Halloween in the Haunted City: Celebrating the Spooky Season in Charleston

With hundreds of years of history including disasters, war, disease, and murder, it’s no wonder that Charleston ranks high on the lists of most haunted cities in America. The beautiful historic city is home to ancient moonlit graveyards and houses replete with legends of undead residents, along with plenty of macabre events in its storied past.  Visitors and locals who want to connect with the city’s dark history have no shortage of excellent ghost tours to choose from, and those who prefer less scary fall fun can stroll past historic houses decked in fall finery, or visit the pumpkin patches and fall festivals of the Lowcountry. In this blog, we’ll share Charleston’s Halloween history, a few favorite ghosts, and ways for the living to enjoy the spooky season.

Charleston’s Halloween History

Though an ancient feast day or holiday dating back to Celtic times, Halloween eventually became part of the Christian calendar as a day to remember the dead, followed by All Saint’s Day on November 1st.

31 October 1894 Charleston News and Courier article explains Hallowen to local readers.

The Scots and Irish celebrated Halloween and eventually it made its way to the United States, and to Charleston.  Locally, the St. Andrews Society were the first to acknowledge Halloween, holding their meetings on October 31st.  Local Halloween traditions in the nineteenth century included bobbing for apples, and Trick or Treating (a northern phenomenon first) caught on the by the 1940s. Newspapers from that era describe trick or treat parades at Park Circle in North Charleston and downtown, and costume contests at Moultrie playground, where witches and superman were some of the most popular outfits.

A turn of the century Halloween card from the Charleston Archive’s collections at Charleston County Public Library.
Halloween candy advertised for sale in a 1960 Charleston Evening Post newspaper.

Hauntings in the “Holy City”

The Battery Carriage House in at 20 South Battery is a magnificent antebellum mansion featuring elegant Victorian era updates.  Located across from White Point Garden, the hotel has some of the most beautiful views of the city, which also belie a darker era. White Point was an active Confederate battery during the Civil War, and the house and surrounding waterfront buildings were subjected to the longest siege in American history as the Union shelled the civilians of Charleston. Legend states that the ghost of a soldier still visits the Inn.

The Battery Carriage House Inn. Library of Congress.

According to the Post and Courier, “perhaps Charleston’s most notorious ghost tale involves America’s first female serial killer, who was also the first white woman to be hanged in South Carolina. Lavinia Fisher, born in 1793, and her husband, John Fisher, were convicted of highway robbery, not murder, though still a capital offense at the time. Yet legend has it that she killed many travelers who stayed at The Six Mile Wayfarer House, the Fisher’s residence and a hotel in Charleston. Local sheriff reports include the disappearances of guests at that very residence.” There are several different gruesome versions of the Fishers’ exploits, but they were held Charleston’s most haunted building before their execution, the Old District Jail, discussed below.

Another female ghost, infamous pirate Anne Bonny, is said to haunt the Old Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street. The magazine is the oldest public building in the state (1713), longstanding by the time Bonny arrived in the city in the 1730s, and local legend states that she operated a business out of the magazine and still inhabits the space.

Graveyards and Cemeteries

Charleston has hundreds of churches and religious buildings, and nearly as many burial grounds that tell the stories of the congregants and life in Charleston in the past.  Circular Congregational Church has the oldest headstone in the city, dating to the 1690s, plus an array of colonial markers of slate with portraits of the deceased carved onto them, and Greek Revival marble tombs. Several bear the scars of Civil War damage where they were hit with shells during the Union siege in 1863.

Circular Church graveyard.

St. Philip’s graveyard and cemetery right next door on Church Street holds the remains of Charles Pinckney (signer of the Constitution), Edward Rutledge (signer of the Declaration of Independence), and famous Charleston Renaissance playwright Dubose Heyward. St. Michael’s Churchyard at the intersection of Meeting and Broad Street is also a resting place for several founding fathers, while the Unitarian Churchyard on Archdale Street is popular for its romantic, natural landscaping.  Magnolia Cemetery is just three miles from the city center and boasts acres of headstones, mausoleums, monuments, and tombs dating from 1850 onward.  There are too many southern gothic cemeteries in Charleston to cover here, but visit this article to learn about several more: https://charlestonempireproperties.com/exploring-charlestons-graveyards-and-cemeteries-history-for-the-halloween-season/.

The Vanderhorst family tomb at Magnolia Cemetery.

Most of Charleston’s burial grounds are open to the public, but we recommend taking Walk and Talk Charleston’s excellent “Resting in Pieces” tour for an inside look at the city’s most storied graveyards: https://www.walkandtalkchs.com

Ghost Tours

Old South Carriage (https://oldsouthcarriage.com/carriage-tours/haunted-carriage-tour/) offers evening haunted carriage rides past Circular Congregational graveyard and the Old Exchange, through the heart of the commercial historic district.  Drag queen Kira Lee hosts a spooky tour “without all that walking- not in these heels” through the new Death is a Drag experience (https://charlestonculinarytours.com/food-tours/death-is-a-drag/) where Kira dishes R rated true Charleston ghost and horror stories over desserts and spooky themed cocktails.  Both of these tours are available to book year-round, not just at Halloween.

