Our Opinion: Compelling tales draw visitors to prison tours

News Tribune editorial

What’s the attraction? The number of people touring the vacated Missouri State Penitentiary site increased again this year.

Since the local Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began arranging tours of the prison site in 2009, participation steadily has increased. More than 19,000 people toured the site this year, exceeding CVB expectations. The total reflects an increase above the estimated 17,000 visitors in 2011. In response to demand, the CVB has added and expanded tours focusing on history, photography and paranormal activity, including ghost hunts.

Tours have concluded for this year, but the schedule for 2013 will be posted on the CVB’s website in February. What’s the attraction of a dated, dank and somewhat dilapidated prison facility?

For a possible answer, consider the attraction of ME TV, channel 9 for Mediacom cable customers.

ME TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) specializes in programs from the past, including episodes of “Columbo,” “Twilight Zone,” “Thriller” and other shows.

The common denominator is compelling story-telling.

The attraction of the prison tours is more about the captivating stories told by the guides than about the building itself.

The prison is the backdrop — the scene set, if you will — for tales that reveal the conflict, humanity (and inhumanity) and the history of confinement.

And the collection of stories varies among tours and guides, including former prison officials. “Each tour is very different and unique,” said Ryan Winkler-Burns, CVB communications manager. “You’re guaranteed never to have the same experience.” The prison site continues to age, but the attraction — compelling stories that continually change — remains fresh.

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