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An American History In Haunted Places

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DISCOVERING LOST PARANORMAL HISTORY: Colin Dickey

Ghostland Author Colin Dickey Has Made A Career Out Of Collecting Hidden Histories And Ghost Stories All Over The Country

Colin Dickey [Photo Credit: Michael Kilbane]

There are many reasons people travel: For adventure, to experience something new, to learn more about the state, country and world they live in. There are places people want to visit for the nature, the architecture, the culture, the shopping... Author Colin Dickey travels the world in search of ghost stories. For his novel “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places,” Dickey explored the states, visiting the most haunted places in America.

And many of these places are worth taking a trip to, said Dickey, who has made a career out of collecting hidden histories all over the country. So how does someone become so interested in ghost stories? Growing up near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, he said.

“I grew up near this house, which advertises itself as the most haunted mansion in the country,” he said. “I spent a lot of time there as a kid. As I did the research and saw the stories weren't all that accurate, I got even more interested in how it came to kind of gel in place.”

For Dickey, it's not spending a night in a haunted hotel room, waiting for ghost encounters. It's the curiosity behind how the lore all began, how people form these ideas and how the ideas shape society.

I actually recently did a story on the Winchester Mystery House. It was designed by Sarah Winchester, whose husband was the son of the man who manufactured the famous rifle. There were a lot of rumors surrounding that house.

“The story is that after her husband and daughter both died, she became convinced her family was cursed by anyone who was killed by a Winchester rifle. Sarah was told by a psychic that she needs to build a house that would never be completed. That's the story you get on the tour. The reason why that story has captured cultural imagination is really fascinating.”

When I spoke with a representative from the Winchester Mystery House, they told me Sarah kept to herself a lot. She wasn't into being a socialite. And her shyness had basically caused people to start rumors about her, out of curiosity possibly. Why was this story fascinating to you?

“We don't have any evidence she met with a spiritualist and no evidence of hauntings. The reason that story sort of caught hold of people's imaginations has more to do with anxiety about women who live alone, or women who don't remarry or stay within society. It's about firearms in general. It's about how we have this need to attach stories to certain houses. It's American subconciousness about gender and Westward expansion...”

You're a creative writing professor at National University and a contributor for major newspapers. And an author, of course. What got you into writing?

“I've been writing since I was about 11 or 12. It's something I've always done. I've been writing non-fiction for about eight years, a little more recently.”

House Of Seven Gables In Salem [Courtesy/Colin Dickey]
Inside The Lemp Mansion In St. Louis [Courtesy/Colin Dickey]

What made you start writing about haunted places across the United States?

“I started out thinking I'd write a book about the Winchester Mystery House. I quickly saw there were other places that had legends attached to them. I started looking at these other stories. I started gathering as many stories as I could and sorted them and arranged them by a larger narrative beyond the individual houses.”

What is your favorite part about writing this book?

“Being able to travel to these places was great. Going to various haunted prisons and asylums, old downtowns and cemeteries. Being in these places was really fantastic and wonderful.”

How did being in these famously haunted places feel?

“I felt differently in different places. Some places that were completely normal and you wouldn't know to think they were haunted unless you were told that. Then others, like rundown hotels, they had certain vibes to them. A lot of them were pretty imposing and forboding structures and a little disturbing. Some places did feel quite ominous.”

Did any places stand out to you as being particularly creepy?

“The abandoned penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia. It was built in the 19th century as a place to resemble a Gothic castle. It was believed to be made to make inmates feel melancholy, by putting them in this gloomy place. That feeling definitely carries on to this day, even though it's no longer in use.”

So do you believe it's haunted? Do you believe any of the places are haunted?

“I'm more interested in stories and the stories people tell. I'm more interested in storytelling itself and how they speak to a larger community.”

There are haunted locations from all over the United States highlighted in your novel. But for people interested in traveling, what place do you recommend?

Salem, Massachusetts, which is a fun destination town and wears its history. The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana is a bed and breakfast that does a lot of haunted tours. That's a place people would trek out to. The Lemp Mansion in Missouri.”

Ghostland: American History In Haunted Places By Colin Dickey [Courtesy/Colin Dickey]
Moundsville Penitentiary In West Virginia [Courtesy/Colin Dickey]

What do you enjoy about Salem?

“It's a town that built its tourist industry around this horrible tale of injustice – the Salem Witch Trials. It's fascinating to see this awful tragedy become a source of economic industry. They pride themselves of catering to that market and that excitement. I looked in particular at the House of Seven Gables, that Hawthorne based his novels on. It's a fascinating building in itself and known for its ghosts.”

And why should people visit the Myrtles Plantation?

“It's a lovely old plantation, architecturally fascinating. But it hosts a number of different ghosts. You get a history of the South told through these various paranormal events that have taken place there. It's a great way of telling the South's history.”

Do any stories stand out to you in particular?

“There is one about a Native American woman who appears on the premises and one of the previous owners claims it's because the house is built on Native American burial ground. It's such a cliché. But it turns out not to be the case. But there was a somewhat famous dispute over a Native American archeological site not too far away from the Myrtles. It led to a significant legal dispute in the 80s. The plantation kind of took that real-world legal dispute and transformed it into a ghost story nearby.”

What is the story behind the Lemp Mansion?

“The Lemp Mansion was built by the Lemp family who founded the famous Lemp Brewery. They rose to prominence in the 19th century. Through a series of personal and financial setbacks, a few members committed suicide in the house. It's now considered to be haunted as a result. It's a somewhat of a sad story remade into a spooky tale. The house itself is still quite beautiful and the tours are kind of fun.”

Why do you think these stories – however horrific – appeal to people?

“I think on one hand they are a way for us to confront and possibly work through our own anxieties about death, our own deaths or deaths of loved ones. On the other hand, they are a way for us to engage with the past and understand places – houses, hotels, cemeteries.”

Why do you think people should visit haunted places in general?

“It was a way for me to understand this country through a different lens, one that we oftentimes write off as folklore or urban legend. There's value in trying to understand one's culture through these somewhat marginal means sometimes. You can learn more about the US through ghost stories than you can through presidents, celebrities and other more mainstream history.”


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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