Across the world there are stories of restless spirits haunting the places their corporeal bodies once inhabited. Often rooted in unspeakable tragedy or horror, these spirits are said to remain behind, their very essence absorbed within the walls of buildings, long-forgotten battlefields and mist-enshrouded forests. So connected to these places have many spirits become that they are virtually inseparable from the very structures themselves. Indeed, they become as much a part of the house or building as the foundation and studs that hold the structure in place. It’s not surprising, then, that many ghost stories are so closely tied to architecture and the secrets contained within countless walls.
Physical structures though they may be, these old buildings ultimately serve more as repositories of history, a collection of memories that serve to prolong our “existence”, if you will, well beyond our own lifetime. In this, ghosts serve the purpose of prolonging the memory of a person or event, many of them often tragic, well beyond their earthly existence. This approach to the myriad reported hauntings across America would then indicate that ghosts are less a literal and more a figurative manifestation of memories. So long as the stories of the past continue to pass from generation to generation, the spirit of an individual will continue to haunt that place with which they are most closely associated.
The idea of residual energy or deep-seeded memories accounting for the vast majority of supposed hauntings lies at the middle of Colin Dickey’s exploration of ghost stories, Ghostland: An American History In Haunted Places. Yet where others remain firmly rooted within the spiritual realm and speculative pseudo-sciences, Dickey approaches each in direct relation to actual, documented events within America’s past. It’s a fascinating subject made all the more so by the actual history behind many of the more elaborately realized ghost stories built out of generations of rumor and speculation. Using quantifiable facts, Dickey sets out to debunk a number of ghost stories, establishing them as little more than that: stories.
In tackling the so-called Winchester Mystery House near San Jose, California, Dickey lays out the various stories associated with the admittedly unique mansion’s construction history. While the house’s seemingly endless number of rooms, staircases that lead to nowhere, and rumors of a woman who once lived there driven to the brink of insanity all make for good stories, they tend to greatly overshadow the truth. Because of this, any spiritual connection or component is largely the result of a decades long game of telephone, in which the facts over time become more and more distorted to the point they rarely resemble the truth, anymore.
This idea proves true in his extended look at the many asylums designed by Thomas Kirkbride in the 19th century. A design that, since it first appeared in 1848, has gone on to epitomize the haunted asylum. These lavishly ornate structures were built with the thought that those committed would find its sprawling grounds, gardens and lawns inviting. Born out of the reformation movement started by Dorthea Dix, these buildings were meant to afford the mentally deficient a moral treatment that was seen as a vast improvement over the virtual abandonment that had been practiced up to that time.
The irony then becomes that these Kirkbride asylums, Danvers State Hospital in particular, eventually became the antithesis of what they were designed to be. Rather than being seen as welcoming and architecturally inviting, they housed untold horrors and decidedly amoral treatment of patients to the point that the haunted asylum has become a stock horror trope. Yet many of these structures still stand, many having been converted into living and commercial spaces that bare the faintest of resemblance to what they once were. But because of the memories contained within the walls, there’s a certain sense of looming dread that, no matter how cleaned up these Victorian buildings become, they will still possess the spirit of a long and painful history of suffering.
It’s within these basic parameters that Dickey’s thesis operates: that the many reported hauntings misappropriate the facts of a given situation, are glossed over in favor of a more spine-tingling version of the truth and the line between fact and fiction becomes irreparably blurred. By deconstructing the myths and legends associated with famed haunted locations such as Danvers State Hospital, the Winchester Mystery House, Hill House and scores of others across the country, he paints a clearer picture of the origin of each location’s purported haunting.
Yet he refrains from taking a stance as to whether real live ghosts haunt a certain architectural structure or area, let alone exist in the first place. Instead, he elects to state plainly and without irony that ghosts crop up at these places. Within but a few paragraphs, however, he has expounded upon the history of each and essentially laid out the rationale for why ghosts do not exist, but also the inaccuracies often associated with the spectral legends. It’s a strangely contradictory approach that leaves the reader guessing as to Dickey’s true feelings with regard to certain hauntings. While many can be easily explained away with a bit of historical research, others remain far more elusive.
One of the more unintentionally amusing arguments centers around the lack of reports of black ghosts in areas traditionally associated with black suffering and strife. This allows Dickey to take an entirely new approach with regard to the literal whitewashing of history. Where there should, in theory, be an overabundance of black ghosts—not to mention the haunting vestiges of scores of indigenous peoples subjected to equally abhorrent treatment—none tend to exist. Instead, Dickey argues, the majority of ghost sightings are those of white individuals with known histories and attachments to specific places. It’s as though their very presence is predicated on their memory surviving through the ages, thus ensuring their continued existence beyond the bounds of our world. It’s an interesting supposition that shows just how deeply racism permeates America..
Dickey’s central thesis then states that history is littered with ghosts, but their existence is predicated on their memory surviving through the generations. Here he paraphrases the Kiswahili perspective on death wherein there are two distinct stages: the sasha and the zamani. In the case of the former, they are the recently departed whose existence overlapped those who are still alive and thus continue to exist within the memories of those living. The zamani are those no longer existing within living memory. So long as we keep the stories alive, their presence will continue to be felt long after they’ve left this world. Regardless of your position on ghosts, Ghostland proves a fascinating read full of history, humor and hauntings.
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