Have you ever seen a ghost? A Pew Research study asked that question last year around this time, and 18 percent of the American respondents answered yes.
I haven’t seen one, but I think one sat on top of me in bed once.
Belief isn’t all that important, according to Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. “This book is not about the truth or falsity of any claims of ghosts,” he says. “It doesn’t do any good.” He quotes Samuel Johnson [1709 - 1784] as backup
Dickey appreciates a Samuel Johnson quote that reads, “There is no amount of proof that will convince a skeptic of spirits, just as no amount of skeptical debunking will disabuse a believer.”
Sounds like the presidential campaign, doesn’t it?
Dickey went from one end of the country to the other for his book, peeking into cobwebbed windows, cemeteries, and even entire towns searching for the truth behind well-known tales of hauntings. It might not surprise you that he grew up near the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, one of the buildings he investigates. It’s his search for the story behind the supposed hauntings that sets this book apart.
The author notes that there is no proof that Sarah Winchester regularly held séances there, despite what the Winchester House tour guides say. And the constant construction at the house was most likely not to scare away ghosts, or to consult with them, or to keep her alive.
“At some point,” Dickey relates in the book, “the perpetual building seems to have become a pretense to keep her family away."
Stories of the supernatural didn’t really come about until after Winchester’s death, when a Canadian amusement park owner took control of the place. You might want to skip this chapter if you prefer that some mystery around this house remain.
Have you noticed how so many haunted houses belong to eccentric old women? Old women with strong opinions who don’t quite fit in? That, Dickey writes, is part of “an uneasiness about women living alone, withdrawn from society ... which we don’t always like to admit."
That ghost that sat on my bed may have belonged to such a woman. We were in her house, after all. She was known in life to shoot at people who approached without invitation. Her house was on the way to Mount Hamilton, an hour or so from the old Winchester place. But that tale is better told around a campfire than in this book review.
Careful readers may find a few typographical errors in Ghostland. Publishers may overlook them, but they do so at their peril. For like ghosts, they’re bound to come back to haunt them.
Colin Dickey has two appearances in the Bay Area this weekend, and none of them requires a séance.
He’ll be at Books Inc. in Alameda on Friday at 7pm. After that he’s expected to materialize at Borderland Books in San Francisco for an afternoon question-and-answer session with Annalee Newitz. That starts at 3pm.