October 9, 2017
As preservationists, we here at PreserveCast are usually concerned with the physical history: what we can know from the cold hard facts. But seeing as how it’s October and Halloween is around the corner, we thought we’d talk a little about haunted history. Author Colin Dickey joined me to talk about the history of ghost stories and share what we can learn from the places that scare us. The conversation ranges all the way from Silicon Valley to Richmond, Virginia, on the first ever PreserveCast Spooktacular!
[Nick Redding] As preservationists, we here at PreserveCast are usually concerned with the physical history – what we can know from the cold, hard facts. But seeing as how it’s October and Halloween is just around that darkened corner, we thought we’d talk a little about haunted history. Author Colin Dickey joined me to talk about the history of ghost stories and share what we can learn from the places that scare us. Don’t be frightened. This is the PreserveCast Spooktacular.
From Preservation Maryland studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today, we are joined by Colin Dickey, who is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other works of fantastic non-fiction, Cranioklepty and Afterlives of the Saints. He’s currently writing a book on conspiracy theories and other delusions entitled The Unidentified, which is forthcoming in 2019. Colin has been referred to by one reviewer as “a mad genius.” And he’s going to talk to us today in particular about his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. As we approach Halloween, we wanted to talk with Colin about the history of haunted places and some of the things that he’s uncovered. Colin, it’s a real pleasure to have you on PreserveCast today.
[Colin Dickey] Thank you so much for having me on.
[NR] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? We love to start these conversations by sort of setting the table and getting a sense for who we’re talking to. How do you get into this line of work? What took you down the path of starting to write about haunted history?
[CD] I think I’ve always been fascinated with ghosts and ghost stories and haunted houses. I grew up in San Jose, California, which is the home of the Winchester Mystery House, which is regularly referred to as one of the most haunted houses in the country. And they do a lot of tours. It’s been the inspiration for a number of writers and other horror novelists. And so I kind of grew up with that as a child. And it kind of always stayed in the back of my mind. And I read a lot of Stephen King and whatnot.
Then, as I got older and I went into academia. I got a PhD in comparative literature. One of the things I kept finding were these kinds of stories that not a lot of people were taking seriously, but seems really fascinating to me. And my first book was about the true stories of several famous people whose heads were stolen in the 19th century: Mozart, Beethoven, Goya, Emanuel Swedenborg, and a bunch of other people. And I thought, “What is this weird sort of phenomenon that nobody seems to really take seriously but had this very strange impact in the early nineteenth century?”
So that led me down a bizarre road and researching things like phrenology and these kinds of sciences that people don’t take seriously for a good reason because they’re bunk. But yet, people, at the time, certainly took it seriously and have an impact on our cultural life. So when I came back to ghost stories, it was less about, “Are ghosts real? Are houses actually haunted?” Or the flip side: proving that they’re not, people who believe in ghosts, or fools, or anything like that. It was more a question of what does this belief do to our culture? How does it change the way we approach history? How does it change the way we approach old buildings? How does it change the way we keep alive our past through these stories, which maybe we’re not primed to take it seriously all the time?
[NR] So you just explained there and gave just an introduction to what I was going to ask you about next, which is what is Ghost Land all about. It gets very clear Ghost Land is not just a book of scary stories, right? You’re trying to, attempting… I guess I’m putting words in your mouth here but, to kind of lay the table for why we tell these stories. Where we tell them, why we tell them, what they’re all about, what they say about us. I mean, is that a fair way to sort of characterize Ghost Land? How would you describe the book?
[CD] Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a pretty good characterization. I mean, I was really interested in two real questions with this book. It’s first, why do we tell some stories and not others? In the United States and North America, for example, one of our most cliched and common ghost stories that we tell is about the haunted Indian burial ground, right? You see it in a lot of horror movies of the suburban house is haunted because it’s built on a haunted Indian burial ground. And why does that story get told with such frequency? Why do we – as particularly non-indigenous, White Americans – why are we so fascinated with this aspect of Native American culture that we are both drawn to and yet horrified at the same moment? So those kinds of questions. Why these stories and not others? That was one of the main questions that I wanted to ask.
The other one was, why some buildings and not others? Why do we fetishize old Victorian mansions? Why are we drawn towards decaying hotels? Why are some cities like New Orleans more filled with ghosts than – I don’t know- Topeka, Kansas or something [laughter]? So I really wanted to push on those two questions and see if I could use these well-worn ghost stories to understand a little bit more about American culture and its history.
