Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era
University of North Carolina Press, 2017
Reviewed by Whitney S. May
Tales from the Haunted South begins, as so many of the best things do, with an unexpected haunting. As Tiya Miles roamed the streets of Savannah, Georgia in 2012 while revising what would become her first fiction novel The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts (2015), she found herself ushered off the street and into the Hostess City’s infamous Sorrel-Weed House. Swept up in the morbid, nineteenth century sex/suicide scandal threading through the sordid script of the dark tourist attraction, Miles found herself haunted by its characters, the specters claimed to remain in the house. What, precisely, it means to be haunted becomes the focus of Miles’s attention in this book.
Structured around three distinct case studies, Tales from the Haunted South holds a microscope—or rather, an electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) recorder—to the suddenly thriving industry of American dark tourism, a trade laden with what Miles calls “ghost fancy.” Delivered in Miles’s trademark measured blend of academic and public-facing historical criticism, Tales from the Haunted South centers ghost stories as a distinct narrative form heaving with contextual intersections. Specifically, Miles revisits the raced specters of the ghost tours throughout the American South—the slave ghosts trapped in eternal bondage, conjured and in some cases conceived to advance commercial interests. She hopes to “ghostwrite,” a term she claims to account for her mission “to write, rewrite, and unwrite the stories of slave ghosts and [her] own interpretations of them, to circle back to places [she] had been before, to leave traces along the way of ambivalence and contradiction, to let the ‘primeval shadows’ haunt the page.”
Chapter 1 finds Miles returning to the Sorrel-Weed House for another ghost tour and hoping to “ghostwrite” the macabre story of the tour that so affected her. Central to this tale is the allegedly white-passing black slave owner Francis Sorrel, his unstable and ultimately suicidal wife Matilda, and the young slave Molly with whom Francis reportedly pursued a sexual relationship. But for a cursory glance, Miles bypasses the Halloween special of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters that conveyed the House to brief pop-cultural notoriety, instead focusing on her own experiences of the Sorrel-Weed House ghost tour and on what she can coax from the meager historical record surrounding it. What she discovers in the archives is a distressing series of rhetorical gestures toward romanticizing the lingering wounds of historical (and yet still terribly present) racism, where Francis’s alleged “passing” is used to exoticize and eroticize his position within antebellum racial and sexual politics, and where his sexual abuse of Molly is continuously re-scripted as a consensual “affair.” The only thing that could make these discursive reconfigurations of very real racial terror any more alarming is exactly what Miles discovers about their origins: an abundance of titillating detail and a dearth of evidence cultivated and maintained to promote the House for profit—a situation that reflects similar readiness in the scripts of dark tourist attractions in general to commodify Black pain for voyeuristic consumption.
This ominous process is repeated more portably at the beginning of Chapter 2 in the form of a kitschy gris-gris bag, a reified “voodoo” souvenir designed for white consumption. Here, Miles moves to her second case study: the home of New Orleans’s grisly murderess Madame Delphine Lalaurie. Accused in 1834 of sadistically torturing and murdering the slaves of her palatial household on Royal Street, Lalaurie escaped justice for her crimes by fleeing New Orleans as her home went up in flames, leaving behind a swiftly renovated mansion and an even more swiftly renovated narrative seemingly ready-made for today’s dark tourism industry. Here, Miles’s ghostwriting work resituates the Lalaurie story within broader narratives of New Orleans as a ‘good’ place to have been a slave—a sanitized history Miles observes reiterated throughout the ghost tours of the city. By Miles’s estimation, castigating Lalaurie via ghost tours serves the perverse function of simultaneously distancing individual ghost stories from their own historical connections to slavery, as well as of recasting New Orleans’s past in a similarly rose-tinted light. Lalaurie’s guilt, Miles concludes, “absolves New Orleans slaveholders in the past and the New Orleans tourist industry in the present from responsibility for committing or sensationalizing acts of racialized violence.” To achieve this worrying, two-pronged cultural revision demands a certain level of cognitive dissonance—a theme revisited in Miles’s final case study.
The third chapter is recognizably the most ambitious of the book, and perhaps consequentially, also the most overwhelming. Here, Miles recounts her experiences as a visitor of the Myrtles Plantation just outside Baton Rouge, leaping animatedly—if sometimes jarringly—from discussions of voodoo, plantation tourism, racialized pop-culture tropes, and the material artifacts of dark tourism. At the heart of this chapter and its various intersecting conversations are Chloe and Cleo, the two most popular of the ghosts that allegedly haunt the Myrtles Plantation. Chloe, an enslaved teenaged girl, is said to have been brought into the main house for the sexual exploitation of her white master in the early nineteenth century. Shortly thereafter, he accused her of spying on him and mutilated her ear before banishing her from the house; in an attempt to return to his favor, the story goes that Chloe hatched a plan that inadvertently killed his wife and two daughters before he had her hanged in retaliation. Not long after, Cleo, an enslaved woman and alleged voodoo priestess, was similarly murdered by a white man after she failed to use magic to save his dying child. The most coherent aim of this chapter is a rich analysis that puts Chloe and Cleo into conversation with one another as implicitly and continuously rewritten facets of the same white-authored tropes: as interchangeably Jezebel, Mammy, and “tragic mulatta” characters. Chloe, especially, wears many spectral faces according to many professed dark tourists, all of whom “are extracting something they desire, something reinforcing, from Chloe’s popular story. Chloe, the malleable black slave woman ghost, can appear as any visitor’s fantasy.”
This is, of course, the crux of Tales from the Haunted South. In the face of little historical, factual evidence—indeed, sometimes in the face of none at all—dark tourism of the American South deploys a distinct brand of ghost to spectralize the outlines of its troubled past as a means to distract from its haunted present. The still-bleeding wounds of racial and sexual violence crisscross viscerally throughout its haunted histories and landscapes alike, meeting troublingly at dark tourist attractions that repackage their lingering pain for profit. In this work, simultaneously accessible enough for undergraduates and rich enough for graduate seminars, Miles seeks to give voice to the ghosts written and rewritten at these crossroads throughout the century and a half since the Civil War. She does so by finishing with a thoughtful conclusion that centers African American cultural tradition as a means to respectfully commemorate the dead and the past, “a past chained to colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy, but a past that can nevertheless challenge and commission us to fight for justice in the present.” This, she concludes, is the way to “call forth the power of ghosts,” to let their spectral presences linger and inspire positive change.
You might say that Tales from the Haunted South ends, as so many of the best things do, with an unexpected haunting.