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
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.
Reasons to Believe in Ghosts in America – The New Yorker