Where I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia, it was common to hear firsthand accounts of encounters with the supernatural. All manner of spirits and cryptids were purported to live in the local hills and hollers of Wilkes County, North Carolina, and any teenager could direct you to a secret spot where the rules of physics became more suggestion than natural law. My hometown’s claim to fame is being the setting of the murder ballad “Tom Dooley.” Popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1958, the song describes a love triangle that ends in a grisly murder. The hanged killer is rumored to haunt the Old Wilkes County Jail still.

Cultural historian and author Colin Dickey is less interested in the truth of such tales than in why we tell them. Ghost stories fascinate us. His 2016 book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is a meticulously researched travelogue of haunted places — houses, hotels, prisons, even whole cities. Dickey weaves together history, architecture, and personal narratives to examine why certain locations become associated with the supernatural, and he relates these stories to our fear of death and our unresolved national traumas, including the colonization of America and the slave trade.

Dickey grew up in San Jose, California, near the Winchester Mystery House, one of the haunted places he writes about in Ghostland. He has an MFA in critical studies from the California Institute of the Arts and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Southern California. His work has been published in The New Republic, Lapham’s Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

An associate professor of creative writing at National University, Dickey has written several other books about fringe culture and the occult. His first, Cranioklepty, recounts the history of grave robbing, particularly the theft of the skulls of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century composers. The Unidentified further explores our fascination with unexplained phenomena like cryptozoology and extraterrestrials. His latest, Under the Eye of Power, tries to explain why secret societies and conspiracy theories thrive in American culture. We are drawn to ghost stories and conspiracies alike, he says, because they impose order on an often chaotic world.

Dickey invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn, New York, for this conversation. We talked about strange architecture, the ethics of storytelling, how we make peace with death, and, yes, ghosts and other spooky stuff. As I was leaving, he gave me a copy of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, a collection of illustrated essays he coedited with Joanna Ebenstein. On my way home I read about books bound in human skin.


A photograph of Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey
© Rynn Reed

Mahaffey: Let’s start with the genesis of a typical ghost story: Beginning with a private trauma that is catalyst for the story, what does a community do around that? And at a certain scale, what does the rest of the culture do with it?

Dickey: When I was doing research for Ghostland, I started by casting a wide net with Google searches like “most haunted downtown” or “haunted prison.” The majority of the results sounded generic to me. There are always going to be ghosts of prostitutes in places that used to be brothels, or people who died ignominiously in a bar fight, or dead soldiers.

I was looking for some sort of hook, something that makes a place interesting. Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond, Virginia, kept coming up. I didn’t know anything about Richmond, but I researched Shockoe Bottom and discovered there were slave markets there; it was one of the most heavily trafficked markets for the buying and selling of humans. But in every ghost guidebook I read, every website about Shockoe Bottom’s ghosts, every ghost tour I took, the ghosts were all white. Even in a place riven with the grief and trauma of Black people, white people can’t imagine themselves not being the protagonists.

So what makes a place haunted? I think every place is haunted to one degree or another. And there will always be people who have a feeling when they visit a place, or believers who will say that they’ve seen something. That just seems universal. For me to write about it, there has to be a narrative that catapults the place out of “this house made me feel creepy” into a story that people can latch on to.

Mahaffey: Why do you think some folks seek out haunted places?

Dickey: It’s the same impulse that pushes people to go on roller coasters: haunted places let us approach death in a way that’s safe. We love roller coasters because they’re scary, but we wouldn’t get on a roller coaster if we thought we were actually going to get hurt. I’ve never encountered a ghost hunter who thinks the ghosts are going to bring physical harm to them. They’re looking for an adrenaline rush. If there’s a lovers’ lane where the hook-handed murderer killed a bunch of people, then that’s where you want to go on Halloween night. It’s sometimes called “legend tripping.” It grants a sense of being close to something eerie or unsettling, but without any real danger.

Mahaffey: What do places that develop such mythologies have in common?

Dickey: Strange architecture is one: buildings that make people uncomfortable. Some of them, like prisons, were designed to make people feel uncomfortable. Other times it’s just oddly built homes. Maybe they are too big or too small, or they’re small in the wrong way. Also buildings that just outlast their era, like the Kirkbride asylum in Philadelphia, which is this gargantuan nineteenth-century monument of stone and brick. An asylum in New Jersey, Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, was demolished, to hear preservationists tell it, because Governor Chris Christie hated it. The story is that he had a relative who had been institutionalized there in the distant past, and he had a personal vendetta against it. But it cost the state millions of dollars to tear down this building, because it was just solid stone and concrete. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Then there are buildings built atop other places. They have a palimpsest layering of the past and present. Maybe there’s some terrible history associated with the site of the building.

