Skeletons In The Closet: What Ghost Stories Reveal About America's Past

Oct 12, 2016
Originally published on October 31, 2016 3:39 pm

If you really want to understand a place, writer Colin Dickey has some advice: "Ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses. Look for the darkened graveyards, the derelict hotels, the emptied and decaying old hospitals."

Dickey has spent a lot of time traveling the country searching for places that go bump in the night. The result is a new book called Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

He tells NPR's Audie Cornish that a lot of the places he visited had one thing in common — strange construction: "There's the Winchester [Mystery] House, of course, which is this maze-like structure that goes on forever. There is the House of [the] Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., which has this creepy hidden staircase that winds up around the chimney, and it's not entirely clear where that staircase came from or what its purpose was. And so a lot of these places I think get haunted — or become known as haunted — because of the way in which they literally feel strange to us as we walk through them. ... And you look around for a way to describe it and you end up talking about ghosts."


Interview Highlights

On the Winchester Mystery House and the spinster trope in ghost stories

I grew up near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif., and I think from when I was a young kid I was really fascinated by this story that some of your listeners may know. That Sarah Winchester, the daughter-in-law of the man who founded the Winchester rifle company — the story was that she had lost her husband and her infant daughter ... and became convinced that she was being haunted by the ghosts of anyone who had ever been killed by a Winchester rifle, and built this insanely large labyrinth-like 160 room Victorian mansion to ward off these spirits.

And when I dug into the story, first of all, that legend is not, as it turns out, entirely accurate. But what I found more fascinating was the idea that here was a woman who was both a woman of means and a widow who had decided for whatever reason never to remarry. And in many ways I think the ghost stories that grew up around Sarah Winchester had as much to do with our fascination/apprehension towards women who choose not to remarry, choose not to have children again. ... You see it in New York in the Merchant's House Museum with another old spinster lady. And, you know, it draws a lot from the Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham character [in Great Expectations] — this woman who's sort of trapped, frozen in time.

On the glaring omission in ghost stories about Richmond, Va.

Richmond came up as having a particularly haunted downtown. It's an area called Shockoe Bottom, which is the sort of depression in the city that was used for a lot of unloading of ships in the 19th century. And Shockoe Bottom is often labeled to be one of the most haunted places, but when I looked into the kinds of stories that get told there, something jumped out at me right away, and that is nearly all the stories of ghosts in Shockoe Bottom are white ghosts. They are, you know, Confederate soldiers and ... women who worked in brothels and, you know, miners who were trapped in landfills and disasters.

But Shockoe Bottom has this other history, which is, outside of New Orleans, it was the most heavily populated slave trading market. And it was fascinating to see the way that when Richmond sort of tells the stories about all of the tragedies that have taken place in Shockoe Bottom — at least as far as the ghost stories go — they seem to leave kind of the most glaring example out. And there's really not a lot of ghost stories about the slave trading markets that enter into the folklore of Richmond despite the fact that untold cruelties happened there. ... It's not that it's like some deep, dark secret. I mean, obviously, there's great historical work being done, there's great archaeological work that's being done. ... There are monuments and there's a trail you can walk.

But what seemed to me really fascinating is that I went into this book thinking that ghost stories would express the kind of unspeakable things we might not otherwise say, and Richmond has sort of turned out to be the opposite — that the ghost stories in Richmond kind of construct a more genteel vision of the past where terrible things happened but they were often accidents and, you know, things that didn't reflect, say, poorly on the history of the city as a whole.

On the origin of the Native American burial ground trope in ghost stories

Particularly as a child of the '80s, I really grew up with that narrative almost to the level of a cliché in things like horror movies like The Amityville Horror and Pet Sematary. ... But what I found when I actually started doing the work is that this is actually — the sort of stereotypical version — is pretty recent and it doesn't start really until the late '70s and the early '80s. And it happens around the same time that there is a fairly large court case involving the Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine. And they're suing the federal government for large tracts of land in Maine and New England.

