Have you ever seen a ghost? Or maybe experienced something that couldn’t be explained with words? I once saw a little girl in a mirror upon waking – it still gives me the willies today. I believe certain people are more in tune with the “other” realm and they are more apt to experience ephemeral encounters. Children are prone to “seeing” ghosts or talking to rooms that are completely empty; maybe because of their innocence or even openness to the unknown. This logic can be extended down the tree of life to my idiotic Chihuahua – Max. There is no creature that is more innocent and open minded than Max – his outlook on life is an eternal Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Tour. I imagine him waking up to the world each morning with a complete erasure of memory; only remembering his “chocolate” surroundings when he hears me dishing out his daily allotment of tortilla chips. Hence, this complete innocence is why Max can interact with all sorts of paranormal activity. It is not uncommon that he barks to an empty room; or stares eerily at the vacuum cleaner; or even throws up nasty green stuff as if possessed by a demon. A chihuahua is the boiled down version of all our fears – everything is a potential poltergeist. Like Max, we all to a degree fear the unknown and search for answers to unexplained phenomenon. For these reasons, I read one of NPR’s great reads of 2016, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.
America has a myriad of supposedly haunted houses, commercial buildings, ruins, cemeteries, and even entire cities. Dickey lists several examples but there are a few that stand above all others. One is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California that was built by Sarah Winchester – the heiress to the Winchester Gun fortune. It is over 20,000 square feet and has 160 rooms which are discombobulated to confuse spirits. There is also the Lalaurie Mansion in New Orleans, the previous host to slaves who were punished with crude experiments, starvation, prolonged chaining, and dismemberment. Head over to Pennsylvania to take a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary with its formidable facade and even more foreboding interior to hear the cries of long dead inmates. Better yet, search around the city of Detroit for an evil-red-dwarf known as the Nain Rouge – said to be responsible for all of the city’s calamities. Go back west to the hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining. The Stanley Hotel, located in Estes Park, Colorado is an isolated building that throughout the years has seen its fair share of ghost sightings. Suffice it to say, no matter where you are in America, you are not far from a haunted place.
Is there any truth to these haunted places? I believe there is an underlying mystery to these locales because of their histories but many times the stories are twisted for a specific purpose. For example, many haunted places are connected with Indian burial grounds. These “backstories” are usually completely erroneous and are added to give merit to the “spiritual” activity. We use ghost stories to sanitize history which goes counter to our modern idea of a “Just America.” Whether it is a black slave left to wander the plantation or a young girl who was killed in cold blood – a haunting helps us interact with a past that just doesn’t fit with our worldview. Of course, many times these haunted places are passed off to the public for the sake of money. Ghost tourism is a booming business -especially in haunted cities like New Orleans.
Capitalism is a strong harbinger of the dead and it does a great job of perpetuating half truths and whole lies. The modern day ghost story is a caricature mirrored after images that the public expects: from big screen movies to the Haunted Mansion ride in Disney. Humans are always in search of answers and we project our current beliefs into the past – today more than ever we are disconnected from the idea of “death.” Just like Max, the ghost stories of today can either be explained as just another mistaken bump in the night or an actual murderer lurking outside. To me these places are haunted – they are haunted by the living who can’t let go of their fear of the unknown. Do ghosts exist? Look in the mirror.