This year is the 25th annual Koreshan Ghost Walk. In the late 19th century, a utopian community known as the Koreshan Unity was established in Estero. The ghosts of the Koreshan faith will soon roam the grounds at night, acting out a play which tells the story of the religion’s rise and fall.
During a nighttime dress rehearsal at Koreshan State Park, actors playing the ghosts of those who inhabited the community long ago were dressed in Victorian costumes, walking along the candlelit trails of the compound.
Koreshanity was, for a brief time, a utopian branch of Christianity. It was created by a man named Cyrus Teed. The group settled in Estero, calling it The New Jerusalem in 1894. They faded into non-existence by the 1930's.
In one scene of the ghost walk, a husband and wife get an orientation to the religion. It illustrates why the group never gained a large following and couldn't sustain itself.
"Since we strive for purity of mind and body, you must become celibate in accordance with the master’s teachings," said the lady giving the primer on the community.
"Celibacy?!" the husband shouts. "My god, Lydia, you might as well send me off to be a monk."
"You promised you’d try," the wife said. "You'll get used to it."
Throughout the ghost tour, seeds of doubt are planted about the religion.
In one particular part, one member challenges Teed, the founder, about one of the tenants of the religion-- the hollow earth theory or cellular cosmology. It’s the belief that the whole universe lies within the earth.
"Perhaps if I spoke to him and explain our vision," started Teed.
"It's too late for your vision, Doctor Teed," a follower named Gustaf said. "Elwin has left the unity intent on making a life in Fort Myers. I should have listened to him from the beginning, I guess, when he told me the cellular cosmology theory was rubbish."
"No you shouldn't have. It is not rubbish," Teed said. "Do you not recall that survey that we did that was proof positive that we do indeed live in the inside [of the earth]? There is science Gustaf. This is not blind faith."
As you walk through the flatwood-bordered compound, the Koreshan ghost actors tell a chronological tale about the utopian community, its establishment, and decline.
The play was re-written five years ago by Indiana-based author Gordon Grindstaff. He once volunteered at Koreshan State Park as a snowbird. He said he originally saw the group as cultish.
“I thought they were a little wacky," said Grindstaff. "But for the time, maybe not so much.”
His thoughts changed when he started doing research for the play.
“There was a lot of unrest in the country," Grindstaff said. "The Civil War hadn’t been over all that long. And the world was changing.”
Grindstaff said people might find the Koreshan’s story relevant with the turmoil in today’s world. He said had he been a Korseshan, he would have been skeptical of the faith.
Bill Grace is one of the actors. This is his 5th year doing the ghost walk. He said the Koreshans were known for their early adoption of equality between genders. Grace plays a character named Carl.
"So, the founder has women playing the role of the co-president for instance," said Grace. "But Carl is not quite convinced that this is working out."
Especially after the saw mill fire. The saw mill was being tended to by women at the time.
"It would be of comfort to have the guiding hand of a man at the helm," Grace said in-character as Carl.
"You can’t be a true believer and say that, Carl," countered a man. "The equality of men and women is an essential belief."
"I can’t help but thinking the saw mill would still be standing if a man had been taking care of it," Grace as Carl said.
But as membership in the religion wanes, and after the death of its founder, it’s Koreshan women who take up the reigns.
“You’re right," said a Koreshan woman. "It’s not like we’re starting all over again. We’re already well-established here. The people of Estero have come to depend on our store, our bakery, our newspaper."
Despite the loss of their prophet and membership, throughout the walking tour, the Koreshan ghosts show you how they endeavored to preserve their community and their faith.
For information about the ghost walk, click here.