Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey (Review)

Release date: October 4th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 320

Description (from Goodreads):

An intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history, Ghostland 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.

When it comes to all things supernatural or religious, I am a skeptic. If I can see it, then I can perhaps believe it. But before that, I will have a lot of questions. While I might not be a believer, there are a lot of them out there. Dickey states at the beginning of his book that

"According to one poll, 45 percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts, and almost 30 percent say they've witnessed them firsthand. Though this believe lies outside the ways we normally explain the world -- contradicting science and complicating religion -- it's a difficult belief to shake. That we continue believing in ghosts despite our rational mind's skepticism suggests that in these stories lies something crucial to the way we understand the world around us. We cannot look away, because we know something is important there."
Colin Dickey's Ghostland is not the kind of book I would usually pick up, but for some reason, I felt myself gravitating toward it after reading a multiple reviews for it during the Halloween season. Though I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, I have always liked ghost stories and tales of haunted places. I even have my own experience of being on a ghost hunt (more of that later on in this review), which might have provided an extra pull for picking this book up.

In Ghostland, Colin Dickey covers quite an impressive array of stories about haunted houses, haunted public places like banks and hospitals, haunted outdoor sites, and even haunted cities. Some were familiar to me beforehand, some were completely new. 

If you are looking for a list of haunted places in the US, look elsewhere, because while this does cover a number of haunted places around the US, it is not simply a catalog of haunted places, but rather a study of why and how those haunted places have come to be and why people still believe in then. 

For me, the first half of the book was more interesting than the latter part, but all and all, as a whole, this book was satisfyingly entertaining read. I especially liked the chapters focused on the haunted private properties (houses), which is the very first section of the book, and the chapter that focused on the architecture and hauntings of old mental hospitals.

Writing about haunted houses, Dickey says:

"A haunted house is a memory place made real: a psychical space that retains memories that might otherwise be forgotten or that might remain only in fragments. Under the invisible weight of these memories, the habits of those who once haunted these places, we fell the shudder of the ghost." 
 He also argues:
"The haunted house is precisely that which should be homey, should be welcoming -- the place one lives inside -- but which has somehow become emptied out of its true function. It is terrifying because it has lost its purpose yet stubbornly persists. Neither alive nor dead but undead, the haunted house is a thing in between."
Some of the haunted houses Dickey writes about are the Merchant's House Museum in Manhattan and the House of the Seven Gables (also known as Turner House or Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) in Salem. The House of the Seven Gables probably rings a bell for fans of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novel from the 1850s was inspired by the very house. You can see a commercial for the house, which is now a museum, from the video below (interestingly, the museum itself does not seem to be trying to make a bank with the possible hauntings to be found from the house, but information about those can be found easily online).

Dickey also mentions Myrtle's plantation in Louisiana as one of the most famous haunted sites in the US and writes briefly about the ghost of Chloe, a young slave who resided at the plantation. When you google "myrtles plantation" and look for images, it instantly gives you hits featuring Chloe's ghost, images that allegedly feature her. 

In addition to sites associated with slavery, many locations in the United States have been alleged to be haunted by Native spirits. As you might recall, many horror movies set in the United States involve haunted houses built on Indian burial sites. Dickey writes about these narratives in following way:

"The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans -- specifically white, middle-class Americans -- live. Embedded deep in the idea of home ownership -- the Holy Grail on American middle-class life -- is the idea that we don't, in fact, own the land we've just bought. Time and time again in these stories, perfectly average, innocent American families are confronted by ghosts who have persevered for centuries, who remain vengeful for the damage done. Facing these ghosts and expelling them, in many ways of these horror stories, becomes a means of refighting the Indian Wars of the past centuries."
I think for me, one of the most interesting haunted places covered in the book was The Winchester Mystery House, which is located in San Jose, California. The house, which does not seem to end, features a number of secret rooms and hideaways. There are so many interesting pictures of it online, and after looking through those, I must admit I would not mind visiting it one day. Also, as I suspected while reading about the house, the name of the mansion was a source for the last name of Sam and Dean of the show Supernatural

I am a massive Stanley Kubrick fan, and The Shining is one of my favorite films ever. I had read about The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado before, but I was happy to see it included in this book. The hotel, which hosted Stephen King at a time, worked as an inspiration for the Overlook Hotel and the 1997 miniseries based on the book was filmed there. While the exteriors for the Kubrick film were filmed elsewhere, the Stanley Hotel as a site definitely interest me. Fun fact: the hotel shows The Shining on a continuous loop on one of the channel's available through guest room televisions.

Having an access to the internet is a true blessing while reading a book like this, because you can go online and search for pictures of these places Dickey is writing about. I kept highlighting the names of the different places mentioned in this book while reading, and after I finished with the book, I spent a fair amount of time going through the places I had just read about.

As a media scholar, I found the way Dickey was able to bring up the influence of the online culture within the communities who believe in the paranormal quite interesting. He also manages to discuss the fact that with platforms like YouTube, access to alleged paranormal footage has been made easier also for those who are not involved in the paranormal communities in general, i.e. the general public. Viral videos start to circulate and the more they get exposure, the more people start to believe in them. And while many videos with a paranormal nature are proved to be wrong, that information does not reach everyone, which means that there are individuals who hold their belief to what they have seen. 

