Spooks and Storytelling: We Scare Ourselves in Order to Live

Book review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Ghostland is a perfect October read. It’s hard to find a nonfiction book about ghosts and hauntings that’s not an utter cheeseball groanfest. And although it’s sometimes (sometimes!) fun to watch ridiculous, guilty pleasure TV shows about spookiness (I mean, we have networks devoted to the genre – I came across a show entirely about Amish hauntings, make of that what you will) books in that breathless, sensationalist style don’t do it for me. But this is beautifully written, with more of an intellectual, scientific inclination. In fact, it’s heavily focused on debunking.

Author Colin Dickey highlights a variety of famous, infamous, and lesser known American hauntings across the country, and in most cases is able to reason out sensible explanations for even some of the most famous cases through historical research of his own and others, current events of the time, science, and social psychology. There are still some loose ends, and maybe it’s even a little disappointing to read such logical evidence against anything mysterious or supernatural, but as he explains again and again – the ghosts are ourselves, our pasts, they exist because of what we’ve left unfinished, confused or wronged. With his evidence for why these stories are told, and the patterns connected to their appearances, it’s not surprising that we have so many ubiquitous ghosts and tales.

One story was of the Greenbrier Ghost, a West Virginia legend of a murdered wife who returns in her mother’s dreams to reveal her husband’s guilt. I’d heard and read about this story, but never any intimation that there was a logical explanation to it, only the legend accepted as fact. When Dickey explains some local history that a researcher connected to it, I was so surprised – it seemed so simple, yet made so much sense.

Much of the book is like that – fascinating stories, fitting explanations and even disprovals of the narratives that don’t leave much wiggle room for the supernatural anymore. It can be a little disappointing – I was raised with a straightforward acceptance of if not the supernatural, but the otherworldly, often with religious overtones. Although I don’t buy into the religious aspect, I’ve often grudgingly accepted stories that don’t fit with rational explanations. Dickey himself has a case or two of the same – a missing explanation here and there. There’s still that sliver of doubt to keep things interesting.

As a social history of America, the book is a gem. I could’ve read a book twice as long on this kind of topic, tying our imaginations into the societal problems they developed alongside and in response to. Dickey also gives a more academic definition of haunting, and it clarifies much of what we believe – the memory of people and places can’t ever completely be erased or built over and we live with many kinds of ghosts and hauntings, whether you believe in a supernatural definition or not.

And for a young country in terms of European settlement and civilization (he wonderfully addresses the multitude of cultural issues that go along with this) we’ve told a lot of stories just to understand ourselves, to make sense of our lives and what’s around us and why things happen as they do. America doesn’t bear the same scars as Europe, for example: centuries upon centuries’ worth of architecture, religion, rigid culture, urban development and farther-reaching layers of history.

We made our history in a different way, an amalgam of what we brought with us and what we found when we came, how we destroyed and built up and dealt with the successes, failures, and guilt that accompanied it all. This explores the spaces that became significant in the US – bridges, bars, battlefields, hotels, modern disasters, the iconic image and idea of the haunted house – why are these places connected to ghosts or eerie presences, and why do certain legends endure even when many of the details are provably incorrect?

To sum it up – look elsewhere for something blood-chillingly spooky, but this is the source if you want to know the real stories behind common fears and well-known scary tales that have long captured the American imagination.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
by Colin Dickey
published October 4, 2016 by Viking
Book Depository


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