The 12 Most Convincing Real-Life Ghost Stories

"Real-life ghost stories?" OK, allow us to clarify. Ghosts may, in fact, not be real. Having said that, the following stories comprise some of the most convincing evidence, possibly proving that the spirit world occasionally intermingles with our own. These famous or infamous ghostly encounters include hauntings of famous places, ghosts photographed in creepy haunted houses or cemeteries, curses and folklore, and more.

The fear of ghosts - usually classified as undead souls or spirits who can appear or engage with living people - has been a part of human culture since the beginning, particularly evident in early religious practices, and the notion of ancestor worship was popular among a number of pre-literate human tribes. It's an appealing notion, the idea that death may in fact not be the end of life, and that some shadow or essence of a person is left behind when they die.

Our contemporary idea of a "ghost story" comes largely from the Victorian period in England, when a number of classic authors in the popular tradition of "gothic fiction" wrote stories that informed the way we currently view the afterlife. This includes Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, particularly in its depiction of the tormented Jacob Marley, forced to wander the Earth in chains as penance for a life of greed and avarice, as well as Henry James's Turn of the Screw, where a governess discovers that her two young charges may be possessed by an evil spirit.

Are ghosts real? The following anecdotes and videos purport to reveal contemporary ghosts currently haunting a variety of locations. When possible, I will include information about the debunking of these stories - or at least the skeptical view of what might be actually happening. So read on, if you dare...

  • Tsunami Ghosts in Japanese Cabs

    After the devastating tsunami in 2011, college student Yuka Kudo traveled to Ishinomaki - a town where 6,000 people died - and asked cab drivers if they had had any unusual experiences after the disaster. Most ignored her, but seven cab drivers talked of picking up ghost passengers, and their accounts where eerily similar. According to the drivers, the ghosts (who looked like normal people) would get into their cabs and give their destination, only to disappear without paying the fare.

    One such passenger asked her driver to take her to a district that had been wiped out by the waves. When he told her what it was like there, she asked, "Have I died?" When he turned around to look at her, she was gone.

  • The Bell Witch of Tennessee

    The Bell Witch of Tennessee
    Photo: Brian Stansberry / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    The story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee is one of the more famous true ghost stories in American history. The story inspired several documentaries and a major motion picture, 2005's An American Haunting. It's one of the most well-documented "true" ghost stories ever.

    The story of the Bell Witch first surfaced in the early 1800s, after farmer John Bell and his family moved from North Carolina to the community of Red River, Tennessee, which later became the town of Adams. As Bell amassed more and more land in the area – eventually up to 328 acres – the family started to report a variety of strange encounters. These included finding an animal that appeared to be a hybrid between a dog and a rabbit, a series of apparent hallucinations that included night terrors about rats gnawing away at the family's beds, and eventually a series of faint whispering voices that sounded almost like old women softly singing hymns.

    According to historians, family members later found a vial of an unknown liquid in the house. They gave a dose of the liquid to their cat, who immediately died.

    According to the stories, following the Battle of New Orleans, future president Andrew Jackson came to the Bell Farm to investigate the stories of a haunting, and it was he who dubbed the entity "The Bell Witch."

    By 1820, John Bell had grown ill, and more convinced then ever that the presence in his house wished him ill. It's said that, after Bell's funeral, the ghost could be heard singing and laughing loudly in the graveyard. After Bell's death, save for a few reported encounters during which the entity bid the family "farewell" (what a polite spirit!), the presence seemed to largely disappear from the home.

    Boring Rational Explanation: It was rumored that the ghost had promised to return to Bell's direct descendent in 107 years, which would have been 1935. Though the descendent in question - Dr. Charles Bailey Bell - wrote a book about the "Bell Witch" legend, he never mentioned having an encounter of his own.

    A book called "Our Family Trouble" also exists which was reportedly written by Richard Williams Bell - the second-youngest child of John Bell - in 1846, and includes the only known "eyewitness" account of the Bell Witch. It can currently be found in M.V. Ingram's "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch," though the book provides few sources or citations for any of its information, and thus is not terribly useful as a research tool.

    200 years after the Bell family was terrorized by the sinister Bell Witch, researchers continue to study the story, each offering different theories about the entity. In the film's fictionalized retelling, "An American Haunting," the ghost is 'explained' by arguing that Bell sexually abused his daughter, and her repressed memories of the abuse gave rise to the titular witch.

