Learn from haunted houses... if you dare

Ghost sto­ries are a way to ex­am­ine our past, trauma Week­end, Oc­to­ber 13-15, 2017

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Haunted houses tell us a lot of sto­ries. But those sto­ries are not just about ghosts.

Colin Dickey, the au­thor of Ghost­land: An Amer­i­can His­tory in Haunted Places, went around the coun­try vis­it­ing haunted houses to see if they “could tell us some­thing about who we are as a coun­try, or as a peo­ple, or how we un­der­stand the past.”

In an in­ter­view for the AP Travel pod­cast Get Outta Here, Dickey said ghost sto­ries help us “talk about things in the past we might not oth­er­wise have con­fronted.”

East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary in Philadel­phia took in its first in­mate in 1829, closed in 1971 and re­opened as a mu­seum in 1994.

Places with a dark past

Ex­am­ples of places with a dis­turb­ing past that bill them­selves as haunted at­trac­tions in­clude the LaLau­rie Man­sion in New Or­leans, where slaves were treated with ex­tra­or­di­nary bru­tal­ity, or Philadel­phia’s East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary, an aban­doned prison.

Dickey de­scribes East­ern State as “a bro­ken-down cas­tle with stone crenel­lated tow­ers” where “it’s easy to imag­ine” a his­tory of “atroc­i­ties and vi­o­lence.”

“Ghost sto­ries in many ways are a way for us to ap­proach our own his­tory,” Dickey said.

Myth of the lonely wo­man

Dickey also no­ticed that haunted sto­ries some­times re­volve around women who never mar­ried or who were wid­owed young. Th­ese in­di­vid­u­als may have been viewed as odd or even spooky be­cause their lives as sin­gle women didn’t fit cul­tural norms, he sug­gests.

The Winch­ester Mys­tery House, a 161-room man­sion in San Jose, Calif., is a good ex­am­ple. Sarah Winch­ester’s fa­ther-in-law de­vel­oped the Winch­ester ri­fle, so she and her hus­band were wealthy heirs. Their only child died in in­fancy, and Sarah’s hus­band died soon af­ter. Dickey says sto­ries of­ten paint her as hav­ing lived out her life in per­pet­ual grief, haunted by the ghosts of ev­ery­one who’d ever been killed by a Winch­ester ri­fle, and “build­ing this labyrinth to keep them at bay,” Dickey said. But Dickey says the truth dif­fers from the leg­end.

“She got on with her life as a widow, but all things con­sid­ered, a rel­a­tively happy widow,” he said.

Us­ing ghost sto­ries to en­gage

Dickey also points out that the haunted house in­dus­try has be­come im­por­tant as a way to raise money to pre­serve old build­ings. Many his­toric sites have em­braced haunted tours as a fun way to en­gage vis­i­tors who will gladly pay for a ghost tour, but who might not sign up to learn about 19th-cen­tury cus­toms or an­tiques.

Matt RouRkE/aP

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