It has been fifteen years since the publication of Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington, D.C., 2002), which documented the absence and trivialization of African American lives and experiences at historic sites across the South. In the intervening years interpretative content about African Americans at southern sites has increased substantially through a relatively new type of tour: the ghost tour. In Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, Tiya Miles explores this phenomenon, focusing on the Sorrel-Weed house in Savannah, Georgia; the Madame Lalaurie house in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Myrtles plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Miles’s interest in this subject developed on a tour of the Sorrel-Weed house. There she heard a horrible yet beguiling story about a male enslaver and Molly, an enslaved woman, that ended with the suicide of the enslaver’s wife and Molly’s murder. The ghosts of these two women haunted the house, the guide claimed, and an evening tour told these ghost stories. As Miles recounts it she “could not let the terrible story go,” and so she returned that night to hear the “supernatural story” (p. xvi).At each of these sites, visitors hear claims (often, Miles contends, unfounded) about enslaved African Americans whose ghosts haunt the premises. These stories, Miles argues, allow people to maintain a “safe distance” from history, which both gives listeners more room to imagine the horrors of slavery and enables them to avoid facing the consequences of such accounts by relegating the stories to the realm of “fancy” (p. 7). Although African Americans play significant roles in these tours, Miles concludes that “ghost tourism at historic sites of slavery appropriates African American history in a way that outweighs the value of inclusion’· (p. 123 ). She observes, for example, a troubling pattern in the ghost tours’ reliance on African American religious expression-most often Voodoo but also the beliefs of Gullah and Geechee people-“to increase the level of threat and titillation” (p. 119). These elements convey nothing about the complexity of the religious beliefs that have played a critical role in constructing black identity in America.
Tales from the Haunted South is a page-turner, as Miles describes both the tours and her own apprehensive feelings as she ventured out to historic sites after dark to hear these scary stories. It is appropriate, then, that Miles considers why ghost stories are so beguiling. Her conclusion resonates far beyond sites associated with slavery, observing that “ghosts represent history in a way that feels like magic. [T]he ghost story is an intensified version of the magic- of historical interpretation writ large-the weaving of words, ideas, and events into a pseudo-spell that can spirit us back to days gone by” (p. 125). Finding ways to connect visitors with the past is a noble goal, but historic sites must be mindful of costs that can be associated with these methods.
The tours that Miles experienced made clear the problems with how historic sites have incorporated African American history into ghost tourism. At the same time, African American experiences far too often continue to be excluded altogether from other kinds of tours offered at historic sites. In the tradition of Eichstedt and Small’s work, Tales from the Haunted South should serve as a call to historic sites to undertake the hard work of telling complex stories about the past that enable visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of African American lives under slavery. I highly recommend the book to public historians, scholars of slavery and its current-day legacies, and anyone interested in the gothic South.
– REBECCA K. SHRUM, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. The Journal of Southern History, Volume LXXXlII. No. 1, February 2017
Tiya Miles’s book is a lively and entertaining first-person account of ghost tourism” in the Deep South. Miles, an African American who teaches at the University of Michigan, grew up in the Midwest. She encountered a gripping phenomenon called “ghost tourism” while taking a “Ghost Tour” at the antebellum Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah, Georgia. The tale of Molly, a young slave who was the mistress of the home’s owner and was found hanged in her quarters, captured Miles’s imagination. Subsequently, Miles explored the Deep South’s antebellum house museums and ghost-story literature, in which deceased black slaves, most of them women, haunt homes and attract enthusiastic, diverse tourists. In addition, Miles studied the tortured slaves haunting the house of Madame Lalaurie, a cruel mistress residing in the New Orleans French Quarter, and slave ghosts Chloe and Cleo at The Myrtles plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana.The author has a pragmatic attitude toward ghosts and does not completely discount the “spirit world.” She acknowledges that past African Americans believed that ghosts were real and dangerous and admits that she writes about history because she is haunted by the people. In her book The House on Diamond Hill (UNC Press, 2012), a history of the antebellum plantation of Cherokee slave owner James Vann, Miles invented a slave ghost to convey “the integrity of our ancestors” (p. 132).
