One of NPR’s Great Reads of 2016
“A lively assemblage and smart analysis of dozens of haunting stories…absorbing…[and] intellectually intriguing.” —The New York Times Book Review
From the author of The Unidentified, an intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history that 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.
In the introduction to this illuminating study of so-called true hauntings and the American public's enduring fascination with them, Dickey (Cranioklepty) posits that "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." Grouping haunts into four categories houses, hangouts, institutions, and entire towns he shows how the persistence of these ghost stories, especially when their details change with the times, say more about the living than the dead. Noting how popular accounts of the ghost of Myrtles Plantation has shifted over the years from that of an abused slave to revenants from a Native American burial ground beneath the plantation, Dickey notes that "ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past." Describing the ghost stories that cropped up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, he writes that ghost stories "are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future." In contrast to many compendia of "true" ghost stories, Dickey embeds all of the fanciful tales he recounts in a context that speaks "to some larger facet of American consciousness." His book is a fascinating, measured assessment of phenomena more often exploited for sensationalism.