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Reviewed by
Tiya Miles. Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2015. 176 pp. $24.95.

Over the past several years, cities and towns in the southeastern United States—and across the entire nation for that matter—have seen and contributed to the proliferation of ghost tourism. As a segment of an even larger dark tourism and dark heritage industry that indulges the public’s growing desire to hear of death, tragedy, and trauma, this “ghost fancy,” in the words of Miles, displays varying degrees of darkness, authenticity, and engagement with place and the supernatural. Ghost tourists can undertake these nighttime experiences by foot, van, or even hearse, and tours can occur at single homes, pubs, and cemeteries, or cover entire historic districts. Some members of the public take tours that equip them with ghost-detection technology and facilitate an actual hunt to prove the presence of spirits. Many other tourists simply accompany guides as they visit and narrate the alternative and sometimes unsettling social memories of locations and people long repressed or suppressed in traditional travel guides and published histories—all while entertaining and keeping tourists at a safe emotional distance. The rise of ghost tourism as a market niche within the heritage travel industry and as a sociocultural phenomenon has yet to be fully and adequately analyzed and critiqued. Tiya Miles’s Tales from the Haunted South takes us much closer to accomplishing this goal and does so from an African American studies perspective. I can envision her book being an important reference for not only tourism and race scholars, but also the increasing number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences interested in the politics of Southern public history and memory.

It would be easy to dismiss ghost tourism as just another trite commercial tactic for drawing in travel revenue. For some unscrupulous entrepreneurs, this is certainly [End Page 87] the case. But such a perspective misses the larger social and political meanings and implications that run through ghost tourism as a method of “history-making.” Recognizing this fact, Miles offers one of the first critical examinations of ghost tourism in the context of the racialized history of the American South, providing a valuable glimpse into how the industry works, what it gets wrong, and to whom it primarily caters (namely white tourists). But more important, she provides a sobering commentary on the role of ghost tourism in appropriating, commodifying, and misrepresenting black heritage during the antebellum and Civil War eras. In exploring three of the South’s supposedly most haunted cities (Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah), Miles concludes that Southern ghost tourism “reinforce[s] retrograde interpretations of power, race, gender, sexuality, and identity” and replays “antebellum plots that repopularize antiquated race and gender hierarchies” (124). These narrated hierarchies not only exploit black bodies and biographies and make them into spectacles but they also demonize foreigners and white women in positions of authority, “hence preserving the notions of southern paternalism and white patriarchal morality” (78).

Important and troubling to Miles is the central place that the memory of slavery and slaves have in the Southern ghost-tour narratives she investigates using extensive primary and secondary sources. The historical inclusion of the enslaved would appear on the surface to be a victory for new social history and an opportunity to create public empathy for the historical contributions and struggles of African Americans—especially in places such as plantations, so widely known for being unwilling to even utter the word slavery to daytime visitors. However, Miles demonstrates quite convincingly that a dialectical tension between incorporation and marginalization shapes the content, tone, and affective power of ghost tours. According to her, ghost tours cloak and control black cultural history as much as they reveal and recover this history. Yes, ghost tours make the previously ignored lives of enslaved African Americans visible, but in the end their memory is exoticized, romanticized, and decontextualized.

Within the Southern ghost tourism landscape, Miles exposes the real and imagined stories of slave ghosts and their masters, finding on more than one occasion that there is only a scant historical record to substantiate the bold and sensationalized tales of tour guides and managers. Worse, she finds that Southern ghost tourism squanders the opportunity for us to come to terms with the harsh realities and inequalities of enslavement. For example, at Louisiana’s Myrtles Plantation, the public’s understanding of the sexual and racial injustices of slavery is deflected by a ghost tour that represents Chloe, a female slave ghost, as an eroticized Jezebel who simply chooses to engage in a sexual relationship with her master, a relationship that eventually leads to her hanging. It is also at Myrtles—as well at the haunted Sorrel-Weed House in Savannah—that Miles discovers ghost-tour guides’ heavy dependence on depicting Vodou in highly stereotypical ways and the representation of black slave religion as a racialized exotic for popular consumption and shallow understanding by city visitors. Given the degree to which these Southern cities attract scores of tourists from across the nation and globe as well as within the South, these images of African American life have a diffusionary power that perhaps cannot be overstated, and they arguably compromise growing efforts as of late on other fronts—such as through film, television, books, museums, and blogs—to move society to a more sensitive and sophisticated re-membering of enslavement.

Of the many useful terms and theoretical frameworks that Miles uses in capturing the violence and disrespect that Southern ghost tourism can do to the memory of enslaved African Americans, I was especially attracted to the concept of “cultural work.” Specifically, she encourages the reader to consider that these seemingly playful treatments of black history do serious work, psychologically and politically, in projecting and legitimizing a certain perceived social order upon the antebellum [End Page 88] period. But this work does not simply frame how we see the past; it also conditions how we interpret race relations and the legacies of slavery in the present. Miles’s discussion of the ghost stories surrounding Madame Lalaurie, a cruel and presumably insane slave mistress within the French Quarter, is instructive here. Within prevailing ghost-tour narratives, Lalaurie’s cruelty to those she owned is represented as a rare example of slaveholding behavior, when in fact “she was among many in the New Orleans area and greater South who treated African Americans like chattel, and often brutally so” (75). By carrying out this “othering” and vilifying of Madame Lalaurie, these ghost-tour narratives do the cultural work of protecting the reputations of other past New Orleans slaveholders while also absolving the contemporary New Orleans tourism industry of any guilt or responsibility for sensationalizing and commercially benefiting from these memories of racialized violence.

Miles communicates a rather pessimistic view of the capacity of Southern ghost tourism, in its current form, to do justice to the memory of the enslaved and to advance the building of empathy on the part of the traveling public. Yet she does identify some important sites of potential intervention in resisting and changing the balance of power within the black incorporation-marginalization dialectic. For Miles, these interventions come when African Americans are able to take more control over the narration of their own histories. She explores this dynamic in two different situations. The first is a black tour guide at Myrtles Plantation who uses a form of “transgressive performance” and a “strategic disclosure” of his own queer identity to return dignity to the slave ghost Chloe and to invite criticism of her mistreatment, even as he remains “part of the dark-tourism commercial enterprise that objectified, eroticized, and exoticized the suffering enslaved black women” (113). In the second instance, Miles moves beyond the ghost tour and observes a black-owned historical tour in Savannah that offers a decidedly more empowering and authentic narration of the stories, relationships and places important to African Americans and their struggle for self-determination. She draws a sharp ethical and social-justice contrast between this black heritage tour and the ghost-tour companies, and I tend to agree with her argument. What worries me, however, and it may worry other readers, is the uncomfortable binary that Miles creates between appropriating, retrogressive white ghost-tour guides and managers, and the existence of progressive, resistant black-heritage entrepreneurs. My own heritage tourism work in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina has found that racial identity is not always an accurate predictor of this assumed relationship. I would have liked to see this wonderful book end with more of a discussion of how ghost tourism might be reformed, if indeed it can be redeemed (and this might be the crux of the debate), and what active role public intellectuals such as Miles and other industry- engaged scholars might play, along with local communities, in bringing greater social responsibility to the narration of African American histories and identities. Nonetheless, Tiya Miles provides a valuable primer for many of us to begin documenting, interpreting, and challenging the Southern “ghost fancy” in order to make room for a greater racial and commemorative justice. [End Page 89]

Derek H. Alderman
University of Tennessee