The Stories We Tell, and the Stories We Hide – A Review of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

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Almost every school in the Philippines is haunted. While this might seem obvious for some very old schools (like the University of Santo Tomas, which is the oldest university in the Philippines), even some rather newer schools can have ghost stories attached to them. For example, the high school I attended had a big, old tree that stood in one corner of the school grounds. One of the branches had some rope hanging from it, the dangling end looped in a way that was reminiscent of a noose. School rumour had it that a nun had hung herself from that rope, and that anyone who happened to wander around the grounds late at night might spot her ghost, either standing at the base of the tree underneath the noose, or hanging from the noose itself, her ghostly habit ruffled by an invisible wind.

There are some details about this story that make sense, but there are a lot more that don’t – or rather, simply have no answer. For example, it makes sense that the ghost is a nun, because the school was run by nuns. It also makes sense that she hung herself from the tree: the convent is adjacent to the school, but the part of the school where the tree stands is actually quite far away from the convent’s location, with one of the school buildings blocking the view. If a suicidal nun is looking for some privacy to ensure that she is not discovered in the act, the tree is the best place to do it, and hanging is the best means of doing it because it is unlikely she will create enough noise to alert anyone, and rope is fairly easy to find on the school grounds, since the maintenance staff use it for a variety of purposes.

The other details of the story, however, are not so clear-cut. No one could explain why the nun was driven to suicide in the first place, and no one could explain why the noose (if it was indeed meant to be a noose) was still hanging from the tree after the act. I suppose I could have actually asked one of the sisters about it, but there was an unspoken rule amongst the students that no one could ask anyone in authority about it, because to do so would bring down some unknown, unspeakable punishment on anyone who asked.

Thinking back on that story, I am more interested in the reasons why such a story emerged in the first place. Why are schools always considered haunted, in one way or another, even if they are relatively new? Why is the ghost a nun, specifically, when it could be the ghost of just about any other person – especially since school rumour also held that the school had been built on land that was once a battlefield between Japanese soldiers and Filipino guerrilla fighters in World War II? Why is no explanation given for why the nun hung herself?

Colin Dickey asks similar questions in his book Ghostland: A History of America in Haunted Places. In this book, Dickey tells the stories of various haunted places across America, but this is not a straightforward collection of ghost stories; instead, Dickey looks into the history of the stories he has collected, attempting to explain why certain details are included, or excluded, or even why certain stories get told, while others are not. In doing so, Dickey attempts to tell a history of the United States that, while not taught in schools or considered in any way “official”, is still valid because of the place it holds in American culture and imagination.

The book is divided into four sections, and then further divided into sixteen chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue. In “Part I: The Unhomely”, Dickey tackles the classic haunted house, including the Winchester Mystery House and the Lemp Mansion. “Part II: After Hours” focuses on more public spaces: hotels, restaurants, bars – and brothels, since one of the places tackled in this portion of the book is the Mustang Ranch in Reno, Nevada, which has a fairly eerie ghost story of its own. “Part III: Civic-Minded Spirits”, focuses on places that serve a civic purpose, such as the Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. Finally, “Part IV: Useless Memory”, focuses on the notion entire cities being haunted, such as Detroit.

What makes Ghostland such an interesting read is the way Dickey tackles the various ghost stories mentioned in the book. There is nothing actually outright scary about the stories he tells – at least, not in the traditional sense that ghost stories are considered scary. Rather, he discusses the historical and socio-cultural underpinnings of each story. In his Author’s Notes, Dickey explains the rationale behind his book.

Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, ghost stories and legends of haunted places are a vital, dynamic means of confronting the past and those who have gone before us. Ultimately, this book is about the relationship between place and story: how the two depend on each other and how they bring each other alive.

Ghostland’s primary focus, then, is the interface between past and present, using ghost stories as the lens through which the reader might come to understand how the past shapes the present ,and vice-versa. In doing so, Dickey attempts to negotiate the differences between “official” history and “hidden” history: the difference between history has it is taught in schools and other orthodox learning institutions, versus the history that one hears via word-of-mouth in the form of folktales, urban legends, and especially ghost stories. After all, there are plenty of details that official historical accounts like to hide, things that make people uncomfortable to even think about. And yet, that frisson of discomfort is one of the things that makes ghost stories so popular – and, therefore, extremely useful in keeping those otherwise uncomfortable, difficult-to-confront historical stories alive:

Ghost stories are a way of talking about things we’re not otherwise allowed to discuss a forbidden history we thought bricked up safely in the walls. They cover over the gaps and in the process help us assuage our anxieties, providing a rationale after the fact.

Because there is much about history that still remains hidden (deliberately or otherwise), people also crave it. This desire for illicit knowledge, for the “inside scoop” on history, drives much of what is called “dark tourism”:

Ghost tours are popular with tourists, explains geographer Glenn Gentry, because they “allow access to dissonant knowledge, dirty laundry, back stage.” They are the celebrity gossip of history, the salacious underbelly of the past, and we’re drawn to them because the standard history often obscures as much as it reveals.

