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Ghosts and the American Conscience

In Ghostland, Colin Dickey explores the spooky stories that haunt the American past.
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. 

“The slave ships to the Americas are still sailing,” intoned the historian Marcus Rediker, “only they’re ghost ships that haunt us because we live with the history that they created.”

Rediker had been one of my graduate school instructors, and as I heard him present this lecture — a summary of his book The Slave Ship — Rediker’s gravelly baritone crystallized a thought: Aren’t all of us haunted because we must live with the history created for us? And if so, isn’t the notion of being haunted the most appropriate lens through which to view the past?

Sociologist Avery Gordon certainly thinks so. In her book Ghostly Matters, published in 1997, Gordon argues that “to study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects it.” But her book sidesteps spectral matters, ranging instead through a great deal of high culture, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to the life and times of psychologist Carl Jung’s forgotten muse — not a single roadside revenant or small-town ghost to be found.

Dickey aims to unravel what ghosts and hauntings can tell us about ourselves and how we cope with death and tragedy.

The link between history and hauntings, at least hauntings in the sense that would warrant an exorcism or a ghostbusting, has remained unexplored in recent non-fiction. Into this breach steps Colin Dickey, an academic with an abiding interest in all matters macabre. The result is Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, a work that follows Dickey as he visits gloomy locales such as the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis (site of numerous suicides) and the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville (site of innumerable atrocities).

Dickey, who grew up near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and had initially hoped to write an entire book about that sprawling estate, strives to make sense of the historical experiences available at places now packaged and sold to curious tourists and ghost-hunting enthusiasts; the West Virginia Penitentiary today is billed as “the place where history meets mystery” — which I suppose is a better tagline than, say, “the place where 94 people were executed.”

Prior to Ghostland’s arrival, there has been remarkably little overlap between nuanced, scholarly work like Gordon’s Ghostly Matters and the sort of cheesy, labor-of-love local ghost histories that adorn my ghost-obsessed partner’s shelves. Books with special-interest titles like Haunted Pittsburghand Ghost Stories of Washington County make for fascinating reading material and in some chapters even proved useful repositories of lore for Dickey, but they offer little in the way of scholarly insight; they are, more often than not, as light and insubstantial as the spirits they purport to describe.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Ghostland, then, aims to bridge this gap, offering tales of spooky locales for the ectoplasm enthusiasts and close contextual readings of these sites for everyone else. Throughout a narrative that interweaves personal experiences with the historical record, we bear witness to Dickey’s own reactions as he attempts to offer meaningful conclusions about what he encounters in visiting some of America’s most haunted places.

The great insight at the heart of this book has absolutely nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of ghosts. In a move that will likely please neither skeptical rationalists nor committed believers, Dickey offers a brief overview of scientific research aimed at dispelling belief in spirits — then punts on the issue himself. “Like religion, [the question] is one that quickly becomes intractable,” Dickey writes in an email. “Trying to convince a skeptic ghosts exist is as easy as trying to prove to a believer that they don’t, and neither conversation, in the end, is terribly fulfilling.”

With that caveat kept firmly in mind, Dickey aims to unravel what ghosts and hauntings can tell us about ourselves and how we cope with death and tragedy. “Part of the reason ghosts stay with us,” he writes, “is that they remain a compelling mechanism to explain so much that is unknown in our lives.” Should we somehow manage to completely explicate the inexplicable, he believes we will find ourselves having to “replace them with some viable cultural conversation that offers an equally meaningful way of understanding death and the past.”

Viewed from this perspective, hauntings emerge as highly complicated collections of contested remembrances, all distilled into single entities, places, and just-so stories. Dickey deconstructs many of these tales, some familiar, others obscure. The decline of churchyard hauntings corresponds with the movement from burials in plots alongside churches to internment in enormous 19th-century garden cemeteries. Hauntings on Indian burial grounds reflect many Americans’ fears that they reside on contested land — that they do not truly “own” the space their ancestors occupied by force and bloodshed. In a particularly harrowing chapter, Dickey writes about Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, and contrasts the literally whitewashed ghost stories — all these restless souls belong to white people — with the visceral horrors of slavery chronicled by historians like Edward Baptist.

The last of those points resonated with me. My partner and I were seeking just such a night of wonder and whimsy in Galveston, Texas, when we took a ghost tour hosted by the felicitously named Dash Beardsley, a local entertainer with the demeanor of a burnt-out 1980s hair metal frontman. Galveston, once the greatest commercial city in the state but long gone to seed after commercial shipping was redirected to the Port of Houston, offered many of the same quaint period features as Richmond, Charleston, or New Orleans. On our tour, Beardsley narrated charming tales of prostitutes and pirates, but, at the back of them, a single epic disaster loomed: the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which submerged the island, killing 10,000 people (the process would be repeated throughout the century, most recently in 2008).

This sense of the uncanny, which I encountered only briefly during my time in the much-diminished modern city of Galveston, is a recurring motif in Dickey’s book. He experienced such unease most keenly at Moundsville Penitentiary, an already-gloomy facility where his visit caused him to reflect on how “it was the site of so many real atrocities; chronically overpopulated and understaffed, home to numerous human and civil rights abuses, such that it finally had to be closed by a state Supreme Court order.” Yet the staff of the penitentiary had allowed inmates to paint murals, so Dickey had to traverse an unnerving space where “the walls are still lined with paintings of wizards and unicorns, football team logos and song lyrics, Ninja Turtles and other cartoons.”

Here, Dickey wound up triple-haunted by history: there was the official history of the prison, but also an unofficial oral history supplemented by this silent “other history: pictorial and enigmatic.” “All of that,” Dickey writes in an email, “happens in the confined space of the prison, and moving through it, you can’t help but be both unnerved and fascinated.”

“The main work of haunting is done by the living,” observes historian Judith Richardson in Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley. The passing of time is neutral, but the stories we tell ourselves about the past will determine whether we confront its horrors or mythologize its heroes. Dickey has ranged far and wide across the United States, doing his part to keep those old haunts and their multifarious cultural meanings alive. Readers following this virtual ghost tour will find no accounts of spectral sightings but plenty in the American past to chill them to their bones.