by Margaret Kolb
Published by Penguin Random House, 2016 | 331 pages
Seated in a circle in the dark basement, the youngest asks her question. It’s just the four of them at the table: the Fox sisters and their neighbor. The table is bare except for a candle. It’s midnight. “How did you die?” asks Leah. They wait. Above them comes a rapping, like someone knocking at a door. “Were you murdered?” asks Maggie. “Yes. Yes, I was murdered,” came the response from the ceiling.
The Fox sisters were real historical figures, and in 19th-century America – a period where the boundaries between man and animal, man and woman, and man and machine were being challenged – tales of the séances they conducted, of their ability to bridge the final frontier between life and death, spread like wildfire across the United States. While their antics sound unique to the modern reader, in the tradition of Spiritualism—a major religious movement in 19th-century America—their story is one of many.
The Spiritualism movement centered around the intervention of the deceased in the material world, usually for the purpose of communication. “Spirits” knocked on tables and walls, moved objects, or guided the hand of the medium into transcribing messages from the beyond. In an age shaken by immense societal transformations, Spiritualism functioned to help Americans harmonize scientific principles with religious tenets that otherwise would have conflicted.
Though Spiritualism soon fell out of fashion, many of its beliefs merged into mainstream culture. It helped mold notions of the afterlife that are still in circulation today, especially in terms of the afterlife. In addition, it can be seen as contributing – via the significant role women played in the foundation and practice of the movement – to the rise of feminism. Though Spiritualism itself may not have been “real,” its enormous influence on the modern world undoubtedly was.
In his recent work of literary scholarship Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey offers a series of close readings of oral and written ghost stories to shed insight on our national origins, our regional and historical differences, and the contemporary state of our nation. Dickey here investigates not whether ghost stories are real, but what their content and structure can tell us about our deepest fears, how we manage our guilt, and who has the privilege to write history. From the Salem witch trials, through the Lalaurie Mansion hauntings, right up to today, Ghostland proves how central these stories are to our collective identity. It is, in fact, as much a book about America as it is about ghosts.
Central to Dickey’s argument is the claim that ghost stories are not simply meant to scare. They can serve dozens of purposes, such as relieving guilt, highlighting injustice, or giving a face to a vague anxiety. These tales are, at turns, “a way of talking about things we’re not otherwise allowed to discuss,” a “bridge [from] the past to the present,” a means by which “cities make sense of themselves,” a tool to keep the past alive, or a method of revisiting— and rewriting—history. Ghost stories are, like all stories, useful. They help us make sense of the world.
As Dickey conclusively demonstrates here, by analyzing ghost stories we can learn much about the times and places from which they arose. In the case of the ghost of a murdered slave in Louisiana’s Myrtles Plantation, for example, Dickey finds evidence of the anxiety of the area’s history of racism and violence. Investigating modern retelling of hauntings that followed the Salem Witch Trials, Dickey finds evidence of lingering anxieties of religious fanaticism. In both cases, the idea that victims of injustice can return in the form of a ghost forces us to confront our past wrongs. Ghost stories, in this reading, function as moral indictment.
Elsewhere, Dickey illustrates how ghost stories can shed light on historical structures of power. Dickey argues, for example, that Raw Head and Bloody Bones – two ghosts that, according to legend, haunted the environs of 19th century Southern plantations – were propagated by white landowners in order to dissuade their slaves from escaping into the wilderness. In another reading, Dickey analyzes the rumors surrounding the famous Winchester Mystery House, a sprawling and labyrinthine California mansion kept in a constant state of construction by Sarah Winchester, widow of the rifle mogul. Tales speak of hauntings by ghosts of the people her husband’s guns killed. Dickey revisits the case, however, and proposes a new theory: that our nation was so keen to call her house haunted not because there were actual ghosts, but because we found something unnatural in a self-sufficient woman living alone. Elsewhere Dickey details cases of ghost stories embellished by tour companies to draw in customers, circulated to revive and redeem the fallen Confederacy, and in one case fabricated whole cloth for the sole purpose of indicting a man accused of murder. Ghost stories, Dickey’s analysis demonstrates, are embedded in complex webs of power, influence, and money.
Especially fascinating here is Dickey’s analysis of the forces that conspire to preserve, or extinguish, ghost stories. Investigating a former slave-auction site in Richmond, Virginia, Dickey analyzes the fact that all the ghosts in that neighborhood are, inexplicably, white. From this simple observation, Dicky makes a convincing case that ghost stories are a privileged form of expression, overwhelmingly reserved for those in power, who determine which memories are persevered, and which are not. Examining the larger history of ghost tales, we find that marginalized groups of people tend to be excluded from ghost stories—hence the scarcity of stories involving black ghosts, even in places where they comprised the majority of the population, and were subjected to extraordinary physical and mental violence.
Dickey constantly stresses the important role that location plays in the formation and propagation of ghost stories. Consider that, while ghosts themselves tend to mutate over the course of decades, it is far less common for the setting of those tales to change. It is for this reason that Dickey structures Ghostland around specific locations, its sections labeled by type of place: domestic spaces, public spaces, institutional spaces, and finally, whole cities. Dickey approaches spaces with the eye of an architect: he reveals how a tilt in a staircase, an upside-down keyhole, or a sloping roof, were intentional design choices, meant to ward off spirits. From a haunted Toys “R” Us to a computer-automated house whose lights are still coordinated with the deceased owner’s comings and goings, Dickey shows how no location can escape the human need for narrative. Even the internet has its share of the uncanny—Dickey shares a story about how Facebook keeps suggesting he connect with the profile of an old friend, a friend to whose death the algorithm seems oblivious. In an America where traditional spaces are being superseded by commercial and digital ones, nowhere, it seems, is safe from a haunting.
At times, the ambitious scope of Ghostland – 16 different histories in 260-odd pages with dozens more stories interspersed – can sometimes leave the reader feeling rushed. In the dizzying spread of places, subjects, and names—brothels in Reno to Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson to a bridge in Portland—it can be hard to keep tabs on any one story. To engage with an overview not only of all of American history, but of so many American places—from ghost towns to Virginia colonies to the woods of the blood-soaked south—can be a dizzying endeavor. The reader gets a taste of everything, but rarely had a chance to sink in one’s teeth.
All in all, however, Ghostland is an impressively researched, conceived, and written book, one that takes a mass of raw ghost stories and situates them into their sociopolitical and historical context with the precision and nuance of a jeweler. In reading Dickey’s work it’s clear that we find as much to explore in our own response to these stories as we do in the stories themselves. Far from writing these tales off as bogus or hokey, Dickey’s book takes them seriously, both as artifacts as well as art. Storytelling and history: two fields one might not expect to find wed so elegantly in a book about ghosts. As with the Fox sisters, “the main work of haunting is done by the living,” quotes Dickey in an epigraph. Ghostland is a testament to this.
Drew Kiser is an American writer and critic living in France. His fiction has appeared in The Fem and Polychrome Ink, and his articles in Equality and The Advocate. Find him on Twitter: @DrewKiser666.