Reposting to include Kelly’s new review.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
If ghosts exist, we don’t know why, but ghost stories exist because the living make them up; and the living make them up because we need them. Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016) explores the US’s social conflicts and hidden histories as they play out in places that are publicly advertised as “haunted.” In the first chapter, Dickey says, “If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses. Look for the darkened graveyards, the derelict hotels, the empty and decaying old hospitals.”
That passage is also something of a roadmap to the book, which comprises a collection of Dickey’s essays. The chapters are divided by category: haunted houses; haunted offices; haunted bars, hotels, and brothels; prisons and asylums; cemeteries; parks; even haunted cities. Dickey has a PhD in comparative literature and is a regularly contributing writer for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is part of a group called The Order of the Good Death, a collection of writers, artists and “death industry professionals” who are interested in changing Western society’s view of death (improving it). This point of view comes into play throughout Ghostland in some interesting ways. As a stylist, Dickey writes thoughtful, clear prose with a lot of gentle humor. Many of the essays recount his personal experiences at haunted locations, and some include interviews with family members, owners of haunted places, and ghost hunters of different types.
The Haunted Houses section includes one near and dear to my heart; one that isn’t haunted at all: The Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California. Dickey separates the facts of Sarah Winchester’s California life from the fiction that was invented by the roadside-attraction- owner who bought the place after her death. Dickey points out that at the cusp of the19/20th century, in the midst of a serious economic recession, Winchester, with her inherited fortune and her own successful business, was something of a “one-percenter.” As a woman alone she was also a target, and a series of unpleasantly speculative articles in a local San Jose paper may have given the concessioner who bought the place the idea for the “haunted house.” The articles painted Winchester as a gullible woman who may have been influenced by a psychic, even though there is no evidence that Winchester ever visited a psychic. Dickey points out that the op-ed piece following the articles, purporting to be from a friend of Winchester, in fact warns about the dangers of insulting rich people in San Jose, because they might get mad and go away. And nobody wants that!
Dickey points out that often there is no historical record of the person identified as the “ghost” in a haunted house. At the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, the ghost of an enslaved woman named Chloe haunts the place. Dozens of people have seen her. The plantation’s master kept Chloe as a concubine, but Chloe listened at keyholes to get information that might benefit her. When the master discovered this, he cut off her ear as punishment. To get back into the master’s good graces, Chloe planned to give his children a small dose of oleander leaf poison, and then save them, but she misjudged the amount and the children died. The master hanged Chloe and now her spirit haunts the place. There is nothing in the Myrtle’s extensive records of a slave named Chloe, and the family children did not die of poison. Chloe represents, most likely, a cautionary tale for Southern men about the danger of sleeping with slaves. Chloe is depicted as “a mulatto,” meaning, as a lighter-skinned woman, she would probably have moved more freely in society (at least after the Civil War). She isn’t scary as a ghost; she’s scary as a woman who can move between social groups, and whose presence threatens the legacy of the ruling class. Dickey recounts a few ghost stories of women like her in Ghostland. This is one thing ghost stories do for us: give us carefully regulated ways to glance at the parts of our history that are dark, exploitive, unjust, or make us uncomfortable.
Some houses seem to attract ghost stories as an explanation for their structural strangeness, like the house that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (which apparently only had four at the time he wrote the book); or the house of a noted spiritualist in the Hudson Valley. The seven gables house acquired a reputation for being haunted after a later owner found a mysterious staircase, leading to the attic, literally at the center of the house — it curled around the chimney. Stories immediately began to flow, explaining the mystery staircase. It wasn’t until decades later that the owners admitted they had built it themselves.
In the category on haunted houses, Dickey gives us a short but thorough overview of the rise of spiritualism in the US and the way it helped create some “haunted houses.”
Probably my favorite section in Ghostland included bars, hotels, and brothels. Dickey focused on several decaying hotels in Los Angeles; perhaps the buildings are visited by spectral residents, but more importantly, these buildings are like ghosts on the landscape themselves. (Think about the original Blade Runner movie, and the building JF Sebastian lived in.) In one of these chapters, Dickey spends time with a group called Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles (GHOULA), who prefer to use research and history to track down ghosts rather than PK meters and Electronic Voice Phenomenon sessions. Often, the ghost tales from these buildings expose the gap between the sunlit, lawful world and what happened behind locked doors or in basements, especially during Prohibition.
Ghost stories often represent justice delayed, or force us to accept misery that has never been addressed. Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond, Virginia, is filled with buildings that host spirits; gamblers and dance hall girls, all white. Dickey wonders why the space at the end of Shockoe Bottom, (which is now part of a freeway) is not overrun with ghosts, since this was the site of the slave auction lot. Strangely, the guidebooks and tourist sites that offer haunted Richmond tours do not include the former slave lot. Dickey says that to find black ghosts, you only have to open the Works Progress Administration reports of the oral histories taken from those surviving enslaved people who had been freed, to find thousands of black specters. They do not make it into the guidebooks or the carefully manufactured folk tales, though.