A recent paranormal story and one that made rounds online is that focused on the death of Elisa Lam in 2013. Lam, a Canadian student visiting L.A., was staying at the Cecil hotel when she mysteriously disappeared. Almost three weeks after her last sighting, her body was discovered from a water tank located at the roof of the hotel. While her story might otherwise have remained just a tragic mystery, the elevator security video, which circulated online, raised questions about the possible paranormal involvement in her death. 

The video featuring her in the elevator has been watched millions of times -- it is difficult to say exactly how many views it has got, because it has circulated so widely. I remember seeing it on Facebook at the time, and the version I now accessed from YouTube has almost 17 million views. I won't insert the video here directly, because I am not quite sure how to feel about it, but if you want to watch it, you can see it from here (there is no sound in there and it is not violent or anything, but I think it is tragic that this video, one of the last times this young woman was seen, has become so sensationalized). (The video was originally shared by the LAPD, I believe, to help in the possible discovery of a missing person). 

If you are a fan of American Horror Story, it's "Hotel" season is based around the Cecil Hotel, which in addition to being the site of Elisa Lam's disappearance and death, once hosted serial killers like Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger. 

As mentioned before, I found the section focused on old mental hospitals interesting. Dickey writes for example about the Danvers State Hospital, which is often named as the birthplace for the pre-frontal lobotomy. A few years ago, I watched a film called Session 9, which used the hospital as a setting -while the story of the film itself wasn't super interesting, the location is definitely very creepy. It is also believed the hospital was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Arkham Sanitarium. 

Dickey relates his discussion about the hospital to the Kirkbride Plan, a design by architect Thomas Kirkbride first implemented in 1848 at the New Jersey Lunatic Asylum. Dickey writes,

"The Kirkbride asylum came to be the architectural style most thoroughly associated in the United States with the moral treatment. Rather than terrifying, the new asylum would be inviting, surrounded by lawns and gardens that patients could tend themselves. The defining features of the Kirkbride asylum include the central administration building, stately and elegant, with a central tower and elongated wings, forming a shallow V that extends back farther and farther. Part of the beauty of this architectural model was that wings could always be added farther out indefinitely. As a result, they were often massive, growing to hundreds of thousands of square feet."

While the intentions behind these architectural giants might have been good, the asylums ended up presenting something completely different than peace and tranquility. While at first they were private places for the well-off to send their sick family members to, they eventually fell into state hands and began to be filled with increasing numbers of patients. They quickly became understaffed, underfunded, and identifiable as sites of horrible abuse.

Dickey writes:

"The ruins of the Kirkbride asylums -- and their attendant lore -- reveal how uncomfortable we've become with antiquated methods of "healing the sick". Whatever the intentions behind them, lobotomies, straitjackets, and aggressive shock therapy not strike us as barbaric and unnecessary and hover in the back of our collective consciousness. As a culture we still struggle with unresolvable questions that were once wrongly answered in places like these: Who is crazy? Are we crazy? And what can we do to assure ourselves that we aren't."
I mentioned my own ghost hunting experience at the beginning of the review, and I will share that here before I add some photos and quotes to this review. As some of you might know, I studied film and theatre in Edinburgh back in the day. During my second year of studies, I was involved in a short documentary project with a local paranormal investigation group and during one dark November night, they took us for a paranormal investigation to Greyfriars Kirkyard, allegedly a site of a lot of paranormal activity (while I was doing research for this review, I came across a DailyBeast article that called it "The most haunted graveyard in the world"). While Greyfriars Kirkyard is the site from where J.K. Rowling took inspiration for the names of Harry Potter characters and a place to which many body snatching stories locate to, the poltergeist the paranormal group told us about was the one of George MacKenzie, whose mausoleum is prominently located in the graveyard. 

I will not go into who George MacKenzie was or what he did here (you can find plenty of information online),  but I will say a few words about the paranormal investigation itself. Basically, the group had all these gadgets Dickey writes about -- expensive cameras, lights, and so on. They talked to the spirits, trying to call them up, but nothing happened (which wasn't very surprising to me). They talked about their previous paranormal experiences and warned us about the dangers of being possessed and so on. 

As an experience, it was one of a kind. While I did not believe in the paranormal, it was extremely interesting to hear the group talk and see how they interact together. I only spend a few hours with them, but during that time I was able to make conclusions about the group dynamic. Especially one of the guys would have made an extremely interesting character study, mostly because it felt like he was consciously trying to create this cloak of mystery around himself.

If you are interested in the paranormal side of Edinburgh, there are plenty of sites online that focus on those. Here is a list of Top 10 Haunted Places in Edinburgh to start with. There are also a number of organized tours around the haunted places, though those are highly targeted to tourists and probably more for show than actually tales of the paranormal places. 

To conclude this review, I want to bring up one of the concluding arguments Dickey makes in his book. Throughout, his argues that many ghost stories are often modified according to the time they are told, which means that different world events and historical contexts play a role. This means that we take well-known ghost stories, relate them to something important that has happened, and create stories of our own. While the basics might remain, the unconsciously or consciously come up with something new. 

Writing about the prevalence of ghost stories, Dickey states:

"Part of the reason that ghosts stay with us is that they remain a compelling mechanism to explain so much that is unknown in our lives. They enter and reenter our lexicon to explain the explainable, to represent the unpresentable, to give a word to that which we don't understand. "
Whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever like me, I believe Ghostland has something to offer for every single reader out there. For me, it was an interesting study of the stories humans have chosen to believe in, and a look into the history of those stories. In addition, Dickey writes extremely well, which makes Ghostland an entertaining, thoroughly satisfying reading experience.


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