The question I am most asked on my tours, after questions about my own paranormal experiences, is “how do you know that story?”
That is a great question.
The answer, like the stories themselves, vary greatly. There are some stories that have been so often retold, like the spirits of tormented Jesuits said roam the halls of a Marquette dorm, or the legend of drown swimmers still lingering at the one time Eagles Ballroom that they have now because part of the oral history of the city. Other stories are a bit more elusive and require a bit of digging. For me, that means time spent at the library squinting at microfilm copies of newspapers from the 1800s and exploring dusty boxes and thick file folders at our local historical societies. It may not sound appealing, but in truth, the digging for stories- the research, is my favorite part of this process.
My interest in ghost stories didn’t begin when I started giving tours. It started like I imagine many people’s probably does: telling terrifying tales of murderous hitchhikers at slumber parties and exchanging wildly embellished stories about the creepiest house in the neighborhood. It didn’t take long after I had my own library card to discover that the library had books filled with scary stories- lots of them! Reading is still my favorite way to enjoy a paranormal tale. There is just something I love about being able to create the action in my mind and put myself into the story that I can only achieve through reading.
Before I dive headlong into prepping for the next tour season, I am treating myself to some pleasure reading. Not surprisingly, some of this reading is ghost-centric. Recently, I picked up Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey. I selected it on title alone and curled up with it, expecting a collection of ghost stories from around the country. In part, the book does offer that, in addition to social commentary on how different aspects of society are impacted and even oppressed by ghost stories. The compilation of locations he covers will be familiar to fans of the Haunted History tv series, as it covers some of the most well-known haunted locations in the country. While ghost-focused television programs often rely on tour guides and paranormal investigators to tell the story, in this book, Dickey expands the circle to include historical research.
My one key complaint with this book is the lack of a strong, structural thesis. The book has some noteworthy points, but never decides exactly what it wants to be, playing the role historical researcher, champion of the socially marginalized and critic of the current wave of paranormal enthusiasm. Dickey is at his best when he fact checks the often retold legends and gently debunks, or enthusiastically supports, the tales.
If you are a ghost fan who won’t be put off by the academic tone of the book, I recommend it. Dickey explores some of the most celebrated haunted locations in the county, including The Myrtles Plantation, The Stanley Hotel and The Winchester Mystery House. The facts behinds these famous buildings are sure to surprise some readers and certainly adds to the larger discussion of whether ghosts truly exist.