'Ghostland' Is Found Where the Line Between Fact and Fiction Becomes Irreparably Blurred

America’s relatively short history is long on ghosts and ghost stories -- "white" ghosts, that is.

Ghostland: An American History In Haunted Places

Publisher: Viking
Length: 308 pages
Author: Colin Dickey
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-10

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.






The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.