The rise of dark tourism at historic sites is a concern for some historians who worry that by replacing historical tours with ghost tours, we are losing opportunities for public dialogue about serious social issues of the past and the present. I share this nagging feeling that haunted experiences are crowding out critical engagement with the most difficult happenings of our collective past. Slavery is a primary example, and the one most salient to me as a Black and Indigenous studies scholar of the 19th century U.S. During ghost touring field trips to historic sites in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina between 2012 and 2014, I heard and read several stories about enslaved black women ghosts. These phantoms seemed to engage in behaviors that reinforced the hierarchical racial and gender status quo of their antebellum times, such as turning down the sheets for guests at a haunted bed and breakfast. Most alarming were the black women ghosts who, during their lifetimes, had willingly engaged in sexual relations with their masters or were the victims of sensationalized, gruesome violence.
At the Sorrel-Weed House in historic Savannah, a site that arrested my attention, these elements dramatically overlapped. There, the “slave girl” Molly is said to have been the “mistress” of her master, Francis Sorrel, a wealthy cotton merchant of the mid-1800s. The use of the benign term “mistress” to describe a very young woman who was physically involved with the man who owned her implies desire and consent in a broader historical context of sexual coercion. After Molly’s mistress, Matilda, discovered the affair, Molly is said to have been hanged to death from the rafters of the courtyard slave quarters. The chamber where Molly supposedly died is open to tourists and has been referred to as a “money shot” by a local Midnight Zombie Tour guide.
Molly-the-ghost’s screams of pain during an attack in the slave quarters on the Sorrel grounds have been recorded by The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) on the TV show “Ghost Hunters” and posted on YouTube. But those mechanical echoes of a violent past are, like the phantom Molly herself, mere figments and fabrications. They do not capture – nor do they pretend to seek – the complexity and emotion of an enslaved woman’s life. Instead, they foster distance from a recognized common humanity — a distance created by digital cameras, voice recorders and electromagnetic gadgetry, and indeed by the gaiety of thrill-seeking ghost hunters hoping for a rush. Although these tourists are surely not intending to reproduce the troubling assumptions and power dynamics of a previous era, they are participating in a for-profit enterprise that caricatures a slave girl’s trauma.
Molly is now a star character on the Savannah dark tourism scene, but for all the wrong reasons. It is a mark of national dishonor that black women were held in chattel bondage and forced to perform uncompensated domestic, agricultural, and sexual work in conditions that historians Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist have described as literal labor camps. Stories about brutalized black women who are said to have been complicit in their abuse dishonor us all when they are used as fodder for fun. By exorcising the “slave mistress” ghost of the southern haunted house tour and attending to the complex, documented histories of real enslaved women, site owners, staff members and tourists alike could elevate public engagement with historic sites of slavery.
Tales of the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era
Published by The University of North Carolina Press. Learn more at http://uncpress.unc.edu/.
Published: October 2015