Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
July 13, 2021 Arts & Culture

Bonus Episode: Interview with Colin Dickey

The ‘Ghostland’ author talks about the relationship between technology and the paranormal and how the ghost stories we tell reveal a lot about society.

Photograph of Colin Dickey.

Ghost hunters on television all seem to have a common goal: to prove that ghosts are real using sophisticated yet inexact technology. Colin Dickey, the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, says this is not an accident. The relationship between technology and ghosthunters is as old as the telegraph. But Dickey is not interested in proving they are real; he is fascinated with what the ghost stories we tell reveal about our society.


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer

Resource List

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places


Alexis Pedrick:  Hello and welcome to Distillations. I’m Alexis Pedrick. In our previous episode of Distillations, we talked about how the 19th century was a perfect mix of chaos, technology and paranormal activity. To complement that episode and to bring the conversation to more recent times, we interviewed Colin Dickey, the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. In this interview, our hosts Lisa Berry Drago, and our producer Rigoberto Hernandez, talk to Dickey about the intimate relationship between technology and ghost hunting, why he’s not interested in proving that ghosts are real, and what the ghost stories we tell reveal about our society.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Can you introduce yourself as you would like to be known?

Colin Dickey:  Yeah, this is Colin Dickey, I’m the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Lisa Berry Drago:  We were really struck by some of the stuff that you talk about in Ghostland, and also about one of your pieces for the Atlantic that was about really the way that ghost hunting and technology are completely intertwined to a point where, you know, ghosts in a sense don’t even exist outside of the recording technology that we’re talking about. [Laughs]. So what’s in a contemporary ghost hunters toolkit?

Colin Dickey:  Oh, well, I think right now, one of the main, I guess, technological devices people just use are audio recordings. I think really popular right now is the idea of, of EVP, electronic voice phenomenon. And the idea is that you would go to a room, or a haunted place, or whatever, and you would hit record on, on just sort of any audio recording device, and then you would, you know, sort of ask questions to the empty room. And the idea is that when you play that audio back later, you may hear noises, or perhaps voices that were not audible to the human ear in real time, but are sort of picked up by the audio recording. I think that’s one of the more prominent kind of technological devices that gets us today.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Is there anything that ghost hunters are doing in particular, with the technology because I… My husband is a recording engineer actually. So I have a basement full of various like preamps, and things like that. Is there anything in particular that they’re doing to the technology, um, or like settings or tweaks or out of the box things that they’re using?

Colin Dickey:  I suppose some are, although I don’t know that it’s all that necessary. I think one of the things that I, I find really interesting is that it’s more about just using kind of low grade technology than it is, you know, hacking it or, or alternate. Another popular device, although one that I guess is, is somewhat controversial in the, in the ghost hunting world, is the, is a K2 meter, which is a device that was designed to detect electromagnetic fields, but because it’s unshielded, it will pick up any kind of electromagnetic disturbance, anything from microwaves to AM radios.

And so, again, the idea is that you would go into a place and, and if there was a paranormal experience, you know, the, this K2 meter would register it, but the K2 meter would be set off by any number of things. And so you know, sort of the idea is not to really mod technology so much as to use technology in sort of unscientific, uncontrolled experiments and, and sort of see what you get.

I mean, that being said, you know, I have this thing called boo buddy, which is a K2 meter that’s actually embedded in a teddy bear, the idea being that maybe the spirit of a child will be more likely to respond to a stuffed animal. So that’s, I guess, a sort of modification of a, of a technological device, but again, in a kind of funny, almost kind of rudimentary kind of way.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Oh, my God. [Laughs]. The teddy bear. That’s… See, that’s incredible to me. But you said, so you’re talking about… You said, sort of low grade technology. You’re talking about not super high end, highly modded, super customized stuff, but stuff that comes out of a box in a… Like, sort of an affordable consumer level. What is it about this sort of low grade aspect of the technology that’s appealing? Why are these things being chosen?

Colin Dickey:  What is most important is to get the signal to noise ratio up to a level where you can start interpreting the results. So, if you have a highly controlled experiment, you know, to determine if ghosts are real, you are much more likely I mean, to get, you know, a negative response. You know, because you, you have eliminated the variables. So, you know, you’re not gonna get any kind of false positives. And then I mean, I suppose, you know, maybe, maybe ghosts could materialize, but it’s, it’s less likely to happen, than if you sort of deliberately use something that is sort of low grade or maybe not really designed for the purpose you’re employing it, and what you end up with is a lot of static, a lot of noise, both literal and kind of figurative.

