The chill of Hallowe’en is in the air, even in California. I always try to do something special here for one of my favorite holidays. This year’s offering is inspired by Tiya Miles’ new book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era. It is also inspired by what I call “the missing chapter” of my own Aftermath of Battle. There is no chapter concerning the hauntings at Gettysburg or any other battlefield in my book, but perhaps there should be . . .
“You crave to let history haunt you as a ghost or ghosts . . .” Gayatri C. Spivak
If you are still reading this, then you may be a necromancer. Necromancers speak with the dead, which is, simply put, what historians do. We ghoulishly dig up the past, disinter old bones, old thoughts, old words, and then we invite others to our séances to experience what we present.
Many of us call backward to the past to meet our ghostly ancestors. We collect haunted relics, ever hopeful that simply touching something from long ago will transport us to its origin. There we may mingle with the spirits of soldiers and slaves. If we know of no direct relations, we adopt some. Maybe at this time, in this place . . . finally we will meet the spectral men and women who haunt us so fervently.
And what is a ghost? Horror author (and writing instructor) Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, defines the ghost as a common human archetype. They are our reactions to the effects of the past on the present. Even those who do not believe in them agree that a ghost is supposed to be the spirit of someone or something (there are animal ghosts!) who has died, and then returned in some form to the earthly plane from whence it began. There is also a fairly common understanding that ghosts are caught, or stuck, in some type of a loop that does not allow them to move on from an unresolved, often traumatic, experience. Hauntings are understood as repetitions of this experience.
Historians are the mediums by which the poor ghosts are forced to repeat their experiences. Every time someone begins a talk about Pickett’s Charge, those poor southern shades must crawl out of the earth and slog forward to take Round Top, or die trying. Again and again, Union forces under Burnside die at Fredericksburg, Vicksburg residents kill another phantom rat for dinner, Stonewall Jackson loses another arm, and Colonel Ellsworth falls again on the stairs of the Marshall House.
Writers of history interpret modern life through a lens of the past, often forgetting that the past exists on another plane of time. Because the denizens of this revenant plane haunt us, we often forget that this is 2015, and our immediate past is actually 150+ years ago. Edith Wharton reminds us that the ghost instinct lurks deep within us all, and historians call it forth regularly. Our ghost stories tell others about the past, its people, and its events. Tiya Miles writes, “The stories that we tell . . . are a method of history-making, then, a cultural process by which we create, use, and understand history.”
On October 31st, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is very tenuous.Tread gently, fellow historians–tread very gently.
Heh, heh, heh.