America’s ghost fascination follows changing culture

For Americans, ghosts represent much more than just spooky specters, says Central Michigan University English professor Jeffrey Weinstock.

Throughout time, ghosts in American literature have signified representations of the American culture at large: a yearning to reconnect with lost loved ones, a reminder of cultural dilemmas like racism and slavery, or personal struggles like domestic abuse, according to Weinstock.

Weinstock is the editor of “Spectral America: Phantoms and the American Imagination” and currently is working on the book, “Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women as a Form of Social Protest.”

“Ghosts have remained an area of fascination,” said Weinstock. “But no one had thought to try and actually examine in a book the importance of ghosts to American literature across time.”

Through an examination of literature from the 19th century to the present day for “Spectral America,” Weinstock has found that ghosts and hauntings have played an important role for people over time.

During the period following the Civil War, for example, Americans were excited by the idea of spiritualism, or the idea that the living could communicate with the dead — a fascinating prospect for the thousands of people who lost family members to the war.

When Weinstock looks at the differences between ghosts as told by male and female writers, he has found striking differences.

“For women writers, ghosts communicate a sense of unease about the place of women in American culture, an anxiety, a sense of confinement,” Weinstock said.

In the 1892 story “The Yellow Wall-paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the ghost trapped in a house’s wallpaper reflects the woman’s role in society as a confined and silenced being, trapped in a struggle for freedom.

“In ghost stories by women, what tends to be more frightening than the ghost is the status quo,” he said.

On the other hand, for men “the ghost represents anxiety about a changing world, fears of the unknown,” said Weinstock.

From Central Michigan University

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