Sunday, October 8, 2017

Ghostland: An Engrossing Buzzkill

Author Colin Dickey sounds extremely pissed. With an incredible admiration for history, Ghostland, An American History in Haunted Places takes us through the greatest spots of haunted lore including houses, hotels, bars, prisons, cemeteries, and towns with purported ghostly activity. Each stop is carefully scrutinized with (presumably) carefully researched history although it didn't seem like he interviewed many actual people with first-hand knowledge and often referring to other books, internet sources and their comment sections. I'm not suggesting this is bad approach. I mean how can you possibly interview someone at the Salem witch trials or the Amityville horror house? That stuff happened like a long time ago. But nonetheless, this is an engrossing history lesson of the events as they could have/likely happened.

Yet Dickey is still mad, mostly at the people who profit from such places by making them attractive to dark tourism by ratcheting up the haunted lore, reimagining history to enhance the lore, or just plain fabrication of lore. Folklore is essential to society as stories passed from generation to generation usually act a cautionary or morality tales and provide a basis of right and wrong. Dickey contends that considering lore as factual or using it to profit is deplorable and even harmful. And yet isn't this book that very thing? But he's not distorting it at all. He is confident that his version of the telephone game has righted the wrongs. That must be some burden to carry.

This book is also mis-marketed with good reason. Bookstore browsers will be intrigued by both the artful cover and title where the words "ghostland" and "haunted places" are big and highlighted. Dickey wants to sell this book to those interested in the subject to correct them about the lore. A better title would be “Chumpland: An American History in Supposedly Haunted Places that Aren’t Really Haunted at All.” It should also feature a cover where the Dickey is pointing and scolding people on a ghost tour. Of course, then he wouldn’t sell many books.

Strangely, towards the end, it also comes across that he is believer of... something? He recounts a specific occurrence in an innocuous location that shouldn't be haunted. He won't cross the threshold of revelation as he clearly states in the prologue: "This book is not about the truth or falsity of any claims of ghosts.... There is no amount of proof that will convince a skeptic of spirits, just as no amount of skeptical debunking will disabuse a believer." He also seems angry that he didn't have a more pronounced experience that would definitively sway his view, which explains his mockery of those who "feel" things at haunted places.

For anyone who likes a good ghost story this book will be a strong slap to the face. On some level, we are all skeptical and that’s not a deal breaker. However, Dickey's cynical, mocking tone that primly finger-wags to anyone who enjoys this topic comes across as snooty and unlikeable – imagine a crusty old professor with elbow-patched dinner jacket swirling a brandy snifter monologuing about their GE-niuuus essay. His world is black and white – although I imagine it's more of joyless murky gray. But fun is not the point of this book.

Ghostland succeeds in debunking the history associated with lore, giving context to actual historical accounts, and allowing the reader decide whether the subsequent haunting story still has enough merit to stand. Usually it crumbles like ruins. This is a very smart, scholarly and fascinating dissertation that breaks down the time periods, people and locations, and it's added at least 200 words to my vocabulary. In the end, science still struggles with the everyday phenomenon (things that defy scientific explanation) so a definitive theory on ghosts may not materialize anytime soon. For me, haunted lore remains an engrossing past-time and I will continue my dark tourism. Sorry if that also makes you angry Dickey.


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