When comedian Wanda Sykes told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres that she had seen a black slave ghost in Richmond, Virginia’s Jefferson Hotel last summer, Sykes confessed that she didn’t want people to think she was “crazy.” But Sykes need not have fretted on that score. As sociologist Claude Fischer notes, citing Gallup surveys, over a third of Americans believe in spirits of the dead and nearly as many believe in haunted houses. Pew Research Center polling has found that 18% of Americans have seen or been near a ghost, and 29% have “felt in touch with someone who has died.” Among the multitude of Americans who believe in spectres, tens of thousands have visited historic sites in the Old South where the ghosts of black slaves are not only visible, but also marketed for a price.
The cultural phenomenon of ghost tourism, in which stories about supernatural encounters in the very places where they are said to have occurred, draws large enthusiastic crowds with wide-open wallets. According to those who lead these spectral experiences and the tourism scholars who study them, ghost tours are supposed to be “light” and “fun,” allowing participants to escape into a fantasy world, to experience a hidden and often forbidden side of history, and to feel the thrills of hearty frights and cultural taboos while resting assured that they are secure in the realm of the safe and the living. But this public frenzy for apparitional visitations has some historians concerned that in iconic American places, ghost tours have overtaken historical tours, replacing fact with fiction and trivializing consequential events. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is a prime example where ghost tours have gained in popularity and raised historians’ hackles. Critics feel that when ghost tours make a Civil War battlefield where approximately 50,000 men died seem like a romp with Casper, they undermine the ability of that place to teach us about the tragedy of a nation divided over the fate of an inhumane practice, and they belie the irreversible violence and extreme toll on humanity of this war, and all wars.
Judging by the sheer number of supernatural walking tours, bus tours, hearse tours, and reality TV shows proliferating across the country, America is host to manifold hauntings: at prisons, insane asylums, old hotels, historic sites and, of course, exceedingly Gothic haunted houses. It is perhaps not surprising that many of these hauntings are rooted in the South, the site of the American tragedy of slavery and the seat of the Civil War. In today’s Dixieland, enslaved ghosts join a cast of spectral characters: Confederate soldiers carrying muskets, young plantation belles in mourning, lovelorn barmaids done wrong, and profiteering pirates. But it is the ghosts of the enslaved who stand out. After experiencing several ghost tours in southern states as of late, I share other critics’ concern that ghost tours are crowding out critical engagement with the most difficult, most important moments of our collective past.
I am a scholar of African American studies, public history, and women’s studies, with a special interest in American slavery and the ways that we remember, forget, and grapple with the legacies of that era. And during my travels to historic sites in Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina, I saw on display what Wanda Sykes reportedly witnessed at the Jefferson Hotel: enslaved black ghosts. But while Sykes said she urged her visitor from beyond the grave to “go scare white people. That’s what I would do if I were you,” none of the black ghosts I encountered were at all reproachful of slavery or the hierarchical racial and gender status quo of their antebellum times. Instead, the phantoms I learned about on tours and read about in haunted history books seemed to engage in behaviors that a plantation owner of yesteryear would have found familiar, if not downright desirable.
At Savannah’s historic Andrew Low House, a “long-time family servant” named “Old Tom,” (and we might as well add in the “Uncle”) frequents the butler’s pantry. In Louisiana, a dark-skinned ghost keeps up with domestic chores, including turning down the sheets for guests at the haunted bed-and-breakfast now operating at the plantation. In Charleston, a brick-yard slave waves her phantom arms in the motions of her task. In Savannah, one of the child slave ghosts who lives in the basement of the Pink House tavern “plays pranks” on employees. I came across only one former slave ghost who expressed anger: “Headless Joe” in Savannah whose ire is directed not at his former master, nor the slave system, nor U.S. laws and social structures that kept him chains, but instead at the “gator” that “took his mess of fish that he spent all day catching” right before biting off Joe’s head (a common trope of “pickaninny” stories).
The most popular black slave ghosts that I encountered in haunted house tour narratives, haunted-places books, and websites—the ones that had inspired numerous stories, witness reports, and spectral images posted online—seemed to fall into two categories: girls and women who were the victims of sensationalized, gruesome violence, and girls and women who willingly engaged in sexual relations with their masters. These tours and stories used the language of black women ghosts as “mistresses” of their masters, implying desire and consent in a broader historical context of sexual coercion.
On Royal Street in New Orleans, a small slave girl is known for having fallen to her death after being chased to the roof of the mansion by a maniacal Creole mistress, Madame Lalaurie. Inside Lalaurie’s home, other black women who haunt the place had been chained, tortured, and experimented on during their lifetimes. At The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, the adolescent slave ghost Chloe was the “mistress” of her much older owner until she displeased him. The master kicked Chloe out of the big house and cut off her ear. Chloe then schemed to wheedle her way back into the big house bedroom, but her plan led to the accidental death of the master’s white family and the brutal hanging of Chloe. When I heard Chloe’s story firsthand in a haunted house tour, it elicited good-natured shouts of her (now famous) name along with knowing, nervous laughter at the owner’s prurient interest in a slave child.
At the Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, the “slave girl” Molly is said to have been the lover of her master, Francis Sorrel. As one haunted Savannah book puts it, Francis’s white wife Matilda found “her husband tangled up in the bed sheets with their youngest, prettiest slave girl,” a discovery that led to Matilda’s suicide and Molly’s unexplained death. Molly was hanged, probably by Francis, from the rafters of the slave quarters in the courtyard carriage house, a space open to tourists and referred to as “the money shot” by a local Midnight Zombie Tour guide. Molly is now a famous figure on the Savannah “dark tourism” scene, which exploded in the aftermath of journalist John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the Hollywood film that followed. Her screams of pain during an attack in the slave quarters have been recorded by The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) on the TV show “Ghost Hunters” and posted on YouTube.
But these mechanical echoes of a violent past are, like the phantom Molly herself, mere figments and fabrications. They do not capture—nor do they pretend to seek—the complexity and emotion of an enslaved woman’s life. Instead, they foster distance from a recognized common humanity—a distance created by digital cameras, voice recorders and electromagnetic ghost-hunting gadgetry, and indeed by the gaiety of thrill-seeking tourists hoping for a rush. Although these tourists, who were almost all white when I observed them during my travels, surely do not intend to reproduce the troubling assumptions and power dynamics of a previous era, they are participating in a for-profit enterprise that caricatures a slave girl’s trauma, and indeed, a larger institution of human bondage.
What we glimpse in the dark corners of our imaginations and the bedrooms of haunted plantation homes might just be a reflection of who we are: a country still troubled by the ravages of race and slavery, but unwilling to squarely confront this fact. All of those believers in spirits may be right in the end, at least about the American Cotton Belt. It turns out there are ghosts of the South: cultural memories we strive so hard to deny that we seek to make fun and farce of them. But it is time to exorcise the contented slaves and slave mistress ghosts of the southern haunted house tour and replace them with fully realized personas of the difficult past. Historic sites of slavery, like sites of the Jewish Holocaust or the 9/11 bombing, present opportunities for public education and soulful commemoration. They should therefore be preserved, seriously engaged, and reflected upon with due respect.
Tiya Miles is Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan. Her book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era is now available. Follow Miles on Twitter @TiyaMilesUM.