Bonny Florek stood alone in Merchants Square, wearing a long dress, an apron, a little white bonnet and a scarf, as if she had just been teleported from 1776.
The year was 2008, and she had just launched her very own ghost tour in the Historic Area. While her costume was drawing stares from passersby in Merchants Square, her fledgling business was not yet attracting many customers.
“I was standing out there with my costume on, and it always attracted attention because nobody was out in Merchants Square with a costume,” Florek said. “I can remember standing there thinking, ‘Oh I hope I get a couple people tonight.’”
She said she now sees more than 100 people some nights. In 2008, she reported 895 customers patronized her Spooks and Legends Haunted Tours business.
In 2018, Florek and her in-character tour guides, dressed in Colonial Era garb, led more than 8,000 guests through the spookiest nooks and crannies of the Historic Area.
The explosion in popularity for Florek’s tours mirror the emergence of Greater Williamsburg as a capital city for hauntings and fright.
TripAdvisor, a website that carries millions of travel listings worldwide, in 2018 named Williamsburg the fastest-growing city for spooky experiences in the country – and second worldwide, behind only York, U.K.
The number of bookings for ghost tours have increased more than 300 percent in Williamsburg over 2017, according to a TripAdvisor news release. Two of Florek’s tours – The Dead of Night Ghost Tour and Williamsburg Ghosts and Witches Combination Tour – also cracked the top 10 for fastest-growing tours across the U.S. this year.
Ghost tours have “become popular all over the world, but I think that in Williamsburg, because of the rich history in the Historic Area – and of course there’s a lot of stories and conspiracy – there’s all kinds of things that surround the town, so it makes it extra-interesting to have a ghost tour here,” Florek said. “It’s just the feel you get when you go to that town. There’s a lot of buildings that have an eerie feel to them, and the stories back it up and it makes it really a lot of fun.”
Florek’s business is not the only game in town, and she sees a good mix of tourists and locals on her tours. She said each tour, spooky experience and Halloween-themed program complements one another.
Florek added many of her guests come to town for Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream and then join one of her tours during their stay.
“There are folks who, no matter what town they visit, they try to find the best ghost tour and they check it off their list when they’re on vacation,” said Robert Currie, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of entertainment. “There is a full demographic of people who are full ghost hunters and do that in any town.”
Colonial Williamsburg has been offering a ghost tour since 1994, said spokesman Joe Straw. Previously the tour was “Ghosts Among Us,” but in April Colonial Williamsburg announced it would be doing a new tour: Haunted Williamsburg.
The tour provides an evening that combines 18th century ghost tour with stories of chilling modern encounters in the only ghost tour to bring guests inside the Historic Area’s darkened walls.
In 2004 Colonial Williamsburg launched a tour for guests who want a peek into the paranormal by learning about unexplained events and hauntings on Colonial Williamsburg property. A ghost walk designed for children was introduced in 2016.
Currie said Colonial Williamsburg typically sees a 20 percent jump in bookings for their ghost tours in October, with annual growth year-after-year.
Florek said she changes her tours year-to-year, as the introduction of new characters, stops and information drives guests back.
“Everybody does it with a little different slant, a little different approach,” Florek said. “It’s not like if you’ve gone on one (ghost tour) you’ve gone on them all.”
What makes ghost tours so popular in the first place? Currie said they unite participants in a deeper human experience.
“What really gets people about ghost experience, there’s the adrenaline rush of being scared but there’s the mystery of what lies beyond death. All people share that in common,” Currie said. “I think all human beings have that connection, and that wonder and mystery of what lies beyond.”
“Only around this time of Halloween that we really soak in that,” Currie said.
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in 2018. It has been updated.