You know, again, like the K2 meter going off because police car happens to be driving by at that moment and it picks up the radio of the, the police scanner and it, and it interprets that as an electromagnetic field and then responds to it. And if you’re, you’re not aware of the police car, it’s really easy to say, “Oh, you know, maybe, maybe that’s a paranormal experience or something like that.” So the goal is really just to, to, to tweak that signal to noise ratio to the point where you can start to work with it.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So this is really a question of interpretation then? This desire to find faulty or low grade technology is about giving yourself the most room for interpretation than in the results.

Colin Dickey:  For me, I try and really delve into or try and stay away from diving into whether or not spirits, paranormal, ghosts, whatever, you know, exist or not. Like I just, you know, um, I guess I’m a little agnostic on that question. But what I do think it’s, it’s fascinating in is, regardless of one’s belief, I think that ghosts have become the medium, so to speak, of, um, sort of how we approach and mediate our own relationship to technology, um, through both kind of antiquated or low grade or sort of malfunctioning or misuse technology, and also how we interpret sort of new cutting edge technology as well.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Could you say a little bit about that, about how does the sort of cutting edge technology come into this if, if most ghost hunters are using, are using the, whatever the dull edge, the spoon edge [laughs] of technology?

Colin Dickey:  So, right. So, so ghost hunters as like a profession, I find are, are using, you know, kind of low grade or, or misuse technology. The flip side is that most new technological developments are almost immediately sort of brought into a kind of relationship with the, um, paranormal. So, from the invention of the telegram, and you know, almost immediately after the telegram was invented, the, the argument was, “Look, if you can communicate with living people across vast distances using these wires and electricity, then you can probably use a similar technology to communicate with the dead.” And, you know, one of the great early spiritualist publications is called the Spiritual Telegram.

So, you know, sort of immediately upon the telegram’s innovation is this idea that it is, it is both a metaphor for understanding of, of the dead, and also a literal kind of direction in which we could go technologically to communicate with, with ghosts. So you see that again, and again. And you, you know, like, there’s a, a story of you know, this family in, in the 1950s, in Long Island, whose, uh, TV becomes haunted by this, this woman who… this sort of ghostly image who appears, and you know, freaks the family out so much that they have to turn the TV to face the wall. And again, like, what, what is happening is that, you know, the, the cathode rays are… Honestly, I don’t know cathode ray tube technology well enough to explain this, uh, accurately.

So maybe this is, uh, this is not accurate, but you’ll, you’ll get the gist. But basically, you know that the, the tubes had burned out, and they’d burned an after image of you know, a newscaster or somebody on to the TV. But, you know, again, the family for whom this was still a new and not entirely understood technology, encoded it as a haunting. And so, pretty much as soon as a technology is, is invented, you will find people who, who see it as, as a means of connecting with the dead or, um, or otherwise explaining our relationship to the dead.

Lisa Berry Drago:  And this is of course, photography is, is one of the cases that you talk about as really being kind of an inception moment. I, I don’t know if there’s anything that stretches earlier than that, an earlier form of technology that sort of gets looped into this dual relationship between the living and, and whatever comes after the living. Is photography really the first technology that’s adapted in that way?

Colin Dickey:  I think probably technology and the telegram are probably neck and neck in that regard. Yeah. I mean, you know, as soon as we understand how technology works, we have multiple exposures. And Mumler’s first spirit photographs were accidents. You know, he sort of accidentally overexposed a, a plate that ended up with a kind of ghostly image of another person, and he knew exactly what it was. He knew that you know, it was just a technical error but it was so, you know, haunting for lack of a better word, that he recast himself as someone who could use the camera to connect with the dead and cr- you know, and sort of famously built this career around making, you know, double exposures, uh that, that looked like you know, spirit photographs. So yeah, I would say that, that telegram and uh… That telegraph and photography are pretty much neck and neck in that sort of early flourishing of, of technological devices made to kind of mediate our relationship with ghosts.

