Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Haunted America

Recently, while channel surfing, I was struck by the number of haunted house reality shows on TV. Four cable networks feature such programming: Syfy, Travel, Bravo, and Animal Planet all have their versions. Some weekends, these shows are played as a “marathons,” making me wonder, is every house in America haunted? I’ve expressed my own views on the supernatural elsewhere, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of these claims. I find it significant that so many people have had paranormal encounters, and I’d like to make some observations.

Although each network has a unique perspective, these shows are formulaic. The “disturbances” are first noticed by women, children, and pets, usually in that order. The women who report such incidents tend to be single or second wives. Children and animals are perceived to be in danger, and the husband always discounts the wife’s claims, at least, at first. Eventually an “expert” is called in. The experts are often students (in the case of Syfy, plumbers), and are intense, earnest, and likable. They seem to be well-meaning, and in reality TV, that’s a nice change from the inhabitants of New Jersey. The ghost hunters have all kinds of gadgets and devices, and attempt to find scientific proof of the phenomenon. Cameras are and voice recorders are installed, temperatures are measured. Often a medium or psychic is called, and if a phantom or other presence is detected, it is because someone was murdered on the premises. Sometimes an Indian battle was fought nearby, and other times spirits don’t seem to know they are dead. Some manifestations require the efforts of a priest, clergy, or shaman.

Supernatural claims have a long history in this country. The two most influential cases were Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690’s, and Hydesville, New York, in 1848. In Salem, young girls claimed to be bothered by witches. 19 people died as a result of these accusations; one of the children later recanted. The Hydesville incident is less well-known, but just as influential. In 1848, 3 sisters claimed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered man, a man who was killed in their house. The Fox sisters became celebrities, and some see this incident as the beginning of 19th century Spiritualism in America. One of the girls later recanted, and still later, recanted her recantation. In both Salem and Hydesville, the claimants were intelligent, educated girls, who may have been thwarted in their ambitions by the repressive climate of the times in which they lived. My great-great-great grandfather, Eber Howe, was a Spiritualist, as were his son and grand-daughter. American Spiritualism was linked to liberal causes, and Spiritualists supported Abolition, women’s suffrage, and Temperance.

Again, let me state that I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who claim supernatural visitation, and I don’t doubt that there are such things. I believe in God, so I’m not a skeptic. I’m also open to the possibility I am wrong about my beliefs. I am struck by the similarity, the formula, of these ghostly claims. The afflicted women usually say, “I knew something was wrong,” and then “Something didn’t want me here.” This strikes me as sad, and it reminds me of the confined, restricted girls of Salem and Hydesville. Are some conflating the paranormal with loveless marriages, or social conditions? Why are malevolent spirits murder victims, or unhappy native peoples? There are always claims of the proverbial ancient Indian burial ground.

America was founded on the violence of genocide. Do some haunting victims reflect a collective, residual guilt for what was done to the original inhabitants of this land? If there are indeed Indian spirits, they have every right to be angry. In the case of murder victims, isn’t it significant that America is one of the most violent countries in the world? We can talk about sex in this country much easier than we can discuss our proclivity for violent death. We are the world’s military, we make the bombs, we kill 30,000 of our own every year with legal handguns. The recent shooting of a Jewish congresswoman is but the latest in a long list of gun crimes. We spend more than every other country in the world combined on our war machine. We incarcerate more people numerically and per capita than any other country, and those we imprison are usually ethnic minorities.

Is America haunted? Maybe. Maybe every other house in the country is haunted. Maybe 2nd wives in unhappy marriages are targeted by the supernatural. But one thing I suspect is, if our country isn’t haunted, it probably should be.