Caroline Llanes: American ghost stories

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 4:57pm

I love ghosts. I love ghost tours, paranormal investigation shows, rumors and stories of hauntings, attributing something falling off my shelf to a ghostly presence; I love it all. To be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about horror. I have enormous respect for the horror genre and its cultural significance, but I do not derive the same thrill and enjoyment from consuming horror media that die-hard fans do.

But ghosts? I absolutely adore ghosts. I’m endlessly fascinated by them, and it seems I’m not the only one: 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, and 18 percent of Americans say they’ve seen a ghost.

What I think draws me to ghost stories so much is the storytelling aspect of it all. The occult combines with the historical combines with gossip and rumors to create a lore — a hyper-specific geographic mythology in which the dead still walk with us. For a relatively young country, the United States is positively littered with ghosts.

In nearly every city and town across America, you can hear stories about local hauntings and lore, from Puritans hung for witchcraft in New England to aspiring starlets found chopped into pieces in Los Angeles. Specters seem to linger in both the grandeur of old mansions and in the dust and destitution of abandoned mines; in the echoing halls of plantation houses and in the fields. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, we can piece together a history from ghost stories alone, a history that reveals both what we love and fear the most.

There is, perhaps, no time in American history more filled with phantoms than the years immediately following the Civil War. The death toll was massive, with Union and Confederate forces suffering somewhere between 650,000 to 850,000 deaths combined. That’s about 2 to 2.7 percent of the population, more deaths of U.S. soldiers than any in other conflict and nearly half of the total number of U.S. soldiers lost in all wars combined. How does a nation grieve this massive loss? How do the millions of loved ones left behind reconcile the deaths of parents, spouses and children?

Whether the ghosts were the product of an overactive imagination, intense grief and a desire to communicate with a loved one just one more time, or the actual spirits of the dead roaming the Earth, it seemed that no one could escape ghosts in America in the 20 or so years following the Civil War. Ghosts supposedly even followed Sarah Winchester all the way to San Jose, where she built her large and bizarre estate. Her husband, William, was the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the manufacturer of the gun rumored to have claimed the most lives over the course of the war. When he died of tuberculosis and their infant child passed too, Sarah took her inheritance and moved west, where she began construction of her massive, labyrinthine home.

The story goes that Sarah had consulted a psychic, who told her that death was following her as a result of all the lives her husband’s guns had taken. Once she started building her home, she could not stop. She had to keep building — even adding partial floors and hallways that didn’t go anywhere — in order to appease the spirits that haunted her.

Sarah is just one story, but it seems that many postbellum ghost stories involve women. Countless sisters, daughters and widows of the hundreds of thousands dead during the war seem to have stories of their loved ones reaching out to them from beyond the grave. Sometimes, however, these women were desperate enough to reach out to the dead themselves.

Originating in 1848, but rapidly gaining popularity through the ante and postbellum eras, the Spiritualist movement in America signaled to a new form of spirituality. It was a movement that rejected the mores of organized Christianity and the idea of a go-between God, instead claiming that its followers could communicate directly with the dead. In Spiritualism, there was no heaven and hell and no God — just a judgement-free afterlife that all could access.

Spiritualists held seances and ceremonies in which they reached out to the dead, who responded with knocks and walls and tables and levitating objects, along with other seemingly unexplainable phenomena. One prominent Spiritualist and self-styled “spirit photographer,” William Mumler, even claimed that he could capture the spirit of a deceased loved one on photograph. His clientele was diverse, including Mary Todd Lincoln among others.

Many prominent Spiritualists, however, were women. The original practitioners from upstate New York were the Fox sisters: 15-year-old Margaret and 12-year-old Kate. Spiritualism differed from other organized religions in that, well, it wasn’t really very organized. Were there a clergy, however, the majority of its ordained members would be women. These women were also involved with other causes, such as abolition in the antebellum, civil rights in the postbellum and the movement for women’s suffrage, among other things. As time passed and these movements, already controversial, fell further into disfavor, more and more Spiritualists were brought on trial for fraud. Strides were made in the field of parapsychology, and by 1920, the movement all but ceased to exist.

Spiritualism has gotten lost in histories of American spiritual movements, particularly when another popular religion emerged in upstate New York in the 1800s. But traces remain in American culture in the form of ghosts: The modern ghost-hunting community uses tools with origins in Spiritualist seances, including dowsing rods, various EMF meters, “spirit boxes,” an ovilus and cameras and voice recorders altered to supposedly record the presence of ghosts. Mediums still hold a considerable amount of sway, as we can see from Theresa Caputo’s rise to national fame. Even returning to the poll at the beginning of this article, people with no affiliation with the ghost hunting and medium community believe that ghosts exist.

People are fascinated by the dead, by the mystery and the excitement, by the idea that maybe when we die, we aren’t truly gone forever. One of the most popular spiritual movements in America, started and kept thriving by women, was based on the curiosity we have toward the supernatural. Whether you believe in ghosts or not (and I’m not entirely sure I do), there is still value in the genre of ghost stories. Though they may not be filled with dates and hard facts and figures, they have enormous importance as historical tools. They reveal cultural anxieties and fears, concerns about morality and mortality and how a community reacts to tragedy. They allow for a variety of voices to be heard, whether those voices belong to women, or perhaps, to the dead themselves.

Caroline Llanes can be reached at cmllanes@umich.edu.