It’s a Grave Undertaking

Pun-master and self-described ‘hauntrepreneur,’ Doug Antreassian offers a unique service in Salem, Mass.: a hearse-driven tour of the town describing past crimes and present. Our writer reports from spook-central.

Douglas Antreassian, a self-described ‘hauntrepreneur’ with a devilish wit and a goatee to match, clearly loves the vehicle he uses to give tours of Salem, Mass. He rests one hand on ‘Angelique’s’ shiny purple chrome as he proudly describes her features.

Doug Antreassian, of Mass. Hysteria

‘She’s a 1969 Cadillac Superior 3-Way, with tinted windows, dual sunroofs, stadium seating, surround-sound stereo …’

And what does ‘3-Way’ mean?

‘It means you can bring in the coffin three ways: through the right door, the left door, or the back,’ he says cheerfully.

Once upon a time, the only organized tours of this town were by foot, trolley, or an amphibious ‘duck boat.’ Then Antreassian brought in the 23-foot Angelique and, with his wife Anita, founded Mass. Hysteria Haunted Hearse Tours (reservations: 877-4-HEARSE). Salem would never be the same.

Antreassian, 34, a former New Jersey radio personality who grew up in Massachusetts, got the idea for the tour four years ago, when Anita gave him a surprise wedding gift: a hearse tour of New York City crime locations. He was so taken with the experience that, within 12 hours of the tour, he had come up with the concept for Mass. Hysteria and even had a slogan: ‘It’s a grave undertaking.’

Incredibly, even though Salem promotes itself as the Witch City, the City Council was initially dead-set against the hearse. In May 2000, when Mass. Hysteria’s tour was ready to roll, the council voted unanimously to deny it a license, saying it ‘[did] not promote a positive public image of the city.’

The council’s main objection was not to the hearse itself, but to the tour’s script. Written by the county’s former sheriff, leading local historian Robert Cahill, it included not only the familiar supernatural tales, but also grisly details of recent murders. It was one thing to tell tourists about the 17th-century witch hangings, but quite another to inform them that Salem currently had a serial killer on the loose. In the end, Antreassian had to threaten a federal lawsuit before the council would change its tune.

In August 2000, Antreassian finally got his license, and Angelique, which he had bought from a California collector for $6,000 and spent $20,000 to restore, was finally on the move—sort of. During Mass. Hysteria’s first year, the guide had to put another $20,000 worth of repairs into the temperamental vehicle. Sometimes, he would even have to stop at the repair shop during a tour. ‘I’d call a smoker’s break and ask everybody to get out, while the mechanic would drop whatever he was doing and run over,’ Antreassian says.

Antreassian had used his radio-announcing skills to prepare a CD to play during the tour, an educational narrative in which he portrays 14 characters, including a sea captain on his deathbed, a British soldier, and author Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, while the CD’s narration still figures prominently in the tour, it’s been superseded by the campy live commentary provided by Antreassian (and Mass. Hysteria’s alternate tour guide, Anita).

‘I can definitely say it’s the only tour spoof in the world,’ Antreassian notes. ‘People come there and they’re expecting to have, literally, the most terrifying experience of their life, and they just laugh their heads off through most of it.

‘Originally the thing was supposed to be very, very serious and very, very scary. But, unfortunately, I just can’t do that! People were laughing and not screaming. So that’s just sort of what happened.’

That’s not to say that some people don’t get very frightened, especially on the special ‘Mystical Voyage’ tour, which includes a visit to a privately owned ‘haunted house.’ ‘We’ve had people go into the haunted house and come out in tears—this is with our best efforts to keep it light. We’ve had people, even my own wife, experience all kinds of crazy things. She does believe in ghosts as a result of the tour.’

So, does the self-proclaimed ‘ghost host’ believe in spirits? The answer is no, but he won’t rule out the possibility that they exist. ‘I think a ghost expert, frankly, is someone who sees one. So my not believing in ghosts—like Ralph Nader would say, ‘it’s my opinion and it’s just another drop of water in the ocean.’’

Dawn Eden is a freelance journalist, rock historian, and prolific liner-note writer (over 80 to date) whose work has appeared in Mojo, Salon, and New York Press. More by Dawn Eden