Haunts: History, Storytelling, and the World of the Paranormal

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Last year, thanks to an August spent recovering from Covid and a September spent recovering from a hysterectomy, I discovered what my trash is. Some people love watching reality TV or soaps. Some have a “guilty pleasure” (scare quotes because nothing that gives you joy and pleasure should be connected with guilt) of binging Game of Thrones crime or CSI. But my trash is ghost stories.

I’ve Connected the Two Dots

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I watched practically every episode of Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural over the course of August-September. Watching Shane and Ryan nonchalantly (for Shane) and anxiously (for Ryan) explore various haunted locales in the US and internationally made realize a few things.

  1. Generally, ghost hunters are not my favorite part of the ghost story genre, so to speak. I remember watching the TV show Ghost Adventures and being viscerally upset that the ghost hunters in that show seemed so much like frat boys tearing into a place, doing stuff for shock and awe, then splitting without really having learned much of anything about their location. I particularly remember the Venice episode where they’re lambasting ghosts who presumably died of the plague, which just seemed kind of foolish. My dudes, if you want ghosts to communicate to you, don’t be assholes. (And lampooning people who died of the plague feels real different in a pandemic, let me tell you).
  2. Buzzfeed Unsolved falls into a different category of ghost hunting. The first few seasons are particularly self-aware and feel more like a parody of ghost hunting shows. While the later seasons and the Shane and Ryan’s new show on Watcher feels more authentically ghost hunting and less parody, it’s still enjoyable for me because of charisma of the hosts and the interest in the locale. Research and information is collected before exploring the locale and, while it may not always be 100% accurate*, it’s still frames their visit in terms of history and people who once resided in the locale. (*In terms of inaccurate facts, I’m thinking of the visit to the Winchester Mystery House, which I don’t begrudge them – I only recently learned myself that much of the rationale given to why the house was built the way it was is probably made up to draw in tourists. It’s not the most readily available, especially for those who might be looking for haunts. If you’re looking for more information on this, several books mentioned below discuss the Winchester house as does this episode of Well There’s Your Problem.)
  3. I’e been immersed in ghost stories for a long, long time. As a kid, I watched a lot of Scooby Doo, Unsolved Mysteries (which was definitely not meant for kids, but that didn’t stop me despite one story about a family’s haunted apartment made me think my dad’s grad school apartment in Muncie, IN was haunted for some reasons. The only thing it was haunted by were silverfish in the bathtub), and one particularly creepy episode of Jonny Quest (which I don’t remember watching at any other point) where some guy pushed his wife off a cliff and her ghost came back to haunt him. What actually was the concept of Jonny Quest? Hold on… Okay, so now that I know more about this show, I can correct my childhood recollection and tell you that the man killed his fiance and then he died and then they were both ghosts and it was in fact very, very scary for a 6 year old (it’s the “Ghost Quest” episode of The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest from 1996 if you’re curious). Besides TV, there were plenty of other forms of ghost stories in the 1990s- Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and my particular favorites – The Ghost of Fossil Glen by Cynthia DeFelice and the books of Betty Ren Wright. I don’t know if other young kids in 1990s had an obsession with Wright’s books like I did but something about her characters that were free to express their emotions and explore the unknown that was extremely compelling to me.
  4. Ghost stories capture many aspects of the human experience I’m interested in as a writer – exploring history, pushing yourself to the edges of what you think is possible, dealing with the pains of life and the grief of death, seeking the truth, feeling fear as well as all other possible emotions, facing your fears and finding light in the darkness of the world… I could go on. Ghost stories also take a lot from folk and fairy tales and, sometimes, they were originally folk tales or fairy tales. They’re stories we tell to deal with the unknown, the inexplainable, to make sense of an experience that may make no sense otherwise.

True Ghost StoriesTM

With this background and understanding in mind, I want to explore the complex love-hate relationship I have with ghost stories, not in the books of Stephen King or the films of Guillermo Del Toro, which is where I would usually feel inclined to head – in a realm of art I am proud to admit I enjoy. Instead, we head into the little trash pile my raccoon hands have assembled of True Ghost StoriesTM (I give you the trademark symbol to differentiate this from other kinds of ghost stories and to imply a certain sardonic nature that a media and commercially-saturated millennial wants you to note. I’ve made up this term and am nudging you and winking at you saying, “I don’t know if they’re actually true, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.”)