Lisa Berry Drago:  And I know, it’s difficult to gauge the sincerity of anybody engaged. I mean, it’s difficult to gauge anyone’s [laughs] sort of sincerity and what they’re, what they’re engaged with or what they’re espousing. But it’s interesting that in his case, it’s kind of you know… What he says about it, it’s kind of transparently that he recognizes an opportunity. It’s not necessarily that he was moved to spiritual beliefs by what he had witnessed in his own work, because he was more aware than everyone else of the sort of technical specifications. But do you feel that there’s a tension between like, people who might be using the technology in presenting the results and people who are consuming the results in some way and, and the, the varying levels of sincerity? [Laughs].

Colin Dickey:  Yeah, I think I would agree with you. It’s sort of difficult to really gauge that level of sincerity in the, in the absence of outright confessions or, you know, hucksterism, as in the case of Mumler. But I think that what you can say is that these misusing or, or misapplication of this technology that, that produce these haunting effects, I mean, I think they are compelling and strange and uncanny, particularly to people who are not used to, you know, given technology and what its limitations are and, and what its defects and byproducts are.

And so, they become really kind of fascinating and compelling artifacts. And again, I, you know, I think Mumler’s photographs, I mean, eventually, they get quite hokey, but the early ones, even knowing full well, that they’re hoaxes. I mean, they’re still quite, uh, striking in some cases. They still really, you know, kind of grab you and arrest you even when you’re, you’re fully aware of exactly what, what led to them being created.

Lisa Berry Drago:  There’s some kind of phenomenological aspect to this, right? You know, listening to a, a, a ghost recording, looking at a ghost photograph, there has to be some kind of just, you know, like back of the brain experience, that, that these things evoke in some way.

Colin Dickey:  What’s always fascinating to me is, is the idea that like, I mean, you and I, I mean, when you go through just your day to day existence, there are a flood, a cacophony of, of background noises that you by habit just noted to now, that you, you re… You know, you don’t even register. So you know, if you, if you went for a walk in a city, and then afterwards somebody asked you, what did you hear, you wouldn’t even be able to list, you know, a 10th of what you actually heard, just because so much of it would just come and go as just sort of background noise that you wouldn’t ever actually process, you know, on a cognitive level.

And the difference between you and a, a audio recorder, is that the audio recorder doesn’t know how to do that, it doesn’t know how to filter out what is valuable information and what is not. So it gives it to you all. And so listening, if you have a conversation with somebody, and, and you, you know, remember the conversation, then you li- listen back to an audio of it, and suddenly you’re finding that you can barely hear the person that you’re talking to because of you know, the jackhammer, and the car alarm, and the birds and you know, all these other things that are in the background that you just instinctively tuned out, but the audio recorder, you know, just assumed was you know, as valuable as, as the dialogue that it was recording.

And, and, and again, you know, tha- that’s where, where I think a lot of these EVP experiences come from, is that in the moment, you know, again, unless you are a, you know, believer in the paranormal, but you know, the sounds are there, but the difference between you and your, your EVP recorder is that you’re unconsciously filtering them out of your conscious experience. But then when you go back and listen to the recording of yourself in a dark room asking these questions to you know, the emptiness, things that your brain had just immediately discarded as, as irrelevant, you know, the, the audio recorder will play back to you, you know, almost in this kind of way of like, “Well, you know, maybe, maybe there’s something of importance here.” And I think that’s sort of how these things sort of build and develop.

Lisa Berry Drago:  It must be very startling to hear something on the tape that you think you consciously know you didn’t hear. You know, sitting in the room and hearing something and going, “I didn’t hear that. I was in the room, but I didn’t hear that. You know, this must not be coming through my ears, this must be coming through some other level.” [Laughs].

