Nicole Sitnick leads a ghost tour for Maryland History Tours. The company is hoping for its best ‘Ghostober’ in years. (Rissa Miller photo)

Ed Lilley swears that they’re out there. And there are plenty of ’em, too.

Ghosts, that is.

Before anyone says that the only reason Lilley’s so certain is because he owns Maryland History Tours and that “about 70%” of his business is derived from ghost tours … well, that’s not why.

“I’ve had many experiences in Ellicott City that have convinced me something is going on,” he said, “at the B&O Railroad Museum, the Patapsco Female Institute and the Howard County Tourism office,” where he worked for 13 years. “I know it.”

But that’s not the only place he’s “seen” them. He said they can also be found ghosting around at Savage Mill, where he just took over the tours, which he runs from April through November.

“Julie Eurice (who handles marketing at the Mill) asked me last spring to start running the tours at the Mill, where they’d been handling them in-house,” said Lilley. “As of now, there’s just one tour every Friday and Saturday evening, but I absolutely see an opportunity to grow the business there.”

Steady market

The ghost tours started for Lilley when he worked at HCT prior to 2013. Eventually, their popularity grew and by 2017, it was to the point the HCT couldn’t give that segment of the market the needed attention, according to Amanda Hof, executive director. That’s when Lilley, who was at that point associated with the Howard County Historical Society, stepped back in. In 2020, he took the tours over under his own umbrella.

With the addition of Savage Mill tours, he’s hoping for his best ‘Ghostober’ in years, during the annual and obvious fall spike. “Last year we had 29 ghost tours during October,” he said, adding that it’s usually “about eight per month the rest of the year.”

While his hope is always for a repeat of that one fantastic day when the tours were still at HCT when “we had 13 tours on a Friday the 13th,” Lilley said overall, the market “is strong and steady. We actually weathered the COVID-19 shutdown fairly well because many of our tours occur outdoors, so we offered a safe option.”

The ghost tour scene is also alive (pardon the pun) and well in Annapolis, where most are conducted by Watermark, Annapolis Tours & Crawls and Haunted Harbor Tours. Jaclyn Fenton, the new assistant director of marketing and communications for Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County, said the organization is seeing growth in the market.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’re seeing an uptick in this type of participation-type event. We promote that market every month, since we have so many historic buildings here,” said Fenton, who added, “We always joke that we have a ghost at our visitor’s center, which was built in the 1700s.”

She “wouldn’t be surprised if the market grows,” she said, “and we’d love to see more companies create opportunities for us to promote ghost tours.”

The difference

Creating opportunities in smaller markets has been the specialty of Mindie Burgoyne, author of a series of books on The Haunted Eastern Shore. She owns Chesapeake Ghosts and said her company has sold “tens of thousands” of tickets throughout that region of Maryland.

Burgoyne said that there can be a problem with ghost tours. “People watch the various TV shows that concern paranormal experiences,” she said, “but those programs are not typically designed to find a ghost. That can lead them to have different expectations.”

She also spoke of the ins and outs of the business, including training and managing competent guides, managing ticketing, insurance, marketing, etc. “In this business, social media is important,” she said. “People are on their phones.”

’Tis the season

As for tickets on the west side of the Bay Bridge, visitors to Historic Ellicott City or Savage Mill, for instance, can expect to pay $20 per ticket, with $5 off for seniors, students and military; it’s the same deal for groups of 10.

Today, Lilley is ready for another peak season of keeping an eye out for supposedly absent friends who might just be up to the unexpected ― or maybe expected after all ― visitors who may suddenly move a book, make a noise or leave the scent of cigars and perfume.

As for his own afterlife, he “doesn’t plan to upset anyone,” but since he’s traced his family in Ellicott City all the way back to 1859, he may well stick around, too. “After I die, if I can come back here as a ghost,” he said, “I will.”

If so he, like many of his current afterlife business partners, will play it pretty straight. “Ninety-nine percent of the stories we share don’t have anything that sinister to them,” he said. “At least not now.

“And hopefully,” said Lilley, “they never will.”