I admire a good ghost story, especially a “true” one. I read tales of the paranormal. I watch those ghost investigator shows on television. And I’ve been known to take ghost tours in cities that I visit. I am intrigued by the idea of unknown realms beyond our comprehension. I love that glance-behind-you-and-make-sure-the-closet-door-is-shut chill that lingers for days after hearing a particularly delicious spooky tale. And I am fascinated by the places where history and the paranormal allegedly meet, like Gettysburg, Pa. But one aspect of ghost stories—true and otherwise—that I am not so fond of is the demonization of the traditional spirituality of people of color.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard reputed hauntings attributed to Indian burial grounds, angry shamans or the mere fact that “y’know where your house sits used to be Native American land.” (Cue ominous music … duh, duh, duh, DUH!)
Not as popular, but too common, is the “slaves were here” explanation. Watching a DVR’d episode of Ghost Hunters, I heard a woman at a historic house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad explain a supposedly haunted room by sharing the accepted lore about the space: (paraphrase) People say some slaves got in here and sacrificed an animal. (Cue ominous music … duh, duh, duh, DUH!)
Why do we never hear this?
Worried homeowner: I just don’t understand what is happening. Furniture is moving about the house. My wife hears disembodied voices in the laundry room. Our little Billy is interacting with a shadowy figure in the backyard and the dog refuses to go into the basement.
Ghost expert: Well, Mr. Homeowner, we’ve done some research and…some Episcopalians once held a church service right on this very land! (Cue ominous music … duh, duh, duh, DUH!)
What? Not scary enough for you?
The message inherent in this horror trope is that the traditional spirituality of brown folks is evil and frightening. For instance, thanks in part to racist Hollywood depictions of the faiths, Voodoo and Santeria are often used as devices to conjure up all kinds of nasty images.
Voodoo is a religious tradition originating in West Africa, which became prominent in the New World due to the importation of African slaves. West African Vodun is the original form of the religion; Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are its descendants in the New World.
Santeria is a syncretic religion with West African and Caribbean origins. It merges Yoruba religion with the traditions of Roman Catholic Christianity and was spread throughout the African Diaspora, in part, through slavery.
Now, you may not practice or agree with these belief systems (or any religion at all), but they are no more frightening than the Celtic polytheism that influences a lot of modern New Age belief and indeed some of traditional Christianity. Yet, New Age spirituality is seen as benign, if not a bit silly, while African-based traditions are viewed as exotically malevolent. Race bias creeps in everywhere, doesn’t it–even into hokey ghost-busting shows?
Oh, I know this is a little thing. Ghost stories are meant to be harmless fun. I take them in that spirit. But it rankles when I see drumming, gyrating, chanting, scantily clad Africans, bathed in firelight, used as shorthand for impending evil in some film. And it annoys me that the tour guide at the Underground Railroad stop mentioned above would assume slaves were summoning ghosties with their dark tribal religion, instead of, say, gathering spiritual strength for what must have been a harrowing journey to freedom.