About a year ago, I spent some days in Savannah, Georgia, and I bought a ticket for a ghost tour: my first. It was mid-evening, on a Saturday. The plan was to see haunted things around town and then hurry to a dinner reservation. I am not normally a spooky type of person—I avoid horror movies, and I don’t believe in ghosts—but Savannah boasts about being a haunted city, and it sounded nice to spend a twilight hour being told stories in parks. It was a lovely, creeping Southern autumn night: lukewarm, humid, and redolent of turning leaves and moss. At least four people in the group of ticket-holding hauntees were on the upslope of a bachelorette party. The guide was very earnest on the subject of ghosts; he began by playing wind-tunnel-like noises on his phone, and asked us whether we heard screaming voices in them. It would have shocked me if I had, since most phones I’ve encountered have a lot of trouble getting even normal voice reception in the middle of New York. But other people seemed to have better spiritual hearing than I did.
We walked around and saw the façades of gorgeous mansions whose residents had been murdered, or had killed themselves, or else had chanted spells. At one house, our guide said that sometimes, on some nights, the owner shines a blinding light on tours and screams for them to go away. This didn’t really seem so haunted, to me, but it was something to which I could relate.
Then we stopped at Calhoun Square, a small park trimmed in stately homes. A hurricane had come through only days before, and the lawns between the brick paths were still scattered with beaten branches and leaves. The guide said that Calhoun Square was the most haunted square in old Savannah. People walking here, across the centuries, had reported feeling shadows pass through them, a tightness or a great weight on their chests. The other spooky thing that we should know about Calhoun Square, he said, was that it had been a burial ground for slaves—some people estimated that a thousand bodies rested deep beneath the grass, but no one really knew for sure, because the graves were mass and unmarked. The bodies underneath, he said, made it a super-haunted place.
I thought about the Calhoun Square tour the next day, and on the fight home, and on and off through the week after that. The directed blindness of the guide’s account (this place has strange effects on passersby, and it’s unclear why—also, hundreds of uncommemorated slaves were dumped here) got me thinking about America’s fascination with the occult and the particular discomfort that spooky explanations can displace. I’d never considered what people meant when they expressed a fear of ghosts, or what it is to posit haunting in a person or a place. (“Haunted by the past,” we say, usually about people who require therapy.) Those of a rationalist bent assume—at least, I did—that individuals who report feelings of “shadows passing through” are breathing fumes of superstition. But is superstition really the right word for such a thing? It reveals a lot, perhaps, that, when the citizens of a Southern town report feeling strange paroxysms when they walk over the bones of humans raised as chattel, the only options seem to be that there is something ectoplasmic going on or that they’re nuts.