[NR] So without giving away too much of the book, because we want people to go out and buy it and it’s a perfect book to read this time of the year, why – for example, you’re on PreserveCast, a podcast that focuses on preservation and history and architecture and all these sorts of things – why is it that Victorian architecture always pops up? I mean, Second Empire seems to be the scariest kind of architecture. I’m not really sure why that is but, it seems like every time you see a Second Empire house – or that is the sort of quintessential haunted house?
[CD] Some of it I think is just the sort of nature of changing case, right? I mean, whatever is the latest and greatest kind of architecture is usually the least likely to be haunted, right? So Victorians weren’t haunted in their day. They were haunted as we moved on to other architectural styles. Similarly with haunted insane asylums, right? When you call to mind the kind of archetypal haunted insane asylum, what you’ll probably picture is – and I’m sure some of your listeners know this – the Kirkbride design, which was pioneered in the mid-nineteenth century by Thomas Kirkbride. It’s the asylum with the big clock tower in the front and the wings that kind of spread out on either side and it has all these Victorian touches, right? That’s the quintessential haunted asylum that you find in H.P. Lovecraft stories and B-movies and stuff like that. But that got its legacy as being haunted only after reformers had decided that this was actually not a great design for mental health and they sort of moved to the cottage plan and other plans. So one way of answering that question which is just haunted houses are the aesthetics that gets left behind, right? They are the fashion of yesterday that stubbornly persists and doesn’t get torn down. That I think runs through a lot of the book.
But Victorians I think are a really interesting sort of specific example, though, because one of the great things about Victorians is just how many sort of weird nooks and crannies they have. The winding staircases and the little pocket rooms and a floor plan that almost invites a more labyrinthine imagination as opposed to something more modernesque with big open rooms and that kind of stuff.
One of the things when I was researching the book, I came across this great passage by Gaston Bachelard – which I hope I’m not massacring his French name there – but in The Poetics of Space where he talked about when we’re young. We sort of project our imagination onto these hidden spaces and small spaces and how those have a tendency to kind of reflect that back to us in the form of almost coming alive or feeling like the eaves, and the attics, and the stairwells are harboring these imagining forces that we’ve projected onto them.
[NR] That’s wonderful. Let me ask you this: Is there a time limit on how long something can be haunted? I mean, what I’m getting at is if the Victorian architecture is what scared us most, do you think that that will sort of phase out over time and that we’ll find a new scary architecture? Or did the Victorians find something scary that we no longer really focus on so much? Is there sort of a time limit on that? Have you found that through any of this?
[CD] Yeah. I mean, certainly, yeah. I mean, I think for Victorians the things that they found sort of most likely to harbor ghosts were haunted castles and haunted abbeys. Maybe more so in Europe because they have more of those things. But you think of the early Gothic tradition, novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and stuff like that, those all took place in castles. So again, you have this, kind of, what was antiquated architecture for the Victorians was these older, almost medieval architecture. Whereas now, we’re more interested in Victorian culture. I mean, it does evolve. I mean, one of the things that didn’t make it into the book, but which I wrote about subsequently was a blog some of your listeners may know, which is called McMansion Hell.
[NR] Yeah, it’s based here in Baltimore, as well.
[CD] Yeah. A really fantastic blog where a writer takes apart McMansion architecture and aesthetics and sort of shows how poorly done a lot of these are. They’re put together by contractors rather than architects without much rhyme or reason. So I wrote a piece for Slate.com that connected that blog and some of the stuff that she talks about in that blog to the blockbuster horror movie Paranormal Activity, which again if you’ve seen it, it’s a horror movie about a haunted McMansion. So these things do shift over time, and as one thing sort of falls out of favor, something else will re-emerge as the new haunted space.
[NR] So the scary McMansions are coming. I can see it.
[CD] I mean, you kind of can, right? I mean, especially as urbanites are moving to the cities. They’re moving out of the suburbs. It’s not impossible to imagine a landscape littered with half-occupied McMansions out in the suburbs that suddenly start to look a lot more malevolent than they did when they were first built.
[NR] Pretty scary future. Let me ask you another question here and this one kind of comes from personal experience. I was a park ranger at Gettysburg for a while and we would see throngs, hundreds, and over a season, thousands of people going on ghost tours there. Of course, there is interest in going on the more standard historical tour. But it seems like there’s a much greater appetite to go on the ghost tour even if the ghost tour is largely made up of – maybe this is coming from a cynical side – a lot of half-truths and maybe some fiction. What is it about ghost tours that seems to appeal to the American people in a way that maybe the more traditional history doesn’t? What about it? Is it just because you can spin a better tale? Or it’s easier to be a little bit looser with the facts? What happens?