Colin Dickey:  Right. Right. And particularly if you’re in, in like an old building, you know, something that sort of, you know, is likely to be the kind of place that would be haunted. I mean, we’ve all heard like creaking houses. And that’s kind of a spooky feeling. But I mean, I think that again, I think we underestimate just how much noise is generated even in a very quiet environment. Because we’re just not used to focusing on it. And then yeah, so then suddenly, you listen back and you, you hear these things that you swore you, you know, weren’t happening in real time. And yeah, it can, it can be strange and uncanny. Sure.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Uh, so, one of the interesting things from reading, uh, there’s a chapter in which you’re in LA with a group called Gula, which is a bunch of amateur ghost hunters, where they gather to talk about spirits over spirits. They’re interesting, because those people, they kind of really dig into the history or, or find a reason why… Like they find the truth behind what is supposedly haunted. And another person’s trying to find meaning in themselves about it. But then, in these meetings, you describe a scene in which there’s like all these ghost hunters who are trying to get on TV, and you describe it as like, you feel like you are going in there and then we’re not discussing the interesting stuff, they were discussing the ways that they were gonna prove that there were ghosts. But they’re kind of missing the point. Can you tell us why proving that ghosts are real is kind of a fool’s errand? And are they missing the point?

Colin Dickey:  I guess that’s my take on it. And I suppose that if someone came along with indisputable evidence of, you know, the paranormal, I think that would be the opposite of, of waste time. That would be huge. That would be life changing. That would change everything we knew about everything. So, for people who think that they have a, a means to do that I, you know, I, I can see that as being a really vital… I mean, it’s like, you know, discovering, you know, any other scientific, you know, thing from you know, wormholes or splitting the atom or whatever. I mean, huge ramifications.

Um, but I think that it is uninteresting to me on a sort of day to day level because, again, you know, these things aren’t happening in controlled environments, these things are kind of, you know, amateurs, um, you know, no disrespect. Um, you know, but kind of you know, going into a spooky disused hospital on a Friday night running around in the dark. And that seems not to be the way to make, you know, a, a Earth shattering scientific discovery. You know, I mean, yeah, like, one of the guys I talked to had a very scientific methodical idea about how to do that.

And it involved lots of cataloging, lots of data, lots of controlled experiments, and you know, he sort of lamented that nobody else in the community was, was ever gonna help him do anything to that level of specificity. And, and thus, you know, any potential scientific discoveries were never gonna happen. So, yeah. So I think that these other questions that you can ask of, you know, our relationship behind its basis are more interesting to me, because, you know, they, they’re, just more likely to bear fruit in, in the kind of way in which people actually go about, you know, experiencing haunted places.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah. And like, what’s interesting is that those people who are more interested in that, they’re not the ones getting on TV. They’re not the ones getting TV shows.

Colin Dickey:  Right. Well, yeah. No, I mean, and you’re right, because it’s, it’s, it’s not sexy, it’s not cinematic. It doesn’t kind of lend itself to those same kind of TV tropes. So, you know, I guess audiences get the ghost hunters that they, they want, I guess, [laughs] for better for worse.

Lisa Berry Drago:  So, if, if we have these kind of technologies of the glitch, [laughs], trying to prove that ghosts do exist and science kind of steps in and tries to create these en- you know, environments where they’re saying, “We’re gonna prove that ghosts don’t exist.” I actually see attention there. And you know, like, I, I’m not sure either one of them are gonna get the results that they are [laughs] desiring.

Colin Dickey:  Yeah. Oh, right. Cause absolutely, yeah. Cause I mean, and again, this is why I… when I kind of formulated this book, I, I basically said to myself upfront, “Look, I’m not going to argue that ghosts exist, and I’m not gonna argue that ghosts don’t exist.” Because it’s such a circular argument. I mean, you will… Somebody who is a skeptic, you know, you can manifest in front of them a floating blue person who can tell them details about their grandmother that nobody else would know. And that person will still tell you that ghosts don’t exist, and that it was a gas leak or something like that. And conversely, you can debunk ghosts and hoaxes all the live long day, but somebody who believes in ghosts is going to continue to believe in ghosts.

There are exceptions to these, to both of these rules, but I felt like if I, if I wrote a book that explicitly argued one or the other, it would, it would basically, you know, sort of involve kind of preaching to the converted. And I wasn’t interested in doing that. And so to your point about scientists who see themselves as you know, their goal to prove that, you know, ghosts don’t exist. I mean, I think you can prove that a specific event or a specific story or a specific manifestation, maybe was fictitious or unlikely or caused by something else, or whatever. Yeah, once you get into the level of, of trying to blanketly prove that ghosts don’t exist, you’re back making a kind of sociological claim about what we believe and, and why we believe those things, I think more so than you are kind of pushing a kind of objective scientific approach, if that makes sense.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  At the heart of your book, you’re saying that like ghost stories exists, so that, so they create an avenue for us to express our anxieties about certain things, whether that’s prisons, cemeteries, justice, ownership of land with Native Americans. What purpose do ghost stories have for people?

