Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

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Let me start this review by saying that this book was a massive disappointment for me. I read this in October looking for a creepy Halloween read. I thought this book was going to be the creepy ghost stories I was looking for, but it turned out to be anything but.

What its All About

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey premise is as it says, sharing ghost stories from across the country. The author’s thesis is ghost stories share more about the people and society telling the story than of those whose stories are being shared. That ghost stories can highlight our faults by defining something that went against societal norms as scary or neglecting what we as a society are ashamed of entirely. In many ways, these stories showcase the things that people are ashamed of. The author argues that ghost stories can reflect many of the contemporary society’s mores by what the society found or finds repellant. In many cases, something that goes against the society’s social mores leads to the rumors of something otherworldly happening and therefore the belief in the haunting.

My Thoughts on the Book

This book did start out well. The first couple of chapters were exactly as advertised. Each chapter is supposed to tell the story of a local haunting and then the author tries to explain how this reflected the culture of the local area. The first couple chapters were exactly as advertised. A local haunting is told and the author explained how that reflected the time period and the culture that the people lived in. But after a while, the author kept coming back to the same theme. How each haunting is flawed and how it can be debunked. This “openminded” author debunks every single haunting. It led me to believe that he picked the hauntings that were easily debunked. In fact, most hauntings seemed to be debunked with little to no extensive research on behalf of the author. It made me think the author was picking and choosing hauntings that fit within his overarching theme and that were easily debunked.

The author’s tone is condescending towards his audience and he feels the need to explain exactly how each haunting fits into his overarching theme of hauntings showcases societies flaws. He never lets the audience make the connection or the leap of logic. He pedantically explains what exactly the flaw of society is and then how the haunting showcases this, even when the connection is extremely obvious as the conditions within the sanitarium and prison. I think it would have been more interesting if the author had shared the details and then let the audience make the conclusion for themselves. However, at times I feel like the author had to explain so in depth because the actual research seemed to be lacking.

There are several chapters where the author discusses how in many different parts of America the ghosts are primarily white people to exclude stories that highlight the abuse and degrading conditions of enslaved people which can make people feel uncomfortable. However, he does include several hauntings that are of people who were enslaved. But these hauntings have also been contorted so that the slaves are portrayed as villains. I think it would have been more interesting if he had included one of these stories to illustrate his point but also included some of the stories he mentioned briefly of the ghost stories recorded by the slaves themselves.

As I alluded to earlier I think this book was not as researched as much as it could have been. There were several errors or rather omissions that showed that the author did not do extensive research on the area. He made several location errors such as describing Monticello as in the city of Richmond. (this might be because I live in the general area). The chapter about Shiloh also illustrates the fact that the author could have done much more research, the chapter on Shiloh is extremely vague. He does not include any specifics about the ghost stories at all, just mentions that there were a few soldiers supposedly haunting the battlefield. He does not mention anything about the battle at all, which cheapened the whole chapter. The reason I love reading ghost stories is being able to feel an emotional connection with the subjects of the story. Shiloh was the battle where the Union army was caught by surprise and suffered massive amounts of casualties on that first day. The massive amount of casualties that were caught by surprise, in particular, should have led to an emotional and evocative ghost story, but I don’t think the author did the research in order to find that out.

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