This book reveals two sides to ghost tourism, a subset of so-called “dark tourism,” which caters to a growing fascination with death, disaster, and suffering. In the context of black history, ghost stories satisfy our craving for knowledge about the little-known lives of enslaved people. Miles notes that books and tours featuring slave ghosts are often the only venues that make black history visible. The “dark” side to such tours is that they tend to feature lurid, sensationalized tales that promote racism. Caricatures of sexually predatory “Jezebel” slaves, comforting “Mammy” slaves, or voodoo priestess slaves whose black magic had a malevolent purpose distort historical truth and undermine the dignity and value of black history. Tourists become voyeurs, alternately fascinated and repulsed by spectacles of slaves subjected to brutality from their owners or taking revenge against their owners. Sometimes, Miles herself may repeat the lurid details a little too enthusiastically. Yet she shines a valuable light on how we feel about the Civil War and race, and on how the ghosts of the past are still with us.
– M. Ruth Little, Longleaf Historic Resources, North Carolina Historical Review (April, 2016.)
Miles (Michigan) delves into an increasingly popular topic within tourism research—thanatourism. Situated within the context of contested histories concerning slavery and the Civil War era, the author examines “ghost tours” in the South that range in destinations from Savannah, Georgia, to New Orleans. Miles highlights how African American history (as conveyed through these tours) is inaccurately represented for commercial gain, hence perpetuating the exploitation of African Americans through narratives shared by guides and written texts concerning the phenomena. Readers will largely question where the realities of slavery and the Civil War (as they pertain to African Americans) are within the ghost tours. Readers will no doubt need to understand the balance between commodification of death and the role that slavery played (and continues to play) in forming the history of the South. Imagery portrayed within each story, as told by Miles, will keep readers on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the next sentence, waiting to hear how each narrative plays out. Libraries with collections in tourism, southern histories, ghost stories, cultural heritage of the South, etc., should own a copy of this work.
– K. M. Woosnam, Texas A&M University (April, 2016.)
As an interpreter and museum professional, I was compelled by Tales from the Haunted South and found Dr. Tiya Miles’ ideas to be spot on. Her interpretation of slavery and native American history as being prime candidates for ghost tourism is intriguing because those subjects do haunt us as Americans, but the invented narrative of tragedy and gore is easier for people to swallow than the everydayness and horror of American chattel slavery. I was also really interested in Dr. Miles’ point about the way we commodify the tragedies of invented black women, when real black women were themselves commodified. Congratulations are in order on an engaging and thought-provoking book.
– Ashley Rogers, Director of Museum Operations, Whitney Plantation
This book explores the popular yet troubling phenomenon of “ghost tours.” Frequently promoted and experienced at plantations, urban manor homes, and cemeteries throughout the South. “Dark tourism” often highlights the most sensationalist and macabre aspects of slavery. Because the realities of slavery are largely missing from the tours, they continue to feed problematic “Old South” narratives and erase the hard truths of the Civil War era. The ghosts of the past are still with us today.”– Lone Star Book Reviews (October, 2015.)
“In her captivating exploration of southern ghost tours, Tiya Miles shows how spirits act as guides to a troubled American past and how they continue to raise the specter of slavery today. This absorbing book confirms that no matter how hard we try, we can’t quite keep the past buried like we used to.”
– Stephen Berry, University of Georgia
“Investigating southern fright culture, Tiya Miles uncovers the connections between antebellum nostalgia, African American history, and mystical ideas about slavery. Stories of Voodoo queens and scorned lovers fuel this dark-tourist industry, while the author sets the record straight. Readers will find it impossible to put this book down.”
– Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas at Austin