  • The Lizzie Borden House

    The Lizzie Borden House
    Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Fall River, Massachusetts, was the site of a gruesome murder on August 4, 1892. Andrew and Abby Borden, a wealthy married couple, were killed in their own home. Andrew's body was discovered by his daughter, Lizzie, on the couch in the family's sitting room, while his wife Abby – Lizzie's step-mother – was later found in the locked upstairs guest bedroom. Both had apparently been killed with a hatchet, by blows powerful enough to cleanly split Andrew's left eyeball. Lizzie was arrested in connection with the crime, as a number of circumstantial pieces of evidence pointed to her involvement; though a hatchet was found, no evidence tied it to the actual murders, and no blood evidence was discovered. It was also said that Lizzie may have attempted to poison the family earlier using prussic acid she had purchased, but this as well could not be proved.

    After a prolonged trial, which became something of a national obsession, Lizzie was acquitted. She and her sister Emma moved to a different home in the same town of Fall River and lived under the name Lizbeth Borden, using much of her inheritance to pay off members of Abby's family to avoid lawsuits. She died of pneumonia in 1927. Though it is popularly believed to this day that Borden was the killer, some historians have presented alternate theories, including that the maid, Bridget Sullivan, may have been the one responsible as she was upset about having been asked to clean the home's windows on a hot day.

    Today, the Lizzie Borden home is a bed & breakfast and a museum. It's also thought to be one of the most haunted places in the U.S. Visitors have reported seeing unexplained ghostly apparitions throughout the house.

    Boring Rational Explanation: Numerous videos have captured the strange goings-on, along with audio of a mysterious voice that could be Lizzie's. Much of the supernatural activity is said to center around the room where Abby Borden was slain, with the most common spirit sighting being a woman wearing 19th century clothing who can be seen wandering the halls or even making the beds.

    The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum has even announced plans to install special paranormal investigative cameras, allowing subscribers to watch the cams at all hours.

    A number of skeptics have debunked a variety of urban myths surrounding the Lizzie Borden case in general, and the idea of a supernatural goings-on associated with the Bordens specifically. Many have concluded that the legend has become so essential to the citizens of Fall River, a real solution to the mystery and explanation for the hauntings would ruin all the fun.

  • The Haunting of the Stanley Hotel

    The Haunting of the Stanley Hotel
    Photo: Rominator / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, built in 1909 by Stanley Steamer founder Freelan O. Stanley, is arguably the most famous haunted building in America. While staff and guests at the hotel have reported strange happenings and ghost sightings for decades, the hotel didn't become truly famous until author Stephen King lived at the hotel for a time and reportedly had his own scary ghostly experience (seeing a mysterious figure on the hotel's stairs). This encounter is believed to have inspired King's "The Shining." Even today, the hotel runs the film version of "The Shining" on a continuous loop to guest televisions.

    Among the reported ghost sightings:

    - Staff have reported hearing the sounds of parties going on in the main ballroom. When they investigate, the rooms are empty.
    - Some people claim to have seen ghosts standing at the end of their beds in the middle of the night.
    - Patrons claim to have seen the ghost of Freelan Stanley's wife, a piano player in life, performing on the piano in the lobby.

    The claims have been investigated by a variety of paranormal experts and investigators, including the teams from the Syfy television show "Ghost Hunters" and the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures."

    Boring Rational Explanation: There isn't one solid, reliable rational explanation for all the reported phenomenon at the Stanley (unless you just think everyone - Stephen King included - is simply lying for attention.) During the "Ghost Hunters" taping, the bed was apparently moved and the closet doors unlocked, but no other supernatural phenomenon was witnessed. As well, the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society and the Skeptical Inquirer's "Naked Skeptic" - Karen Stollznow - have looked into the goings-on and claim that some of the experiences seen on "Ghost Hunters" could be explained by raccoons that move about the property and could be making otherworldly noises. There was no way to rationally explain away all of the observed phenomenon, however. 

  • French Quarter Ghosts of the Hotel Monteleone

    If you plan on visiting New Orleans, you should know that it is without question, the most haunted city in America. Ghostly sightings are virtually everywhere throughout the city, particularly in the famed, historic French Quarter. So many hotels claim to be haunted – but one, in particular, boasts a LOT of ghosts: The Hotel Monteleone. Sitting at 214 Royal Street, the hotel is the only high-rise building in the interior of the French Quarter, and has become famous for its rotating carousel bar.

    The hotel dates back to the 1880s, when Sicilian immigrant Antonio Monteleone moved to New Orleans and set up shop on the site as a cobbler. He ended up taking over the nearby hotel and expanding his business, and the enterprise has continued to grow ever since.

