From author Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is just the kind of book choice readers make in October. It combines history, travel, architecture, urban legend, and philosophy. But I also have to say it wasn’t nearly as gripping as I expected. Of course, I was significantly distracted by current events all month.
I like the way Dickey organizes Ghostland, moving through typical types of haunted places throughout the U.S. Whether it’s houses, cemeteries, hotels, or asylums Dickey explains why ghosts or ghost stories exist there.
Of course, he starts in Salem, MA, home of the most famous witches in American history. But his stories are at their most chilling when he discusses the Civil War battlefields and the slave markets of Richmond. Learning how white supremacists employed ghost stories to keep people of color down feels frightening and makes me angry. But if you’ve ever heard about how the KKK got started, it won’t surprise you.
Another locale that struck home for me was New Orleans, since we visited there earlier this year. While the city is the setting for fantasy and horror stories, its real-life stories are just as intense—especially as it relates to Hurricane Katrina. From horrific abuses by slave holders to the tragedies of lost souls, it’s a city where hauntings kind of make sense.
The book’s epigraph includes a quote from Judith Richardson, “The main work of haunting is done by the living.” Ultimately this is what I took away from Ghostland. I learned that haunting and supernatural legends are created by those left behind more often than they’re an actual ghostly presence. Sometimes the creation of ghost story is to honor the dead person. But other times it serves to increase business, power, or add to religious fervor.
Our perspective on ghosts is colored by our beliefs and personal experience. Ultimately, they exist because we need to interpret and understand death. As Dickey puts it, “Funeral rites, sacred burial sites, and even ghost stories—people of all stripes use these as a means of taking the sting out of death.”
Dickey adds plenty of philosophical asides to his historical and narrative content. For my part, I believe that haunting is created by our own memories. As I walk through my home, the memories of deceased loved ones fill every corner, whether with photos or reminders of actual events. I find comfort in having those memories near me. Someday I’m sure we’ll move and my interaction with those memories will change. Maybe a ghost or two will move with me.
I recommend this book if you want to learn about the real events behind haunted houses and ghost stories. Pair with stories where the characters find ways to interpret death and dying. For example, The Missing Sister, which features the famous Paris Catacombs. Or the New Orleans Witches series from J.D. Horn.