When I tell people about this blog and my love for the haunted houses of film and literature, quite often they say something like, “Cool. So I take it you’re a fan of * Insert – the name of the trendiest cable show that boasts of “real” encounters with the paranormal – here *. When I tell them, “No I don’t find value in those kind of shows” and that for me, ghosts are fictional entities , I get blank stares. I might go on to explain that I view haunted house stories through the same analytical lens that a student might use when assessing feminist themes in classic and modern literature , or that I embark upon a similar path that a historian of cinema might follow when studying the evolution of a certain film technique. And STILL they might reply, “You know, there are several houses here in the U.S. that are supposed to be haunted. Have you ever gone on a ghost tour?” Sigh! These folks just don’t get it.
To answer that last question, no, I’ve never been on a ghost tour, though I’ve been to places where they are offered (Galena, Illinois for instance). I’d like to go on one, just to see what they’re all about. Thankfully, someone has given me a glimpse into what has been coined as “dark tourism”. Her name is Tiya Miles. She has written a book about some of the most popular ghost tours in The American south. And wouldn’t you know it, this book Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era is the subject of this review. Imagine that! And it is the fourth and final review of my Black History Month Series.
In her book, Miles seeks out ghosts. Despite what I said above about my skepticism concerning translucent specters that go bump in the night, I believe in the ghosts Miles seeks. Please, read on.
Tiya Miles went on several ghost tours. She toured many “haunted houses” across the south, from former plantation mansions to carriage houses that once served as slaves quarters. But she is not writing as a “survivor” who lived to tell about her frightful experiences. She is not billing herself as an eyewitness to floating specters or poltergeist activity (although one the photos she took at a cemetery picked up a mysterious orb!). But, as I mentioned in the last paragraph , she was indeed searching for “ghosts”. Alas, for the most part, they did not come – and I’m not referring to translucent figures that moan and groan. These kinds of ghosts she was not expecting (though they did “appear”, at the very least, inside the tales that were told by the tour guides, taking the form of “Right where you are standing now, the ghost of such-and-such appeared to one visitor). What kind of ghosts was she hoping to find?
Paraphrasing, Miles defines “ghosts” as a vehicle to the past. In order to come to terms with the past, in order to “see” the events that have transpired long ago, we must have an honest confrontation with the ghosts that history has conjured. Quite the figurative definition, huh? But think – if there is any entity that is made up of figurative elements, it would be “the ghost.”
In particular, Miles took in these ghost tours to see if they would relay the authentic tragedies of real people that experienced the horrors of slavery. True, “dark tourists” want to hear the tales of spirits of former slaves or slave owners haunting the premise on ghost tours. They go in with the expectations of learning about the lives of the deceased, of the tragic circumstances that surrounded their deaths, tragedies that caused their souls to remain here on the earth, searching for some kind of peace before being able to pass on to the other side. Miles expected these kind of tales as well. And she got them. But before embarking upon these ghost tours, she wanted to see if the sponsors of these tours exploited the lives of the deceased in anyway, either with misinformation or exaggerated distortions. And exploit they did. They presented slave ghosts to the customers as caricatures; ghostly voodoo priestesses, promiscuous phantoms, etc. etc. Only now and then did they allow for the true “ghosts” to take form: tales of the true cruelty and oppression that the black enslaved Americans experienced.
Tiya Miles toured several cities in the American South, where dark tourism flourishes. Why does this industry flourish in the American South? Well, to quote from the book:
The US South, with its history of Indian removal, slavery, and bloody Civil War battles, together with its regional particularity, and atmospheric setting of simmering heat and shroud like Spanish moss, is a place easily associated with a dark past and haunted present.
She went on ghost tours in Savannah, Georgia, a city that boasts of being the “ghost tour capital” of the United States, beating out both New Orleans, known for all its Voodoo and other paranormal attraction, and Salem, with its notorious history of burning innocent women on stakes to “eradicate witchcraft”. But Miles also visited “haunted places” in New Orleans and at preserved plantations that stand on the southern end of the Mississippi River, which were known for their “even more horrid conditions” for the enslaved, giving rise to the term “sold down the river.” The eerie tales surrounding these visited sites, Miles argues, sugarcoat the real tragedies and injustices of slavery with romantic stories filled with ghostly hyperbole.
The Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia
Miles begins her quest at the Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia. Francis Sorrel, original owner, was allegedly having an affair with his slave “Molly”, who lived in the carriage house that is adjoined to the main residence. This carriage house is said to be haunted by Molly’s ghost. Allegedly, she was murdered in this house, probably by Francis Sorrel himself, who needed to terminate any evidence of the affair. His wife, Matilda, does find out about the affair, so the story goes that she committed suicide, throwing herself out the window. It is said that her ghost haunts the Sorrel-Weed House as well.
