There are ghosts in the walls of old houses. They roam abandoned plantations. They float down the side streets of southern cities on sticky, sultry summer nights.
That is what the dark tourism industry would have us believe at any rate. Dark tourism is travel that is steeped in suffering of one sort or another. In the American South, this industry overlaps with the ghost tourism industry in which people investigate potential hauntings. Historian Tiya Miles explores these ideas along with the historical memory of slavery in Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era.
In the book, Miles focuses on ghost tours to help understand how people reinterpret the Civil War era. The narrative follows her as she travels to places like Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah as well as more rural plantations. Histories can often be dry texts, but Tales from the Haunted South offers a rich story, uses a first person perspective, and has the style and vibrancy of creative nonfiction.
The ghost stories Miles discovers are often lurid. One involves a slave girl who may have been in an affair with her master when her mistress died mysteriously. Another features a mistress cruel enough that a slave burned down her house along with many inside it. Another still revolves around the murder of a voodoo priestess who failed to save a sick white child. However, rather than simply reporting the stories told during these ghosts tours, Miles explores their patterns: their protagonists, their villains, and how they portray social structures. She finds that the tours often minimize the horrors of slavery. Rape becomes “an affair” for example. Folk medicine, regardless of its origins, becomes “voodoo”.
For anyone interested in ghosts, history, or the American experience, Tales from the Haunted South is a compelling read. It also leaves me haunted by an anecdote from the introduction. As she begins her journey, Miles remembers something that her great-grandmother once told her; “Never cross water.” As a child, Miles hadn’t understood the command. While investigating tales of ghosts, however, she discovers that her great-grandmother meant that “there is a line between the spirit realm and our realm. It is fluid. Beware.”
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Full disclosure: I did minor production work on this book, which mostly included dealing with images and assessing copyright data. Though I am no longer affiliated with its publisher, Tales from the Haunted South was one of the first book projects with which I fell in love. I can’t help but want to share it.