As a child, I would sometimes sit in front of my mother’s bookcase and look at her collection of hardcover Anne Rice novels. I was too young to read them (or much of anything at all), but I loved how they looked. The cover art was rich and detailed, and covered with mysterious figures and enticing titles. They stoked a sense of mystery in me, even if I was only old enough to look.
If I wanted scary, I had plenty of other places to look. My elementary school library was filled with regionally-published anthologies of ghost stories. They were everywhere, and all with a similar aesthetic. These simple ghost stories were just a little bit more age appropriate. Less teeth, I suppose. But still spooky, and so very popular. Southerners love ghost stories, no matter the age.
There’s something about the south and it’s ghosts. I wish I could put my finger on something objective or tangible, but I really can’t. I suppose it’s a matter of my raising. Anyone can feel haunted by their childhood home. But when I visit Alabama and drive down the winding country roads I knew as a child, I hear all those ghosts calling out to me.
Let me make something clear real quick – I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t even believe in God. I’d like to lay eyes on either, and it’s not been a lack of trying.
Belief or none, something about Alabama still feels haunted. I can almost feel all those ghosts brushing against me everywhere I go. It’s a natural part of the landscape. Everything’s old, rotten, and miserable. The perfect place for a haunting.
It could be the south’s quiet nature combined with its unsavory past. Everywhere you go is thick with the stench of the Civil War, and those lonely rural stretches really start to get under your skin if you think about it too much while your drive through. It’s almost like the ghosts of the old south notice the emptiness, and so they do the polite southern thing and fill the silence with some friendly chatter.
Truth is, New England is probably just as ghostly. It’s older, with more historic gravestones and plenty of its own battlegrounds. Maybe I just like to think of the south as more ‘haunted’ because it’s stalked as ardently by the ghosts of my own ancestors, and my own past.
While I’ve certainly noticed the haunted south, everyone else has, too. We have a whole literary genre to show for it. “Southern Gothic”, it’s called. But there isn’t a “New England Gothic”.
Why? What about the south is more haunted than everywhere else?
Think about Southern Gothic. It’s all about mysterious, empty places and unpleasant pasts. Dirty secrets and gossip. Old bloodlines and old money. Decay. Defeat. None of it is entirely unique, but if you mix it together, you get a budding analogy for the defeated south. Southern Gothic isn’t distinct from its cousin genres. It’s just a special flavor of americana.
I’m not a literature professor, so I’m not going to sit here and give a lecture about the tropes and trends of Southern Gothic. But I will tell you this: when I was a middle schooler entranced by Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, I didn’t envision the colonial Boston estate that the titular manor was based on. Instead, I imagined a yawning, decrepit southern plantation. Maybe it’s in my blood, but in a story so filled with despair, it just seemed to fit.
When I was a child, my school librarian loved to read passages from a book called Thirteen Alabama Ghosts & Jeffrey. The stories were suitably spooky, and all based on supposedly true hauntings from all over the state. I loved listening to them. After a couple years, I knew many of them by heart, and I sometimes looked at maps of the state to try and find the little towns were those stories took place. That was what made them scarier than your standard ghost story: the fact that they took place in my own neighborhood.
When I grew up, I mentioned this book to a writing group I’d joined. They thought it sounded charming, and we even looked at some of the old-school covers for the book and its sequels online.
When I took a trip home, I saw a new edition of the original book at a regional store. I bought it, even though it seemed overpriced, because I wanted to explore it for it’s nostalgic value. Imagine my surprise when I leafed through it, looking through all of these once cherished, now forgotten stories, and I realized just what they were about.
Everywhere I looked, I saw the south’s sad past. I saw the Civil War. I saw racism, poverty, ignorance, and sorrow. It was so much more frightening the second time through.
That’s what gives Southern Gothic its flavor. The history of the south is slow-cooked in misery. It doesn’t mean we can’t still love it. But stories like these are echoes of what ails us. I’m glad that our librarian read Thirteen Alabama Ghosts to us as children, because we needed to hear it. It’s not the sort of thing we can hide from. Like a ghost, it’s always there.