Curious and macabre objects lie all around at the Paquachuck Inn, whispering of extraordinary times. The giant vertebra of a whale awaits on the veranda, a rusted harpoon is strung from the ceiling of the lounge and an oil painting of a mariner seeking rescue from the jaws of a shark crowns a fire that casts long, flickering shadows over the guests within. As a great storm whirls up from the Atlantic, drinks are poured and the tales begin to flow.

Once, magnificent ships were built in the harbour outside. They would venture to distant, mysterious lands such as Easter Island and the Antarctic, crewed by migrants from the Azores, freed slaves, Native Americans and direct descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. Their voyages would last up to four years, hunting the whales whose oil would be used in lamps and industries now long forgotten.

In Westport Point village, southern Massachusetts, the Paquachuck Inn was originally a ship's chandler known as the Cory Store, built in 1827. 'When the demand for whale oil dried up around 1890, those who ran the store disappeared overnight,' says Brenda Figuerido, the owner of this gloriously characterful guesthouse. 'It sat empty until 1950. Locals can recall their childhood, entering the spooky old building to play and seeing a pot-bellied stove in the middle of this room with opium bottles scattered about. A few dared to try on the sailors' uniforms that had been left behind.'

Tonight's other guests are from nearby Rhode Island, enjoying their once-yearly visit to soak up the atmosphere and share ghost stories of their own. They speak of dogs circling an unseen presence in a bedroom, of chairs moving spontaneously, and of sensing the cold touch of a long-dead hand during that moment between deep sleep and awakening. Brenda remains detached from such excitable talk, only giving an inch to those eager to hear more as the final embers settle. 'At one time the land next to here was a farm for the poor,' she mentions, glancing at the window. 'Some say they still see people there.'

The whalers' shrine
Nearby New Bedford was once home to America's whaling industry and remains the country's busiest fishing port. Here, the families of sailors visit the eerie Seamen's Bethel to pray for those who face daily perils to keep their nation well fed.

The guardian of this chapel is Dermot Duggan, drawn back to New Bedford after a life spent travelling the world in the Marine Corps. Together we take in the view that would have inspired the bethel's most famous visitor, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. 'He would have sat on these pews and listened to the lesson from Jonah, given from a lofty pulpit that, as he wrote, "was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows",' says Dermot.

For those in search of spirits that live on through the folklore they inspire, the Seamen's Bethel must rank as one of Massachusetts' most haunted locations. On the walls hang marble tablets that commemorate moments of great adventure and loss in the times of whaling. They tell of journeys to the South Seas and the frozen north, of 'worthy men' given up to whales, sharks and fever. A typical example records the fate of 'Capt WM Swain of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket', who 'after fastning to a whale, was carried overboard, and drowned'.

In 1841, Herman Melville set out to sea from the city on the whaling ship Acushnet, returning after an 18-month voyage to eventually write Moby Dick, the tale of Captain Ahab's obsessive search for the great white whale. Melville reflected on his time here: 'It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me.' He described the source of the riches that funded the opulent dwellings of New Bedford, 'these brave houses and flowery gardens that came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.'

At home with Lizzie Borden
The ramshackle city of Fall River may well have dropped off the map, were it not for a 19th-century tale of jealousy and murder so famed that it gave birth to a nursery rhyme American schoolchildren still skip to in playgrounds today: 'Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.'

On 4 August 1892, Lizzie's father Andrew and stepmother Abby were murdered in their home by a hatchet-wielding assailant. The evidence mounted family crest of a lion wielding an axe and books among Lizzie's personal collection, including With Edged Tools and When Ghost Meets Ghost. Other members of today's tour have already shuffled off to the shop, where the souvenirs take a step beyond kitsch; on offer are mugs and a skateboard decorated with photos of Mr Borden's crumpled corpse.

A mischievous ghost
Cape Cod is like a fantasised view of New England, a peninsula covered in trees aflame with colour in the weeks leading up to Halloween, shading perfect lawns and whitewashed fences.

In the village of Barnstable, close to where the Pilgrim Fathers arrived from England in the Mayflower in 1620, the Beechwood Inn has a more inviting ghost story to tell.

