Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In Colin Dickey’s new book, Ghostland, ghost stories reveal history’s unspeakable truths.
Any house is haunted, frequented by its inhabitants present and past and the memories cultivated inside it. Afloat on the walls are visitations of comfort and anxiety; wisps of regret and phantoms of trauma. Hauntings bring home some things we’d like to remember, and perhaps more often, the truths we wish to forget.
What does that mean for shared spaces, those shaped by historical forces and indelible public events? What types of architecture are said to have actual ghosts? In his new book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking, $27), Colin Dickey constructs a theory of haunting across these 50 states, excavating the tall tales of houses, hotels, and public spaces said to have ghosts in their midsts. Uneasy realities underpin these stories, he finds. “If you want to understand a place, ignore the boasting monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses,“ Dickey writes. “Uncomfortable truths, buried secrets, disputed accounts: ghost stories arise out of the shadowlands, a response to the ambiguous and poorly understood.”
In this book, the haunted Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, constructed by a reclusive widow, turns into a sandbox of 19th-century anxieties about gender. The absence of stories about black ghosts in Richmond, Virginia—for centuries a stronghold of slave ownership—speaks volumes to histories many whites have preferred to keep quiet. Touring the ruins of downtown Detroit, Dickey finds, accounts of apparitions “command the living to reclaim the former pride of these factories and mansions, or… they lament their own folly and hubris.” Pick apart a phantom’s tale and out tumbles a society’s shame.
Ghostland is a stunning work of architectural theory and a spell-binding collection of true-crime tales and historical drama. CityLab spoke with Dickey about the book and the unspeakable things America keeps half-buried.
CityLab: Can you describe the moment the idea for this book was born?
Dickey: It came about in two related moments: One was my longstanding fascination with the Winchester Mystery House. The story there is about a woman whose father-in-law started the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and inherited his wealth. Her family was cursed by the rifles’ victims, it was said, so she built this labyrinth of a house in San Jose, with 160 rooms and sprawling in all directions, to escape their spirits. The idea of living in a maze captivated me.
The other thing that happened was when my wife and I were looking for a house in 2008, we started to look at various, oddly shaped buildings in neighborhoods around L.A., houses that had been weirdly modified by their owners over the years. It quickly became an unsettling experience to inhabit and tour these homes. Between the idea of this famously haunted house and the smaller homes, haunted figuratively by previous inhabitants, I started thinking about how to use the language of hauntings and ghosts in American consciousness.
As you discuss in the book, the true story of the supposedly haunted Winchester Mystery House says a lot about 19th-century expectations around gender and class—namely, discomfort with a woman living on her own, and, perhaps, with building out her home rather than keeping it tidy and contained.
There is such a strong figurative association between women and houses as architectural objects. I think that is changing gradually but it still holds pretty strong sway on us. Right now I’m reading Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson, who wrote ghost stories as well as domestic comedies of manners. Again and again what Jackson was playing with were expectations of maintaining a home in very literal sense: That ability to keep together a house that was stable and well-mannered and a reflection of herself as white woman and a mother. And that gets expressed through her comedy as well as horror. The Sarah Winchester story is connected, I think: She has this odd house, she doesn’t marry, she has no kids, she abandons her functions as a woman. Ghosts become comes a convenient and necessary way to explain the strangeness of her house and her life.
You write about other haunted houses, and over the course of the book, you sort of scale up, investigating ghost stories in commercial settings, public monuments, and finally entire cities and towns. How did you arrive at this organizing principle, these concentric rings of haunted-ness?
Once I’d settled on the various houses and places I wanted to look at, it was about figuring out a form that would keep everything in line without feeling overly repetitive. It was also way to think about architecture in different forms: a house’s architecture does something other than an insane asylum or a hotel. They all have completely different functions.
You show how the contours of specific types of space seem to determine the kinds of ghosts we find there. How do commercial and civic places, for example, become haunted?
In trying to figure out a way of talking about everything from hotels to toy stores to brothels, I found that these spaces are purpose built, designed to guide us to some desired outcome, which is usually parting with our hard-earned income. We’re so used to it, that we don’t see it as such. But when they lose that function, and the script goes of the rails, that’s when we start to see this artifice, and that’s when these places start to seem haunted. Even so much as being there in the restaurant after it closes, and the flood lights go off and it starts to look nothing like the romantic hideaway it was even an hour prior… It can feel very unsettling and strange.
One of those places in the book is a Toys “R” Us haunted by a ranch hand who died on the same site 130 years ago. I loved that as an example, also, of how American ghost stories might be different from those of other countries, partly because of our newer architecture.
