Spooks and Storytelling: We Scare Ourselves in Order to Live

Book review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

It’s almost Halloween!!! I LOVE Halloween, even if it’s been years since I bothered to dress up or do anything. Mostly I love the atmosphere in America at this time and a lifetime’s worth of happy Halloween memories. But most importantly, candy. And cakes, and cookies, and a plethora of other diabetes-inducing deliciousness that starts crowding supermarket, drugstore, and bakery shelves in America. And every other available surface, basically. I know it’s kind of a love it or hate it situation, but I love candy corn. And those sickeningly sweet candy corn pumpkins. LOVE THEM! I feel a little sick after eating a couple handfuls, but totally worth it. Plus the cheesy decorations make me happy.

Unfortunately, living in Europe at the moment, I’m yet again candy corn-less, and the merry Halloween spirit that pervades America is missing in my life. Heartbreak.

On the bright side, the least I can do is read something spooky and dream of seeing Halloweeniness in America again someday. The newly released Ghostland is great for this – I recommend it as 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 last time I was home, 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 History with a capital H.

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 and guilts that accompanied it all. This explores the spaces that became significant for 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 like those that show up on American Horror Story.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
by Colin Dickey

published October 4, 2016 by Viking

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