Mahaffey: Do you believe in ghosts?

Dickey: Everybody asks me that. I find that question uninteresting because I feel like people will evaluate your language or your ideas based on whether or not you are a believer. And I find that really strange. It’s like asking somebody their astrology sign.

Mahaffey: Why do ghost stories matter?

Dickey: I think they touch on three vital aspects of American culture: how we navigate the architecture that we live in; how we process history; and how we deal with death and mourning. Even for people who don’t take ghosts seriously, these stories are a way to get at those things they maybe don’t have the language to talk about.

Mahaffey: Is that because Western society is repressed?

Dickey: Oh, no. You can find ghosts in any culture, with rare exceptions. The Protestants who colonized New England, for example, saw a belief in ghosts as a form of ancestor worship or idolatry. Anything paranormal or supernatural had to be seen as the work of angels or devils. But their rejection of ghosts didn’t last. By the early nineteenth century, mainline Protestant theologians were documenting stories about, say, how a dead relative appeared to them in a vision before they even knew the person had died. People looking for a way to connect with their dead loved ones keep coming back to the idea of ghosts. The Spiritualism movement exploded in the late nineteenth century because people were so desperate for that kind of connection.

Whenever people suddenly die off in large numbers, and there aren’t established rituals for processing that grief, belief in ghosts is a way of massaging that trauma.

Mahaffey: Can you give me a little background on Spiritualism?

Dickey: In 1848 the Fox sisters in Upstate New York claimed to hear rapping sounds in their house and eventually said the source was the ghost of a man who’d lived in the house years before and had been murdered. It set off a phenomenon of mediums holding séances to speak with the dead, who often communicated by rapping on tables. For Spiritualists the dead existed not in heaven or hell but in a place called Summerland. Within a few years there were millions of Spiritualists in the U.S. It was a resurrection of the kind of ancestor worship that Puritan culture had tried to stamp out.

I think you find the strongest belief in ghosts in cultures where the normal process of life and death has been disrupted. During the Civil War families lost sons and fathers and husbands at young ages, and they often died in some other state. Perhaps their bodies weren’t even shipped back home. So séances and mediums became a way of processing those deaths and filling in the gap left by the absence of a funeral.

Spiritualism flourished again in the early 1920s in the wake of World War I. Whenever people suddenly die off in large numbers, and there aren’t established rituals for processing that grief, belief in ghosts is a way of massaging that trauma.

Mahaffey: What sparked your interest in ghosts?

Dickey: It started with growing up down the street from the Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester was the daughter-in-law of the man who’d founded the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which made her extremely wealthy. She and her husband had a baby who died when she was five weeks old, in 1866. Then in 1881 Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis, and in 1885 she moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to San Jose, California, where she bought an eight-room farmhouse and started making elaborate expansions to it.

The story is that she had come to believe her family was being haunted by the ghosts of anyone who’d ever been killed by a Winchester rifle. A psychic named Adam Coons had told her the only way to keep the ghosts at bay would be to build a house that was never finished. So she enlisted an army of carpenters and architects to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, adding on to this house. The work continued until her death in 1922, by which point the place was a labyrinth. There was rumored to be a séance room where every night she would summon the spirits and get more architectural directions from them. I guess there were good spirits and bad spirits.

But most of that story is false. She did lose her infant daughter and her husband, but the few letters we have indicate she just wanted to enlarge the house to make it more hospitable for her extended family from Connecticut. The fabricated story that something kooky was going on started with a newspaper article in the 1890s, but it really took off after she died. The idea was immediately rebutted, and then it dropped off until the house was bought by a guy who saw a tourism opportunity. He made the house a little bit spookier and resurrected that story.

I went there a lot as a kid and was taken by how unlike a suburban home the house felt. It was this other world. After my book on grave robbing came out, I thought about writing a biography of Sarah Winchester, the Spiritualist who had built a crazy house because she was afraid of ghosts. I went to the New Haven Museum and Historical Society, because her family was from New Haven, and the archivist said, “They’ve all been here, you know — the ghost hunters, the historians, the psychics. They’ve all come looking, but there’s nothing here.” I felt defeated at first, and then I thought, Oh, that’s the story: not “A crazy woman built this house,” but “Why did we create this narrative around this woman and this house?” It was, to me, really a story about how we’re uncomfortable with a woman of means who chooses not to get remarried. We invented a whole story about Spiritualism, pathological mourning, and perhaps even psychosis, rather than accept that this woman built the house she wanted and lived the life she wanted.