True Ghost StoriesTM have a fraternal relationship to the True Crime genre. In some cases, they overlap (I’m thinking particularly of Elizabeth Short/the Black Dahlia and other slayings that lead to ghost stories being told about the victims and, all too often, the killers). I have a lot of thoughts on True Crime but this post is already going to be too long so, instead I direct you to this episode of the podcast Well There’s Your Problem (which also made me realize that large parts of the book Devil in the White City are actually fiction and I feel like that should have been clearer to high school Gina). What both of these genres have in common is searching for mysteries and stories that have gone unheard and trying to solve or prove some aspect of them. In the case of True Ghost StoriesTM, the thing that is generally is being proved is… “ghosts are real???”

It’s actually kind of complicated. In the case of Unsolved Mysteries (for the paranormal episodes at least) the storytellers appear to just want to be heard, to be believed, and see if others have had similar experiences or a way of finding out what happened or why. Ghost Adventures, amidst their fratboy antics, are looking to capture visual or auditory footage of ghosts. Buzzfeed Unsolved are doing the same with added feature of having skeptic Shane to provide scientific and “cold logic” rationale for phenomenon which adds a nice tasty layer to this snack cake. The mystery is never solved in the Buzzfeed show and it builds upon itself as Ryan upgrades his tools and tech to get better evidence and Shane becomes increasingly more chill and utterly unfazed by most things (I would honestly pay money for a pocket Shane in my psyche to combat my anxiety. Apparently the fandom “thinks” he’s a demon – some far more seriously than others – but I honestly vibe with hanging out in a dark building and being like “this is kind of chill, actually.” If you’re going to deal with spooky places, might was well be zen and enjoy it if you can, right?).

However, it’s two shows on Netflix that really got me thinking about this genre again – despite having watched so much Buzzfeed Unsolved last summer and doing research for a ghost story novel I’m writing that might never see the light of day but dammit, it’ll have a good bibliography. The shows in question are 28 Days Haunted and Haunted. (Look, I didn’t name them. Send your complaints to Netflix.)

28 Days Haunted takes a theory from famous paranormal experts Lorraine and Ed Warren who surmised that it would take 28 days for to “pierce the veil between the living and the dead.” (Source: higgypop.com) Thanks to that reference link, I realized that even some ghost hunters might be at a loss over this theory. I’m no expert about the Warrens, but I became interested in them in my 20s after seeing The Conjuring and wondering how much truth there was in that movie (some days I’m more skeptical than others. My 20s were far less skeptical). I’d read and seen enough content that I felt like I should have seen that theory somewhere before and, while it sounded familiar, I guessed it more than likely echoed something from the movies than any actual research I did (according to HiggyPop, this theory has never been published in any of the Warrens’ writing. Curious).

Here, I’m tempted to give a whole recap of 28 Days Haunted but… lordy, there’s too much to unpack there. Spirit box audio that sounds clearer than some phone calls I’ve taken, newspaper articles suddenly appearing in the creepiest place in the house, a shot at the end of a demonologist giving a dark smile, suggesting he’s been possessed. I may be a skeptic, yet I don’t not believe in ghosts? I rule nothing out entirely and believe that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philsophies (yes, I realize this is literally Hamlet talking about ghosts. But it’s a good line). HOWEVER… and I cannot stress this enough… I trust nothing that has been heavily edited and sold as reality TV. This show so blatantly has the mark of editing and post-production on it that I don’t need a film degree to see how staged this entire show is – however, if you have a film degree and you’ve analyzed the edits and camera usage in this show, please let me know. I’m trying to figure out how this paranormal investigators could be “alone” in their locations but also have such clear footage. Yeah, GoPros are amazing but… I question everything. Especially demon possession.

