Why Bar Ghosts Are the Biggest Pranksters of the Spirit World

Bar ghosts aren’t scary. They’re just sort of obnoxious.

Haunted bar
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

As a child, tales of Emery, the spectral custodian that haunts Michigan’s landmark Fenton Hotel, struck fear in my heart. Relatives at the family friendly, 164-year-old bar spoke in slurred whispers about phantom knocks and moans echoing through the halls, of flickering lights and goosed customers. According to decades-spanning town lore, servers would regularly deliver a Jack & Coke to the same table, only to realize nobody had ordered it. (Why the same servers never double checked that order after all those years is another grand mystery.)

But many years later, drinking a Jack & Coke in Emery’s honor at the bar, it occurred to me: Emery wasn’t scary. He was just… kind of obnoxious.

From coast to coast, America’s most famous bar ghosts are hardly the kind of malicious poltergeists you’d find terrorizing haunted hotels or abandoned asylums. Their spirits have less in common with Bloody Mary than “that guy who put Smash Mouth on the jukebox 10 times in a row, stole a glass, and walked out on a tab.”

At Memphis’ legendary Earnestine & Hazel’s, one of the 13 resident ghosts relishes in turning on the jukebox unexpectedly. In Baltimore’s The Horse You Came In On Saloon, they say former regular Edgar Allen Poe knocks over glasses and opens drawers forevermore. Ghosts at New Orleans Muriel’s, and Tempe, Arizona’s Casey Moore’s are reported to be extra handsy with patrons. And in Deadwood, South Dakota, legendary lawman Seth Bullock is apparently so bored in the afterlife, he spends his time photo-bombing tourists and yelling at the staff of Seth’s Cellar

“He likes to play tricks on us,” says Cristy Guidry, manager of very-haunted St. Augustine, Florida bar Scarlett O’Hara’s. She’s referring to resident spirit George, who’s been known to send glasses sliding across the bar. “He messes with things in the office… One of the new girls actually got locked in the bathroom.”

Scary? Oh, sure. But this behavior warrants an HR complaint more than an exorcist. Why, then, do these impish spirits opt out of eternal rest in favor of hanging out at their favorite bar and playing dumb supernatural pranks?

At Earnestine & Hazel's, ghosts love to put James Brown on the jukebox at random | Sarah Voigt Rossi/Thrillist

Famous psychic medium Michael J. Kouri has appeared on everything from The View to Oprah. He’s encountered bar ghosts all over the country, from his native LA to New York City, where he once spoke to (very polite) spirits haunting McSorley’s while out drinking with Barbara Walters. 

According to Kouri—whose many books include Historical Hauntings in Burbank & Beyond—the tendency for bar ghosts to engage in relatively harmless rabble-rousing can be chalked up to old-school American hucksterism: If you’re going to fake a haunting to bring in patrons, vague and playful is better than evil and dangerous.   

But “real” bar ghosts often act like jerks because, well, that’s their nature. In life, they were likely also messing with the jukebox, screaming at patrons, or harassing other revelers. Only now, they don’t realize nobody can see them when they drunkenly knock a glass over or sneak up on somebody at a urinal.

“Spirits are people who die and don’t know they’re dead. They do the things they did when you were alive,” he says. “You’re going to go back to a place you enjoyed. If you were rowdy when you drank, you’re going to be rowdy as a ghost. It’s really that simple.”

He recalls a particularly active night at the extremely haunted California cliffside bar Moss Beach Distillery. Koufi says he witnessed—and even visualized, while in a trance—a spectral barkeep sending glasses careening down the bar, giggling audibly. Upon researching the spirit—talking to his family, learning he was a good-hearted guy who died of natural causes—he concluded that the ghost just wasn’t ready to leave, so he simply went back to a place he loved and continued playfully messing with people. 

“If [he was] malevolent, the glasses would go so hard they would break,” says Kouri. “That’s just a prankster ghost.”

Not a bad place to spend eternity, really. | The Cruise Room

But maybe it’s not all obnoxious mischief. Maybe the ghosts of some bars are using their powers for less-obvious reasons. 

Brandon Wise, a self-described skeptic and vice president of beverage at Sage Hospitality, recalls re-opening night at Denver’s Cruise Room in the Oxford Hotel. The historic art-deco bar has been a fixture of downtown Denver since Prohibition, and is said to be haunted by a postal worker who succumbed to exposure decades ago.  

Wise was in the bar chatting up the bartender before patrons arrived. Suddenly, the jukebox kicked on, dropping the needle on a classic Miles Davis record. He walked over to the running jukebox and found it unplugged.  

“It was super eerie—it was playing this record right when the bar was supposed to open,” he says. 

But when I tell Wise my universal theory of bar ghosts being jerks, he’s quick to disagree. Wise was spooked, but not annoyed or threatened. And while stories of abnormality still swirl in the Cruise Room, they are more Casper than The Conjuring

“I like to think it was our postal-worker friend wishing the bar well,” says Wise. “I wouldn’t say it’s being a jerk. It’s [about] honoring the bar… loving the bar.”

Like any lonely barfly, maybe most of these ghosts just want to be seen. And they can’t—that’s their tragedy. But for true bar ghosts, that tragedy is a quiet triumph: They become legends in the establishments they love. And if sliding a glass across a bar or letting out a little moan after hours is how they achieve that legend, well, who are we to call them obnoxious? 

Except Emery. Emery still seems like the worst.

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Matt Meltzer contributed to this story. 
Thrillist’s senior travel editor Andy Kryza is still moderately frightened of Emery. Follow him @apkryza