It isn’t hard to encounter ghosts like this. You meet them like this in popular books like Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Los Angeles, Louisiana’s Haunted Forts, Haunted Annapolis, Supernatural Cumbria, or Ghosts of Alberta, as well as on the ghost tours that set out at twilight in cities and towns across the country. These spirits are unsettling, but in a familiar way. Their stories can be neatly delivered in five to 10 minutes, and are generally heavy on sinister atmosphere and light on historical context or, it often turns out, anything but the loosest connection to actual history.
But even the most clichéd, inaccurate, melodramatic ghost story still has something important to tell us, Colin Dickey argues in his new book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. In a brief author’s note preceding the text, Dickey lays out the terms of his inquiry: he’s not interested in analyzing whether ghosts are “real” in any sort of physical or metaphysical sense. Rather, he’s drawn to the way 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.”
Often, Dickey insists, it’s the way we misunderstand or misrepresent history in our ghost stories that ends up being the most revealing. Consider the story of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, a sprawling Victorian which Dickey (who grew up nearby) calls “not just a haunted mansion but the haunted mansion, the most pure and complete expression of our collective imaginings of what a haunted house is and should be.” The legend behind the house is well-known: distraught by the deaths of her infant daughter and husband, Sarah Winchester, the daughter-in-law of the man who invented the Winchester repeating rifle, consulted a famous medium. He informed her that she was being haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of American Indians and Civil War soldiers who had been killed by Winchester rifles. The vengeful spirits had caused the death of her daughter and husband, and Sarah was next on their list — unless, that is, she built them a magnificent house. As long as the house was still under construction, the medium said, the spirits would be placated. And so, the legend goes, Sarah Winchester started building and never stopped. At the time of her death in 1922, the house had 160 rooms and no discernable architectural logic. It’s “a house beyond the bounds of sense or competence,” Dickey writes. One staircase dead-ends at a blank wall; another has 44 steps, each one only two-inches high. The house has 13 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms, evidence of Sarah Winchester’s superstitious preference for the unluckiest number.
In the popular imagination, the Winchester Mystery House serves as an architectural expression of Sarah Winchester’s guilt, and perhaps a warning about the deleterious effects of Manifest Destiny. It’s an appealingly neat story, and Dickey immediately sets to poking holes in it. The deaths of Sarah Winchester’s daughter and husband took place 15 years apart; if she was cursed by spirits, they were remarkably slow-moving ones. There’s no record of the medium she supposedly contacted, and her obsession with the number 13 was a posthumous invention. The legend that construction on the house never stopped is another demonstrable falsehood. (Workers regularly took weekends — and sometimes entire months — off.) And it turns out that Sarah Winchester owned several other “spectacularly average” houses, Dickey tells us, and “spent very little of the last seventeen years of her life in the Winchester Mystery House.”
But Ghostland is not a work of mere debunking. Instead, Dickey tries to uncover what such tall tales are really about, what their survival reveals about what truly makes us uncomfortable. Letters that Winchester wrote to her sister-in-law imply that her penchant for building was less about spirits, madness, or guilt than her own interest in architecture, during a period when the profession was largely inaccessible to women. She hired two architects to work on her house but fired them quickly, preferring to handle the design herself. Dickey also makes the case that some of the bad vibes attributed to the house have economics, not spiritual mischief, at their root: the United States faced its worst depression to date in the 1890s, and Sarah Winchester, a reclusive heiress, served as “a gaudy reminder of the haves versus the have-nots.” The truly unsettling thing about Sarah Winchester, to her contemporaries, was that she was a woman of independent means, unconventional ambitions, and few local social ties: an ideal figure on which to project collective guilt about the violence enabled by her father-in-law’s guns. “Ghosts, you could say, flock to women left alone,” Dickey notes.
There’s another reason the legend of the Winchester Mystery House has persisted: because someone figured it could make him money. After Sarah Winchester’s death, her lawyer appraised the mansion as having “no value”: it was too huge and strange to be a viable home for anyone else. The house failed to sell at auction; instead, a Canadian man named John H. Brown offered to lease the property with an option to buy. Brown operated an amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie (a highlight of which was Backety-Back, one of the world’s first roller coasters), and he brought his carnival aesthetic with him to San Jose. When he began offering tours of his new property, he simplified and amplified the haunted mansion narrative that tour guides still recount today. Brown’s showmanship is still evident in the contemporary Mystery House’s scripted scariness, its embrace of haunted house kitsch. The gift shop sells glass decanters shaped like skulls; every Friday the 13th, a celebrity guest — such as S. J. Sharkie, the squaline mascot of the San Jose Sharks — is invited to toll the Winchester house’s bell 13 times at 1:00 p.m. (or, for those who prefer their a spookier nomenclature, 13 o’clock).