Haunted, a completely different show on Netflix, follows a more traditional method of sharing stories – in a circle of friends. Here, people sharing True Ghost StoriesTM gather in a vaguely Victorian room to discuss a harrowing time in their life when they were haunted – specifically only by malignant ghosts or entities. Which bothers me. Even the child ghosts are nasty, biting and attempting to drown people which, I suppose if you were killed and trapped on Earth and dealing with trauma as an eight year old, you’d be pretty pissed off too. But things don’t add up. There’s so much reenactment added in that it becomes unclear what was actually said by the people sharing their stories. Are the intro scenes things that were actually found to be true or hypothesized by the storyteller or are they just shock-value filler to get people’s attention? (“In the Pines” and “Demon Cat” are the most gross, vile examples of this – and I do mean vile. I don’t need to see a naked woman being tortured or a cat being killed in the first 60 seconds of a show because it added absolutely nothing to the story, thanks Netflix). I will note that only the most recent season has these kinds of intros which makes me wonder if they’re trying some new shock tactic to get people to watch what’s otherwise a very drawn-out story, which I would be into except… there’s so much dead air (sorry for the pun) where you’re just watching the re-enactment. Then something spooky happens. We cut back to the storyteller and they talk and explain. And repeat. The problem with this show too is that it also feels scripted – clearly the stories have been written down before recording, which to some degree I understand – you want a coherent narrative. Yet… they’re too coherent. There are moments that feel lifted straight out of The Haunting of Hill House or *insert your Conjuring film franchise movie of choice*. But these people seem pretty put together most of the time, despite the stories they share. And then I started to wonder if they were actors. And then I started to wonder if the stories were true at all. (Put a pin in that.)

When I initially planned this post, I was going to write a list of things that I think are good or that I enjoy about True Ghost Stories TM and things that I think are harmful or complicated. But, the things I enjoy sometimes are harmful in certain ways and the things that are complicated are often good. So, we’re jumping into a very convoluted array of ideas full of contradictions, conflict, and things sure to make some people very upset with me. I want to stress that I am not trying to take a “skeptics are smart, believers in the supernatural are stooopid” because that’s rude and boring. Any other corner of the internet has that debate – you want that, find literally any Facebook group with “reason versus emotion” or “science versus belief” or what have you. This is more like “ghosts are real but they aren’t real in the way you might expect.” So let’s dive in.

Empathy and Fetishization

When I sat down to think about why I like ghost stories, I thought about empathy. Works like Ghosts Beneath Their Feet by Betty Ren Wright helped me understand that I wasn’t alone in moving to a new town and being unhappy about it. It also helped me learn to empathize with something that might shock or frighten you at first – in this case, dead girls (okay, not all of the ghosts in Wright’s books are girls, but the vast majority of them are). Protagonist would find a ghost, it would alarm them because- well, ghosts, that’s supposed to be impossible, right? Then they would uncover some dark secret that needed revealing and injustice that needed righted. Wright certainly helped pave the way for me to be outspoken about patriarchal oppression and workplace safety. It also helped contextualize the past as something that wasn’t all that long ago – ghosts might look different and dress different, but they’re still people. And they have stories to tell.

But sometimes this gets twisted. Sometimes, ghost stories fetishize the past. In his book Ghostland, Colin Dickey discusses how Salem, Massachusetts has a confusing relationship with the witch trials that took place there.

We conflate the dead with actual witches, we attribute actual supernatural powers to those killed, we revist their deaths for comedy and entertainment. Above all, we fail to apply the lessons we’ve supposedly learned from 1692, for by no means was this the last time in American history when a powerless minority was scapegoated, persecuted, and killed by an ignorant mass. We recall the events of Salem, but we can’t quite remember why they matter.

Colin Dickey, Ghostland. pg 35

There’s a sort of commercial appeal to going to Salem and experiencing the witchy vibes there (even I’ve expressed interest in visiting some Halloween, just be there in the spookiest season). But those witchy vibes are supplanted by tourism – because any real ideas of witchcraft cannot be separated from the terrible injustice that took place.

It isn’t just towns like Salem that become overtly saturated in fetishized story making to grapple with the events of a locale. There is a very specific kind of fetishization in ghost stories about people of color. The Myrtles Plantation, one of the first “haunted houses” I remember learning about, is best known for its ghost Chloe, a slave who was killed after poisoning and subsequently killing several members of the family she was owned by. Except she never existed. There is no record of a slave named Chloe at Myrtles and the family members it was said she poisoned definitely did not die at that time. Chloe’s story is made up for tourist fodder and, as Tiya Miles and Colin Dickey discuss, her ghost story is full of stereotypes about black women, in particular the “Jezebel”, the “mammy,” and the “mulatto.” Miles asks an essential question around this:

Were ghost tours actually getting behind history, especially with regard to African American history? Was it a good thing for our public understanding of what happened in the past, or for our development of historical empathy, or for the character of our contemporary social relations that the ghost tour has resuscitated the slave?

