Here’s What We Learned About Portland’s Gritty Past on Five Haunted Walking Tours

Our guide to Portland’s haunted walking tours, including what we found scary, lame or just totally bizarre.

(Rick Vodicka)

Some dark shit has gone down in Portland. Hawthorne Boulevard used to be home to the city's red light district and an 18th-century asylum. Slabtown was once famous for a young boy who communed with poltergeists, and the infamous Shanghai Tunnels still lurk underneath the city's center.

Evidence of this city's sordid past can be found all year round, but in honor of Halloween, we embarked on five haunted walking tours in and around Portland.

Here is our guide to Portland's haunted walking tours, including what we found scary, lame or just totally bizarre.

Haunted Oregon City,

What's the story? As the hub of Oregon's industrial development, it's no surprise that Oregon City harbors a haunted history. Led by historian and paranormal investigator Rocky Smith, whose period attire adds a good dose of camp, you have a choice of four two-hour walking tours. We took the McLoughlin Promenade Tour, where you might just encounter the ghost of a little boy who allegedly haunts the neighborhood, or the Father of Oregon himself, John McLoughlin.

Where do you go? The tour begins with a ride up the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, a structure allegedly haunted by a woman who opposed the elevator because it was built in the front yard of her mansion. It then winds along dimly lit streets in the Historic McLaughlin Neighborhood, stopping in front of creaky old manses like the McLoughlin and Ermatinger houses, both creepy in their own right. You'll then stop along the McLoughlin Promenade to learn more creepy history before heading back down the stairs by Singer Falls, a hydrologic feature with reported hauntings.

Special features: Nope.

Scariest moment: Walking along the promenade that overlooks the eerily quiet Blue Heron paper mill, which closed in 2011 but has a dark history of grisly deaths.

Lamest moment: You don't get to go inside either house on this tour; both houses are open to the public on specific days of the week for their own tours.

Is it worth it? If you're into spooky history, this tour is for you. MICHELLE DEVONA.

Shanghai Ghost Tour,

What's the story? More than a century ago, according to local lore, Portland men were captured in bars and transported through a series of underground tunnels—where there were also opium dens, jail cells and secret boxing rings—to be sold to ship captains.

Where does it go? After a brief, spook-inducing primer—which includes notes like "if you feel a hand on the back of your neck, don't turn around" and "the underground was meant to be seen in the shadows"—groups of 25 are led down a sidewalk hatch in front of Hobo's Restaurant to what the guides dub "The Underground" (aka, a small, dusty basement).

Special features: A box of shoes that were apparently taken from men who had been "shanghaied." There is also a trap-door simulation in which a man made of pillows is dropped from the ceiling.

Scariest and lamest moment: This tour is more suited to history buffs than scare-seekers. The most frightening part of the night was when an extremely drunk woman in cat ears—who was alternately yelling things like "Hell no! This is too scary!" and "I'm bored!"—decided to head back through the dark tunnel alone to get back to the bar and subsequently got lost. Our guide found her, don't worry.

Is it worth it?  Sure. But be warned—the group you shut yourself underground with may be scarier than any ghosts. ELISE HERRON.

Hawthorne Ghost Tour,

What's the story? This walking tour shares the freakier side of Hawthorne, formerly known as "Asylum Street." For a gauge of the level of spookiness, there was a 2-year-old happily sipping on hot chocolate in his stroller throughout the ordeal.

Where do you go? Stops include the previous location of an asylum, the Douglas Building, and the Hawthorne Theatre, before circling back to "the most haunted building on Hawthorne," the Bagdad. The tour remains on the sidewalks, so the actual ghost hubs remain out of reach.

Special features: At two points in the evening, the guide revealed "dowsing rods," also known as witching sticks—they're basically coat hangers—which members of the party can use to take turns attempting to contact the other side. As you ask the spirits yes-or-no questions, the sticks sway in response. We heard from a ghost in a flower shop with a curly-hair fetish and a spirit recovery group at the bottom of the Metro Boutique.

Scariest moment: Learning how often people spread loved one's ashes in Powell's Books.

Lamest moment: See "special features."

Is it worth it? As it's allegedly Portland's old red-light district, I was hoping to hear juicier tales of murder and adultery, rather than one about a homeless man who tripped too hard on rat poison. I'd rather hunt down the trio of Bagdad ghosts myself—at least then I could get a beer out of it. KIANA PONTRELLI.

Slabtown Tours: A Night With Ghosts,

What's the story? Dr. Tanya Lyn March, Ph.D., guides participants through Slabtown, Portland's historic working-class neighborhood. March claims houses with truly bad hauntings tend to be torn down—we visited about as many construction sites as we did standing structures.

Where do you go? Many stops on the tour focused on Ernest Harp, a boy whose interactions with an alleged poltergeist were documented in historic Oregonian articles. The site of Harp's most famous otherworldly disturbance is also the former site of the long-gone Slabtown music venue. New Seasons paved over the lot of a house where doctors with ties to Carl Jung and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle legally abducted and tortured Harp as "research." The tour also stops by the house of late cartoonist John Callahan. The new owners haven't seen Callahan yet, but they do see other spirits around the place.

Special features: Tours starting before 8 pm get free admission to the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium, a kitschy and immersive gallery that screams Old Portland.

Scariest moment: Through her storytelling, March makes real the horror of being a child in frontier Portland, where kids were treated horrifically if they survived childhood—back then, it was totally OK not to get vaccinated.

Lamest moment: The Ghost at ComedySportz is more contemporary than the rest of the tour material, but does inspire the existential horror of haunting a comedy bar.

Is it worth it? Yes, if you're a history buff, but not if you're a pagan or spiritualist. ANDREW JANKOWSKI.

BeerQuest PDX Haunted Pub Tour,

What's the story? Very Old Portland was a pretty gritty place. This tour introduces you to the city's sordid past, when women were forced into prostitution, the police were too busy selling the drugs and booze they confiscated to care about "shanghaiing," and people died in myriad horrible ways—everything from steamship explosions to plunging down an elevator shaft—and didn't get to rest in peace, as regular flooding often brought their bodies to the surface.

Where does it go? The tour starts in the smoky depths of Kells' cigar bar. There, you're asked to sign a waiver—a sure sign that something dangerous might happen, like drinking beer and roaming through a dimly lit, potholed basement, haunted or not. Our guide, Scott, who told ghost stories with the gusto of Guy Fieri, explained why Kells has a two-employees-per-closing-shift policy: The spirit of a fire chief who died on the property a century ago regularly scares servers. From there, you stroll the streets of Old Town past landmarks like the Erickson Saloon, which boasted the longest bar in the world, complete with a urinal trough running the length of its 600 feet, making it more convenient to empty your bladder while ordering another glassful of beer. The exploration of the city's underbelly ends by descending into the dusty tunnels once more, this time at Old Town Pizza after passing pitchers of beers around in the dining room.

Special features: Unlike most local tours of spooky settings, this one comes with beer.

Scariest moment: The Old Town basement, with its lantern-lit tumble-down stone-and-brick walls, chairs arranged in a circle as though the kitchen staff regularly holds séances, and chains hanging from exposed pipes, looks like the set of a horror film. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, there's the passing thought of an imminent building collapse.

Lamest moment: When we came back upstairs at Old Town and all of our beer was gone.

Is it worth it? This is Portland's original haunted house. Hokey actors in costumes are nothing compared to the villainous cast of characters that once ran our streets. ANDI PREWITT.

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