[CD] Yeah. I mean, sure. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Who doesn’t love to get the hairs on the back of their necks standing up? I think in some ways, I would kind of flip that question back around and say, “Why do we go on ghost tours rather than just going to horror movies?” And I think it’s because people do want some connection to history. I mean, the thing about a ghost tour is it’s kind of the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it gives that little thrill, that little sense of danger and mystery. But on the other hand, it is a way of connecting with the past even though, as you mentioned that connection is quite tenuous and somewhat fabricated. But I think what people are looking for in a ghost story is they’re looking – or a ghost tour – they’re looking for a sense that the town, or the historical site, or wherever they are, has more to it going on than it appears during the day. I mean, the ghost tours in New Orleans are thronged every night. I think it’s just a lot of tourists and even some locals who want to imagine not just the New Orleans of today, of crawfish boils and whatever else you’re supposed to do as a tourist; but also the sense that there is this long history here. And you can get a glimpse of it through a ghost tour.
[NR] And that, perhaps, it still resonates to this day. It’s sort of touching a piece of the past that’s still alive in a way, I suppose.
[CD] Right. As a historian, as someone who really values actual documented history, I sometimes get a little frustrated with ghost stories where there is so much fabrication. There’s so much falsified stuff that’s presented as fact. But I do try and recognize – and I think it’s worth recognizing for preservations and historians everywhere – that people come to these stories because they are interested in history and they want to be engaged. They want to know more about the past. And it’s not really their fault if they’re being sold a bill of goods. They’re certainly trying, and they’re receptive to those kinds of avenues into our historical legacy.
[NR] I think at this point, let’s take a quick break. And then, when we come back, let’s talk a little bit more about that. And how, perhaps, ghost stories, and hauntings, and things like that, can play a role in the way that the public perceives and perhaps even engages in preserving the past. And we’ll do that when we’re back here on PreserveCast in just a minute.
[Stephen Israel] Like any state of the Union, Maryland is home to countless stories of hauntings, ghosts, ghouls, and souls who cannot find rest [evil laughter]. In keeping with the day’s theme, let’s check out a couple historical haunts in Maryland.
One site, who’s factual history may be more renowned than the ghosts some have claimed to see within its walls, is the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd famously, or perhaps infamously, assisted John Wilkes Booth during his escape after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, treating Booth’s leg that he broke jumping from the balcony in Ford’s Theater. Witnesses have seen paranormal phenomena of all sorts. But most often are reports that the cover on Samuel Mudd’s old bed gets disturbed overnight as though someone or something had lain there.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to the story of the Samuel Mudd House, which is a story born out of the very real sense of unease from the historical assassination and the controversial conviction and imprisonment of the doctor for aiding in the conspiracy, is the story of the Blair Witch Project. Perhaps the most haunted tale in Maryland and the centerpiece of one of the most divisive and iconic horror movies of all time, the legend of the Blair Witch is known to be entirely fabricated.
The filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, based their fictional story and fictional mythology in the very real and historic town of Burkittsville in Frederick County, Maryland. Despite Burkittsville having a fascinating history in its own right of Confederate occupation during the Battle of Crampton’s Gap, a prelude to the Battle of Antietam and the use of the two Burkittsville’s churches as hospitals in the battle’s aftermath, the legends of witches in possession used in the film are based on a fictitious colonial town meant to be a precursor to Burkittsville. Knowing this, it may not be too surprising for you to know that the residents of Burkittsville have had a troublesome relationship with fans, ghosthunters, and the like. If any of you listeners out there are seeking to track down information about this 100 percent confirmed fake invented for viral marketing scary story, please be respectful. And understand that most of the movie was shot in the Seneca Creek in Patapsco Valley State Parks anyway. From Edgar Allan Poe to the Point Lookout Lighthouse, there are plenty of other tales we could talk about but I’m spooked out enough as it is. Do you mind if we get back to PreserveCast?
[Nick Redding] Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Colin Dickey who is the author of Ghostland: An American History In Haunted Places. And I wanted to talk with Colin a little bit more – following up on our conversation from before the break – about how a haunting or a building with a ghost story can help in terms of its preservation. Have you come across anything like that? Is there some value to this? Because I know that a lot of people working in the field are sort of cynical about this. Perhaps this is the gateway drug that some folks need to be able to get them into preservation in a more traditional sense. Have you found that to be the case?
