Here I am actually talking about ghosts! But make no mistake, Ghostland by Colin Dickey is more than a compendium of ghost stories. Rather, Colin Dickey treats each of these tales as a case study for examining different types of hauntings, their origins and development. Most of all, he is interested in what these stories say about America’s relationship to its past.

“If American history is taught to schoolchildren as a series of great, striding benchmarks, the history of America’s ghost stories is one of crimes left unsolved or transgressions we now feel guilty about […] Ours is a forward-looking country that can have trouble sometimes reckoning with the past and the actions of our ancestors, and the spirit world has become yet another area in which the shameful chapters in America’s history, including slavery and the genocide of the American Indians, are addressed and relitigated.”

The book is divided into four parts:
1. houses/mansions
2. bars/restaurants/hotels/brothels
3. prisons/asylums/graveyards/cemeteries
4. cities/towns

Within each of these categories, Dickey cites several examples of hauntings, taking note of common threads and posing many thought provoking questions.

Dickey ponders things like, what architectural qualities make a house unsettling and presumably haunted? How does someone’s personal loss/tragedy become a ghost story? How do gaps in history create ghost stories and are ghosts still relevant in our modern age?

One point that Dickey frequently reiterates is how many of these ghost stories illustrate discomfort with women who challenge convention. To give one example –  I really enjoyed his debunking of the Winchester Mystery House – the California estate believed to be haunted because it was basically “built by ghosts.” As the story goes…

“Believing her family to be cursed, Winchester went to a famous Boston psychic named Adam Coons. During a seance, Coons told her that her family was being haunted by the ghosts of all those killed by the ‘gun that won the West,’ and that the only way to keep them at bay would be to begin building a house that was never to be finished, and endless work in progress.”

Dickey unravels the urban legend, explaining how the truth transformed into myth, which I’ll summarize with two main points. Sarah Winchester designed and even built much of the house herself, something absolutely unheard of in the late nineteenth century. This fact, coupled with her reclusive nature, rendered her susceptible to unfortunate rumors  that attributed these traits to hysteria. Society’s anxiety about woman’s proper place, in addition to anxiety about the ‘gun that won the West’ were projected onto this woman and her quirky house.

In a similar vein, Dickey also explores the rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century (the famous Fox sisters and their “seances”)  and how this movement countered societal expectations of women, paving the way for women’s suffrage.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I hope you’ve enjoyed a taste of Ghostland, which I can’t recommend enough. It’s 285 pages packed with fascinating insight – a hauntingly good page-turner that deserves a permanent resting place in any historical macabre library.

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