Tiya Miles, Tales from the Haunted South. pg 12

Miles later describes how ghost stories can call to find forgotten historic knowledge but can also make it unbelievable. How these narratives contend with ghosts of slaves becomes a public history discussion of how we in the US remember slavery. And if the stories that are told are about ghosts like Chloe that never existed, rather than actual people who lived and died at Myrtles, then a certain misrecognition, distance, and unwillingness to engage with historical truth is occurring. There’s much to be said on how tours, particularly ghost tours, deal with our ugly parts of American history and how much sanitization and veiling occurs. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend Miles’ book as well as How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (I’ll bring up this book later on but want to mention it now as he has a great section on the tours at Monticello and the Whitney Plantation).

It doesn’t much feel like empathy if the people who exist in ghost stories are not people at all but stereotypes and caricature. While I’ve focused on how African Americans under slavery feature in ghost tales, there are plenty of stories I remember hearing about American Indians as a child that are just as stereotype-based. Besides, how many horror stories can you thinking of that involve an “Indian burial ground?” Far too many, that’s for sure. In these instances, ghost stories deal with uncertainty and trying to make sense of nebulous land ownership, layers of violence and trauma perpetrated by ancestors of white Americans, and the sense that we haven’t resolved any of these issues in the 21st century. We’re haunted by our pasts and so we turn them into tales.

Truth and Truthiness

If you existed in the 2000s and you’re not a ghost, you’ve likely heard the term truthiness. Thanks to comedian Stephen Colbert, it was everywhere circa 2005.

Truthiness hasn’t gone away nearly twenty years later (excuse me a moment, I have to have an existential crisis about the fact that 2005 was almost 20 years ago). It’s changed forms but it’s there, ruining our ability to see eye to eye and making the Internet a pretty bad time.

Let’s get this out of the way – I’m an emotional person. I’m working to better understand and express my feelings. Using our emotions in decision making and personal formation is important. But as my therapist informed me, feelings are not facts. This is used to recognize that insecurities and self-doubt that exist in your mind have no evidence in your life and that Percy, your personal anxiety gremlin, is in fact a dirty rotten liar. However, the concept of “feelings are not facts” becomes a lot more difficult when combines with confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, a psychological term coined by Peter Wason, is the tendency to pick out information that supports one’s beliefs or values. We’re all guilty of confirmation bias from time to time (lord knows that my own research here likely is going to miss possible resources just from my own frame of references and not looking outside of that). Ghost hunting tends to be full of of confirmation bias or false consensus from what I’ve seen. A noise is heard in an empty room and the “believers” assume it’s a ghost while skeptics look for a more tangible source – an old radiator, camera equipment being dropped, etc.

Some of this is understandable – I’d be jumpy in a dark house and likely to make hasty conclusions, especially if a spirit box is screaming nonsense at me. But 28 Days Haunted and Haunted go beyond these moments – they use spirit boxes that have clearer audio than actual phone calls I’ve taken. They show mediums that don’t make a single misstep or miscalculation in feeling out the history of a place. They lean so hard into the “ghosts are real” they make it abundantly clear that they are staging so much of this. The final straw for me was the article that appeared in a tunnel at the end of 28 Days Haunted, proving the theory the mediums/sensitives had that a serial killer had killed two girls in the house, used the tunnel as a hideout, and claimed more victims. This article, somehow missed from the first journey into the tunnel, is not only spontaneously found but in perfect condition, despite being in a dirty, must tunnel since the 1970s when the serial killer, presumably, cut it out himself to… IDK, gloat? (I am deeply resisting the urge to soapbox about how serial killers are regarded with disgust but fascination in culture because that’s its own post and this one is already long enough). This and the final scene in the show, where the demonologist shares a dark smile with the camera, insinuating that he’s actually possessed is just… too on the nose. It feels like a movie, like a Blair Witch Project-influenced, found-footage piece, nothing that actually feels like non-ficiton.