Similarly, when it comes to haunted cities, Dickey talks about two haunted locations in New Orleans. Here, his interest in mortuary sciences comes back into play, since New Orleans has a burial style (still in use today) that is different from most of the continental US. Dickey talks about the fact that the earth of New Orleans literally will not hold the dead, and how the crypts and sepulchers of that city inform its character. The LaLaurie Mansion is a building that should be, if not cursed, at least seriously haunted. This is also a story about slavery and the enslaved. Delphine LaLaurie’s neighbors found out how brutally she had tortured people when an elderly enslaved woman set the house on fire because she could think of no other way to escape. In another part of town, over a century later, a very different ghost haunts a street corner. Vera Smith died during Hurricane Katrina. When her partner found her body, he called law enforcement, but no one would come to get her body. The priority was the living; but we all remember images of houses with numbers painted on them, and shrouded bodies on streets for days and days. Vera was beloved in her neighborhood, and in the recovery of the storm, an artist friend put a memorial on the street. This angered a shop owner. In the resulting unpleasantness, it seemed to Vera had begun to haunt the corner. The memorial is back, and Vera is something of a guardian spirit now. Or is she another cautionary tale?
In Ghostland’s section on prisons and asylums, Dickey explained why there are so many asylums that look like one-half of a bad gothic mansion, and why so many of them of so huge. This was the least pleasant section of the book, but I learned a lot.
Dickey does not mock believers; he does not mock skeptics. He is less impressed with the ghost hunters who get their own TV shows and come out with all kinds of electronic gear than he is for those who search with a sense of reverence and a love of history. Like any collection of this sort, the essays were uneven for me in terms of interest. Dickey’s depth of work or the quality of his prose never flagged. There were just some places I had less interest in.
Ghostland gives us an interesting view of America, and an interesting view of ghosts. One ghost hunter goes totally science-fictional on Dickey, explaining that it’s all about physics; ghosts are coming through wormholes that pop in and out of existence all the time. The folks of GHOULA said it best, “[Other ghost hunters] want to capture the ghost … We want to capture the ghost story.”
Ghost stories may chill us, but, Dickey tells us, we create those stories, those haunted factories, homes, and parks, to find a safe way to face the things in our society that we truly fear.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016) is a fascinating analysis of America’s ghost stories. Colin Dickey takes us on a tour of some of the most famously “haunted” places in the country, and shows how these hauntings reveal aspects of our history that unsettle us. “If American history is taught to schoolchildren as a series of great, striding benchmarks,” he says, “the history of America’s ghost stories is one of crimes left unsolved or transgressions we now feel guilty about.” This includes slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the witch craze, and Hurricane Katrina.
Dickey covers plenty of well-known haunts and haunted places here, including the Lemp family of St. Louis (of particular local interest to me), the Winchester Mystery House, the House of the Seven Gables, and many more.
Other stories were new to me — did you know the Mustang Ranch in Nevada is haunted, or a particular Toys ‘R’ Us in California? He tells us which parts of each legend are impossible or debunked, but also describes the alchemy of troubled history and architectural or natural weirdness that makes each case such fertile ground for ghost stories.
A few years ago when my partner and I went to New Orleans, we went on a “skeptic’s ghost tour” that both told the infamous stories and explained why they probably weren’t true. Ghostland is a similar experience, expanded to the whole United States. It’s not a scary book, per se, but it’s full of interesting tidbits about what does scare us. It’s the kind of book that will have you spouting off interesting facts about the design of cemeteries or insane asylums over dinner, which might cause people to look at you funny, but you’ll have learned a lot. I definitely recommend it.
I’m in the middle of this myself–it’s super fascinating! And it reminds me that there was a “haunted” building at the college where I used to work, supposedly haunted by a couple from the Civil War (or possibly just the girl or just the guy) even though that part of the building wasn’t built yet. But it does express some feelings about the Civil War in that town, and maybe a little bit about single women at a women’s college.
It is interesting to me that the details (or historical facts) don’t matter — yet so often it’s a really good story!
Kelly, I’ve heard so many stories about ghosts and hauntings on college campuses (and was witness to a really weird experience) that it makes me think there’s got to be more to it than just “unsettled spirits.”
Marion, did Dickey touch on colleges/universities at all?
“Civic Spirits” focused on prisons and asylums. I don’t remember colleges being mentioned at all, but certainly there are a lot of colleges w/haunted buildings.
He does talk about liminal spaces at one point (I’m not actually to that point yet in the book, but it’s the page I opened to in B&N that sold me on the book), and college does seem to be a liminal space. You’ve got all these people right at the beginning of adulthood, staying there for only a few years and then moving on, but living really intensely in the space while they’re there.
I can see lots of reasons why colleges would be haunted. Certainly they’re liminal space. There are many, many people who cycle through there, are there ARE deaths sometimes. There’s also something about the energy, right?
Yep! And they’re architectural hodgepodges with buildings from all sorts of eras, and everything has a legend but it’s a game of telephone because nobody’s been there long enough to remember the real story, and sometimes people just up and disappear (they’ve probably just flunked out or moved in with their internet boyfriend from Canada…but what if it was faeries?).