(Above photo: The Sorrel-Weed House)
Miles does some checking. While she uncovers documents that state that Matilda died “in an accident,” there is no historical record of Molly, at least none pertaining to the property holdings of one Francis Sorrel. Neither are there any documents listing slave names similar to Molly.
Is Molly a “figment of human imagination?” (quote from book as a possible explanation of Molly). If so, she exists as the fabricated ghost, the packaged legend, indeed a ghostly “figment” of some not-so-creative imaginations, (the lack of creativity attributed to her story’s reliance on the typical tropes of found in “real” southern slave ghost stories.) Whether real or not, Molly sets Miles off on a journey to find “her ghost”. Her ghost will represent the untold stories of an enslaved people, their perspectives within the context of an the inhumane institution of slavery.
There were several things wrong with the telling of Molly’s story, Miles believed. These wrongs, these fabrications would materialize again and again throughout her tours of haunted houses. Oh where are the ghosts? And what are these fabrications that stand in place of the ghost and its hauntings? Let’s move on.
The Myrtles Plantation – Louisiana – Ghosts of Chloe and Cleo
Tiya Miles visits the Myrtles Plantation, located off the River Road (this would be the Mississippi River, folks!) in rural Louisiana. The plantation house is supposedly a legendary haunted house. It also serves as a bed and breakfast for your average “dark tourist”, or your simple Southern history enthusiast. Miles stays in a room that was formerly a nursery. Her room, she is told, is the most haunted room in the place. It is haunted by the ghost of Cleo, a former slave that once turned the nursery into a Voodoo sanctuary. Cleo, a Voodoo priestess, tried her best to heal her master’s sick child using her “skills of the craft”. Her master allowed this, so long as the child would heal. All night Cleo worked her magic. In the morning, she proclaimed the child to be healed. Sadly the child died soon after, and Cleo ’ s Master had her hanged for her lies regarding the health of the child.
(Above Photo: The Myrtles Plantation House)
Myrtles is also supposedly haunted by Chloé, a young slave girl in her early teens who was involved in a sexual relationship with her master. Although the master liked having Chloe around for sexual company , he didn’t like it when she listened in on his private affairs. When he found her with her ear to his office door, he cut off that ear. Still, Chloe was devoted to him and she cherished their sexual relationship. But she was jealous of her master’s family so one night she poisoned the kids, killing them. For this crime, her master hanged her from a tree. Tourists who stay overnight are warned to lock up any earrings they might remove from their lobes before going to bed, although only one of the pair is in danger of being stolen. Stolen by whom? That would be the ghost of Chloé. She only needs one earring because she only has one ear.
So, what’s going on with these “phantoms?” A whole lot of stereotyping. Chloé is portrayed as a “Jezebel”, a biblical feminine persona that is amoral, has an insatiable sex drive, and is seen as an evil temptress toward men. Although some sympathy is granted to Chloe, as the story admits that she was treated cruelly (losing her ear, being a slave in general), she plays a key role in her own demise. She is the one in the story that bears the most evil (killing innocent little children!)
The story of Cleo with its imagery of “ primitive rituals” invokes another stereotype – the wild witch woman. Imagine – inside the wholesome confines of a white man’s nursery a black woman is performing ancient witchcraft from the jungle, only to result in the death of an innocent child. Such horrors!
It should be noted that Voodoo was a real religion among various slaves. However as Miles notes, “Voodoo lends an exotic quality to these stories, calling to mind the notion of the African primitive. Voodoo also portends spiritual danger for non-adherents who see the religion as strange and dangerous, thereby enhancing the taboo-breaking, fear-inspiring elements of dark tourism”.
Within the tales of Chloe and Cleo arises what I again call the “figments” of treacherous, exotic, sex-starved, and witchy women that are responsible for deaths of white children. Then there is Chloe as a thief, a prankster that has nothing better to do with her afterlife than to steal earrings. To the author’s dismay, the “ghosts” of Chloé and Cleo do not appear in these tales. These would be the ghosts of two suffering women, suffering through no fault of their own. Victims of horrendous abuse at the hands of controlling men. In all these tales of sexual relationships between black slave women and their white masters, are we do believe that the women had an equal status in the relationship? There were no power dynamics perpetuated by the men? Could many if not all of these “relationships” really be cases of non-consensual sex and perpetual rape? If “ghosts” were conjured from these tales instead of “figments”, then perhaps we might see a clearer image of the truth. Ghosts don’t lie.
