Colin Dickey's Ghostland is an illuminating tour of America's most haunted places. In contrast to the numerous compendia of “true” ghost stories, Dickey embeds all of the fanciful tales he recounts in a context that speaks “to some larger facet of American consciousness.” Here are 10 of his favorite haunted spots.
I’ve always been drawn to strange places—strange old buildings, derelict hotels, cemeteries, ruins. When so much of the world around you is constantly being torn down to make way for the new and improved, it’s the places that have begun to slide into neglect are where I feel most alive. It’s in these places that the ghosts seem to gather.
Ghost stories for me are less about the supernatural and more about how we access our past. The way a story of a house or a hotel gets told and retold, changing slightly through the years, can say as much about history as any textbook. When I started looking into the stories around some of the more famous haunted places in America, I found that time and time again we use ghost stories as a way of confronting—and sometimes effacing—episodes in our past that we can’t access any other way.
The other thing I learned is that the building itself matters, too: an oddly constructed house (or hotel, or prison, or asylum) will attract more ghosts than an average one. Some places—through no fault of their own—just “feel wrong,” and often we invent ghost stories as a way of making sense of that feeling. Hauntings are as much about our relationship to the buildings we inhabit as they are about the paranormal. Here are ten places in the United States that are famous for being haunted, and whose histories and architecture can each offer surprising lessons about the past, if we’re willing to listen.
1. The Winchester Mystery House (San Jose, California)
Often called the most haunted house in the country, this elegant, sprawling Victorian mansion was built by Sarah Winchester, whose father-in-law founded the Winchester Rifle Company. According to stories, Sarah Winchester, after suffering a series of personal tragedies, became convinced that she was being haunted by those killed by Winchester rifles, and built her labyrinth of a house to keep them at bay. The truth, though, is a bit more complicated.
2. Downtown Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California)
Downtown Los Angeles is so full of haunted hotels, there’s one to fit every mood and price range. You can stay in the grand old opulence of the Millennium Biltmore, haunted by the ghost of the Black Dahlia (it was the last place she was seen alive), or in the more run-down Hotel Cecil, a massive hotel with a far more sordid history (at least two different serial killers, including Richard Ramirez, have called it home). Even the Westin Bonaventure, with its futuristic glass cylinders, has its ghosts: deep below the parking lot, amidst the remains of an old subway terminal, some say a young girl in a red dress wanders the tunnels.
3. The Las Vegas Strip (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Another city whose hotels are stuffed with ghosts: on the fabled Las Vegas Strip alone, there’s the MGM Grand (the site of a horrific hotel fire in 1980), a women’s bathroom in Cesar’s where the faucets turn on and off by themselves, and Bugsy Siegel’s ghost, who’s said to still linger by the pool at the Flamingo. And then there’s the Luxor—but then, what do you expect to get when you build your hotel in the shape of a giant Egyptian mausoleum?
4. The Stanley Hotel (Estes Park, Colorado)
If there’s any building that could said to be haunted by a book, it’s the Stanley Hotel in the Rockies. It didn’t have much of a reputation for being haunted for the first seven decades of its existence, but that changed after one guest in particular stayed there: Stephen King, who used the august landmark as the basis for his Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Since then the ghosts—and the ghost hunters—have flocked here regularly, following in the footsteps of Danny Torrance and his dad.
5. The Lemp Mansion (St. Louis, Missouri)
Adam Lemp first began brewing German-style lager in St. Louis in the 1840s, and his son William turned the Lemp Brewing Company into an empire to rival Budweiser and Pabst—but in the early twentieth century, business setbacks, the onset of Prohibition, and a series of family tragedies crippled the family and the company they’d built. This beautifully maintained house, where some of the Lemps died, is now said to be haunted by their restless spirits. You can take a ghost tour here, spend the night in one of the suites, or buy a Haunted Lemp Mansion board game in the gift shop.
6. The Ridges (Athens, Ohio)
When you imagine a “haunted insane asylum,” you’re probably imagining a Kirkbride Asylum: designed by Thomas Kirkbride, these asylums often have a beautiful Victorian clocktower and wide graceful halls spreading out in various directions. As they fell into disuse and mismanagement, they became more well known as places of terror and haunting (H. P. Lovecraft based his “Arkham Sanitarium” on the Kirkbride in Danvers, Massachusetts). The Ridges (formerly the Athens Lunatic Asylum) was one such place, notable not only for its ghosts but for the alligator that lived in its central fountain.
7. West Virginia State Penitentiary (Moundsville, West Virginia)
Built to resemble a gothic castle, the Moundsville prison stands facing the Adena Grave Creek Mound, the largest extant Native American burial mound—a sixty foot high hill of dirt whose purpose is still not fully known or understood by researchers. The architecture of the prison was meant as part of the punishment: inmates would gaze on their gloomy surroundings and be forced to meditate on their past misdeeds. Severe overcrowding and regular mistreatment became its real legacy, though, and it was closed down finally in the 1990s after years of lawsuits from its prisoners. Now, its only inhabitants are the tourists, and the ghosts.
8. Shockoe Bottom (Richmond, Virginia)
Richmond, Virginia calls itself one of the most haunted cities in the country, and most of those ghosts congregate in this neighborhood. Many of the bars, restaurants and shops lay claim to a ghost story, many of which have their roots in terrible tragedies of the past. But what I learned about Shockoe Bottom is that its past holds some secrets that are too terrible even for the ghost hunters.
9. The Lalaurie Mansion (New Orleans, Louisiana)
The Lalaurie Mansion is so legendary that American Horror Story built a season around it, though once I began researching its history, I quickly learned that not everything with the house is as it seemed. Still, it’s undeniably creepy: a large mansion at the corner of Royale and Governor Nicholls Streets in the French Quarter. It’s not open to the public, so you’ll have to ponder its haunted legacy from the street, but beware: Not even actor Nicholas Cage could escape its curse—he went bankrupt a few years after buying the house, and lost it in foreclosure.
10. The Merchant’s House Museum (New York, New York)
New York City has plenty of ghosts, but this brownstone in lower Manhattan will always be a personal favorite: as the rest of the city’s old buildings all get torn down and replaced with glass and steel high-rises, the Merchant’s House offers a glimpse of what nineteenth century life was like in Manhattan, and remains a stubborn hold-out against the developers. No wonder so many spirits have flocked here; perhaps it’s the only place left in New York where they can afford the rent.