Ghostland is at turns frightening and horrifying, not because of the alleged ghosts said to haunt homes, bars, hotels and other places across the U.S., but due to the sometimes unspeakably awful ways the people who lived, worked or occupied these places behaved.
In the hands of author Colin Dickey, Ghostland is an examination of how crime, class warfare, sexism, racism and more are often the root of so many ghostly appearances. Where people have suffered, Dickey argues, stories of ghosts thrive, borne variously from anxiety, guilt and loss. Sometimes the stories have an economic motivation–people making a few bucks off tours of allegedly haunted houses. Other times the stories are a way of translating some human horror–the mistreatment and abuse of slaves, for one–into something more easily-digested. As Dickey notes, “Ghost stories like [these] are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.”
As Dickey details the operation of massive insane asylums constructed in the mid to late 19th century, with their horrific overcrowding and cruel experimentation on patients in search of “curing” them, it seems inevitable that ghost stories would emerge from the real-life horrors that went on inside the walls of these hospitals.
Dickey also covers some well-known haunted locales, such as the Winchester Mystery House. Here he lays out evidence suggesting that Sarah Winchester didn’t keep adding rooms to the mansion to ward off the spirits of those killed by her husband’s rifles, but because she had the keen mind of an architect–and nearly limitless funds to indulge her experiments in building.
And so it goes throughout Ghostland, with Dickey deconstructing nearly every haunted place he has researched. A few that he visits give him pause, leaving him genuinely unsettled, but there is no “a-ha!” moment when he becomes convinced–or tries to convince the reader–that ghosts are real.
Rather, this is a fascinating journey through the darker parts of American history, Ghostland is well worth reading for how capably it provides rational explanations for the ghosts, poltergeists and other entities said to haunt so many corners of America’s vast landscape. Recommended.