Why Did Post-bellum America Fall in Love with Ghosts?

Hopper, Anthony , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

Humanity’s love affair with the supernatural goes back millennia. This remains the case even if one narrowly defines the term to include only the spirits of deceased human beings. Western cultures as diverse as that of ancient Greece and Elizabethan England contained references to the spirit world. People in other parts of the globe have also shown an interest in apparitions and similar manifestations. In the Tale of Genji, composed by a Japanese woman in the 11th century A.D., Genji's first wife is attacked by the souls of dead individuals who are tied to the family in some way. A number of African American cultures have made the belief in ghosts an integral part of their religious practices.

Early Americans did not differ from their forebears when it came to this topic. Antebellum material is dotted with discussions of the spirit world. Famous authors such as Charles Brockdon Brown and Washington Irving wrote stories with supernatural themes (either depicting the paranormal as a sham or as a reality). It is quite likely that the various localities in Colonial America could boast of their haunted houses and cemeteries. Parents probably passed well-worn ghost stories on to their children. However, interest in the otherworldly remained largely a regional and local affair until the middle part of the 19th century.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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