Colin Dickey:  I think that’s a really broad question and, and a really hard one to answer. Simply, I think that through the course of, of writing that book, the conclusion that I came to is that ghost stories really kind of lie in an intersection of a bunch of different belief systems and reasons and they do a number of different things, and they do different things for some people. I mean, you know, we’ve been talking about one thing that, that ghost stories and, and haunted legends do is, is allow us to kind of have a different kind of relationship with the technology that is in our lives. And you know, whereas I think another thing that they do is they allow us to process grief and mourning in a different kind of way.

They are ultimately I think, in a lot of regards a meditation on how we live in the spaces that we build for ourselves. You know, like, you know, why do some houses become haunted and others don’t? Why do some buildings become haunted, and others don’t? I think all of this is kind of fed through the kind of matrix of ghosts and hauntings. And I think why I find the topic so compelling is because it seems like a very straightforward set of beliefs, but in fact it’s, it’s a really kind of elastic and malleable lens that you can fit over the world to, to make sense of a bunch of different things.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  And so then, like, going into a little bit more specifics, like our ownership of land, like the middle class dream of owning land, and whether that’s, it’s really our land? If we have a piece of deed that says it’s our land? Can you talk about that tension a little bit?

Colin Dickey:  When I started this book, and you know, I, I just started to kind of make a kind of catalog of, of ghost stories and, and hauntings and kind of what forms they took, I mean, almost immediately, you know, as a child of 80s horror movies, you, you kind of can’t avoid, or at least I couldn’t, you know, the cliche of the Native American burial ground. You know, that the suburban house is haunted because it’s built on an Indian burial ground. And that comes up again and again, specifically in, in horror movies, um, kind of starting with Amity, the Amityville Horror in the late 70s. And it becomes kind of overnight, it becomes a, a kind of almost cliche thing that gets like parodies and sitcoms and stuff like that.

And so, you know, trying to sort of untangle why is that such a, a durable kind of narrative, you know, I mean, it just, it, it seems that it becomes a way for you know, particularly white Americans, Anglo Americans to kind of approach the, the Native American genocide and the, the colonial appropriation of, of Native American land, without necessarily having to face it head on. So like, one of the things that comes up again and again, it comes up in, uh, William Burroughs, it comes up and Stephen King, it comes up in the, uh, the 2016 sort of reboot of Ghostbusters. Again and again, there’s this idea that there, there was an evil in the land that predated the Native Americans, you know.

And that, that becomes a kind of cliche that I think, is a kind of convenient get out of jail free card, because then it sort of says like, the Native American genocide was not something that was a calculated colonization and expropriation of, of native land by Anglo settlers. It was white people sort of being possessed by this primal fundamental evil that the Native Americans knew about themselves. And you know, you know, it sort of perversely turns us white people into the victims of this evil. And so it sort of becomes a kind of way of exploiting that kind of guilt. Again, I mean, I think that’s a, that’s a pretty negative way in which these ghost stories can be used. But it’s, it’s one of many.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah. And, and then staying in that realm of like anxieties over genocides and racial justice, is like the stories coming out of Shockoe Bottoms in Arlington, Virginia, in which some of the most famous ghost stories are white ghosts. But in fact, Arlington, Virginia was almost s- similar to New Orleans in having a huge role in the slave trade, where all the black goes in Shockoe, Virginia.

Colin Dickey:  It started again when I was, when I was doing my very early kind of brainstorming for places I wanted to look at and, um, types of things I wanted to look at. And I, you know, I was like, “Well, you know, I, I want a haunted downtown.” You know, and so I just started Googling most haunted downtown in America, I think, or something like that. And I got a couple of hits from… You know, I got hits all over the place, I got a couple of hits for Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia, which I, you know I didn’t know anything about. So, I, you know, I delved into it, and I, you know, started looking up these stories associated with Shockoe Bottom and you know, the all sorts of you know, uh, you know, brothels and bars and restaurants and, and various other things.

