Book: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey
Publishing Info: Viking, October 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: I bought it.
Book Description: An intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history, Ghostland takes readers on a road trip through some of the country’s most infamously haunted places–and deep into the dark side of our history.
Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget. With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living–how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made–and why those changes are made–Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. Spellbinding, scary, and wickedly insightful, Ghostland discovers the past we’re most afraid to speak of aloud in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.
Review: As a person who loves history and learning about our culture through a historical lens, finding a good book on America’s past is always an exciting thing for me. I’m also a huge fan of haunted places and scary stories, as I am a hardcore Fox Mulder in that I want to believe (even if the Scully side of me butts in and usually pulls me from the total brink of belief). So when I found out that there was a book that combined both of these topics, I was so excited I couldn’t wait for the library to get it, and bought it myself. “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey is truly a perfect read for the month of October, and for Horrorpalooza. Because these are ‘true’ ghost stories! Sort of. It’s more trying to find out why certain places get haunted reputations, outside of a place actually being haunted by a restless spirit. Going into this book I thought that it was going to be a bit more about the latter with American history serving as a back drop, but what I got was a deeper exploration of our country’s past and all of the baggage that comes with it.
Dickey travelled from haunted place to haunted place in America, not only telling the reader about the story behind the place, but also telling an in depth exploration of the non haunted history of that place and the implications that surround it. While there were numerous stories in this book that I had at least heard of in passing (or in the cases of the Winchester Mystery House and the city of Savannah, Georgia, actually been to), the actual background of those places were almost always unfamiliar to me, either because I just never learned about it at all, or because I’d believed the ‘haunted’ history that time has elevated. This had two reactions from me as I read the book. The first reaction was from the history buff in me, which was
But the second reaction was from the Fox Mulder in me, which was
At one point in this book, Dickey speaks on the fact that the belief in the supernatural vs the disbelief in it are always going to be at odds with one another, because you aren’t going to convince a skeptic that ghosts exist, just as you aren’t going to convince a believer that they don’t. As I read this book, even though I had this in mind, I found myself falling into that exact trap. When Dickey would explain the actual history behind a haunted place, such as the Winchester Mystery House, I would write off the things that didn’t fit with my thoughts as sometimes dismiss them completely. No, I don’t necessarily believe that Sarah Winchester was told by a medium that she had to move west and keep building a house to trick the spirits from cursing her. BUT, I ALSO don’t believe that she built this strange house for years and years and years at a huge financial expense just because she was experimenting with architecture. Does a tourist site like the Winchester Mystery House have a vested interest in hyping it’s haunted reputation at the expense of the actual history of Sarah Winchester? Of course it does. But I wholly believe that there was something else going on beyond an enthusiastic woman enthralled by her design creativity. It was times like these that I felt that this book was a little less than thrilling for me. Just because there wasn’t a record of a mental problem going on doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one.
But Winchester Mystery House aside (and it’s good that Dickey didn’t go all in on Savannah outside of saying it’s a tourist city hoping to protect and promote it’s ‘brand’), I really enjoyed reading “Ghostland”, because Dickey did bring up a lot of good points about American history and culture, especially when it comes to how these places and hauntings reflect our value systems. I especially liked that he brought up the fact that so often, the ‘ghosts’ that haunt these places are very Western centric and white, except when it comes to mass tragedies that our country perpetuated and both feels guilty over while also ignoring them. Specifically, slavery and the genocide of the Indigenous Peoples. While there have been stories of Thomas Jefferson haunting Monticello, a ghost that the site can embrace, you very rarely hear about ghosts of slaves and those that Jefferson wronged wandering it’s halls. On the flip side of the coin, the idea of the “Ancient Indian Burial Ground” is a trope that has been used repeatedly in horror stories, but it serves as little more than a way to Other multiple distinct groups while assuaging our guilt that we don’t really like to think about. In our stories it’s a revenge that is understandable, and yet we are still predisposed to sympathize for those (usually non-Native) people being haunted rather than the reason the haunting is happening in the first place. I had never really thought about these things in depth before reading this book, and boy did it really make me think.
Dickey also did a fair amount of research going into this book, with a fair amount of source notes that tie it all together. He did a good job of presenting a lot of information without it ever dragging or seeming dry, which is a true talent when dealing with the complexities of American history. He has a serious penchant for storytelling and kept things interesting while keeping them solidly anchored in historical context. And I do appreciate that Dickey postulates that even if they are overblown, hyped, and in some cases patently untrue, these ‘true’ hauntings do serve a larger purpose beyond just entertaining the masses. Sometimes they help us cope, or serve as warnings, or just help us understand what we’re seeing before us.
While “Ghostland” may not have changed my mind about the possibility of ghosts (though that wasn’t the intention at the heart of it), I did really find it a fascinating read and completely perfect for this time of year. I can’t recommend this book to history buffs enough, especially those like me who love a good ghost story. So if you want to learn some potentially new ghost stories and get some context as to what functions they serve in modern society, pick it up!
Rating 8: Though it sometimes downplayed a bit too much, “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” is a fascinating read with a lot of insight to American history and society and the ghosts that haunt us.
Find “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” at your library using WorldCat!