The Florida Keys Are One Big Ghost Magnet

“I think it's really the third corner of the Bermuda Triangle.”

Welcome to Key West. Enjoy your sleepless nights! | Susan Smith/Flickr
Welcome to Key West. Enjoy your sleepless nights! | Susan Smith/Flickr

Jimmy Buffet seems an odd soundtrack to a haunted drive, but cruising up Florida’s Overseas Highway in the complete darkness, you won’t find much else on the radio.

The road connecting Key West to the Florida mainland may as well be outer space at this hour, with bright stars above and still, black water to the side. I pull over to take in the solitude, and though I appear to be completely alone, I get the feeling I am not.

I can’t see what’s lurking on the roadside, but I can definitely sense it. It could be crocodile, or the spindly mangroves chatting in the breeze. Or perhaps it’s a longtime Keys resident who’s still hanging around long after they passed away.

“I’d rather die while I’m living, than live while I’m dead,” Buffet whines over the radio. Whatever it is that’s out there might beg to disagree.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Florida Keys have an undeniably creepy vibe. It becomes especially present at night, when paradise gives way to the paranormal. This whole, 125-mile chain of islands feels like a long, outdoor haunted house. 

“The sun goes down here and the sky creates this mood that you don't see anywhere else,” says David Sloan, a local paranormal expert who’s written numerous books on the haunted Keys. “There’s also a silence when you get to certain areas, and with the background of the ocean it creates that strange vibe.”

On this stretch of unique highway, you're never truly alone | Mia2you/Shutterstock

The Keys, like much of Florida, are made of limestone. And limestone—if you’re not hip to the geological preferences of the departed—is a magnet for ghosts.

“A lot of residual hauntings happen around limestone,” says Sloan. “And the Florida Keys, we’re a coraleen limestone foundation. We used to be a giant coral reef too… there’s probably a lot of dead energy from all the animals.”

The energy from the coral reef, combined with the spirits attracted to the limestone, make the area as welcoming for ghosts as it is for sunburned New Yorkers.

“I think it's really the third corner of the Bermuda triangle,” Sloan continues over a beer at the possibly-haunted General Horseplay Saloon in Key West. 

Documented horror tales date back to the 1500s, when a group of Spanish explorers strolled ashore to discover the island littered with bones, earning the island the name Cayo Hueso. Some say it was an old Calusa burial site (their tradition was to submerge their dead in water) where bodies ultimately washed up. Others think it may have been a spot the Calusa dumped vanquished foes.

The African Cemetery is part of the busy Higgs Beach area | Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

There are tales of thousands of other pirates leaving a legacy of death and destruction in their wake. The shallow reefs are so littered with shipwrecks that wrecking—essentially looting sunken ships—was Key West’s biggest industry in the late 19th century. Underneath a now-protected section of Higgs Beach rest hundreds of African refugees who, around 1860, were rescued from slave ships only to succumb to disease. 

That’s a lot of lost souls packed into a series of islands that stretch only a few hundred miles. Complicating the afterlife, Santeria and Voodoo are both popular in the islands, and Sloan says those religions believe salt creates a barrier that spirits cannot cross. 

“We're surrounded by salt water,” he says. “So the spirits really don't have anywhere to go.” 

With so many ghosts trapped in the islands, it’s no wonder every other street seems to have a haunted building. There’s Captain Tony’s Saloon, built over the old city morgue and around its old hanging tree, and allegedly haunted by a lady in a blue dress. There’s the sea captain who’s said to still roam Eaton Street. There’s Room 18 in the Marrero’s Guest Mansion, where the chandelier likes to move on its own. The list goes on.

Robert the Doll
Robert the Doll is Key West's most famous resident | Key West Art & Historical Society

It seems only fitting the first soul one encounters on Key West is Robert the Doll. The world’s most haunted plaything lives at Fort East Martello, right next to the Key West airport and less than half a mile from the entrance to Key West on US-1, making him something of a macabre welcoming committee. 

Robert is a four-foot Steiff doll in a little boy’s sailor suit who has tormented people for over a century. Originally the childhood pal of artist Gene Otto, Robert is said to have been possessed from early on. When Otto’s parents heard two voices coming from his room, they would find only the boy and his doll. Over the course of Otto’s life, he blamed everything from broken toys to guests locked in the bathroom on the doll. “Robert did it!” has become the tagline to the ghost’s entire existence.

After Otto died, Robert stayed in the artist’s old house, and was subsequently accused of everything from giving one man yellow fever to locking the home’s new owner in the bathroom. It was after this incident the new owner donated Robert to the museum. Now you can view him as part of the Robert the Doll Experience, which—as you might have guessed—is also run by Key West renaissance man David Sloan.

“You need to respect Robert. That’s the most important thing.”

Eerie nursery music plays as Sloan sets a binary-response device on Robert's glass case. From behind a Robert-branded mask, he tells me the device lights up and makes noise when spirits communicate in yes and no answers. He relays myths about Robert: that he was a gift from a servant, and inspired horror icon Chucky.

When he gets to the third bit of lore —"you must ask his permission to take his picture”— the box lights up and starts buzzing uncontrollably. Sloan tells me that asking to take Robert’s picture doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ok. The binary box begins buzzing again.

“It doesn’t always do that,” Sloan says. “But really the main thing is, you need to respect Robert. That’s the most important thing.”

Sloan pulls out a copy of his book, Robert the Doll, which contains apology letters from numerous guests who had their lives fall apart after disrespecting Robert. Lost jobs, missed flights, dead pets, and divorces followed those who didn’t take the doll seriously. Even the Prince of Darkness himself fell victim, as Ozzy Osborne blamed his recent year of misfortune on disrespecting the doll.

Needless to say, I didn’t take any pictures. But just standing in the room, on a perfectly sunny day, gave me a feeling of unease that was tough to shake.

Though drinking your way down Duval Street and diving the colorful reefs make for a joyful Keys diversion, the haunted legacy follows you wherever you go. You may not see the ghosts, but you don’t really need to. Here, even if you're padding through moonlit mangroves or stopping along the Overseas Highway to enjoy the stars makes you feel completely alone, history, geology, and a certain malevolent doll say there’s a good chance you’re not.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Matt Meltzer is a freelance writer based in Miami who believes drinks always taste better with a little garnish of thunderstorms. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.