And, and it just sort of started to nag on me after a while that every story I was reading was about white ghosts. You know, and I… We’re talking about the capital of confederacy here, we’re talking about the second most heavily trafficked slave market, uh, in the south. And, you know, a place of unspeakable historical trauma. And, you know, one of the ideas about ghosts is they linger around in kind of injust or incomplete justice that hasn’t been righted yet. You know, why aren’t we seeing black ghosts in Richmond, Virginia? And, you know, and again, it was… It started as just a very naive question for me. It’s just, you know, what… Like, I, I expected to see something.

I don’t, I don’t even know if I expected to see something, but the more that I looked, the more I started to wonder, you know, “Why am I only seeing one version of this story?” And that, you know, kind of led to, you know, following that path and sort of figuring out not just, why are these stories, the ones told in Shockoe Bottom, but who are these stories told to and by and why are they told for these audiences? And, and what’s the point there?

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah. And in fact, like it’s, it’s interesting because you make an interesting comparison about how like, slavery was the way to kind of make the living ghost, like basically taken out all their humanity so that they’re [inaudible 00:24:52] of themselves. But then vice versa is like by giving them story and history, like the way that ghost stories do, then you were kind of making them human, [laughs], you’re kind of making them real. It’s like a paradox.

Colin Dickey:  Right. Exactly. Yeah. Because, you know, in a kind of superficial, but I think, really important and crucial way, what ghost stories do is they are kind of a form of folk history. They are how we remember the history of, you know, that house on the corner, or, you know, the old bar downtown or something like that. And so, they are a record of, of this country, even if they are you know, not, you know, kind of standard historical work. And so I think that when that record becomes dominated by certain kind of people, I mean, that’s, that’s worth kind of looking at and, and asking why that is.

Lisa Berry Drago:  I find one of the threads that, that I feel like you’re kind of drawing on here is, ghosts always act as if their function is to reveal a secret history sometimes. I think there’s a lot of, there’s a sort of like you, you, you would never know this, there’s no way that we could have known this if there hadn’t been this haunting that kind of surfaced, you know, this hunting is what surface this history. But in terms of things like the Native American genocide, or the all white cavalcade of Virginia ghosts, these aren’t secrets. Actually, these are, these are distasteful histories. You know, to certain people these, these things might seem distasteful, but they’re, they weren’t secrets.

Colin Dickey:  Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right that on the one hand, this is kind of held up as the kind of secret forgotten history of the United States. And sometimes it is that. But, but then, because it’s sort of has this, you know, kind of badge of being the kind of secret forgotten history, it, it actually ends up kind of capable of reinscribing the dominant narratives because you know, when even the, the secret underground history of a place is entirely about white people, then you know, you’re kind of doubling down on a problem with you know, mainstream history generally.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  Yeah. And sometimes these ghosts are represented like in a kind of literal way. Like, at least that’s the way I interpreted like the KK…. The origins of the KKK, as was described in your book in which there’s like lore about KKK members going into freed people, freed slaves homes, and they would wear white sheets, and they would like make holes into their drinking utensil to pretend that they were drinking endlessly. And they would shake hands and give their hand like a fake skeleton hand. That was actually for a purpose and what… They wanted to keep black people out and like people who view free slaves as free slaves, not, not like something they can own. Are the KKK a kind of ghost?

Colin Dickey:  Oh, yeah. I mean, absolutely yeah. And again, I mean, I think that’s a fascinating kind of lens into the whole scope of the book. Because, right, you know, the, the KKK begins as almost, you know, like a kind of fraternity of pranksters, and then immediately becomes something much darker and more violent. You know, sort of right out of the gate. But they kind of continue this terrorism by prank methodology. So, you have these, you know, congressional testimony of freed former slaves, who will describe a group of white men showing up at, at, you know, their door at midnight, visibly drunk, aggressive, and hostile, and yet, you know, claiming themselves to be you know, the ghosts of the men who died at, you know, the Battle of Manassas or something like that.

Even when I was, when I was growing up, you know, into the 80s, there was still a very common racist stereotype about, about black people being more superstitious or more, sort of likely to be scared by ghosts than white people. This sort of very old, entire racist trope. And you see its origins here, where you have a bunch of threatening violent men, you know, showing up at, you know, some guy’s door at midnight, and, and is he going to look you know, afraid? I mean, I, I would. You know, I mean, you know, in this sense that not of ghosts, but of men who claim to be ghosts, and who may very likely do him harm.

