“It Is Said That . . .”

July 13, 2015

Yawn. Another ghost book, long on mostly unattributed anecdotes and short on anything resembling evidence.

In this instance, Richard Southall brings us Haunted Plantations of the South (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2015). Southall is also author of How to Be a Ghost Hunter (2003) and Haunted Route 66 (2013). He admits that “the technology outlined in my first book . . . may be obsolete” (13–14). (As I observed in my The Science of Ghosts [2012], he failed to understand that microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum!) But he insists that “the core of the investigation protocol described in it is still solid” (14).

In fact, it isn’t: In that book Southall promoted such ghostly phenomena as photo “orbs” (typically caused by the camera’s flash rebounding from particles of dust or droplets of moisture in the air, just in front of the lens). Again, he endorsed “EVP” (electronic voice phenomena—caused for example by a tape recorder’s own internal sounds or by background noises, that are misinterpreted as a few syllables of ghostly talk). (See my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 103, 146.) In his new book, Southall is still touting these discredited claims that are nothing more than ghost-hunting pseudoscience.

Southall also relies on anecdotal evidence. Worse, in the 153 pages he devotes to retelling ghost tales, he repeatedly uses such non-attribution phrases as “it is believed that”—at least 111 times by my count! Apparently Southall even avoided going to the various sites—whereby he might have earned a smidgen of credibility for his claims—but instead he relies on other books like his own, and, more often, ghost-promoting online sources. He dares to call his armchair rehashings “research”; it certainly does not constitute investigation.

Among Southall’s sites is the supposedly haunted Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. He repeats the tale of the mistreated slave Chloe who retaliated by poisoning members of the Woodruff family and was hanged by her fellow slaves. Unfortunately the tale is bogus—an example of fakelore. Chloe never existed, and the three who died at the Myrtles succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic. I once spent the night alone in the plantation house (courtesy of the Discovery Channel), laying to rest several ghost claims and getting the true facts about the fictitious Chloe from the local historical society. (See my The Science of Ghosts, 2012, 276–277, and “Haunted Plantation,” Skeptical Inquirer 27:5 [Sept./Oct. 2003], 12–15.)

Haunted Plantations of the South belongs to a genre I have given the name Haunting Hokum. (See my blog of that title, Oct. 24, 2014.) The genre is represented by books about ghosts and hauntings that promote mystification over substance. Southall’s three books are from Llewellyn Publications, which is a major publisher of Haunting Hokum and other books on occult and New Age topics. Llewellyn seems never to have any use for skeptics who, at best, might be bad for business.