As Halloween approaches, keep in mind that plenty of places in the South offer up chilling real-life tales of the supernatural, so watching horror movies or attending contrived haunted houses may play second fiddle to long-standing local lore. No one in America seems to love a ghost story more than a Southerner—we even have the literary genre of “Southern gothic” literature, after all, and most towns seem to have at least one old house claimed to be haunted. Some, such as Savannah, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, and Saint Augustine, have an overabundance of hauntings and spirits, thus ghost tour companies have gone into the business of taking visitors around to old cemeteries and other spooky sites. Even if you’re not in one of these bastions of supernatural lore, there is more likely than not plenty to explore in any Southern town connected to ghosts, witches, and other things that go bump in the night.
Thinking about ghost stories and the like from a more serious and historical perspective, it’s good to consider several things rather specific to the South. For one, so much of our geography is rural and was even less populated in earlier times, so family graveyards on the property of farms or plantations were commonplace. Other cemeteries were sometimes attached to churches as is common in England, but at other times were simply set back in a convenient place for the community. Families would tend to the graves on dedicated days, most prominently Decoration Day (the forerunner of our Memorial Day), to ensure that their ancestors were treated with due respect, and often there was no one but the family to make certain the graveyard was taken care of in this regard.
As time went by, some cemeteries on family land became neglected or even abandoned outright, so nature grew up around them, and local kids declared them as “hainted” and to be avoided—or dared their peers to cross them in the dark of night at their mortal peril. Some of this general ghostly lore came from England and Scotland to the colonies with early settlers. In the United Kingdom, most burials were in village churches, though some would be at family plots on large estates. To get through the vast farming fields and pastures to the local church with ease while transporting a casket (the preparation of the deceased and his wake were performed at the home), there were paths known as “corpse ways” or “corpse roads.” Quite often, these were not roads as much as simple footpaths that, by local agreement and common law, landowners allowed people to use to reach the churchyard.
Once at the church, there was a gate to the graveyard itself known as a lychgate or lichgate which was covered with a roof and at times had seats and perhaps even a long shelf-like table. Here, the corpse would be set down out of the danger of rain or snow, and mourners would stand watch to ensure it was not disturbed by wild animals until the time of the actual burial. An interesting liturgical note is that the lichgate was considered part of the church itself, even if physically a good ways away from the church building at the other side of the churchyard, because it was at the lichgate where the departed was formally welcomed into the church by the priest or minister.
Lichgates alas did not survive into American church design, not even in the colonies. (If they did appear, they probably were in New England; however, by the time of the settling of the colonies they were on their decline in new church construction even in the UK). Still, the idea of the lichgate and the corpse-way certainly informed the ghost stories our ancestors brought across the sea with them. In a strange new world and often in remote, rustic locations far from much civilization, any howling of the wind or creaking of old trees must have reminded these pioneer families of ghostly legends their grandparents had passed down.
Early American cemeteries in places like Charleston and Savannah, where there were urban settings and more money, often did have stone walls, handsome tombstones, and even elaborate crypts. The gates into these cemeteries, while not true lichgates, did borrow from the ornate vernacular of the lichgate and often included tall, lockable gates and some embellishment in design from the remainder of the wall. While Louisiana—and especially New Orleans—is famous for the use of above-ground mausoleums for burials—the water table is too high to allow for in-ground burials—this unfortunate problem confronted a variety of Southerners and not just Louisiana’s residents.
As in the old world, funerary preparations in most cases had to be undertaken at home by the family since professional funeral homes were not well established. The Civil War with its tragic and massive loss of life was, according to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, the real onset of professionalism and an acute interest in mortuary affairs in the American South as families were adamant about memorializing their war-fallen, who were often much younger casualties than most deaths would have been at the time.
Since many rural Southern communities were close-knit and strangers were few, anyone unknown passing through was sure to be the subject of attention and speculation. A common tale was that a local man or woman traveling by foot or horse on the road would encounter a stranger—often a lone man wearing all black or of some other sinister appearance—coming towards him. The friendly local would wave and speak, but the stranger would not reply and would remain mute. When the stranger passed the local, the local would predictably glance over his shoulder only to see that by then no one was even there! In some versions of this tale, the stranger even vanished before one’s very eyes. The story is a variant of the “shadow people” tale found in a variety of societies the world over, but its underlying sociological basis should seem clear to any Southerner: an unknown stranger walks the land, unresponsive to typical courtesy and fleeting in even his visitation.
Witches also make their appearances. My grandmother, 94, and cousin, 93, when speaking of their childhood in West Virginia, say there were women known to be—or at least considered to be—witches and were avoided by folks who feared having a hex placed on them. A witch was in turn said to avoid walking directly in front of a church, and she would also cross the street to keep from walking by a preacher.
Few aspects of Southern graveyards were left to chance, despite their often rural locations and small size when private families cemeteries. The eastern red cedar tree was frequently planted, probably due to the fact it is an evergreen and could therefore symbolize eternal life. Shells, especially that of the conch, were often placed at the head of the grave or in some cases in neat rows of many shells around the grave or tombstone. This tradition came to the South via African-Caribbean customs but has spread widely; nowadays, along with shells and flowers, small statues of angels or representations of things the departed valued in life may be left by loved ones at graves as well.
Although spirits of the deceased are assumed to be benevolent, many Southerners do not wish to visit a graveyard at night or for reasons other than paying their respects or attending a funeral. Some will even avoid walking by or in front of a hearse, though this is more probably a tall tale ascribed to the overly pious than a real practice. What we can take from these customs, however, is the acuity of death and the reverence of things sacred —and perhaps a little bit of fear of ghosts—commonplace to the South. As Prof. Gilpin Faust noted in her book This Republic of Suffering about death and the Civil War, there is nothing flippant about how Southerners treat death or grieving, and the extension of this reverence should be seen not as plain superstition nor foolish fear, but one of gravitas for the loss of loved ones, of respect for those who came before.
All of this is not to say that today in our modern times we still believe in old superstitions, but, that said, many a Southerner still to this day, no matter how fearless—men who hunt wild boars or wouldn’t be afraid to confront a six-foot rattlesnake or stubborn bull—may well take the long way around rather than walk directly by the cemetery on a moonless night.