You know, and so all these things become a kind of reaffirming feedback loop of the way in which white supremacy and, and violence kind of run alongside a kind of, you know, metaphoric and kind of figurative realm that where the two kind of constantly reinforce each other in sort of these, these important, um, and kind of vile ways.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  I want to talk about our hometown prison that is supposedly haunted, and that’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Where do prisons exist in our collective mind when it comes to ghost stories?

Colin Dickey:  Eastern State is, is built like a cement brick. You know, smack dab in Philadelphia. And, and when it was built, it was built sort of on the outskirts of the city because the city wasn’t as big then and you know, the idea as you, as in today as you would build prisons kind of out and away from the population. But you know, as Philadelphia expands, it expands, you know, eventually right into Eastern State. And, and it’s a big monumental building that’s sort of hard to tear down, because it’s built to, you know, keep people from escaping and that kind of stuff.

And so, I think, on, on a just kind of infrastructure level, one of the things that’s really fascinating is the way that a lot of haunted places are, are places that have just sort of outlived their usefulness but yet are for one reason or another kind of too big to fail, too big to be torn down, too big to… too heavy, too expensive. You know, Greystone in New Jersey, which was an asylum, Kirkbride asylum that, uh, I talked a little bit about in the book because Kirkbride asylums are often the ones that like, you know, get labeled as haunted. I mean, Greystone cost like something like $42 million to, to tear down because it was just like a solid, it’s just stone, concrete and brick and you know, just rooted to the ground and it was massive.

And the only reason it came down, was Chris Christie sort of had a personal vendetta against that building, whereas you know, other Kirkbride asylums, you know, which were fantastically large and similarly structured, either just sort of get abandoned, or they get repurposed as like malls or office spaces, or you know, whatever something. You know, just because it’s sort of like these kind of albatrosses, you know, around the neck of their various communities.

And so I think of… Like, Eastern Sate is sort of kind of emblematic example, not only more so just because, you know, it’s, it’s Philadelphia, so it is a big city, it was kind of the, the first of its kind of those kind of prisons, and yet it kind of has like, kind of lingered past its due date without there being any real reason to get rid of it. So you know, that’s… those are the kind of buildings that end up being haunted.

Rigoberto Hernandez:  You mentioned earlier, the Kirkbride type asylum. And it’s a type of asylum that was actually, they were spacious, there was like a lot of square footage, and they’re meant to be relaxing, which was a major change the way that they… when they came about, I think it was like the early 19th century. It was a major change in the way we thought about asylums. And, and yet, we are so scared of them. Why? [Laughs]. Why are we scared of a type of asylum that was meant to be relaxing, that was meant to be spacious, that we ourselves created?

Colin Dickey:  Well, I think that the thing about psychiatry, and, and, you know, and psychology in general, is that, I think we forget how, how both knew of a science it is and how rapidly it’s changed in the past, you know, even 200 years. I mean, our understanding of, of how the mind works, and, and you know, what we can do to, to, you know, heal, heal people who are suffering or what we can do… You know, who actually is suffering and who is actually fine, and we’re unnecessarily pathologizing. I mean, that stuff has changed so dramatically in the past 200 years. And you know, every time, you know, every generation, it seems there’s a kind of rethinking of, of what psy- psychiatry could and should be doing.

The thing is, is that architecture just doesn’t keep pace with that kind of rapid change. You know, I mean, buildings last unless you tear them down, or they you know, are otherwise destroyed. I mean, buildings last for, for decades, if not centuries. And so, like we were talking about earlier with Eastern State, I mean, I think with a lot of Kirkbride asylums, I mean, they got scary, they got sort of you know, branded as haunted simply for the fact that they outlived their usefulness and didn’t go anywhere.

Lisa Berry Drago:  Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.

Alexis Pedrick:  Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.

Lisa Berry Drago:  You can find our videos, stories and every single podcast episode at ddistillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.

Alexis Pedrick:  You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.

Lisa Berry Drago:  This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.

Alexis Pedrick:  And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer.

Lisa Berry Drago:  The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow.

Alexis Pedrick:  For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa Berry Drago:  And I’m Lisa Barry Drago.

Alexis Pedrick:  Thanks for listening.

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