After decades of writing books and magazine articles about ghosts – all things that go bump in the night – the question often pops up: Have you ever been afraid crawling around a reputed haunted house? My answer, surprisingly is: Not really. I’ve been unnerved a few times, and when I have I simply choose not to linger further in a place where I am not welcome. I listen to my instincts, my gut, saying now may not be the time or place to investigate all things paranormal.
For example, I spend a fair of amount of time in old cemeteries, kneeling in front of decaying headstones trying to decipher inscriptions, dates, and when I am very, very lucky, read the epitaphs. I freely talk to the dead. I apologize for stepping over their final resting places. The headstones of the young, those who never truly got to walk the earth before their time here is up, these monuments fill me with grief and weigh heavily on my heart. I do my best to learn their stories and reassure the deceased that they are not forgotten. I do not believe the dead or their spirits are out to do me harm.
Over time, our perceptions of ghosts as menacing creatures patrolling the earth in search of their next victim has changed, and rightly so. Previous generations believed ghosts appeared rattling chains, clasping daggers dripping blood, and made menacing threats. Basically ghostly apparitions were akin to the “invasion of the body snatchers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are certain celebrated cemeteries where a healthy fear of the living is required. Muggings had gotten so bad at St. Louis Cemeteries #1, #2, and #3 (on the outer edge of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter) that visitors to these popular tourist attractions were banned from going in alone. Entry now to see the grave of the legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, for example, is by escorted group tour only. As former Catholic theologian Father William Maestri once wisely said, It’s not the dead we need to be afraid of, it’s the living.”
Many legends tell us that ghosts started out as protectors: When the pirate Jean Lafitte buried his treasure on Ile Phantom, a small sliver of land in Bayou Barataria, it is said he cut off the heads of two of his pirate cohorts so that their spirits would stay behind and guard the treasure trove from future human predators. Jeannette Feltus, owner of Linden Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, offers the same rationale for the lack of armed guards at her bed and breakfast operation. Feltus believes that even when she is alone at night in her sprawling mansion, the spirits of her husband’s ancestors provide a protective circle and prevent anyone from doing her harm. Underwater salvager Barry Clifford believes that one of the reasons it was so challenging to find the wreck of the Whydah, sink in 1717, was because the ghosts of Captain Sam Bellamy and his crew, who went down with the ship in a terrible storm off of Cape Cod, guarded their horde of gold, silver and jewels. According to Clifford, “Stealing another man’s treasure is never supposed to be easy.”
Many historic sites have found that having a resident ghost or two is a bonus when it comes to luring tourists. In South Louisiana, it’s called Lagniappe, a little somethin extra. Journalist Lyle Saxon in his seminal work, “Gumbo Ya Ya” collected and edited folktales. Saxon stated unequivocally that “Every old plantation house has to have at least one ghost or hang its head in shame. Today that’s not problem. Some historic sites like the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana even put up giant billboards, proclaiming “America’s Most Haunted Home.” Visitors line up hoping to catch a glimpse of the main attractions, the ghost of Chloe, but will just as happily settle for any of the other ghosts who roam the property, from tiny spirits of children to adults who allegedly stroll about the grounds. Having bragging rights to a ghost often equates to economic gain.
So, whether they are guarding treasure or enticing visitors ghosts have proven to be a welcome sight. I encourage all of you to look and listen. Most importantly allow yourself to feel their presence. Ghosts, spirits of the dead, have one very human trait in common; they just want to be remembered. If they approach you, feel flattered for they are letting you know that they believe they have found a sympathetic soul willing to listen and share their story. There are so many spirits out there waiting to be adopted. No paperwork required.
There is a wonderful poem by Marie Howe about listening to her dead friends,even specifically asking them for advice. I haven’t tried it, except for my mother who has been gone now 8 years. Surely the ghosts know things we do not. Good idea to try and gather their wisdom.