'Several villagers can trace their ancestors to the pilgrims,' says Ken Traugot, a former banker who settled here with his wife Debra to raise their daughter, breed retrievers and run a guesthouse.

Some find it impossible to leave. 'Our guests kept saying they'd seen shimmering apparitions,' he says. 'I was gardening and saw a woman sitting on the love seat, then she was gone, then she was standing outside the parlour. A visitor from Augusta in Georgia asked, "Do you have ghosts here?" She'd seen exactly the same woman, in her late 70s with long, white hair and a large dress. 'At Barnstable House near here, there was a major fire. The firemen described seeing a woman drift in front of them. We believe she took flight and found shelter here; she's been here 40 years since.'

The Beechwood Inn was built in 1853, while its sprawling beech tree was planted seven years later by a sea captain who'd brought it from England. The Traugots chose to decorate their home in a style more or less authentic to its Victorian origins, all frills and outsized furniture. 'We believe that against Lizzie, then aged 32: she had fallen out with her wealthy father, had recently tried to buy poison and was seen shortly after the horrific events of that day burning her reportedly blood-stained dress. But in her trial 10 months later, a jury of 12 men decided no woman could be capable of a crime so vicious.

So the legend was sealed. The Bordens' home has since been restored and opened for tours and as a deeply unconventional bed and breakfast. Scones are baked where Lizzie burnt her dress, breakfast is served in the chintzy dining room where the autopsies were carried out and guests are invited to sleep in the bedroom where Abby's butchered body was found, her blood still staining the floorboards.

'Some people sleep right here on the floor, so they can get closer to the spirit of Mrs Borden,' says official guide Will Clawson. 'That's not my thing, but this is our equivalent to the story of Jack the Ripper. It's good to have this well-known mystery.' With visitors looking on agog, Will theatrically describes a recent experience of 'feeling a sudden chill in the house as the lights refused to work', and of the current owner 'walking into the icy basement and feeling a hand running down her back'.

Some guests go out of their way to seek a supernatural encounter, leaving coins about the place with the intention of enraging the ghost of Mr Borden; he went to the greatest pains to keep such temptation from Lizzie, an infamous kleptomaniac.

I take one last perplexed look at the portraits of each of the Bordens scowling malevolently, the because we keep this house so in period,' says Debra, 'the lady's ghost feels comfortable here.'

'We call her a mischievous lady,' says Ken. 'She likes to loosen light bulbs, to lock doors - but nothing harmful. We live in harmony with her.'

I'm shown to my room, already warmed by its log fire. Settling into my four-poster bed, I'm lulled by the sound of the wind spiralling up off the sea, joined by the faint creak of a rocking chair and, just perhaps, the slightest click of a key turning in a lock.

The source of independence
The maple trees are at their best inland, where ripe pumpkins line the porches of the town of Concord. At the reception desk of Concord's Colonial Inn, the greeting is an unusual one: 'You know, we're the seventh most haunted inn in the United States.'

That reputation began with the visit of a newlywed couple in 1966. Afterwards, the bride, Judith Fellenz, sent a letter detailing a disturbance during her honeymoon: 'I have always prided myself on being a fairly sane individual but on the night of June 14, I began to have my doubts. I saw a ghost in your inn. I was awakened in the middle of the night by a presence in the room - a feeling that some unknown being was in the midst. It remained still for a moment, then slowly floated to the foot of the bed. It was a terrifying experience.'

The couple were staying in room 24, in the oldest part of the inn, built in 1716 by a Captain John Minot. Despite many sightings in the intervening years of similar lost souls stalking the corridors and bridal suites, my first night's sleep here is restful. At dawn I set out through nearby Sleepy Hollow cemetery, sadly no relation to the story or the Tim Burton film of the same name. Ahead is the Old North Bridge, where the first full-scale battle of the American War of Independence took place on 19 April 1775. Here, 700 British Army regulars clashed with Patriot militiamen and were forced into retreat. A milestone had been laid in the origins of the USA.

The battle was witnessed by Reverend William Emerson Sr from his handsome clapboard home, the Old Manse, which stands in the field alongside. The events of that day were remembered in a speech given at the 1875 centennial by his grandson, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a quote from which is now etched for eternity into the approach to the bridge: 'The thunderbolt falls on an inch of ground; but the light of it fills the horizon.'

