Haunting Hokum

October 30, 2014

Walk into a large bookstore and note the signs for different genres: True Crime, Photography, Nature, the Occult. . . . Threatening to take over the latter is a sub-group that is proliferating so rapidly I think it deserves its own genre: Haunting Hokum.

One recognizes this type of book at a glance. It invariably fits several of the following criteria: a spooky cover, a title with words like ghosts or mysteries, perhaps the word stories. Thumbing through it, you’ll find it filled with phrases like “it is said that” and a converse lack of documentation (other than perhaps a token bibliography). It rarely has an index, because that would require effort. Such books are typically rife with errors—some due to carelessness, others (one suspects) because their mystery-mongering authors do not want to let truth get in the way of a good story.

Certainly, to take an example of one book of the genre, errors are scattered throughout Dixie Spirits (2008). I recognize them because—in contrast to its “author,” Christopher K. Coleman—I actually troubled to visit and investigate the sites mentioned in the following critique. For example, Coleman claims that Savannah, Georgia’s Pirate’s House Restaurant is haunted by “real” ghosts including that of Captain Flint (p. 66), even though Flint is the fictional old buccaneer in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Apparently the ghost is only as real as the claims of haunting—that is, not at all!

Elsewhere, discussing Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Kentucky, Coleman (93–98) says young Mary Mason Scott—having returned “one weekend from college”—awoke to find her deceased “Aunt Margaret” at her bedside. In fact, the girl was home from finishing school in the late 1880s, and said she saw only a “Lady in Gray”—not her aunt (who was really her third-great aunt and named Margaretta). Moreover, the conditions were those of a common “waking dream” of which Coleman is either ignorant or chooses not to inform readers. A photo he mentions (96) showing a ghostly figure on the stairs clearly depicts an actual person moving quickly down the steps while the shutter is kept open—see my book Camera Clues (1994).

Again, Coleman repeats false claims made at “the Most Haunted House in America,” the Myrtles Plantation (101–106). According to the elaborate tale, the master’s mistress, a murderous slave name Chloe, killed three family members with a poison cake, for which she was subsequently hanged. In fact, there was no Chloe, and the three alleged murder victims actually died in an epidemic of yellow fever. In 2001, I was able to spend a night alone in the antebellum house—courtesy of the Discovery Channel—and found that ghostly phenomena reported there could be explained without invoking the supernatural. For instance, a door given to swinging mysteriously was simply hung off center. (See my “Haunted Plantation,” Skeptical Inquirer 27:5 [Sept./Oct. 2003], 12–15.)

Regarding North Carolina’s curious Brown Mountain Lights (173–179), Coleman begins by claiming that “the first white man to view the lights” was a military engineer named de Brahm. In fact, de Brahm was simply trying to explain some loud noises in the mountains as spontaneous igniting of “nitrous vapors.” He did not describe any lights on Brown Mountain. And when Coleman goes on to claim that “the lights preceded modern electric lighting and automobiles by decades, perhaps centuries” (seeming unsure of his own statement about de Brahm!), he replaces fact with unfounded assertion.

Again, in telling of a hairdresser’s and six schoolboys’ encounter with the Flatwoods Monster, in West Virginia in 1952 (277–284), Coleman makes several errors. He begins by naming two of the boys “Neil Mundy” and “Gene Laman,” who were really Neil Nunley and Gene Lemon. Far worse, in an outrageously false statement, Coleman insists that I “studiously avoided interviewing anyone who could corroborate the Flatwoods Seven’s story” (283). In fact, I spoke with residents, including Freddie May, one of the hairdresser’s two sons, who were eyewitnesses. He declined to be interviewed but said that their mother no longer knew what she had seen that night. The evidence indicates that the flying saucer the seven witnessed was actually a meteor, and that the tall, shining-eyed creature that quickly glided toward them with an ace-of-spades-shaped face and “terrible claws” was a barn owl that had been perched on a limb. (See my Tracking the Man-Beasts, 2011, 162–163.)

These are just some examples. (I could continue with Coleman’s reckless writings about Mammoth Cave mysteries; Marie Laveau, the New Orleans voodoo queen; St. Louis’ Lemp Family “curse”; and the “enigma” of Mothman.) The genre of Haunting Hokum—represented by dashed-off, scantily researched books by authors who mystery monger for profit—is a sign of our times. These works shamelessly promote ignorance and superstition to unsuspecting readers.