An excellent example of all of the above is the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, which features prominently in “Chapter Two: Shifting Ground.” When analysing the story of the ghost Chloe, perhaps Myrtles Plantation’s most famous spirit-in-residence, Dickey comments on how the details of her story not only contradict established facts, but play into several racist and misogynistic stereotypes:

Melodramatic and tawdry, Chloe’s story is also, depending on whom you talk to, either mostly or wholly fictitious. … This is unsurprising: Chloe’s tale plays up several basic stereotypes common to American folklore and reads more as an amalgamation of stock characters than the story of a real person. It has strains of both the Jezebel figure…; and the “mammy” figure… Appearing in some versions as notably light-skinned, Chloe, as historian Tiya Miles points out, also conforms to the cliché of the “tragic mulatto”… The lack of clear details or historical substantiation means that the legend of Chloe is adaptable: each person who tells her story can borrow from the various stereotypes as needed, emphasizing different aspects over others to suit the telling.

In framing Chloe’s story thusly, Dickey reveals the darker side of Myrtles Plantation’s history – indeed, of all other plantations and the slave system as a whole. Though slave-owning and plantations go hand-in-hand in American history, it is a particular corner of history that many white Americans are not comfortable confronting, a harsh truth they are unable to accept for what it is. Chloe’s story softens the edges of that harsher history, making it more palatable to the guilty psyche of white America.

Chloe, however, is far from the only ghost whose presence in Myrtles Plantation pricks at the conscience of white American memory. There is also the ghost of an unnamed Indian girl, whose story Dickey traces to Frances Kermeen, who bought the plantation in 1980 with the hopes of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. According to Kermeen’s story, the Indian girl indicated that there was an Indian (specifically, Tunica) burial ground underneath what is now the parking lot, thus explaining not only that specific ghost’s presence, but the presence of all the other ghosts on the property.

At this point Dickey goes off on a tangent, exploring “[t]he Anglo fascination with Indian burial lands”, discussing both Jan Anson’s The Amityville Horror and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary as more modern-day examples of a fascination that “stretches back at least to the eighteenth century”. In discussing both books, Dickey reminds readers, especially white readers, that the American Dream is built on land that was stolen from others:

… There’s nowhere in [the United States] that wasn’t already inhabited before Europeans arrived, and there’s no town, no house, that doesn’t sit atop someone else’s former home. More often than not, we’ve chosen to deal with this fact through the language of ghosts.

The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans—specifically white, middle-class Americans—live. Embedded deep in the idea of home ownership—the Holy Grail of American middle-class life—is the idea that we don’t, in fact, own the land we’ve just bought. …

… Americans live on haunted land because we have no other choice.

Dickey follows a similar pattern in his analysis of the ghost stories he tackles in this book: from the relationship between feminism, the Spiritualist movement, and the Winchester Mystery Mansion; to the shadowy underbelly of fame, fortune, and the haunted hotels of Los Angeles; to the dark history of mental health treatment and the haunted asylum; to the spectre of gentrification and the ruins of Detroit – all of this is revealed as Dickey carefully untangles fact from fiction in an attempt to understand why it is that ghost stories become ghost stories – and why they are so important in understanding not just American history, but American culture as a whole.

Another important thing that Dickey does in this book is not to ask whether or not ghosts are real. Although Dickey does touch upon the many ways people have tried to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, he only discusses them peripherally, as an extension of the larger focus of the book, which is the stories themselves. Though Dickey appears to lean more towards scepticism, he does admit in some parts of the book that there have been times when he has been unable to explain some things he has experienced, but he does not say anything more on the subject except to say that he experienced them, nothing more. His focus is purely on the stories, and why those stories are probably more interesting – and more important – than the ghosts themselves, or any debate about whether or not ghosts are real.

However, though the content of Dickey’s book is extremely interesting and in many ways entertaining, the book itself is not without its problems – specifically, its narrative flow. Though Dickey tries to organise the stories he tells and analyses into specific sections (haunted houses in Part I, haunted bars, hotels, and restaurants in Part II, and so on), the connections between each of the chapters themselves can feel a bit tenuous at times. Dickey also has a tendency to go off on tangents, as mentioned earlier when talking about his analysis of the Myrtles Plantation’s Indian ghost girl. Oftentimes these tangents are interesting, but Dickey has some difficulty getting back on track with the original story, with the transitions feeling rather abrupt in some places. This means that the best approach to reading Ghostland might be to treat each chapter as its own individual essay: each chapter having either no or only a negligible connection to the previous one, so that it can be read as a free-standing piece of sorts. Unfortunately, it is difficult to use this approach because Dickey constantly references the content of previous chapters in the book. Therefore, the reader really has no choice but to read the book from cover-to-cover, even if the better approach would be to read it in chunks as whim or pleasure dictate.

Overall, Ghostland: A History of America in Haunted Places is a fascinating overview of various haunted places in the United States, with analysis provided by someone who is not interested in proving or disproving whether or not ghosts exist, but in understanding why they are created and told in the first place. By viewing ghost stories as a way to “reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way”, Dickey shows that underneath the chills and the thrills of ghostly tales lie hidden, darker truths that need to be addressed and discussed: things like racism, slavery, misogyny, genocide, classism, and the nature of mortality. Ghost stories are the means by which these ideas continue to prick at the American collective subconscious, and will continue to do so despite the arguments of sceptics and the onward march of both time and technology.

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2 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell, and the Stories We Hide – A Review of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

    1. It’s still a great read even if it’s not the spooky season ;). It’d make a great book for a road trip, I imagine, or even just the longer, darker months of the year.

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