Mahaffey: Is that a fairly common trajectory, where the story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny?

Dickey: It’s really hard to prove any of these stories. I took a tour with a friend of mine of the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri. The Lemp family owned a brewery that was a rival to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and several prominent members of the family died by suicide. So the story became that this “haunted” house had driven them to it. When we were taking the tour, we came to this one room, and the guide said that if you put out a bowl of ice and turned off the lights, you’d hear the ice being moved across the room and dropped in the sink. And I was like, “Let’s get some ice!” And she said, “We can’t do it now.” [Laughs.]

The Winchester story is clearly embellished. Others, it’s harder to say. But particularly when these houses are imperiled by developers, there’s a premium on making the tour worth your time and money.

Mahaffey: What are some supernatural beliefs distinctive to particular regions of America? Where I live in the South, I’m thinking about porch ceilings painted “haint blue” to keep spirits away from the house.

Dickey: That’s a good example. America is a hodgepodge of different cultures: immigrants, colonial settlers, people brought here against their will, and Indigenous people. Аll these cultures have become amalgamated. In the South you get that mix of enslaved people who are bringing African religions and cultures and mixing with Scottish and Irish immigrant cultures.

White people came much later to places like Los Angeles. Ghost stories there are more likely to have Catholic influences from Spanish settlers. Later they incorporate new-age mysticism and Hollywood celebrities: Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino haunt everything. New York City ghosts are usually outsized figures from the city’s history, like Boss Tweed.

These ghost stories reflect the story a place wants to tell about itself. That, to me, is very different from “haint blue” porches in the South, which came out of African folklore brought to America by enslaved people and was gradually incorporated into white culture as well. You don’t really find it in other parts of the country. At the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana the keyholes are all upside-down to ward off spirits. I’ve never seen that anywhere else.

The ghost has no body. It’s physically disembodied. It’s a way of saying, This person that you loved, this person that you miss, has transitioned to a place of immateriality.

Mahaffey: Are there any international ghost-story archetypes?

Dickey: Folklore and urban legends and fringe beliefs are hyperspecific to cultures. I hesitate to speak as an authority on other cultures, but there are a lot I find compelling. One story I wish I had included in Ghostland is based in Hawaii. On Oahu there used to be this haunted drive-in theater. If you went into the women’s bathroom, a woman with long black hair would be washing her hands at the sink, her back to you. Then she would turn, and she would have no face, just smooth skin. That image corresponds to a Japanese ghost called noppera-bō. It shows up in the Miyazaki film Spirited Away and other places. It’s common in Japanese culture but almost unheard of in American folklore. Hawaii is a meeting point for different cultural traditions: Japanese, Polynesian, and North American.

Japan also has a ghost story that is a creation myth. This brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, create the first landmass on the planet, and then Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god, Kagutsuchi. She goes down to the underworld, and Izanagi is grief-stricken and follows her. It resembles the Orpheus and Eurydice story, where Orpheus is basically told, “You can have her back, but you can’t look at her until you’re both out of the underworld.” The Japanese story is slightly different: Izanagi is told he can come to the underworld, but he can’t bring a light, because he’s not allowed to look at anybody in the Land of Darkness. So he can visit Izanami, but he can’t see her face. And he defies this order and lights a fire to look for her. When he sees her, she’s in a horrible state of decomposition.

That’s likely why Orpheus can’t look back at Eurydice: because he’d see her decomposing. Both stories are really about this horror of decomposition, the sense that your loved one has ceased to resemble the person you remember and has become instead a rotting corpse. We have legitimate taboos and hygienic concerns about that, so we tell these ghost stories to warn people away from bodies in a state of decomposition. But it’s not horrifying to all people in all cultures or in all periods: Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his diary about digging up and reburying his young son’s corpse, and how moving it was to look upon the bones of his dead child before reburying them.

Mahaffey: That specific kind of ghost story is very rooted in the body. Death is, of course, a bodily absence.

