15 September 2017

Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted PlacesGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really liked this book in the beginning. I grew up in an old haunted house in New England, yet I'm always a skeptic. (99% of supernatural activity ends up being the wind or a cat — and cats are creepy as hell.) I liked reading the stories behind the stories, whether they debunked the legends or gave credence to them. I’ve always been interested in history and nonfiction and ghost stories are the old “fake news.” Entertaining but you shouldn’t necessarily take them at face value. As the book went on, I found the stories themselves no less interesting but the format became tedious.

A couple of the stories really stood out to me. There are many cases of ghost stories being used to control a narrative that makes people feel safe. We don’t have to feel guilty about marginalizing someone or face realities of our country’s brutal history if there’s a fun story.

Does it count as spoilers to discuss the historical facts around ghost stories? Just in case, here’s your spoiler alert.
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is a place I always wanted to visit when I lived in the area. I was more interested in the weird architecture than in the story of the so-called insane woman who had it built. And it turns out I probably had reason to be. According to Dickey, the worst sin Sarah Winchester committed was being slightly eccentric and misunderstood by her community, and thus the rumors of her insanity flourished. “[Her legend] depends on a cultural uneasiness to which we don’t always like to admit. An uneasiness about women living alone, withdrawn from society, for one.” This is a common thread among ghost stories and horror movies and happens in popular fiction and in real life — a woman is different from how society thinks she should be and is persecuted or even punished for it.

About Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Virginia, Dickey says so succinctly, “The ghosts of Shockoe Bottom are overwhelmingly white.” This is an area of the country where we find “the first settlements,” as long as we are only counting the settlements of the Europeans. This is an area of the Southern United States known for its slave auctions. Atrocities were committed in the area, yet the ghosts are white people from the 1700s and 1800s who haunt touristy bars and restaurants. Erase history much? If you really want to be horrified by scary stories, read accounts of the slave auctions.

From the Salem witch trials to haunted Southern plantations to the Amityville Horror, a common thread in ghost stories is someone powerful trying to marginalize a minority and coverup their guilt over it. I think it’s time for a lot more of the facts and history to be revealed about the stories that have become so common in our country.

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