Right, at some point Americans maybe feel a bit envious of Europe or Asia or places with 1,000-year-old castles and ruined monasteries. But I think the need to have these ghost stories, and tell them, is strong enough that we are more than willing to attach them to buildings that are only a couple of decades old.
You expand out again, this time to haunted common spaces that were, once upon a time, shared by large groups of people. How do we get ghosts there?
One of the templates of ending up with a haunted building is a building whose architectural vision had some embedded ideology in it, some noble purpose baked into its structure. And then as ideals and aesthetics change, its functionality becomes outdated. It gets abandoned, but it’s too big to tear down, so it’s just left behind. Asylums in the 19th century were places designed to look welcoming and sort of like a spacious Victorian home, a nice place where you could pay to institutionalize relatives. But they became quickly overcrowded. One by one the patients get moved away. And the buildings get left behind in landscape and on our periphery. They get haunted in this way.
On the scale of towns and cities, we start to engage with the racial patterns of haunted-ness. You find that black Americans have historically been represented as ghostly, in some ways, while they were still alive—through slavery itself, and through the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” where slaves were only partly counted for purposes of congressional representation. Meanwhile, it’s largely white Americans who live on as ghosts after their deaths.
This happened quite by accident. I was looking at the most haunted downtowns and kept coming up with Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom. I read as much as I could, but nothing I could find had to do with this very diabolical conception of slavery. And so, I thought, if ghost stories arise out of miscarriages of justice it seemed quite strange to me that stories in Richmond would seem to pass over some of that.
One of the conclusions that I came to was that America, as a country, is built on writing out a good segment of the population. Be it enslaved Americans, or women, or the LGBTQ community, in every generation there is a new group of people that we feel the need to write out of history. It’s not that they’re not there, contributing to America and making it what it is. This presence of those large swaths that are written out—the language of ghosts is one way that that tension must get expressed. These people who aren’t represented have to come back through the language of hauntings.
You spend time with ghost hunters in Los Angeles and found that they’ve got a range of motivations: some are vying for reality shows, while others have more earnest intentions that have to do with exploring their cities. What were those?
Anybody who lives in a city knows that there are buildings whose existence you’ll just never understand. Particularly when you move to a new city, you end up asking yourself or your friends: what’s the story with the building, why isn’t it boarded up? You find locals who’ve lived there for 10 years and have no idea. Cities are filled with these spaces whose histories we don’t understand. The most intriguing subgroup of ghost-hunters I found were basically using it as means to learn more about their city, one building at a time. They’d use those experiences as ways to understand the flop houses or derelict mansions that aren’t kept up. It was a way for them to involve themselves in something larger and in a relationship that went beyond them, and I think that’s kind of cool.
You write at length about Detroit and New Orleans, cities where recent trauma has left a trail of haunted spaces. How do cities deal with different kinds of disjointed histories?
Most of Detroit’s great architecture was built in the 20th century, telegraphing an identity of an economic and cultural powerhouse, building lavish skyscrapers and Art Deco buildings. But after Detroit fell on hard times, you can’t just demolish downtown. You have these buildings, these beautiful decaying monuments to an earlier time, and people get haunted figuratively by reminders of the glory days. Ghost stories come out of ideas of past glories lost, or Faustian bargains that came past due. Other stories seem to justify or explain the fall from grace. Whereas in New Orleans, there is a much more fluid relationship to tragedy. Katrina is just one example; New Orleans has had an unstable history for much of its life. So the city has long since figured out how to incorporate tragedies and disaster into an ongoing story about itself, which doesn’t necessarily rise and fall against a single event.
I love that idea: ghost stories as a kind of metric of urban resiliency.
It comes back to the idea of ghost stories as folklore that reflects the vitality of a community. The more reactive a community is, the better they can fold these stories in and reconstruct themselves out of tragedy.
Are there other ghost stories you wish you could have included?
There was one in Honolulu: a torn-down drive-in movie theatre that used to be haunted. You’d go into bathroom and a woman with long back hair, but with no face, would be there. That ghost is very common in Japan, and doesn’t show up anywhere else, except in Hawaii. On the one hand, that makes a lot of sense because Hawaii is so influenced by Japanese culture. But again, it makes clear that, as much as the need to tell ghost stories is universal, there are specificities from region to region. There are some things that seem peculiar to different cultures.
On a national scale, do certain regions have ghost stories of a certain kind more than others?
Absolutely. The stories in the South are going to focus on the Antebellum years, and in the Northeast, it’s more Colonial and Puritanical history, while in L.A. you focus on Hollywood. You see the way in which ghost stories of a given region are going to come out of those important periods, with both their high points and most fraught points. These sort of unresolved legacies will yield the most ghost stories.