This is all so typically, depressingly, hilariously American: in the USA, the gothic and the gaudy go hand in hand. Fear is big business, and people will pay good money to be scared, whether by a horror movie or by history. And yet, even after its mechanics have been exposed, there’s still something deeply disturbing about the Winchester Mystery House. This is a recurrent theme throughout Ghostland: Dickey keeps exploding the myths behind ghost stories, yet still feels unnerved, in spite of himself. That may be because, even if a ghost story is reductive or wrong, it still gestures at an underlying psychological unease: we reach for a ghost when we aren’t satisfied with other explanations. Ghosts, Dickey says, “enter and reenter our lexicon to explain the unexplainable, to represent the unrepresentable, to give a word to that which we don’t understand.”
Of course this broad category — “that which we don’t understand” — can stretch to include nearly anything, and Ghostland is a capacious and at times miscellaneous book. Dickey’s omnivorous curiosity lands on everything from the fraught legacy of slavery to the role of Spiritualism in women’s suffrage to 19th-century innovations in efficient horse stable design to the origins of the Ku Klux Klan to critiques of ruin porn in modern-day Detroit.
Sometimes it seems as though Dickey sees evidence of haunting everywhere he turns. “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off,” he writes. I happened to read that line while staying in a bland and over-air-conditioned La Quinta in the suburbs of Dallas; I stood in the hallway, tried to summon up a shiver, and felt myself thoroughly unafraid. But it’s not just hotels: nearly every person, place, thing, or idea that Dickey turns his attention to acquires a spooky resonance. He has a penchant for making pronouncements about the uncanniness of everyday objects and practices, a handful of which feel stretched a little too far: “Spiritualism has become a ghost itself”; asbestos and lead paint are “another kind of civic ghost”; sites of adaptive reuse like New York City’s Highline attract ghosts “because they are ghosts”; “to enslave someone was not necessarily to efface that person entirely, but to render him or her a ghost.”
It’s not surprising, then, when Dickey, toward the end of his book, theorizes that the Internet of Things — “a future in which not just phones and computers are connected to the Internet but light switches and refrigerators and security alarms and laundry machines — all connected via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, automating our homes in myriad ways” — may mean that “we ourselves become the ghosts.” At the same time, technology is a powerful force of demystification. In Ghostland’s final pages, a ghost hunter mourns how the surfeit of information available online erodes some of the eerie power of haunted houses, which, after all, are based on a fundamental sense of mystery. “The romantic idea of a lonely person haunting a place is slowly disappearing,” he tells Dickey. “The idea is becoming a ghost, I guess.”
Ghostland covers a lot of ground and never really coheres into a broader personal or historical narrative; the book feels more like a collection of thematically linked essays than anything else. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Dickey is always good company, an ideal companion to take along on a ghost tour: skeptical but prone to goosebumps, with an affinity for odd, morbid historical details. (One of my favorite things about the book are the small tragedies that creep in at the edges of the book, the briefly mentioned figures who, being tangential to the concerns of the primary narrative, come to feel like Ghostland’s ghosts: the unnamed woman who was killed in June 1910 when she was thrown out of Backety-Back; or Margaret Risley, who killed herself in San Jose in 1885, a tragedy that was reported in the local paper with the headline STRYCHNINE: Margaret Risley Solves the Great Problem.)
Partway through Ghostland, Dickey takes a nighttime ghost tour of the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, a house that is supposedly haunted by the four members of the Lemp family who committed suicide there. The visitors are all given infrared cameras to help them suss out spirits. Peering through the viewfinder, Dickey is spooked even before anything happens: “The way a camera can single out a specific object for our attention makes us presume that something specific is going to happen. The more ordinary the object and the longer the wait, the more our expectations heighten.” Primed with the possibility of an uncanny encounter, the otherwise ordinary mansion becomes strange, and full of potential. This is Dickey’s ideal mode, and it’s not a bad way to move through the world: with senses on high alert, attuned to the contradictions of history, ready for something fantastic to happen.
Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.