Upon moving to Fredericksburg, newcomers will be briefed by locals on the basics: The frozen custard at Carl's is worth the long lines, move your car every two hours downtown or you will get a ticket, and the trees that bloom with gorgeous white flowers in spring will make you viciously allergic. And one other thing -- the city has ghosts.
Called "one of the most haunted cities in the United States" by the Virginia Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society, Fredericksburg has been the subject through the past century of various books and other writings for its allegedly populous and lively community of spooks. The city's visitors center says its "ghost tour" is among the most popular tourist picks, and the Halloween Ghost Walk put on by Mary Washington College typically attracts about 1,500 people.
But that's business, a skeptic might say, and that would be right. Historic tourism is the biggest industry in greater Fredericksburg, primarily anything connected to the Civil War, and creating a narrative and some mystery can't hurt.
After all, L.B. Taylor Jr., who wrote the 1991 book "The Ghosts of Fredericksburg," said openly that he picked the city because "it's a tourism town and I thought the book would pay for itself over a period of time. You could write a book about any city or town in the state." And Bobbie Atristain, an Internet systems administrator from Richmond who directs the ghost research group, said the statistic about Fredericksburg's ghostly status comes "from the Web somewhere, I'm not sure where."
All of that aside, the belief in ghosts is very real in Fredericksburg. People speak openly at book clubs and at neighborhood gatherings about "their ghost," and if you knock on doors in the city and ask where there are haunted homes, people will point and give you directions matter-of-factly.
"I think it's part of the history of a home that people worry may be lost, so they're eager to pass it on -- they want you to know," said Pamela Graham, who moved last year to a green wooden home where many previous residents -- as well as her son -- have reported seeing ghosts. As in most such stories in Fredericksburg, the starring character is apparently benign. "People feel kindly for the most part about their ghosts. There's no sense of foreboding. We were quite comfortable to learn that the house had a ghost."
There are many explanations offered for Fredericksburg's spooky stories.
Believers note the incredible violence and death Fredericksburg experienced during the Civil War, when there were some 100,000 casualties in the small Rappahannock River city. Some interpret that to mean that many unsatisfied and young souls are roaming about.
Serious aficionados, like the members of Atristain's group, say science backs up that belief: "When you have a high concentration of loss of life in one area, there's so much energy lost at one time, it's like trapped," said Atristain, whose group sends "investigators" with cameras and devices that measure electromagnetic activity to sites of reported hauntings in hopes of collecting enough evidence to convince mainstream scientists.
Others say the common belief in ghosts in Fredericksburg is really a type of folklore, a distant cousin of authentic oral history, or stories that are based on actual events.
"It's about creating a narrative for the visitor," said Gary Stanton, who teaches American folklore at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. Stanton, who specializes in vernacular architecture, theorizes that perhaps the reason ghost stories about Fredericksburg seemed to surface in the early part of the 1900s is that Civil War veterans were dying out about that time. "Before, you didn't need a spectral event. You had the real thing."
Heidi Lehwalder said she was surprised to move to Fredericksburg from Seattle in 1987 and find people speaking so openly about ghosts; she assumed Virginia was too conservative for that. Lehwalder, a concert harpist, said she first saw a ghost soon after she moved here, when she woke up in the middle of the night to tend to her crying infant daughter. "There was this woman over her, sort of draped in white . . . trying to straighten her blanket. She turned toward me and then she vanished. I didn't get a bad feeling; it was like she was trying to comfort her."
Since then, Lehwalder, 53, who founded an annual summer music festival here, said she often speaks to other locals about spirits they see.
"I was taking a walk recently and saw a man who was fixing up his little stone house, and I said, sort of jokingly, 'Do you have ghosts?' And he said, 'My wife and I are so used to them pulling down the dishes during the night we don't even notice it anymore,' and both of us just laughed, and then I just walked on."
Becky and John Sperlazza make an effort to keep their ghosts happy and at peace.
In the 14 years since they moved into their 180-year-old home, the couple has had experiences that transformed them from "skeptics." Like, they say, when all the photographs in one room were moved. Or when a 4-by-6-foot bookcase full of books fell over for no apparent reason. Or when two cleaning women bolted from the house -- and didn't come back -- after one swore a ghost talked to her. Or when there is a powerful feeling of discomfort in the basement.
"That's when you know you need to spend the weekend cleaning the basement," said John, 51, who builds semiconductors for use in space equipment. "But we think the entities are pleased with us and are pleased with what we've done with the place. And we're happy to share it with them."
The warm attitude Fredericksburgers have toward ghosts and ghost stories seems a sort of stubborn pride in something theirs, a piece of tradition that remains rooted, even as fast-food restaurants and vanilla lattes and commuter lots sprout up.
"I think it has to do with that sort of Southern connection to our history and our old houses and our families," said Mayor Bill Beck, who grew up in Fredericksburg and owns an antique store downtown.
Others find the whole topic ridiculous and question why ghosts always seem to be relatives of George Washington or some other historic figure rather than some ordinary citizen who died last month.
"I'm suspicious when people say they see this figure for a few seconds but they immediately know exactly who this ghost is and its entire history," said Donald Pfanz, staff historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. "Are they wearing a name tag?"
Even so, storytelling and romanticism aren't limited to ghost stories in Fredericksburg, Stanton said. There are repeated myths about everything from the city's architecture to the number of soldiers buried in its cemeteries. "The invention of tradition is very alive in Fredericksburg," he said, "but that's another story."