A Haunted History of Invisible Women: True Stories of America’s Ghosts is so much more than the book I thought I was getting. This book tells a lot of ghost stories, but it is also an examination of why so many ghost stories are by and/or about women and what they say about our culture and history. It’s also a critique of the business of Ghost Tours, demonstrating how they can exploit historical suffering at their worst and illuminate the past in a way that challenges and educates at their best.
This is an accessible and enjoyable book regardless of the reader’s stance on the supernatural. For the most part, the authors aren’t using the book to prove or debunk the existence of ghosts (other than in the section “Fraud, Fakes, and Mythmaking”). Instead, they focus on the meaning and impact of the stories. What do these stories tell about historical and contemporary attitudes towards women? Why do some stories resonate so deeply? I was fascinated by the depth of analysis and warmed by the intense empathy expressed in the book for the women that history has forgotten as well as those who are remembered in mixed-up, sensationalized legend.
Anyone thinking the book will be a lighthearted romp will be divested of this notion upon realizing that the very first haunted location discussed is the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 factory workers in 1911. The authors are deeply concerned with how to present ghost stories in a way that honors the memories of the dead, and that places them in a historical context that we can learn from instead of simply providing titillation.
For instance, the fire is one of the entries in the section titled “Death and the Maiden,” which posits that the deaths of young women leave us with a problematic sense of preserved and idealized innocence. More specifically, the fire was a turning point for the labor rights movement because it so graphically and horrifically made oppressive labor practices visible. The same chapter also talks about ghosts who haunt academia in the context of social anxieties about the roles of women in the academic sphere.
I was especially happy to see that Sarah Winchester, of Winchester Mystery House, is vindicated in the section “Madwomen.” Her chapter not only claims that she was not mentally ill but also talks about why the legend of her “insanity” lingers so persistently (hint: money, also hint: the authors point out that they could also have placed her in the section “Spinsters and Widows” and it’s my opinion that should could also have fit in with the chapter on “Witches” )
For more about Sarah Winchester, check out her entry in Romance Wanderlust and my review of Captive of the Labyrinth. I’m quite fond of Sarah because, like me, she was a tiny woman with terrible arthritis and she scaled everything accordingly, so while other people think her stairs and sinks are creepy I feel deeply at home.
In addition to the sections I’ve already mentioned, the book contains sections on “Mothers and Wives” and “Bad Girls, Jezebels, and Killer Women.” These chapters interrogate some of the most rigid stereotypes and frameworks we use to define the roles of women within domestic life. “Bad Girls, Jezebels, and Killer Women” examines conflicted feelings about various aspects of history by looking at ghost stories involving sex workers as well as more well-known historical figures.
This book left me feeling inspired and excited with a new way to think about my interest in haunted places (I’m a skeptic, but also a history nerd, and I never met a graveyard I didn’t love). The book took such a novel approach to hauntings, keeping the focus on our own minds and our history as opposed to titillation.
One of the authors is a believer and one is not, which creates a welcoming environment for both approaches. What they share is a sense of outrage at the many ways that women have been ignored, dismissed, insulted, and otherwise cruelly treated by society, and an interest in why we remember the ones that we do. I recommend this book to anyone who likes kickass women, women’s history (kickass or otherwise), and a good creepy tale.