Dickey: In death the person who was once whole gets split in two. There’s now the body by itself, which is in an active state of decomposition. Folk stories give us examples of people languishing over the physical corpse of someone that they’ve lost in a way that feels unseemly. There’s a story of Elvis fawning over his mother’s corpse so much that it mildly horrified onlookers.

And there’s also the intangible part of the deceased: the soul, the mind, your memory of the person. I think ghost stories are one of the many ways we negotiate that part, because the ghost has no body. It’s physically disembodied. It’s a way of saying, This person that you loved, this person that you miss, has transitioned to a place of immateriality.

Mahaffey: Can you talk more about how these stories manifest differently in different cultures?

Dickey: Being a white American, it’s difficult, and fraught, for me to talk about things like Black folklore and other nonwhite stories. When I was writing about Bigfoot, I was aware of how Anglo narratives around Bigfoot borrow from and reformulate Indigenous stories. I talked to a Canadian First Nations writer and educator, who told me one Indigenous story about what a white person might term a “cryptid,” then said, “This story is not for you.” In his community the stories themselves are a kind of cultural capital. They get told by very specific populations and even specific families. I incorporated a great deal of our interview in The Unidentified but made sure to avoid anything he’d told me wasn’t mine to tell — and though I normally do not show interview subjects what I’m writing, in this case I wanted to make sure it felt absolutely right and that I wasn’t taking advantage. He was kind about it, but there was definitely a point where he became frustrated by how white academics come along and take these stories and write about them and make their career. I was trying very hard to be respectful, but I also knew full well that’s what I was doing.

Mahaffey: When you research these stories, how do you evaluate the credibility of your sources and the evidence they present?

Dickey: I don’t. If somebody says, “I heard a voice,” I’m not going to say, “No, you didn’t.” There are things in the historical record that I can verify. Was Sarah Winchester a Spiritualist? Did she hold midnight séances? No. But people saying that they felt or saw or heard a thing? I think you have to take that as the experience they had.

Mahaffey: I imagine you also have to meet people where they are to have a worthwhile conversation with them.

Dickey: Nobody wants to talk to somebody they think is not taking them seriously. I try to take people seriously and accept that I don’t know what they did or didn’t experience.

Mahaffey: You touched on the question of whose stories these are to tell. Can you talk about the ethics of your research, of documenting and then telling those stories?

Dickey: I try just to honor people’s narratives, their histories, however they say it happened. I try not to insert my own feelings about it.

Many of these stories are about traumatic events. There’s a story in Ghostland about Cathedral Park in Portland, Oregon. A fifteen-year-old girl named Thelma Taylor was abducted and murdered there in 1949, and now she supposedly haunts the place. People go there on legend trips and try to find her spirit. The murdered girl had a younger sister who was very much alive when I was writing the book. She remembered her sister, and for her this was not a cool urban legend. It was a family tragedy.

In the course of writing about that, I discovered a tragedy that had befallen a friend’s family had also been turned into a ghost story, which really rammed the point home for me. I had to go to this friend and ask her: May I tell the story? It was a difficult conversation. She agreed, and it’s in the book alongside the story of Thelma Taylor, but we changed certain details about what had happened to her loved one so their identity wouldn’t be revealed.

Then a year ago I got an email from a random person who thought she knew the identity of the person in question and asked if I would confirm it. I was terse with her. I said I had tried to keep this person anonymous, and it was none of her business. This reader had decided that it was her story, too. And it’s true that, once the story is in the world, you don’t own it anymore. I try hard to be respectful, but I also know that a story is shared between the teller and the listener.

While researching the Cathedral Park story about Thelma Taylor, I found a YouTube video of three amateur ghost hunters sleuthing around Cathedral Park and giggling. I don’t think they were drinking, but they were kind of giddy and acting silly. They were taking a tragedy and making it into a spectacle. A few years ago I got an email from one of the people in that video. He said he had read what I’d written about the video, and I had changed his perspective, which was gratifying. He had been able to see his own relationship to these events in a different way.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. People have different attitudes. Some don’t think an author has an obligation to take the other person’s feelings into consideration. I do feel there’s an ethical responsibility, for both the writer and the reader. That needle is almost impossible to thread, but you have to do your best.

Mahaffey: Given how fraught it all is, why tell these stories?

Dickey: I hate writing about living people. I’d much rather write about the dead and things that happened two hundred years ago, because then nobody’s going to email you. [Laughs.]

