Friday, August 27, 2010

The Haunting of History

Ghost stories and urban legends sometimes mix and become interchangeable, but they’re general makeup is decidedly different. Urban legends often dance around a fantastic but possible situation, usually encompassing a warning for society (ie don’t pick up strangers in your car, don’t be a slut with your boyfriend in the woods, don’t pee in the sink at rich person’s house, ect.). But ghost stories, I feel, are more complex, and tap into something deeper than you garden variety fairy tale or urban legend. More than anything, ghosts are the manifestations of history. Whether real or imagined, the phantom represents something bygone and out of place, a reminder of our history that exists outside the books.

This was brought home to me this week when reading about the discovery at Duffy’s Cut, an area of tracks laid down in 1832 for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. An ongoing project to excavate and investigate the construction and subsequent massacre in this small stretch of woodland Malvern, Pennsylvania has yielded significant and sinister finds. Fifty-seven Irish immigrant laborers were hired to work on the railroad, and all perished within two months, allegedly victims of the cholera pandemic that was sweeping through the area in 1832. Pieces of a mass grave have been uncovered in recent years, with evidence that the dead were killed violently instead of virulently.

The site’s investigators, twin brothers Frank and William Watson, encountered the incident at Duffy’s Cut first as ghost story. Their grandfather, who worked for the railroad, spun yarns about ghosts dancing over the Irishmen graves. Other portions of the event reemerged with inaccurate faces in Malvern’s local folklore, but the ghost stories stayed with the brothers. After their grandfather’s death, the brother’s inherited his papers and began their investigation with the backing of Imaculata University, discovering bones and more evidence of murder than cholera.

What grabs me is how the ghost story operated as a marker for history. Where other portions of the story dissolved into inaccurate legend, the ghost story served as a historical marker which may in the end bring the closest interpretation of what really happened at Duffy’s Cut.

We see other cases of this in places like Gettysburg, and the plantations of the Old South. The Myrtles Plantation where the slave Chloe, accidental murderess, is said to have poisoned her master’s wife and children before being lynched by her own people. While historians can find so record of such a slave at the Myrtles plantation, the story serves to point out the valid and violent history of the antebellum south, and the realities of plantation life. We see it again at the Joshua Ward House in Salem, MA, where an alleged haunting marks the true history of execution, torture and corruption carried out by a town that turned on its own people.

Even more telling for me is where ghost stories do not appear, the very best example being the Holocaust. While there are vague reports of cold spots, feelings of overwhelming sorrow and fear for visitors of the Nazi death camps (who would not feel overwhelming sorrow there?), there are no popular stories of hauntings and no investigations are conducted there. This is mostly due out of respect for the dead and the sanctity of these memorials. Ghost stories, as well as being markers of history, are entertainment, and we don’t want to trivialize the holocaust by making it a source of amusement. But perhaps there is something deeper. Where such history is remembered and marked, no ghost story is needed. We don’t require a phantom appearance to remind us what happened at the camps and elsewhere to millions of Europeans. We remember well enough already. So perhaps, no matter what you believe about ghosts, their sightings and stories are representations of what we’ve left behind and, from time to time, need to remember.


ButterandTequila said...

Oh, this makes me homesick! They don't have ghosts in Korea, they have ancestors...some how, just not as thrilling for a New England gal.

Amanda said...

hmmmm.. sounds like a great blog topic. Ghostly frights versus ancestral spirits. I like it!

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