[CD] I mean, yeah, definitely. So as I mentioned when we were talking earlier, I mean I grew up in San Jose, California, which is the home of Silicon Valley and the tech boom, and Apple, and Facebook, and all that stuff. And kind of smack dab in the heart of it is this place, the Winchester Mystery House, which is this gloriously strange, 161-room Victorian Mansion. And there’s this great, elaborate story about the daughter-in-law of the guy who founded the Winchester Rifle Company and her husband and infant daughter both died. She sort of became convinced she was being haunted by anyone who’d ever been killed by a Winchester rifle and that she built this house specifically as a labyrinth to keep the ghosts out. That’s the story you get on the tour. And when I started researching the book, I found a good majority of what I just told you is not actually factually correct.
So on the one hand, you think, “Oh, well, why don’t they just tell the story of Sarah Winchester as it really happened?” But then you also have to look at Silicon Valley. I mean, across the street from the Winchester Mystery House is this extremely expensive shopping mall. I think one of the most expensive shopping malls ever when it was built. And the land that the Winchester House sits on is incalculably valuable just based on what’s going on in terms of housing and real estate in San Jose. And so without that story, which admittedly is not entirely factually correct, the odds that that beautiful, one-of-a-kind, singular building would still be standing, I think, are not great. And so in some cases, you see these ghost stories being the things that are keeping these buildings alive.
Another good example is in lower Manhattan, The Merchant’s House, which again, how much would a building like that go for on the real estate market right now in New York? And yet it’s kept alive as a historical museum. And it’s buoyed in no small part by the ghost tours that it provides that make it rightly or wrongly, or appropriately or not, make it relevant to a new generation of New Yorkers.
[NR] Yeah. No. I think that makes sense. And I think that it’s important for all of us who are involved in history and preservation to remember that. It is a fun way to engage the public and it can save some pretty impressive places, particularly the ones you point out, were but for probably ghost stories, the market would have intervened and we probably would have lost those structures. Let me ask you: In your research on this book, is there any one particular story jump out at you as something like a quintessential, American haunting? Something that is just a perfect example of it, or something that really stuck with you from your research?
[CD] One of the things that I think I found most fascinating – that I knew so little about before I starting researching – was Richmond, Virginia, which in the very early stages of researching, I thought, “Well, instead of just a haunted house or a hotel… I want a whole haunted downtown or a haunted neighborhood.” So I Googled around and sure enough, the Richmond neighborhood known as Shockoe Bottom gets regularly listed as one of the most haunted downtowns in America. And I thought, “Okay. Great. I’ll go there. I’ll research it. I’ll talk to people. I’ll see what’s up.”
The thing about Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom is all of the ghost stories that I could find on tours, and in local guidebooks, and stuff like that, the ghosts were all, to put it bluntly, they were all White, right? I mean, this was a downtown that was haunted exclusively by shopkeepers, and former brothel workers, and guys in bar fights, and stuff like that. But Shockoe Bottom – again, for people who know the history – has this other legacy as being the second-most trafficked slave-trading market in the South after New Orleans, right? And so there was something really fascinating to me about the way in which a place that had so much genuine and documented historical pain, and tragedy, and human suffering built into it, had through the years unconsciously as a community, or perhaps, even to some degree consciously, had shifted that narrative to being a place where the way at which historical tragedy was recorded was in these sort of side stories about local hotels, and local bars, and brothels, and stuff like that. That I think speaks so much of America’s use and misuse of ghost stories as a means and the history as both a way to awaken our sense of the past and also, just as often, to kind of sidestep that can erase it. That in many ways speaks to a larger trajectory of America’s understanding its own past.
[NR] Yeah. I suppose you have a serious problem with race and inequity if even your ghost stories whitewash your past [laughter].
[CD] Right, exactly right. You know what I mean? The template of a ghost story is an injustice that hasn’t been regressed, right? Hamlet’s father’s ghost coming back and saying, “I was murdered and you need to avenge my death.” And so we, as a country, have enough historical injustices that still could use some regressing and it’s interesting to see the way in which ghost stories invoke those and also often sidestep them.
[NR] So I probably wouldn’t be doing my job unless I asked you this before we sort of move to the conclusion here, this interview, which is have you ever had a ghost experience?
