Whenever I go to a conference (or a vacation if I’m lucky), I like to take some sort of tour of the area. Typically, my tours revolve around civil war history or ghost tours. People are more likely to understand my historical tourism, but they roll their eyes at the ghostly night walks I enjoy. Yes, the macabre tales of murder and mayhem are intriguing, but I take these tours more because I feel some sort of responsibility to visit with spirits who’ve suffered, to recognize their lives—which I’m not sure people quite understand. On a 2013 Memorial Day trip to New Orleans, I suggested that my friend and I take a tour of a couple of the plantations. When we arrived, she mentioned that she felt bad about being there, that maybe people shouldn’t visit such attractions because it attends to the lives of the whites more than the slaves. I told her that I toured plantations because I felt an ethical tug from the people whose voices have been lumped together into the single category of “slave,” that refusing to visit a plantation with the notion of boycotting the white slavers had the unintentional consequences of saying the slaves didn’t matter. And that’s why I tour plantations: because slaves matter. I deliberately use the present tense, because the history is not over, the energies have not faded away. Slave stories are at these homes and in the slaves’ descendents, and the slaves are still there on the properties, even though their names and personal information have been lost among catalogs of livestock, furniture, etc.
There are certain rooms of these homes that compel me take pictures but many more that don’t, mostly because my gut tells me to remember the feeling/energy of the room, forget the furniture. My experiences aren’t limited to plantations, abandoned mental institutions (long story) and sites of murders, disease, or torture have the same effect—not because of the stories that go along with the events, but because of something else. I have become physically ill in certain rooms of homes and other buildings, only to find out that something awful happened in that specific space. The energy of haunting is so alive that I sometimes wonder whose physiological response I am experiencing: the specter’s or mine.
Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) is a beautiful book that does a wonderful job of explaining the emotions of haunting and the significance of receiving the haunting experience. Ghosts and hauntings are pop-culture goldmines these days, and I wonder if these movies and films represent attempts to get over the haunting and/or transform our encounter of the social/historical type of haunting Gordon describes by using fantastical, gratuitous violence so that we cannot recognize an ordinary experience of ghosts or haunting in our daily lives. On the one hand, the over-the-top pop culture presentations of haunting make it easy to neglect the consequential hauntings that have resulted from generations of spirit murder. On the other, this culture that celebrates slasher films also makes it oddly easy for people to turn away from true cruelty (i.e., real life instances), for example, the many members of the Academy of Motion Pictures who admitted that, although they voted for Twelve Years as Slave as best picture, they never saw the film because they felt the violence of slavery portrayed in the story would be too disturbing. How did American culture arrive at a point where audiences flock to see the Saw horror film series, but viewers label Twelve Years a Slave “too disturbing”? As Gordon points out, the ghosts don’t leave just because we ignore them or because we acknowledge something “bad” happened—ghosts demand engagement.
Gordon’s discussion of photographs as significant to haunting is an important thing to keep in mind as well, particularly in an age when imagery is everywhere. Her discussion of the Mothers’ use of photos during the Argentine junta reminds me of walls of pictures that family members created in New York City after September 11, 2001, when they were searching for survivors. Or the images of kidnapped children on the side of milk cartons. I recently watched CNN’s documentary on Whitey Bulger, which repeatedly showed photos of Whitey’s (alleged) murder victims alongside interviews with the victims’ families, still haunted by events that happened thirty years ago. The ordinary act of taking a picture suddenly becomes infused with a weighty significance (both photos that show people who are present and highlight those who are missing) and adds another dimension to Cvetkovich’s utopia of ordinary life. Ordinary life suddenly becomes an existence framed by loss, violence, and fear, and the last known photos of individuals or pictures of groups/families without those people have a different meaning to those who know the back-stories that fill the lacuna toward which the images point. But what of the people who don’t know what or who is missing from photographs? How does the ghost haunt them? Ordinary life is bursting with ghosts and haunting energy that leads to the (social) depression, invisibility, grief, and melancholia Cvetkovich, Williams, and Cheng describe. Where is the utopia? Where are the rights? Do ghosts have rights?
Gordon relates ghosts and haunting through and to women (Sabina Spielrein, Luisa Valenzuela, and Toni Morrison). Is haunting, then, an experience that women are well suited to intuit and feel/sense? I don’t think haunting is exclusively the domain of women, but there seems to be a sense of openness that might make women more accepting of ghostly encounters (unless, perhaps a man is taught by his mother not to reject such experiences as ridiculous). Or, speaking of mothers, do women (biologically designed to grow life) have a nurturing sense that makes us more likely to take haunting seriously, or to at least protect the haunting ghost from rejection and neglect?
Looking at the relationship between haunting from the other side, Spielrein, Valenzuela, and Morrison do the haunting as well. Spielrein haunts the lives and work of Freud and Jung (as well as the development of psychoanalysis and depth psychology), while Valenzuela and Morrison write narratives of historically situated haunting that haunt readers in and of themselves. Beloved is a difficult book to leave behind, and it becomes a “rememory” for readers itself. (While I haven’t read Como en la Guerra, it seems that rememory may apply to Valenzuela as well.) In this focus on the feminine reception and dissemination of ghost/haunting stories, is Gordon suggesting that women bear a particular responsibility in the transmission of narratives? She mentions that white women were the primary readers of slave narratives, but doesn’t explicitly state that passing on the rememory is women’s work. The implication of looking at women as the haunted/haunting ghosts, women as haunted writers, and women as haunted readers suggests that perhaps women play a larger role in the dissemination of rememory (or at the very least, perhaps they should). Writing about and reading of ghosts haunting conjures the rememory of the disappeared (or the rememory of spirit murder) such that energy responsible for the haunting can remain socially alive. Maybe there is a strength in women’s ability to handle ghostly encounters, and a ferocity in women’s ability to haunt as well.
We approach the events that caused ghosts as grievances that can be solved; however, haunting reminds us that the grief has an energy of its own. And that energy of haunting, if we are not mindful, can possess the living. Perhaps, possession is the only way to realize the sincerity and realness of the haunting; perhaps possession of the living is the forthcoming consequence of neglecting the ghostly encounter.