America

The Cultural Vortex – American Ghosts by M J Steel Collins

As someone who writes a lot on Scottish ghosts, one of the things that interest me is how they are viewed by people from other countries. One group in particular that seems to be fascinated by hauntings in Scotland are the Americans, judging from the number of US documentaries made on the subject and the awe in which US ghost enthusiasts have for Scotland’s ghosts.

But to turn things around, one thing which fascinates me is the American ghost story. There are a number of factors that make US ghosts stand out. First, historically, America is almost like a teenager in comparison to Scotland. There are some ghosts in Scotland that were already creaking with the centuries by time the USA came into existence as a country in its own right. The way in which the States is crawling with ghosts, boasting in some cases, ‘the most haunted house in the world’ – Villisca Axe Murder House, kind of creepy, but I raise you Glamis Castle, my friends – is rather intriguing in such a young country.

I wonder if American sense of history comes into it. I admire the way in which Stateside buildings newer than my tenement block are granted historical protection, are cared for and loved, whilst over here it seems de rigueur to demolish what are frankly, brilliant 300 year old buildings for the sake of another bloody car park or office block that is probably going to lie empty. Ghosts seem to play a huge factor in this. Quite a few of America’s old haunted places boast ghosts, which seem to be the centre piece – take The Whaley House in San Diego for example. Then there are the numerous prisons and asylums, such as Moundsville Penitentiary and Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which are lovingly preserved and restored, whilst over here in Glasgow, the asylum section of the old Govan Poorhouse, now the Southern General, has been demolished in the name of development. We Scots could probably learn a thing or two from the States on protecting our built heritage.

But the thing that stands out the most when it comes to America’s spooky stories is the way in which they have been influenced by the cultures of those who have emigrated there and the indigenous cultures. For instance, Chris Woodyard, in his book The Ghost Wore Black describes the tale of a banshee heralding a death in Indiana, whilst Michael Norman in his ‘Haunted America’ series features the odd tale of a Wendigo, of First Nation folklore. Then there are the ways in which African cultures have permeated that of America; in terms of the supernatural, just take one look at the development of Voodoo in Louisiana.

At the same time, there are ghost stories which can probably be classed as pure American, with little to do with imported memes from different cultures, other than the fact that a ghost is something that gets around. Take, for example, the stories of miners killed in hideous accidents, of which there are many throughout the States, ghosts of the Civil War, and rather glamorously, ghosts of famous Hollywood actors and actresses, such as Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Presidents aren’t shy about getting in on the act. Abraham Lincoln famously haunts the White House, while more recently, the ghost of Ronald Reagan is reportedly haunting his old ranch in California (or perhaps it was just Obama he was haunting in the 2012 Presidential Election campaign!).

Still, the cultural syncretism of American ghost stories is worthy of note, yet it doesn’t seem to get much mention in collections. Troy Taylor and Jeff Belanger don’t appear to consider it; Michael Norman pays little heed to it, being more interested in just telling the tale. Chris Woodyard is the only person I have seen really comment on it. In The Ghost That Wore Black, he goes into great detail of where in the world the ghostly influence of the story at hand comes from. He mentions the Black Shuck, banshees of course (Irish, not Scots), Springheel Jack, and Native American entities to name a few. American paranormal writers would do well to take heed. One of the things I think is important in recounting Scottish ghost stories is to look at where it comes from, be it a folkloric entity, such as a fairy, or some nasty character from the past, like ‘Bluidy’ George Mackenzie. Given the cultural tapestry that makes up the country, I’d say this is vital in America. Then we can see where a ghost may have come from, rather than just accepting its existence (or not) at face value. There is probably far too much emphasis on gaining scientific evidence to prove a haunting, whilst the cultural origins that have led to the development of the story are equally as fascinating.

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