Ultimately these are stories about death, and often about a lot of pain and violence. How we consume stories about violence and pain says a lot about who we are. So I felt I had to take that on.

Mahaffey: How do we consume those stories?

Dickey: Sometimes respectfully, sometimes not. I hear from a lot of people who want to do ghost tours or write about haunted places in a way that is not sensationalizing. And then there are some books and podcasts that do the opposite, that are about turning violence and pain into entertainment to be consumed. I think people gravitate toward things like true crime because it does give them a sense of safety: the serial killer got caught, or the pattern was revealed in such a way that it imposes some kind of order on senseless violence.

I’ve written about the destruction of the Ursuline Convent outside of Boston in 1834. There was a conspiracy theory that priests had been keeping women there through the blackmail mind control of the confessional, and they were using them as sex slaves. The nuns would get pregnant, and then they would have to murder the babies. There was a market in the 1820s and 1830s for fake memoirs about being in the convent, and they were deeply pornographic, yet also deeply moralizing. It’s a way to have your cake and eat it, too. You can read about the salacious details and also think, Protestants are better than this. I think people like to have that prurient element, but in a way that allows them to be high-minded about it. I probably do that, too.

Mahaffey: Is the Internet a democratizing medium for telling those stories, or is the gold rush over?

Dickey: It opens stories up to multiple interpretations. I just read a piece on the Bell Witch, which is a classic ghost story from northern Tennessee and the vague inspiration for the indie horror movie The Blair Witch Project. John Bell and his family were menaced by a paranormal entity that was called a witch by some and a ghost by others. It’s become this enduring legend. I listened to a bunch of podcasts about it, and my takeaway is that the podcasters each based their interpretations of the legend on their preconceived view of the world.

One came to the conclusion that this happened atop an Indian burial ground; there’s a very specific thing being argued by invoking that. I always think that the “haunted Indian burial ground” story is a way for white people to gesture toward the Native American genocide without addressing it directly: someone was here before us, and now they’re out for revenge. Another podcaster — a queer, nonbinary actor — thought there was a schoolteacher who wanted to marry John Bell’s daughter Betsy, and the schoolteacher summoned this thing so he could remove the father and get this teenage girl to marry him. That’s a critique of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. A third podcaster thought it was a literal witch: a woman named Kate Batts, which suggests a more overt misogyny. Over and over again people were making the story of the Bell Witch into whatever they wanted to see. A lot of ghost stories can be made to prove our view of the world.

And that’s something I do, too. I have a take. I have a specific narrative or belief that I can’t help but see over and over again when I delve into ghost stories.

Mahaffey: It sounds like one of the things that drive us to engage with a ghost story is just a basic search for meaning.

Dickey: I think that’s true. Life is random and chaotic a lot of the time, and ghost stories can provide shape and order to that disordered world. There’s often a “where are they now?” postscript that ties up all the loose ends. A ghost story can provide justice for somebody who died in an unjust way or was never properly vindicated. It can provide closure for people who are mourning. It can provide an explanation for spooky and creepy things we can’t otherwise explain.

A lot of our anxiety around chaos and disorder is fundamentally tied to our denial of death. I had a real terror of death for the longest time, and that’s part of why I started writing about ghosts: to lessen that anxiety. It helped, but so did banal things like going to therapy, having a good support network, and feeling loved.

Mahaffey: What are the taboos that surround death and dying in our culture, and how can they be challenged?

Dickey: Death is anticapitalist — specifically mourning and grief, which have no fixed schedule. My employer gives me two days of paid leave if the person who died is a close relative. That’s it. But grief can’t be measured or contained. The DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition] has an entry for “persistent complex bereavement disorder,” which is anything longer than six months for children and twelve months for adults. Psychiatrists will say that’s there only so they can give insurance companies a diagnosis and make them pay for therapy, but I think it also testifies to the concept that grief wastes time and money, which makes it an affront to capitalism. You stop working when you’re grieving. Days pass; hours become months; the chronology of life breaks down; the clock stops altogether.

Grief and mourning are scary. We need rituals to work through them. I think Americans have abandoned those rituals because of our fear of death, which seems normal to us.

Mahaffey: I was raised as a Southern Baptist. I am in no way still a Southern Baptist, much to my family’s chagrin, but I was taught that when someone dies, it’s in many ways a joyful time, because they’ve gone to heaven, and as long as I walk the straight and narrow, I will join them.

