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A History of Southern Ghosts

With dark history and rich culture come volumes of ghostly folklore that can terrify people of any age.

by Jeff Lawhead 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Shakespeare’s Hamlet

phantomsSuch is spoken with utmost confidence and perennial truth by one of the most famous persons ever to have seen a ghost, and even if Hamlet never existed in history, he (or rather Shakespeare) perfectly captures the eternal mystery of the world as it appears before us. No matter what we discover in the present and future, there is always more and the only thing we can truly be sure of it what has already become history.

I could’ve gone for a Top 5 list of “most” haunted areas in our relevant region for this post, but aside from being terribly unoriginal right now, it also presents a problem of what makes whatever five places I choose “more” haunted than any other haunted areas in the South. How does one decide that criteria? Is it based on the number of ghosts said to infest a given property? How disturbing the haunts are? The veracity of the stories?

Thinking it over for a while eventually touched on a minor epiphany—the history. What makes one area more haunted than another is based entirely on the known history that area has. The more ghost stories that come from a plantation, bridge, road, abandoned mine or mountain hollow, the more haunted it is. It is a little bit embarrassing to not come up with that answer immediately since it was the central thesis to my book, Phantoms Fill The Southern Skies. Ghost stories and ghosts themselves literally ARE academic history.

The South is not the progenitor for American history as we know it from the arrival of the Europeans on, but it comes pretty close. Our region was a major setting for the Revolutionary War, the expansion through the Eastern side of the country up north and west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Civil War and the civil rights that (slowly) descended to deserving people, after much sacrifice, from there. We have a pretty dark history for such a young nation … and yet you’ll find people of all types, colors and heritages who live here very proud to be a Southerner all the same. The oft-maligned hillbilly has as much a rich and fascinating culture as the Cherokee Native Americans, and the Gullah African Americans as much as the Scots-Irish that immigrated from their highlands to ours. With dark history and rich culture come volumes of ghostly folklore that can terrify people of any age.

So what does history and culture have to do with a ghost that leaves shadow bread on the same grave plot in the same cemetery night after night for years or a two-headed ghoul dressed like Abraham Lincoln that chases cars so he can get to a home that’s no longer there?

mammothcaveWell, let’s look at one famously haunted location: Mammoth Cave of Brownsville, Kentucky. There have been more than 150 reported sightings of multiple spirits on and around the site. To know why a location is haunted, you need to know about the location itself and how it came to be known today. This means you need to know how the Native Americans used it thousands of years before it came under possession of a British-American merchant in 1796. You need to know how it became better utilized as a saltpeter mine from there. What is saltpeter? It’s potassium nitrate and it was badly needed for rifles in the War of 1812. After that, you need to know it was used as a sanctuary that tried to cure people of tuberculosis by having them breathe the air of the cavern. Why would people travel to a cave and pay money just to breathe its air? Because back in the mid-19th century, tuberculosis was such a dangerous disease that desperate people, faced with no better knowledge of how to survive it, really thought breathing air from exotic locations was how you treated it. You have to know the insane lengths people went to in order to get rich off of the tourism the area provided, which included a man actually having the gall to turn the body of his own adult son, who died in a cave-in near Mammoth, into a tourist attraction itself because, back then, there weren’t standards and ethics for tourism like we have today. You have to know that the caves are so big that a woman once successfully tricked her lover into getting lost forever and that, to this day, new tunnels and areas are still being discovered—some of which contain the remains of a poor soul who likely never intended for Mammoth to be their final resting place.

That’s quite a lot of history just right there. Now you have a decent idea how there are over 150 ghost reports coming from just one area—people who died from tuberculosis, miners who got caught in cave-ins from unsafe working conditions, severely demented attraction entrepreneurs and a lot of other people who, for one reason or another, went inside and didn’t come back out, at least not alive. They’re all said to be haunting the area and giving people a glimpse into what possible future they might be looking into once the body no longer operates. Had they come into contact with the cave in a time when we had better technology for exploring and mining caves, better medical knowledge of treating disease and a more ethical culture that taught us we shouldn’t cope with the death of child by charging other people money to gawk at their disfigured corpse, those people might not have died and continued to roam the vicinity scaring people out of their pants.

Then again, if they hadn’t died in such tragic circumstances, how would we have been inspired to evolve our technology and culture in the first place? If it wasn’t for sympathy of the fallen and a strong desire not to suffer into death (and after death) like they did, what would be the motivation for change? Folklore is the oldest, and I might argue the strongest, form of information sharing mankind has. It may not be exact, but it LEADS to exact. It teaches us much of what came before us, arouses our passion to conquer eternal mystery and gives Horatio new philosophies to dream of.

All that and we get something fun to discuss around the campfire on Halloween.

Mammoth Cave photo courtesy of NPS. 

Jeff Lawhead is the author of Phantoms Fill the Southern Skies, available now. He is a near-lifelong resident of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, where he has seen and felt more variety of spiritual experience than the American South might be expected to offer. 

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