This may be an odd time of year to be talking about this, after all Spring is the season for new life and renewal but some recent events have brought dead people across my path. As historians we deal with dead people a lot. Through investigating the documents and artifacts they leave behind we try to understand what their world was like—why they did what they did—all in an effort to better understand where we are now. Not long ago, a friend of mine who is also a public historian mentioned that a colleague of hers explains that what we all do is speak for the dead. In essence, historians are a medium between the modern world and those worlds that went before. I’m not sure I necessarily agree.
I understand where he’s coming from, public historians, in particular those who work in living history, talk about people a great deal. It is the way they make a personal connection for their audience. Investigating the life of a New England factory worker, or a Southern slave, or a Mid-Western settler; these all are effective ways to translate complex historical concepts and long ago events into a relatable package. But is it that we’re speaking for the dead or just reminding the living about what we know about the dead? Did these dead people even want their stories told? Well, you can go down that road for miles, surmising what George Washington or Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted people of the 21st century to know about them, but my real concern is the other kind of dead people. Ghosts.
A couple of weeks ago one of my staff members was approached by film makers working on a program for the SyFy Channel. They wanted to know if she would appear on camera to discuss the history of a location which they were “investigating” as having ghosts. They said they had done the research into the building but they needed a local historian to appear on camera to relate the information. [We do our own research, so we checked into their work and found it terribly inaccurate.] I denied the request. A chance at a trip to NYC and 15 minutes of fame is not enough to jeopardize the historical integrity of my organization.
It troubles me that the current popularity of investigating paranormal activity and/or ghost hunting is being conflated with history. I’ll get this out right up front, I don’t believe in ghosts. I have lived, worked and spent the night in many old buildings and I have yet to experience anything people have described as evidence of ghostly activity. My view is that if something is real, it is real for everyone regardless of “mindset,” or whether someone is “open to the experience.” For instance, a tree isn’t just there for those who are open to its existence, or gravity, yes it is still technically a theory, but it doesn’t disappear just because you don’t believe in it. If you want to believe ghosts exist that’s fine by me. I’m not going to argue with you, you have the right to believe in what you want. But what does bother me is the mixing of ghost stories and history for public consumption and paranormal investigations at historic sites. I know it is popular and in the public history field we are always trying to get people engaged, and spinning off programs based on what is trending in popular culture isn’t a bad idea. I could see an event based on historic ghost stories—those which have been passed down through the years—being popular and educational. However hosting a paranormal investigator at your site does not have any historical or interpretive value beyond popular entertainment.
We need to protect the integrity of historical research based on documents and artifacts, which is the foundation of what we do. With the marginalization of history education in schools, it is all too easy for people to start believing that ghostly activities are more real than the objects and accounts the actual people have left to us.