The South Carolina State Museum hosted guided tours themed around frightening and macabre stories from the state’s history throughout October.
On Saturdays this fall, museum attendees were given the opportunity to hear from expert educators about local folklore and historic tragedies, as well as ghost stories and mysteries. JoAnn Zeise, the Cultural History Curator for the museum, said she wanted to ensure a healthy balance between fact and fiction.
"We're telling legends and ghost stories and that kind of thing, so that stretches my little historian's mind a little bit," Zeise said. "But they get away with it by saying 'as legend states' ... They get a little extra latitude on the floors this time of year."
In addition to the guided tours, informational signboards recounting urban legends or giving more background about certain exhibits’ dark history were spread out across the museum floor. Many boards included QR codes that visitors could scan to watch videos or read articles about the exhibits.
The South Carolina State Museum, which opened in 1988, houses exhibits that cover South Carolina's history from a variety of perspectives, including art, culture, technology and natural history.
This is the second year the museum has hosted their Dark History tour event. In past years, the museum had hosted 'ghost tours' for Halloween, but last year the museum staff realized that most of the stories told on these tours had no historical or cultural basis, according to museum education assistant Hayden Blakeney. As a result, Blakeney and the rest of the museum educators were tasked with rewriting the tour.
One of the most difficult parts of creating the tour was the Gullah Geechee exhibit, which featured folk tales from the Lowcountry Creole culture, according to Blakeney. The stop required extra care to make sure that it was properly respectful of the culture’s heritage, Blakeney said. Much of Gullah Geechee folklore is based on oral tradition, which made it difficult for the museum to find sources for the people's cultural stories.
Although they did not speak directly with Gullah Geechee people, Blakeney said that the museum got information from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal-era public works agency that was axed in 1943 that had recorded stories from former enslaved persons.
The first stop on the tour showcased articles from various funerary traditions in American history. While this may have been the first official stop on the tour, Blakeney said that the tour really began before one even entered the museum.
“Columbia really is the first stop of the tour,” Blakeney said. “There's so much history just within our city, just outside our city, that is open and free to explore. And you might have to do a little digging to find it, but … I always encourage people because it adds so much character to the place we live.”
Most of the guided tour focused on more verifiable historical and cultural events, but other stops on the self-guided tour informed attendees on supernatural stories. David Dickson, the Public Relations Manager of the museum, described one example: the story of the Gray Man, a ghostly figure who is said to be seen before every major hurricane.
The staff who give the guided tours occasionally lean into the theatrics of the tour. Last year, the museum led a Friday night tour with the lights turned out and the staff dressed up in costume. When the tour came to a replica of the submarine H.L. Hunley, Blakeney stepped on a switch on the floor which made the mannequins within the submarine move around and the submarine’s horn blow, getting a jump out of one or two visitors.
Interactive elements of the tours offer a way for the museum staff to blend entertainment with education, according to Zeise. She said one of her guiding principles in her job at the museum is to evoke wonder.
“You see something wonderful and it excites your senses,” Zeise said. “As well as the idea of ‘I wonder more about it.’ So hopefully, the information presented also guides you into doing some research or learning more.”
The Dark History tours continue this Saturday Oct. 29 at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Self-guided tours are available daily until the end of October. General admission tickets, which include the Dark History Tour, can be purchased here.