Dickey: Right. And that’s not just Southern Baptists. That’s most religions. That’s how they take the sting out of death. Catholicism has the idea of the good death: that if you’ve lived well, your death will be peaceful and joyful, and you can ascend right away. Religion’s primary purpose is to relieve anxiety about death.

Mahaffey: What are some rituals we’ve abandoned that might help us?

Dickey: In the Victorian era women in mourning wore black for a year, and then black-trimmed clothing for another year after that. For men it was a slightly accelerated calendar. The ways in which a person marked themselves as mourning stopped working because it became an excessive display of wealth: you would show the depths of your mourning by spending massive amounts of money. The footmen for your carriage would each have to wear an ostrich feather, for example. If they didn’t, were you really sad?

That petered out and then was reborn in the modern funeral industry, which is all about getting the bereaved to blow a lot of money on things they don’t really need, like elaborate caskets and burial vaults to put them in. I think of the funeral-home scene in The Big Lebowski, where John Goodman’s character says, “Just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps.” We do need traditions and rituals around death, but we have a tendency to make them status symbols, and I don’t think they need to be that.

Mahaffey: It’s interesting that in the Victorian mourning practice men have an abbreviated timeline for grief.

Dickey: This has always been the case. Women are given the task of being the chief mourners. Meanwhile the man’s got to get back to work. And if it’s his wife who’s died, then he’s got to remarry, whereas a woman can remain widowed for a long time because in a patriarchal culture she has less value. But it’s also the case, I think, that women are drawn to that role. Almost everybody I know who is writing about death and dying and mourning and funeral practices is a woman. I think it’s because death briefly breaks open the social hierarchies. As traumatic and painful and awful as it is, we all grieve, and we all face death. In facing this great leveler together, perhaps it’s also a chance to envision a more equitable kind of world.

A lot of our anxiety around chaos and disorder is fundamentally tied to our denial of death. I had a real terror of death for the longest time, and that’s part of why I started writing about ghosts: to lessen that anxiety.

Mahaffey: You moved from writing about ghosts to researching the history and impact of conspiracy theories and clandestine groups. Is it fair to say there is a resurgence in popularity of those kinds of things?

Dickey: Yes and no. Coming out of Ghostland, I continued to be interested in things that were felt but not seen. The Unidentified was originally going to be broadly about conspiracy theories, including UFOs and Bigfoot, but also more-sinister ones like the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At some point I realized that I needed to focus on aliens and Bigfoot. So I set aside two-thirds of that book, which then became Under the Eye of Power, where I look at Freemasons and the Illuminati and the Satanic Panic. The connection between these books and Ghostland is that people are convinced the world is more than what we see. For many, religion fills that gap, but for a lot of people it doesn’t, or it doesn’t fill it entirely. So these other explanatory mechanisms become important.

We’re at an acute moment, but conspiracy theories have been a part of American democracy since the founding of the country. If your candidate has lost, it is sometimes much easier to say he or she lost because a secret group had done something terrible.

You find the idea of clandestine groups working behind the scenes to violate American laws or upend American democracy in every generation. It’s the Freemasons. It’s the Illuminati. It’s the Catholics. It’s the Jews. It’s the anarchists. It’s the socialists, the bankers, the satanists, the communists, the lizard people. And now it’s the Democrats.

I do think the period of American history we resemble closest is the run-up to the Civil War. In the 1850s all of the predominant political parties were built around conspiracy theories: either it was abolitionists working to destroy the American fabric in the South, or it was the slaveocracy infiltrating the American government. We’re in a similar place. On the Left it’s the Koch brothers or Monsanto. Do these people have outsize power? Absolutely. Is it a nefariously, perfectly executed conspiracy that nobody is aware of? Probably not.

Mahaffey: And just like ghost stories, conspiracy theories arise out of an impulse to make meaning of things that don’t make any sense.

Dickey: We have very little capacity to tolerate ambiguity. Chaos and randomness are more discomfiting and terrifying to people than the idea that Satan controls the world through seven families he talks to regularly on the telephone. Karl Popper, the philosopher who coined the term conspiracy theory, said the conspiracy theory is what happens when you get rid of God and ask what’s in his place.

You asked if I believe in ghosts. Have I seen and experienced things I can’t explain or understand? Yeah, sure. Am I going to slap a conventional narrative explanation on that? No. I think if you can learn to live with some amount of ambiguity, some amount of unknowing, it gets you out of the pitfalls we’ve been discussing.