    Reported ghostly sightings at the Monteleone are so common it's impossible to write about them all. Several guests have claimed to see and hear ghostly children playing in the hotel's halls (especially on the 14th floor). Additionally, based on the testimony of witnesses, the lobby area is apparently very, very haunted. Like, "Poltergeist" haunted. On many nights, around 8 pm, the doors of the lobby restaurant are said to mysteriously unlock and then close themselves back up. A diverse group of individuals claim to have witnessed this ghostly phenomenon.

    Boring Rational Explanation: According to the hotel's own website, in 2003, the International Society of Paranormal Research investigated and made contact with a man named William Wildemere who had died in the hotel (of natural causes, oddly enough) years before. The team also believed it had made contact with a ghost that enjoyed returning to the hotel regularly in the form of a small boy to meet up with another friend (who of course, was also a ghost.) Their favorite hide-and-seek spot? You guessed it, the 14th floor.

    The mere fact that the hotel itself seems to advertise as "haunted" would give any even mildly skeptical person pause. If unpredictable, wily undead spirits really were roaming the halls, that seems like the sort of thing management would want to keep under wraps. More than likely, this is just another gimmick to appeal to the NOLA tourist crowd, who love a good gothic southern yarn.

  • Chloe and the Myrtles Plantation

    Chloe and the Myrtles Plantation
    Photo: Bogdan Oporowski / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Remaining in Louisiana, we now focus our attention on the 215-year-old Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville. The site was commissioned in 1796 by General David Bradford, nicknamed "Whiskey Dave" because of his participation in the Whiskey Rebellion. You kids remember the Whiskey Rebellion from high school history class, right? RIGHT? Anyway, after Whiskey Dave's passing, the plantation was left to his daughter Sara and her husband, Clark Woodruff, who had been one of his law students.

    Perhaps the most infamous Myrtles ghost is Chloe, said to have been a slave working at the plantation when it was owned by Sara and Clark Woodruff. Depending on the version of the legend, Chloe was either raped or punished for some offense by Clark, resulting in the loss of her ear (where she would from then on cover up with a green wrap or turban.) Chloe then apparently used oleander leaves growing on the plantation to bake a poison cake for Clark, but instead, Sara and both of her daughters ate it and were killed. Chloe, distraught and fearing punishment, then drowned herself in the Mississippi River. Other versions of the story say that the other slaves hung or drowned Chloe as retribution. Today, it is said that a woman in a green turban haunts the grounds.

    It was also customary at the time in the South to cover all the mirrors in a home after the people who lived there die. But this was not done to one mirror in particular in the plantation, and now it is believed the souls of Sara and her daughters are trapped inside. (Some have claimed to see handprints on the mirror where the spirits have tried to escape.)

    According to local legend, the plantation is home to a total of 12 ghosts. Though it's also been said that over 10 murders have happened on the site, the only one that has been verified in the historical record is the death of William Winter. He was shot and killed there in 1871, after being interrupted from teaching a group of children a Sunday school lesson. (His killer went unidentified and unpunished.) According to the legends, after being lured outside and shot by a mysterious rider, Winter then re-entered the house, looking for his wife, and began climbing the central staircase to reach her, making it only to the 17th step before dying. Today, they say, you can still hear his footsteps echoing through the hallway, trying desperately to reach his beloved but never quite making it to her.

    Other rumors point to the plantation as having been built on an Indian burial ground (again, reminiscent of the film "Poltergeist") carrying with it a terrible curse.

    Boring Rational Explanation: First off, the historical record does not support any part of the "Chloe" legend. In fact, it does not appear that the Woodruffs even owned or used slaves while living at the plantation. Additionally, it seems that Sara and some of her children may have died of the yellow fever, as opposed to poisoning, though it's thought that at least one of the Woodruff's children – Mary Octavia – survived to adulthood.

    In the 1950s, a resident of the house named Marjorie Munson started theorizing that it may be haunted, and her decidedly non-scientific "investigation" is suspected of being the origin of the "Chloe" myth. In that era, the original "spirit" Chloe was thought to be an old woman wearing a green bonnet, not a young slave in a turban. As the years went on, the story grew in the telling, giving rise to the added complications of the poisoning plot and the severed ear.

    The rest of the stories are a bit tougher to discount, particularly the Winter legend, as the man really did die in the house. He almost assuredly died on the spot he was shot, on the porch, rather than making it to the inside staircase. During the Civil War, Union Soldiers who were occupying the house claimed to have found a human-shaped blood stain near the front door that would not come off, regardless of how much you scrubbed. So there's that.

    On the basis of there being so many different accounts of supernatural or strange activity at the Myrtles Plantation, it may be the most likely spot in America for a haunting, should one ever actually occur.