And so this idea of the [American] Indian burial ground, this idea that the house that you bought that you think you own that you have a property deed to is actually not entirely yours — that there might be somebody with an earlier, older claim to the land who might be now haunting your idyllic suburban home — that has a certain kind of truth in the sense that there were actual legal court cases when these stories first got popular that involved, you know, white Americans who had bought property that now were potentially going to be turned over to Native American tribes who had earlier valid legal claims to them.

On how a ghost story can evolve

So there's a story of a woman who appears being dragged down the middle of the main street in Leeds, N.Y., by a horse. She's sort of tied to a horse being dragged down. And this story has evolved over the years to sort of suit different purposes. It was retold by an abolitionist in the mid-19th century where the woman in question was a slave and the story was slanted so that — you know, obviously it was to show the horrors of slavery — that her master had punished her in this awful way. And then it later showed up about 40 years later by somebody who was far more interested in class warfare, and she had gone from being a slave to being a European immigrant who was sort of working poor and who was being beaten by her master. And so the story seems to sort of evolve through the years depending on what kind of morality tale the teller wants to tell.

On the craziest story heard while researching the book

One of my favorite stories was about a town in Bedford, N.Y. I was told that if you go to the center of town, there's this great old oak tree. And if you, on Halloween, walk backwards around the tree three times with a dead cat on your shoulder, ghosts will appear. ... And it begs the question: who was the first person who figured that out?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Colin Dickey has been traveling the country with a singular mission - find ghosts. But forget the image that might have just popped into your head - paranormal detectives with night vision goggles. Colin Dickey is interested in ghost stories because of what they say about the living.

To truly understand a place, he says, you should skip the guided tours of monuments and plaques and instead explore the graveyards, the abandoned psychiatric hospitals, the eerie hotels. He visits many of those places in his new book "Ghostland: An American History In Haunted Places." And he told me you can learn a lot just from the way a ghost story changes over time.

COLIN DICKEY: There's a ghost story in Leeds, N.Y., about a woman who appears at night through the middle of town being dragged by a horse. And that story involves her being a servant of some kind who was cruelly treated by her master and punished in this terrible way and died as a result and now haunts that main street. And that story has evolved throughout the years.

There is an abolitionist who tells that story in the mid-19th century, but when she tells it, the servant girl is actually a slave, and the moral of the story is the terrors of slavery. And then that same story appears a few decades later by somebody who's far more interested in class politics. And the - she's now a servant again, but she is a European immigrant. And she is a member of the poor working-class who's being mistreated by the rich. And so this story seems to sort of evolve through the years depending on what kind of morality tale the teller wants to tell.

CORNISH: So a ghost story essentially tells us more about the person telling it, it sounds like.

DICKEY: Yeah in a lot of ways - and not just the person but also the community. When you see the way a town will coalesce around, you know, certain stories and certain houses and graveyards and things like that, that will come to reflect the way that town sees itself.

CORNISH: One example you write about is Richmond, Va., which you've bestowed a kind of title on, right? Like (laughter), what's there? What's their place when it comes to ghost stories?

DICKEY: Yeah, Richmond was really fascinating to me because when I first started, you know, just drawing up lists of most-haunted city in America, most-haunted hotel, most-haunted graveyard, Richmond came up as having a particularly haunted downtown. It's an area called Shockoe Bottom.

But when I looked into the kinds of stories that get told there, something jumped out at me right away, and that is nearly all the stories of ghosts in Shockoe Bottom are white ghosts. They are Confederate soldiers and women who worked in brothels and, you know, miners who were trapped in disasters. But Shockoe Bottom has this other history, which is, outside of New Orleans, it was the most heavily populated slave trading market.

And it was fascinating to see the way that when Richmond tells the stories about all of the tragedies that have taken place in Shockoe Bottom, at least as far as the ghost stories go, they seem to leave the most glaring example out. And there's really not a lot of ghost stories about the slave trading markets that enter into the folklore of Richmond despite the fact that untold cruelties happened there.