And then there’s Haunted. The stories in this feel strongly pulled from movie, horror stories, and similar tropes (especially as two stories back to back have people killed in car accidents that are believed to be caused by ghosts and the odds of that seem like they should be a lot smaller). I’m not going to spend too much time discussing “Demon Cat” but this one broke me – a cat is killed by presumed Satanists (portrayed by teenagers dressed like punk rockers) and this cat, now a demon, is left in the house that the Santanists have abandoned. A family moves in and said demon cat shows up to break the mother’s legs by lifting her then dropping her down a flight of stairs and give the daughter a super rare form of typhus never seen in the US which, once the demon is exorcised from the house, the girl recovers and doctors are totally fine with her going home and not at all wanting to figure out how and where she got this super rare form of typhus. In short, it’s not even a good story. None of it makes a lick of sense – why is the cat a demon? Why does it want to harm a random family and why are the Satanists just yeeting themselves out after they do this? From a storytelling standpoint, it’s a real stinker.

But then there’s Haunted by Henry. This one caught my attention (I started with season three and, yes, I admit, gave up part way through season two) and stood out against the rest of the episodes in feeling better structured. Perhaps because it felt a lot like The Haunting of Hill House. A family moves (surprise, surprise) into an old house on Vancouver Island that once belonged to Henry Croft, a lumber and mining magnate. Croft’s ghost haunts the house and the family discovers he hates children and perhaps drove someone to suicide who previously lived in the home. The story culminates in a night when the children are home alone with friends and things go crazy, with objects being thrown at them and one of the children’s friends being hit by a car on their way home.

This story, if true, would be the most compelling anecdotal evidence for haunting I’ve ever heard. If it’s true, being the key word. I did some cursory research on Henry Croft and couldn’t find much about his house or its perceived hauntings. There was a Reddit post where the original poster has deleted it and all I have left are some not very helpful comments. Nothing on the Wiki page about Croft or the other limited information about him mentioned anything about someone killing themselves in his house or that he was responsible for a lot of cruelty to miners (that’s certainly possible, but at least the articles that were discussed in the show don’t exist online). Things just didn’t add up the way I expected. And I couldn’t get the nagging sensation that, with all the others stories in this show, perhaps none of these are actually true, but created for dramatic purposes for a very specific audience.

Then again, maybe it’s something else. Maybe there’s a real story or experience that producers leapt on and built into something much larger. The dead space in the stories giving room for reenactments to portray things that the speakers never tell or describe makes it very possible for this to be the case. It’s hard to know if these people in these scenes are actors or people who lived these experiences, and Netflix doesn’t want show the man behind the curtain too much. But it leaves me with a gross feeling.

The farther down the rabbit hole I get, the more I try to find some bit of truth, the more I find lies or, at best, misunderstandings or misremembered history. Our brains want desperately to make sense out of the insensible, and so there will be some degree of inaccuracy to these (especially because trauma and harrowing situations messes with our ability to make memories). But when the stories are insensible and I’m expected to just blindly trust production companies who are making things for entertainment… yeah, the skeptic in me gets a lot more confident.

At the end of the day, I still love ghost stories. I think they’re compelling ways to learn about places and about how people deal with impossible situations. However, I still have a difficult relationship with ghost hunting shows. There’s a very limited circle of what I like and it grows all the tighter. But it’s helped me better understand storytelling and taking advantage of you audience. There’s is a certain advantage to having fancy equipment and ability to reenact things to convince people that what you’re seeing could be real. And it frustrates me because, at the end of the day. ghosts are real. We’re all haunted by trauma of some kind. But those manifest far differently than we might think and I personally don’t believe a spirit box can capture that. We don’t need to see ghosts to know that our country is seeped with restless spirits, restless stories, that still need to be explored and shared. I can’t explain what people say they experience in haunted houses or locations. I’m don’t want to try and explain that. But I do want continue to poke and pick at what interests me in True Ghost StoriesTM and discover what works for me in them and what doesn’t, what use they can be to history seekers and what they do to continue the spread of misinformation.

Thank you for joining me on this wild ride. I originally planned on writing a whole third act of this, discussing ghosts and demons… but I just recently (finally, FINALLY) got around to watching Midnight Mass (look, I was afraid the religious trauma of it would be triggering so I kept putting it off. It was triggering, but like in a good way???) Instead of making this post even longer, I’m working on a piece about Midnight Mass. because I love Mike Flanagan’s work and I wish I’d written that damn thing. So tune in for more chaos when that gets posted. 😀

Published by ginmusto

Writer. Blogger. Amateur Baker.

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