[CD] You know, I would probably not be doing my job if I didn’t try and equivocate or [laughter] dodge that question a little bit. What I will say though is that one of the things I kept finding through this book is that a lot of the buildings that we think of as haunted, I find so much of that feeling, that creepy sense, can come from – for a lack of better term – sort of unexpected architecture, right? You know what I mean? Buildings that just seem that they were put together oddly or wrongly. I mean, we talked a little bit about McMansions.
[NR] I was going to say, it sounds like you’re describing a McMansion, but keep going. [laughter]
[CD] Right. But one of the places where I definitely felt that feeling was in the Moundsville West Virginia Penitentiary, which is one of the most famous haunted prisons in the country. And the thing about prison architecture is it’s designed to make you feel uncomfortable, right? I mean, the ceilings are too short, the cells are too small, the hallways are too narrow. Everything about being in a place like that, even if you’re not a prisoner, is about making you feel sort of unsettled and uncomfortable. And I think being in that penitentiary, and especially once you know the atrocities and terrors that happened in its historical past, it’s an unsettling feeling. Even if rationally I could say, “These are not the ghosts of murdered prisoners. These are the legacies of architectural choices,” but the feeling was still there.
[NR] Interesting. Let me move on here for a second. What’s next for you? What are you working on now? So you’ve gone from stealing skulls to haunted places to the Afterlives of the Saints, and what’s The Unidentified all about?
[CD] Yeah. So this project, I think, will continue a little bit in that methodology. I mean, I’m looking at conspiracy theories for sure and everything from chemtrails to the belief that the CIA maybe invented HIV and spread it among marginalized populations in the United States to UFOs and cryptids. Cryptids being this sort of Loch Ness Monster and other such mythical beasts. And again, I think it’s that same sort of interest I have with both stories that don’t often get taken seriously, like the Big Foot hunters and the alien abductees. And also the way in which place and space often infect those stories. So with those cryptids and UFOs, one of the things that keeps coming up, is that these are either taking place in open rural spaces, or the desert, or kind of places that have been maybe forgotten by the rest of America living in suburbs and the cities. So, who knows? It’s early stages. But that’s where I’m going with that. So hopefully, it will continue to be fun and fruitful.
[NR] Well, there’s no lack of conspiracy theories in our society today. I’m sure you could come up with them.
[CD] Yeah. Well, yeah, I’m not hurting for subjects now.
[NR] No. I can’t imagine you would be. So, Colin, if people want to get in touch with you, they want to learn more about your projects or purchase a book, how would they do that? What’s the best way?
[CD] So the books are out, pretty easy to track down at bookstores and online. The paperback of Ghostland will be out October 3rd. I guess, maybe by the time this airs, it will already be out. So you can probably grab that wherever. And yeah, I’m on social media. I’m online. My website is just ColinDickey.com. And I’m happy to talk to anybody about historic buildings, historic hauntings, ghosts they may have seen. I’d love to talk to everyone about it all.
[NR] If they need an exorcism, can you connect them to one?
[CD] Sure. Sure. Yeah, I know. I can connect them, yeah.
[NR] Yeah. Okay. All right. So before we let you go, we ask this of everyone who comes on PreserveCast – excited to hear your answer, given the research you’ve done, the places you’ve been – your favorite historic building or place.
[CD] Yeah. It’s hard to pick one. I mean, we could be here all day. But for some reason, the one that keeps coming to mind is the Renaissance Center in Detroit. I don’t know if that quite qualifies as historic, but close enough. It’s a series of concentric cylinders that has this very retrofuture, modern feel about it even as the rest of Detroit has often changed around it. When I was researching the book, I stayed in the Renaissance Center. And I just remember sort of walking through those kind of cylindrical open spaces, thinking what a strange and wonderful place it was to just kind of lose your mind and get lost in daydreaming. So that’s my answer for today. Ask me again tomorrow, you’ll get something else.
[NR] It’s good to know. And is it haunted? I guess we should ask.
[CD] Oh, yeah. Sure. Oh, yeah. Everything in Detroit is haunted depending on who you ask. Yeah. Yeah. Totally. Yeah
[NR] Definitely haunted. All right. Colin, it’s been a pleasure. We appreciate having you on. And we’d look forward to maybe having you on when you talk more about conspiracy theories and their connection to place and space and buildings and all those good things. It’s a pleasure. Thanks again.
[CD] Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a lot of fun.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving.
Did you know!? When Disneyland opened for the season in 1969, a spookier attraction was included on the park map – Disney’s Haunted Mansion – inspired by the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore City! Learn more on the Preservation Maryland blog.