A Detailed Look into America’s Haunted Past

ghostland-colin-dickeyGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.

Regardless of your beliefs about ghosts, a well-crafted ghost story is an alluring tale. Often loosely grounded in historical fact, these legends excite and frighten, and turn otherwise unremarkable locations into tourist attractions. In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey aims to understand the appeal of the ghost story and what these tales tell listeners about the living.

In 2008, Dickey was looking to buy a house in Los Angeles after the housing market collapse. He was struck by the so called “zombie houses,” the homes abandoned in various states of disrepair and decay due to foreclosure. This experience sparked an interest in other locales haunted by previous residents. Over several years, Dickey traveled the United States in search of haunted places, visiting a variety of locations, including homes, restaurants and bars, hospitals, asylums, parks, graveyards, and even a Toys “R” Us, reportedly haunted by the ghost of a wheat plantation worker.

Ghostland, unlike many other books about haunted places, does not take a sensationalist tone. In fact, Dickey often debunks popular ghost stories through historical fact, which might disappoint fans of the legends. Ghostland reads more like a history book than a book about the supernatural. In the introduction, Dickey writes “More than just simple urban legends and campfire tales, ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way.” This statement is perhaps best illustrated in the story of the Winchester Mystery House.

The palatial Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, was the project of Sarah Winchester, who began expanding an eight-room farmhouse in 1885, and continued construction until her death in 1922, at which point the house had grown to a sprawling 160 rooms. There has been much speculation as to why Sarah Winchester continued to build so extravagantly. A reason often given is Sarah’s supposed visit to a psychic who said Sarah would die if she ever stopped construction. However, these stories can be traced back to an 1895 article in the San Jose Daily News, titled “Strange Story: A Woman Who Thinks She’ll Die When Her House is Built.” Dickey hypothesizes that Sarah Winchester was an easy target for the economic frustrations felt by much of the country after the economic depression that started in 1893. By characterizing her actions as the work of an eccentric, it made it easier for the public to deal with the vast economic disparity in the United States. This is a common theme among many of the stories featured in Ghostland. It seems that it is much easier to stomach the uncomfortable realities of our society if they are framed in a spooky story instead of confronted in the harsh light of reality.

Ghostland is the perfect read for anyone who wants to know the truth behind ghost stories. While it may not offer many chills, it is a fascinating look at lesser known areas of American history.

Elizabeth Weislak works in the children’s department of the Mebane Public Library. She may be reached at 919-563-6431 or eweislak@alamancelibraries.org.