Radical Spirits and Public History

Earlier this year, I attended a panel on ghost tours at the annual meeting of the National Council for Public History. Listening to the panelists and colleagues in the audience, there was an unsurprising, but still important takeaway. Professionally trained historians are increasingly commenting on these types of tours (as opposed to simply ignoring them). Still, few are leading programs on the paranormal or more broadly, the contours of spiritual beliefs in the past.

Here’s the deal: for the most part, I enjoy ghost tours. Fuller disclosure: I have been on more than my fair share over the past decade. This post is not about the machines used on ghost tours that beep or claims about encounters that make some people squirm or squeal with delight.  It’s related to the stories we tell about people, dead or alive, and our current politics. While enjoying some of these programs, I also harbor a deep ambivalence about the genre, if not the subject. In general, on too many history tours, the stories of “minorities,” a category which unfortunately also tends to include “all women,” are still underrepresented. Yet this tends not to be the case with ghost tours. Why? Tiya Miles’s recent study, Tales from the Haunted South, provides great insight into this question. Arguably, most/too many ghost tours dwell on horrific stories about women’s suffering, the persecution of witches, or worst of all, the travails of enslaved people. Instead of grappling with difficult histories, guides giving ghost tours might instead make light of our most “haunting” subjects.

Now that we’ve heard Miles’s critique, what is there to do? First, we have to move the conversation to the streets. As with all types of programs, there are ways to present a complicated, racially inclusive vision of the past when talking about ghostly matters. I want to offer one of my recent ventures as a first attempt.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-hosting a guided walking tour on the history of Spiritualism in the commune-turned-company-town of Hopedale, MA. In this place, “practical Christians” formed a rather exceptional community in 1842. In addition to preaching about abolition, community members promoted pants-wearing for women, public speaking for both sexes, equal voting rights, and Spiritualism. Instead of preaching about deferring charity and mercy, and telling subjugated people to wait for heaven, the radicals of Hopedale deeply enmeshed themselves in contemporary politics– matters of life and death. It was impossible not to talk about race and justice and gender politics here because of the community’s prolific output on these issues. It’s fascinating that they also held seances, sure. But we didn’t dwell on rapping knuckles or moving tables. We talked about people — about loss, doubt, fear, and the concerns over a war that transformed how Americans see death. We talked about how difficult it was to be HUMAN and to live in a time of great unknowns. Spiritualism was the hook, but we were able to put it in broader context, too.

I’ve come to realize, in a sense, that every tour about history & the realm we call “the past” is a ghost tour. Here, Miles’s final words from her study are most instructive: “let our ghosts be real, let our ghosts be true, let our ghosts carry on the integrity of our ancestors.” (Miles, 132)

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