An American History in Haunted Places
By Colin Dickey
320 pp. Viking. $27.
Whether or not ghosts are real is beside the point, Colin Dickey tells us in the first lines of “Ghostland.” Rather, what compels him in this appealing book is the meaning of haunted places in contemporary American culture. “How do we deal with stories about the dead and their ghosts?” Dickey asks. “How do we inhabit and move through spaces that we have deemed haunted?”
To answer those questions, Dickey, a writer who has produced eerie studies of historical and anatomical oddities, turns his ever curious eye to the widespread phenomenon of hauntings — to the lure of ghostly places for visitors and the impact of these places on local communities. The spectral map Dickey creates is as broad and packed as his book’s title implies. He visits haunted houses (the most prevalent of spooky places, he explains with a fascinating aside about memory palaces), haunted businesses, prisons, asylums and cemeteries across the contiguous United States — from New England, New York, the South and Midwest to the Rocky Mountains, Southwest and Pacific Coast. As he interweaves a series of perceptive insights on architecture and human psychology, technology and ghost hunts, not to mention haunting as social control, Dickey shows how haunted places reveal what troubled us before and what troubles us now.
Dickey concludes that ghost stories attached to particular places often contain social anxieties and unsettled issues from the past. Although these ghost stories recall difficult realities — like the wrongful execution of minorities in the case of the Salem “witches,” the physical and emotional abuses of slavery, resistance to women’s independence, and tensions between the rich and the poor — they fail to achieve a public reckoning with historical injustice. Ghosts, Dickey asserts, are a “convenient metaphor for a whole host of problems not connected to the supernatural,” and talking about them “becomes a means to process or make sense of experiences that can otherwise seem overwhelming or mystifying.”
“Ghostland” amounts to a lively assemblage and smart analysis of dozens of haunting stories, some better known than others. In each chapter, Dickey spins riveting tales and then carefully unwinds these narratives, exposing the materials and motivations of their construction. At the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dickey learns that the haunted hidden staircase that has long enthralled tourists was never even seen by Hawthorne; it was added by restorers more than half a century later. At the Mustang Ranch, a brothel near Reno, Nev., which Dickey describes as the site with the “strongest evidence of the paranormal” of all the places he visited, he nevertheless hypothesizes that the propensity for female employees to witness ghosts stems from the extreme stress of their work lives.
The most fascinating moments in “Ghostland” are Dickey’s etymological musings (on terms like “haunt,” “cemetery,” “ruin porn” and “ghost town”) and his many turns down unusual paths of American history. His discussion of the links between 19th-century Spiritualism, the early feminist movement and contemporary New Age beliefs; his account of the red dwarf who is said to have haunted Detroit since the city’s founding, in 1701; and his recognition that ghost stories can aid the work of historic preservation: All of these are absorbing. While many of the ghost stories he recounts can be found in academic treatments as well as lighthearted local guides, with “Ghostland,” Dickey achieves a capacious geographical synthesis that is both intellectually intriguing and politically instructive.