Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Ghostland Cover Crop

In Louisiana, there’s a hotel known as the Myrtles Plantation, built about five miles up from a curve in the Mississippi on the edge of formerly Spanish land. Myrtles — a 1796 manse that features upside-down locks to confuse spirits who might otherwise enter through the keyholes — is, it seems, teeming with ghosts. There are the ghosts of Union soldiers shot during the Civil War. There’s the ghost of the plantation owners’ daughter’s husband, who was shot on the front porch. To top it all off there’s the ghost of an enslaved girl named Chloe, who, when spurned in her master’s love, was said to have poisoned his children and wife with one fatal oleander cake. She still roams the halls, supposedly, in a green turban.

This story, is dramatic, and to be honest, more than a bit tacky. What’s more, it’s not even historically true — plantation records show no Chloe, and the records do show that the children  and wife in question died of yellow fever  years apart. Nevertheless, this story has, for several decades, been on sale as a “highlight” of the Myrtles plantations tours. Colin Dickey has chased it and a bevy of other ghost stories down in Ghostland, his sly, entertaining compendium of American haunting. What, he asks, does the story of Chloe show us — not just about ghosts but about ourselves? What is the purpose of wanting to be haunted this way?

After all, Dickey notes, there are surprising numbers of ghosts to be found all over the United States. For such a new country, we do a brisk business in unfinished pasts. Some of our ghosts can be found in brothels. Some – more traditionalist spirits, perhaps –roam graveyards. Some creak old floorboards or appear in tatters in houses that have long since become museums. Many are not picky about settings and will show up in parking lots or strip malls. One even haunts a Toys “R” Us in Sunnyvale, California. In fact, Dickey shows us, American ghosts are remarkably democratic, in the sense that they are willing to haunt almost anywhere that we’ve been. Dickey welcomes them in. Wandering between the Winchester Mystery House and the Stanley Hotel — the inn made famous by The Shiningand voyaging through the old epicenter of slave trading in Richmond Virginia, Dickey keeps asking us: Why do we Americans have so many haunted places? The answer, he suggests, may have to do with the contradictions and deliberate obfuscations in our supposedly settled, daylight history. Ghosts come out to remind us of paradoxes, tensions, omissions. Ghosts reveal our own confusions — although they often glance off them slantwise, hinting at them indirectly.

Each chapter is part tale, part analysis. The stories are good — chains rattle, eerie lights pass by — but often Dickey seems more fascinated than actually spooked. Occasionally, he’s thrown off balance, as in a spectrally afflicted whorehouse in Nevada, where he can’t quite shake an orblike image he sees on the prostitute’s video screen. Other times, even bedding down in the most haunted room of the haunted bed-and-breakfast during the lashing rain of a stormy night, he’s simply worn out by his compendious travels. There may be ghosts around him, but they don’t trouble his sleep.

Instead, what makes the book rich is the way that Dickey consistently narrates a pleasantly chilling tale — of a spurned love, of a series of mysterious deaths, of an unhappy soul left with unfinished work — then reads what lies behind the ghost story. It’s as if he’s lifting the veil to show how one horror stands in for another. Behind our countless stories of haunted Native burial grounds, for instance, may well lie America’s own uneasiness about the fact that we can never wholly belong to a land that has been so brutally stolen. Behind the popular white ghosts that populate Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom are the real horrors of slavery — the kind of deep human nightmares that took place in one of the densest and most horrific nodes of slave trafficking in the United States. “The human capital lost in Shockoe Bottom is staggering. Only New Orleans had a larger column of human beings . . . hired out for temporary work,” Dickey writes. Might it be that we sometimes are haunted to remember and that other times we tell stories to obscure other, more terrible pasts? Sometimes our ghost stories reveal us to ourselves. Sometimes they hide us from ourselves. Often, Dickey argues, they do both.

One of the paradoxes of ghosts: telling their stories is comforting. There’s another way that the industry of being scared offers a temporary catharsis that seems to interpose itself at sites where we might really confront and grieve the deeper violence of the American past. Ghosts swirl around our confusions, around wrongs that have not yet been righted. By their very natures, ghosts hover in liminal spaces — between the real and the imaginary, between death and life. But for all their embodiment of the bodiless, for all their supposedly unfinished work, Dickey argues that it’s our own unresolved problems, our own deep restlessness, that we find in the figure of an old soldier or wronged woman who won’t go quietly.

If you’re in the mood to be truly haunted by the paranormal, Dickey may foil you. He may also ask you to think more. But if you’re interested in thinking about the veil behind the veil behind the veil, about the sleight of hand or mind that substitutes one trauma for another, or about why we need to consume ghosts and ghostliness at all, this book is a treat. Dickey is a wise tour guide to the kitsch and also an astute interpreter of the compelling American medium of haunting.

That said, Dickey doesn’t want us to do away with ghosts, even if we could. He seems to think ghosts won’t ever really disappear, because, as he puts it, “we need them too badly.” After all, he argues, they are here for a reason — they lead us towards the unfinished gravesites in our lives. “The language of ghosts is a means of coping with the unfamiliar — and if they sometimes require that we overlook the truth, that may be a price we’re willing to pay,” he writes. It’s real, this haunting. Ghosts know something we don’t. They go ahead of us, pointing on toward something unfinished, gesturing, however indirectly, to something just beyond.