Better Uses of the Supernatural in African American Experience
Returning now to Molly, the slave ghost from the Savannah Sorrel-Weed House, we see again a slave complicit in an adulterous act, not the victim of power play and subjugation. Figments abound in this tale. Ghosts do not. What Miles came to realize during her quest to find “Molly’s ghost” was, in her own words:
I also came away with an alarming sense that the representation of slaves as ghosts reproduces intersectional racial and gender norms from the antebellum era, often without context, caution, or critique. As a result, the narratives on these tours reinforce retrograde interpretations of power, race, gender, sexuality, and identity. These stories turn on the abuse of the socially weak, often African American women, but do nothing to contextualize the experiences of black women or hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against them. In short, ghost tours featuring spectral slaves often uphold the ideas of an antebellum social order by replaying antebellum plots that repopularize antiquated race and gender hierarchies.
The goal of Miles’s work is not to discredit the supernatural (She did see that orb on her photo). Rather, it is to allow for ghost stories to capture the true cruelty of slavery while providing dignity to the black slave ghosts. She says:
Black slaves do not fare well in the genre of the southern ghost tour. But we need not rely on ghost tours and haunted sites to gain historical understanding about the supernatural in African American experience.
As an example, Miles refers to a project conducted by the Georgia WPA. In the 1930s, The WPA conducted a series of interviews with former slaves and ancestors of slaves. One woman relayed a story her mother had told her. Her mother, a former slave, saw and heard a phantom machine made up of chains and wheels. It was as big as a house, very loud and extremely terrifying. At this spot, back in history, a slave master would whip his slaves to death. Here in this tale, the evil of slavery is pronounced and takes form, representing the “ugly machinery” of slavery.
Also, Miles mentions Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, where a slave child returns from the dead. She, according to Miles, represents the history of slavery (I mention this in my review of Beloved. )
Beloved is a work of fiction. As for the story about the massive conglomeration of chains, well, supposedly the storyteller believed it to be true. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that the “ghosts” in both of these tales “speak of truth”. They do their job of communicating with the living as to the reality of our nation’s yesteryears. Often times this truth is ugly. But ghosts do not exist as contestants in a beauty contest. They exist as messengers of the past and don whatever appearance is necessary to relay the spirit of its time.
Madame Lalaurie – Remember “Coven” in American Horror Story?
Are you a fan of the TV series American Horror Story? I can’t say that I have a love affair with this show, but I found some episodes enjoyable. Anyway, there was one season, the third season I believe, which was titled “Coven”. It was a story about modern day witches in New Orleans. However there were several flashback scenes set in the antebellum south, at the house of a cruel mistress named Madame Lalaurie, played by Kathy Bates. She kept slaves in chains in the attic. She branded them, dissected them. Well did you know that Madame Lalaurie was a real person? Tiya Miles visits her “haunted house” in New Orleans (where she really did keep slaves locked in an attic), which is purportedly haunted by the cruel Madame herself.
Miles places the story of Lalaurie within the context of her theories. The stories conveyed by tour guides once again contain figments rather than ghosts. But I won’t get into all that here. For details, buy the book!
I thank Tiya Miles for writing this book. It taught me a lot about slavery and black history, much of which I did not detail in this review. I believe that I now have the necessary mental tools to prepare myself for a ghost tour, if I should ever decide to go on one. Yes, the romantic in me will hope to see an actual specter (though I won’t expect such a thing). But the analytic side of my personality will now be looking for the “unseen” ghosts. Depending on the historical context, I might never come to now the true nature of the “once-was-a living-person” that is presented to me as a ghost in these tales, but I can step back, think independently, and ask myself questions such as, “Do these tales seem antiquated in nature? Does the business (i.e. the ones hosting the tour) have anything to gain by preserving some kind of preconceived notion of the past? Are these tales haunted by obvious clichés and caricatures? I must go back to Galena ,Illinois, a town where the once many antique shops have been converted to cafes and other trendy kinds of storefronts . Ah but the historical town, home of Ulysses Grant, still has “antiques” to sell, only now, they come in the form of ghosts. This small down boasts several ghost tours and a few haunted houses. I must return and see whether they are peddling figments or trying to tell true “ghost” stories.
About the Author
Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard University. She is the author of five books. One of her research specialties is African and Native American comparative histories. She is the winner of several awards including the Frederick Douglass Prize.
*** information above was gathered from the following links: