Wednesday, November 5, 2014

And You Thought Halloween Was Scary? How About Historians Giving in to the Ghosts?

Halloween brings its share of inanity and insanity, ranging from offensive costumes to drunkenness and vandalism. Still, my pet peeve is all the bad history.

One  topic of perennial concern to people in the museum and historic preservation world is: ghosts. Do we prostitute ourselves when we indulge the public taste for these apparition-oriented events?

There is a range of opinion, from those who pander, to those who categorically shun any such programming. Most of us, I think, hold to a middle stance: it is fine to have programs that engage or teach about local supernatural legends, it's really bad (certainly: cheesy) to do events that feature ghostly special effects (a house museum is not a funhouse), and it's absolutely unacceptable to endorse and enable pseudoscience such as so-called paranormal research.

Tennessee archivist Gordon Belt (@GordonBelt) wrote a classic piece on the dilemma of "haunted history" and "heritage tourism" a couple of years back. In a very different vein, "anarchist house museum" guru Franklin Vagnone (@FranklinVagnone) argues that a good-natured embrace of the ghost-hunting fad--here, by the Morris Jumel Mansion--can be worthwhile:

Two curious things about that: (1) although the historic Morris Jumel house serves as the setting, it is not mentioned by name in the film  (2) and indeed, the skit describes the action as taking place in "Amherst, Massachusetts." Alas, there is no structure as grand as that in our fair town. Not the first time people found the good Amherst name worth appropriating, though. You may recall that the fake documentary about the "Blair Witch" (fake) documentary included an interview with a fictional "Charles Moorhouse, Professor of Folklore, Hampshire College."

The Morris Jumel House, perhaps more controversially, also opened its doors to the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" program. Two clips (1, 2) and, if you prefer, the whole:

Ghost Adventures S09E03 George Washington Ghost by horror_motion

It's certainly free publicity that the site would not otherwise get. Is that nonetheless too high a price to pay? You be the judge.

By the way, it's good to be reminded that there are practical downsides to going for the ghosts: a student who worked in one major house museum told me that visitors broke at least one object object while trying to navigate the darkened edifice on one such "ghost tour." Not what we call responsible collection management. Forewarned is forearmed.

Speaking of forearms, I was taken aback to see that the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, is prominently featuring a severed arm reputed to come from the battlefield of Antietam in its "Behind the Screams" (yes, really) Halloween tour.

"But," they assure us, "it's not just a marketing gimmick." Yeah, right.

Still, I was shocked to see the museum opening its door to paranormal researchers and allowing these frauds to spend the night--though for a healthy fee, of course. A museum of science, of all places? (admittedly, it's called "the most haunted place in Frederick" Maryland, but I have no idea how many others there are or how haunted they may be).

Do those who give in to the ghosts prostitute themselves? Perhaps. But then, maybe they're just coolly calculating their interests and laughing all the way to the bank.

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