The witch city
Set on the eastern coast of Massachusetts between Boston and the beautiful white-sand beaches of Cape Ann, Salem is famed for its witch trials of 1692 and 1693. Visitors are now lured by the Witch Museum, the Witch History Museum, the Witches Cottage and the Witch Dungeon Museum. Around Halloween they can hop on board the Salem Trolley's Ghosts & Legends tour or take a Haunted Harbor Happenings Cruise. Lizzie Borden even reappears, at the city's 40 Whacks Museum.

The power of the tale of the witch trials risks becoming dimmed in the onslaught. During the crazed events of just over 300 years ago, hundreds were accused of witchcraft, with 19 men and women hanged, and a man in his 80s pressed to death beneath heavy stones for refusing to enter a plea. While puritanical suspicion and personal interests led to a community being ripped apart, lessons were subsequently learnt about the dangers of religious extremism and lapses in justice that have so much relevance today.

Salem's immense Peabody Essex Museum provides an enlightening excuse to stop by. Along with spectacular collections of Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Native American art, America's oldest continuously operating museum also houses many original court documents from the witch trials.

The birth of the Peabody Essex Museum can be traced to the founding of the East India Marine Society in 1799, an organisation of Salem's sea captains and merchants who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Today the figureheads of some of their ships look on in the museum's East India Marine Hall: a Scottish highlander, a Western belle and an Indian princess, each representing the names of the vessels they once adorned. In the same grand space are objects Salem's seafarers carried from distant lands to display here, competing to reveal who had savoured the greatest adventure: a coconut basket from the Seychelles, a Chinese drinking goblet made from rhino horn and, poignantly, the wrinkled remains of the first-ever penguin to arrive in North America.

The end of the line
The town of Ashland has a bait shop, a liquor store and, by the railway tracks, a pub with an uncelebrated stake in Massachusetts' history.

Stone's Public House overwhelms you with warmth as you step inside. The place is thronged with regulars as a huddle of musicians skilfully play traditional instruments. Few look round when the occasional freight train rumbles past, horns blaring, visibly shaking the end wall of the building.

'The pub is 175 years old,' says the manager, Ben Stoetzel, adding that the local paranormal society is present this evening, carrying out an investigation. Ben and I join them around a table in an upstairs room originally used by the pub's founder, John Stone, for illicit poker matches. One of these ended in the murder of a man accused of cheating the other players out of $3,000. His ghost is said to haunt this place, along with that of a little girl, Mary J Smith, who was hit by a train near the doorstep in 1862.

'We always get results here,' says the society's leader, Dave Francis, as he sets out ghost-detecting gadgets including a compass and a digital voice recorder. He plays some of the stuttering, fuzzy recordings made on previous visits, revealing voices he says were unheard by members of the society who were present at the time.

In the first, the team are chatting away when, in the background, a ghostly voice murmurs, 'I'm cold.' In another, the voice hisses, 'Watch your head.' And in another, 'Can't get out, let me in!' During the final sequence, the voice simply states, 'You're drunk.' Dave's piercing eyes seek my reaction, as if daring me to break into a nervous smirk. I feel like I'm stuck in a vivid dream, the sort brought on by jetlag, tequila or strong cheese.

'The pub is believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad, the network that existed before Emancipation to help slaves escape the South,' says Ben. Before the American Civil War, many would only have felt truly free once they crossed the border into Canada. 'We've found evidence of a false wall in the basement, behind which they may well have hidden,' Ben continues. Dave eagerly adds that the society's former leader was whacked on the head by a supernatural force during an earlier investigation of the basement. I return to the bar in search of a steadying drink.

The Guinness is still flowing, the fiddles and flutes lifting the souls of all within. People are warming themselves by the open fire, laughing and clinking glasses together as generations have done before, oblivious to the tall tales and hidden histories that swirl about this place. Once again, a train clatters past, and the band plays into the night.

Peter Grunert is the editor of Lonely Planet Magazine. 


The article 'The haunted land of New England' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.