A horse and carriage on a dark and spooky Charleston evening, from Old South Carriage’s website.

The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is open during the day year round and is an important National Historic Landmark, where George Washington was entertained on his southern tour and where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in Charleston.  Their website (https://www.oldexchange.org)  explains, “during the American Revolution, British forces converted the bottom floor of the Exchange into a military prison known as the Provost or “dungeon.” American prisoners of war, British soldiers, private citizens, and enslaved people all endured its harsh confines”, and many people believe the building is haunted. Isaac Hayne, a Patriot martyr who was executed by the British for his support of the American cause, was imprisoned in the building before he was hanged. Click here to purchase a night time ghost tour of the Old Exchange: https://www.bulldogtours.com/tours/charleston-ghost-and-dungeon-tour/5

The dungeon of the Old Exchange, from their Instagram page.

Several companies offer evening walking tours that take guests down haunted alleys and past cemeteries as entertaining guides share stories of Charleston’s deceased residents.  The Ghosts of Charleston tour, which leaves nightly from Buxton Books on King Street, is one of the longest running ghost tour companies. https://www.buxtonbooks.com/ghosts-of-charleston.). Principal guide Julian Buxton is also the author of the very popular Ghosts of Charleston book, which is available for purchase at the book shop.

Buxton’s festive Halloween display, from their Instagram page

Pumpkin Patches and Fall Fun

Boone Hall Plantation has a pumpkin patch suitable for all ages, and the historic site has legends of the ghost of a Civil War soldier who roams the fields looking for fallen comrades.  The historic plantation is a perfect setting for a pumpkin patch festival (tickets required) running on weekends for the whole month of October that includes the patch, a corn maze, petting zoo, tractor tours, face painting, pony rides, and food trucks.  Boone Hall also hosts “Fright Nights”, a gory haunted house of horrors experience: https://boonehallfrightnights.com.

A pumpkin and gourd display from Boone Hall’s Instagram page.

The Dreaming Farm pumpkin patch on Camp Road is a free experience with home grown pumpkins and gourds for sale, and a gift shop with cider and other fall treats: https://dreamingfarms.com/pumpkin-patch Legare Farms patch on Johns Island is just $5 per car and visitors can by pumpkins, sign up for hay and horse rides, and purchase fall snacks. There’s also the Hibben Patch in Mount Pleasant on Coleman Boulevard, which is also a free experience.

Local children trick or treat in the historic city core, but there are loads of planned trick or treat experiences for visiting kids, or parents who prefer a more contained candy gathering trek.  For example, Charleston Museum hosts a Trick or Treat Halloween Party with crafts, snacks, and a trick or treat Halloween trail through the museum. Get your tickers here: https://charlestonguru.com/event/halloween-party-trick-or-treat-at-the-museum/#:~:text=The%20Halloween%20Party%3A%20Trick%20or,be%20accompanied%20by%20an%20adult.

The grownups might prefer the various pub themed Halloween events in town. Back by popular demand, East Bay Biergarten is hosting multiple nights of their Annual Halloween Bar Crawl: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/halloween-bar-crawl-charleston-fri-sat-6th-annual-tickets-474352700697. They also have a family friendly event, Hallowsfest Fall Festival, where “attendees can enjoy a family and dog friendly event with a petting zoo, jump castle, pumpkin carving, drink specials, live music, and more.”  Royal American is holding a Boogieman Halloween Festival with spooky themed drinks and fifteen bands playing on two stages.  Mercantile and Mash in the cigar factory has expert designed fall themed cocktails on tap for the season, and they’re offering a spooky macaroons baking class: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/spooky-macarons-class-tickets-706100815547

Mercantile and Mash’s fall themed décor.

The Old District Jail- Charleston’s Most Haunted Buildings

The Old District Jail, often called the Old City Jail, has a storied and dark history. The building was constructed in 1802 and operated until 1939 with very few updates.  Prisoners were crammed into dark rooms with no heat, or air conditioning, nor electricity and running water.  Even a few months in the building was considered a death sentence due to the terrible conditions. Union soldiers during the Civil War, petty criminals of both sexes, prostitutes, murderers awaiting trail, and even children were imprisoned in the jail.  The four-acre site surrounding the jail has an equally dark past: a lunatic asylum and workhouse where enslaved people were incarcerated and punished sat next door, and before these nineteenth century buildings were erected, the property was a pauper’s graveyard with thousands of interments.  To learn more about the graveyard, check out this free podcast: https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/forgotten-dead-charlestons-public-cemeteries-1672-1794  The jail, with its crenellated roofline and Romanesque Revival windows with iron bars to keep prisoners in, has just reopened after a several year renovation. Bulldog Tours has exclusive access and is the only company to offer haunted jail tours, year-round, where visitors hear about famous inmates, ghosts, and Lavinia Fisher, arguably the first female serial killer in the United States, and get behind the scenes into the building and its haunted cells. Click here to learn more and book: https://www.bulldogtours.com/tours/charleston-haunted-jail-tour/3

The newly reopened Old Jail.