Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery by Tiya Miles (review)
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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...