Ghosts at the Riverbank

The tourism industry in the state of Mississippi rests on a few sturdy pillars. Aside, perhaps, from food (barbecue, catfish, fried green tomatoes, etc), the most reliable of these is nostalgia for the Old South, which is served up with restored antebellum architecture, plantation tours and elegiac memorials to the Confederacy in every town square. Then comes music – essentially, the blues. Then the “trail” of the Civil Rights movement. Every one of these objects of modern interest exists as a direct effect of slavery. But, because many people don’t like thinking about slavery, that aspect is usually ignored as much as possible. (It’s hard to address the subject of the Civil Rights movement without discussing slavery, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying over the years.)

The same is true of what is probably the next most significant category of tourist attraction: ghosts. The Off the Beaten Path guide to Mississippi (2015), by Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, directs visitors to almost as many haunted houses as it does restaurants. There’s the headless horseman of Schlater, or the phantom of the old opera house in Meridian, or Old Man Stuckey, whose spirit still guards a bridge over the Chunky River. The guidebook draws heavily on Willie Morris’s Good Old Boy: A Delta boyhood (1971), in which several other favourites are enshrined. The Witch of Yazoo, up to her neck in quicksand, “her ghastly, pockmarked head about to go under”, promises “with a gurgle and a retch” to come back to life and burn down the city (her grave is one of Yazoo City’s foremost attractions today). The heroic train engineer, Casey Jones, heading for a collision, rides the brakes to spare his passengers until a giant wooden splinter cleaves his brain – he returns, some say, to haunt the museum erected in his honour, in Water Valley. According to Ghosts of the Natchez Trace (2010), by Larry Hillhouse, dozens of different ghosts stalk that old highway – mostly undead outlaws such as J. Thompson Hare and “the psychotic Harpe Brothers,” but also “the wrecked VW” Beetle, and a “ghostly motel”.

Again, the idea of haunting as a special characteristic of this part of the world is a direct result of its especially violent, unjust and unexpiated history. Mississippi was slavery’s centre of gravity. It was to clear this swathe of exceptionally fertile soil that the United States began the genocidal “removal” of Indians in 1831; the Trail of Tears, on which thousands of Native people died, led west from the city of Vicksburg. During the century of racial oppression and terrorism that followed the Civil War, more lynchings took place in Mississippi than in any other state.

“I think of ghosts and haunting as just being alert”, Toni Morrison said, speaking to NPR in 2004 about Beloved, her novel that explores those themes in relation to the “Sixty Million and more”, America’s “black and angry dead”. “If you are really alert,” she continued in the interview, “then you see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top…

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Photo: The ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi.

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