelling festival that showcases ghost stories from across the South.
The event, an annual fundraiser for Stone Mountain’s ART Station, celebrates its 25th anniversary with what ART Station President and Art Director David Thomas said should be one of the event’s best years ever. During a 12-day period leading into Halloween, visitors go on a guided lantern-lit “tour of yesteryear vividly brought to life through the grand tradition of Southern storytelling” inside the mansion in Stone Mountain Park.
“Some of our top storytellers—favorites with our regular visitors—will be here for the landmark anniversary,” said Thomas, one of the not-for-profit, contemporary arts center’s founders. He said that there are people, including some who travel long distances, for whom the event is an annual tradition.
Although it’s billed as a family event, Thomas estimates that 75 percent of those taking the tour are adults. He said it would be impossible to describe a “typical” visitor. Families, couples on dates, people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds come for the tour, Thomas said.
There’s a new button produced each year and some visitors like to collect them. Tour of Southern Ghosts veterans know the answer to the question that’s always asked, “What does a Southern ghost say?” The right response is “Boo, y’all.”
The professional storytellers come from across the South and represent a number of traditions, including Appalachian, Native American and African American. Each evening there are six storytellers. “Each story takes the same amount of time, so that when visitors finish at one location, they can move on to the next and the storyteller there will be ready for them,” Thomas explained.
During the 12-day event, some storytellers rotate, but David Hirt, whom Thomas describes as “a huge hit” is there every night. Other favorites include Tom Coleman and David Moreland, who presents the Confederate side of the tour, according to Thomas.
The stories, Thomas said, are drawn from real-life legends. “They are built from fragments—stories that more than one person tells of having seen the same ghost. Then we create a story around them.” He added that the tales aren’t too scary even for young visitors. “Most of them are funny.”
Thomas said that although visitors come by the thousands from all over the world—this year 15,000 are expected—they move through in small groups and “it feels like an intimate experience.”
He said that as of Oct. 18 more than 2,000 people had taken the tour this year. “We’ve been lucky to have good weather. Last year it rained just about the entire two weeks. We lost money last year, but that’s unusual,” Thomas said, explaining that the storytellers and “lots of people working behind the scenes” must be paid no matter how few visitors come.
Visitors can complete their evening of fall family fun with cookies and hot chocolate and a visit to the “whacky graveyard,” where tombstones have such inscriptions as “I told you I was sick.” That was actually taken off a tombstone in a Key West cemetery, Thomas said.
Thomas said that many people thank him, not for making the ghostly experience available, but for keep the South’s oral story traditions alive.
A Tour of Southern Ghosts is held at Stone Mountain Park’s Antebellum Plantation Thursdays through Sundays, through Oct. 31 and starts at 7 p.m. each evening with tours starting every 10 minutes. Tickets—$14 for adults and $6 for children 12 and younger—may be purchased nightly at the box office of the Antebellum Plantation beginning at 6:45 p.m. or in advance at ART Station or online at www.artstation.org.