Ghosts, Witches, & Monsters…Oh My!
Halloween might not bring to mind history, but it should. A lot of the things that we find scary–for instance, ghosts, witches, and monsters–have terrified Americans for centuries. And what’s more, how Americans have thought about witches, ghosts, and monsters reflected broader social, cultural, and even political concerns going on at the time. Want to know more? Check out these books.
Carol F. Karlsen, “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England “(1987)
Originally published in 1987, Karlsen’s book has proven a classic take on the phenomenon of witchcraft in colonial New England. At the time of its release, Karlsen’s application of new theories from gender studies to her interrogation of witchcraft proved pioneering. Today, the book serves as a timely reminder that the fear of witches and witchcraft is, as Karlsen points out, chiefly the fear of women.
Tiya Miles, “Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era “(2015)
In this book, Miles, a professor of American and Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, asks: what does it mean that “ghost tours” are frequently promoted at Southern plantations, homes, and cemeteries? And why do these tours so often revolve around stories about enslaved African Americans? Developing the concept of “dark tourism,” Miles surveys these tours to argue that these sensationalized depictions of Southern history hide the brutal realities of enslavement during the Civil War era.
John Demos, “Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England “(1982)
This take on witchcraft in colonial New England won the 1983 Bancroft Prize for best book in American history. In it, John Demos, the former Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale University, analyzes witchcraft from four different perspectives: “Biography”, “Psychology”, “Sociology”, and “History”.
Coll Thrush and Colleen E. Boyd, eds., “Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence: Native Ghosts in North American Culture and History “(2011)
In this edited collection, scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, anthropology, Indigenous Studies, and literature, explore the role that Indigenous burial grounds and ghosts play in the national imaginations of Canada and the U.S. Featuring a range of topics from activism to anatomy, these essays reveal how the legacies–and on-going experiences–of colonialism and conquest haunt us.
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, “Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft “(1976)
Next up in the long list of books about New England witchcraft is Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed. Lauded in its day as an excellent example of what people were calling the “new social history,” Salem Possessed contextualizes the hysteria over witchcraft with deeper economic and social conflicts that consumed the inhabitants of Salem Village and Salem Town.
Judith Richardson, “Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley “(2005)
Ever wondered about the backdrop for Washington Irving’s famous story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Using Irving’s stories and local folklore, Richardson, a professor of American Studies at Stanford University, explores the meaning of ghosts and haunting in the historic Hudson River Valley.
Elizabeth Reis, ed., “Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America “(1998)
This edited collection considers the broad history of women and witchcraft, from the colonial era to today. With considerations of African American women’s contested spirituality in New Orleans and contemporary feminist neopagan movements, the essays explore how women have both been hunted and demonized as witches and embraced witchcraft as a source of empowerment.
Cyndy Hendershot, “Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films “(2005)
If monsters and sci-fi are more your thing, check out this book by Cyndy Hendershot, a professor of English at Arkansas State University. Using psychoanalytical theory, Hendershot considers monster mainstays of 1950s movies, including giant bugs and mutants, to identify a wider social and cultural paranoia that terrorized Cold War America.
Mary Beth Norton, “In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 “(2003)
The list of books about New England witchcraft extends well beyond some of the titles listed here. But In the Devil’s Snare is one of the most recent takes. Written by the pioneering women’s historian Mary Beth Norton, this innovative take traces the famous crisis to the psychological trauma of sustained conflicts between white settlers and Abenaki peoples in Maine.
W. Scott Poole, “Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting “(2014)
“American history comes at us gripping with gore,” W. Scott Poole writes, victims lying scattered on the ground, eldritch moonlight revealing creeping horrors you never learned from your eighth grade history textbook.” Interrogating everything from Freddie Krueger to alien invasions, serial killers to wild beasts, W. Poole says that the monster is a “staple” of American culture that has helped shape a distinct national identity.