CORNISH: But there's a lot of historians and historical, like, houses and places in Richmond. What did people say about this when you asked?

DICKEY: Yeah. I mean it's not that it's, like, some deep, dark secret. I mean obviously there's great historical work being done. There's great archaeological work that's being done. And certainly Richmond is not hiding behind this. There are monuments, and there are - there's a trail you can walk.

But what seemed to me really fascinating is that I went into this book thinking that ghost stories would express the kind of unspeakable things we might not otherwise say. And in Richmond, it sort of turned out to be the opposite, that the ghost stories in Richmond kind of construct a more I guess you could say genteel vision of the past where terrible things happen, but they were accidents and things that didn't reflect, say, poorly on the history of the city as a whole.

CORNISH: You mentioned the idea of soldiers, but there are other kind of classic ghost categories I learned about from your (laughter) book, like spinster lady trapped in a house and a Native American burial ground - like, that that was a whole thing (laughter) basically.

DICKEY: Right.

CORNISH: ...And hotel guest that never leaves. Which one do you want to tackle?

DICKEY: Well, the spinster lady - so I grew up near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. And I think some of your listeners may know that Sarah Winchester, the daughter-in-law of the man who founded the Winchester rifle company - the story was that she had lost her husband and her infant daughter in a short period of time and became convinced that she was being haunted by the ghosts of anyone who had ever been killed by a Winchester rifle and built this insanely large labyrinth - like, 160-room Victorian mansion to ward off these spirits.

And when I dug into the story, first of all, that legend is not, as it turns out, entirely accurate. But what I found more fascinating was the idea that here was a woman who was both a woman of means and a widow who had decided for whatever reason never to remarry. And in many ways I think the ghost stories that grew up around Sarah Winchester had as much to do with our apprehension towards women who choose not to remarry, choose not to have children again.

CORNISH: And this is because this is a pretty common kind of ghost story, right? You will find estates or old homes where people say, like, she never married, and she never had children; and she roams the halls to this day. And you're supposed to be like, that sounds horrible - like, terrible fate for this woman.

DICKEY: Right, exactly, yeah, and you see it in New York in the Merchant's House Museum with another old spinster lady. And it draws a lot from the Charles Dickens Miss Havisham character - this woman who's sort of trapped, frozen in time.

CORNISH: You poke holes in a lot of the origin stories of ghosts in this book, but you don't actually say whether you believe in ghosts. So do you? Or has your thinking about this changed over time?

DICKEY: Yeah, it's a complicated question. I feel like when you talk about ghosts...

CORNISH: Nope. It's, do you believe in ghosts?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's a pretty straightforward one. Happy Halloween.

DICKEY: I'm going to plead the Fifth on that question. I think that when you talk about ghosts, there are people who are 100 percent believers, and there are people who are 100 percent skeptics. And I've always found that middle ground a lot more interesting - people who are maybe not willing to admit that the paranormal or the supernatural exists but yet have felt something or have seen something or have experienced some things that are not necessarily rationally explained but not necessarily the paranormal.

CORNISH: What is the most ludicrous thing you heard over the course of researching the book - like, activity that a ghost allegedly did or, like, a specific kind of haunting?

DICKEY: Well, one of my favorite stories was about a town in Bedford, N.Y. I was told that if you go to the center of town, there's this great old oak tree. And if you on Halloween walk backwards around the tree three times with a dead cat on your shoulder, a ghost will appear...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

DICKEY: ...Which sounds like a...

CORNISH: That's so specific.

DICKEY: Right, and it begs the question, who was the first person who figured that out? How do you just happened to be walking around town on Halloween with a dead cat on your shoulder and decide to walk backwards around a tree three times? It - there's a lot of questions that that story brings to mind to me.

CORNISH: Colin Dickey is the author of "Ghostland: An American History In Haunted Places." Thanks so much for talking with us.

DICKEY: Thank you so much for having me. This has been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.