Reasons to Believe in Ghosts in America
It reveals a lot, perhaps, that the citizens of a Southern town report feeling strange paroxysms when they walk over the unmarked graves of slaves.
About a year ago, I spent some days in Savannah, Georgia, and I bought a ticket for a ghost tour: my first. It was mid-evening, on a Saturday. The plan was to see haunted things around town and then hurry to a dinner reservation. I am not normally a spooky type of person—I avoid horror movies, and I don’t believe in ghosts—but Savannah boasts about being a haunted city, and it sounded nice to spend a twilight hour being told stories in parks. It was a lovely, creeping Southern autumn night: lukewarm, humid, and redolent of turning leaves and moss. At least four people in the group of ticket-holding hauntees were on the upslope of a bachelorette party. The guide was very earnest on the subject of ghosts; he began by playing wind-tunnel-like noises on his phone, and asked us whether we heard screaming voices in them. It would have shocked me if I had, since most phones I’ve encountered have a lot of trouble getting even normal voice reception in the middle of New York. But other people seemed to have better spiritual hearing than I did.
We walked around and saw the façades of gorgeous mansions whose residents had been murdered, or had killed themselves, or else had chanted spells. At one house, our guide said that sometimes, on some nights, the owner shines a blinding light on tours and screams for them to go away. This didn’t really seem so haunted, to me, but it was something to which I could relate.
Then we stopped at Calhoun Square, a small park trimmed in stately homes. A hurricane had come through only days before, and the lawns between the brick paths were still scattered with beaten branches and leaves. The guide said that Calhoun Square was the most haunted square in old Savannah. People walking here, across the centuries, had reported feeling shadows pass through them, a tightness or a great weight on their chests. The other spooky thing that we should know about Calhoun Square, he said, was that it had been a burial ground for slaves—some people estimated that a thousand bodies rested deep beneath the grass, but no one really knew for sure, because the graves were mass and unmarked. The bodies underneath, he said, made it a super-haunted place.
I thought about the Calhoun Square tour the next day, and on the fight home, and on and off through the week after that. The directed blindness of the guide’s account (this place has strange effects on passersby, and it’s unclear why—also, hundreds of uncommemorated slaves were dumped here) got me thinking about America’s fascination with the occult and the particular discomfort that spooky explanations can displace. I’d never considered what people meant when they expressed a fear of ghosts, or what it is to posit haunting in a person or a place. (“Haunted by the past,” we say, usually about people who require therapy.) Those of a rationalist bent assume—at least, I did—that individuals who report feelings of “shadows passing through” are breathing fumes of superstition. But is superstition really the right word for such a thing? It reveals a lot, perhaps, that, when the citizens of a Southern town report feeling strange paroxysms when they walk over the bones of humans raised as chattel, the only options seem to be that there is something ectoplasmic going on or that they’re nuts.
Is it possible, instead, that haunting is real—as real as the feeling in your throat when you pass the chair where your mother always used to sit—and that Americans are bad at confronting the physical fact of our pasts? Savannah boasts about being one of America’s most haunted cities, chased by centuries of unexplained misfortune and bad feeling. Yet its boosters rarely speak in the same breath about its history as Georgia’s largest slave port and market—a past today largely un-noted in the landscape.
Obfuscation or compartmentalization of this kind is the norm in the U.S., not the exception. Americans like to think that they’re straightforward people, but the national culture of discussion is opaque, clouded by euphemism, denial, and hope. When times go dark, we talk our way around physical evils: “jobs” for xenophobic roundups, “freedom” for the acquisition of murderous arms. In recent weeks, it has become apparent that innumerable women, in a range of industries, have been compelled to live with abuse and rape in silence, or in speech that does not free them from bodily fear.
In other words, haunted is precisely what we are: physically, painfully. And we still create our hauntings in our language and in how we live. The habit of unacknowledgement—the Middle English aknowen meant both to understand and to admit—is woven so deeply into centuries of productive culture, in the fields and in the factories, the kitchens and the cubicles, that bodily fear and spiritual anguish can, in fact, adhere to the physicality of a place for multiple people who pass through. That place is haunted. We talk about the ghosts who chase and haunt us because we don’t like to face much about our pasts.
This Halloween, especially, perhaps it makes sense to pin less on the ghouls, zombies, witches, and spirits and more on ourselves, the society that turns places into a world. One of the perverse reckonings of recent months has been the exhumation human terrors. We have watched people with guns kill more than any spectre could. We have seen the proof of racism and hatred on prime-time TV. This is the vilest time in recent memory, but it is, perhaps, one in which we are able to avoid a spookier future. The task is to face and to name what’s being dug up—to stare down the demons. I still do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in haunting in the world. If someone played a clip of white noise in the night today, I’d hope to hear the screams.