The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg
Ghosts and Interpreting the Recreated Past
Published by: University of Massachusetts Press
On any given night, hundreds of guests walk the darkened streets of Colonial Williamsburg looking for ghosts. Since the early 2000s, both the museum and private companies have facilitated these hunts, offering year-round ghost tours. Critics have called these excursions a cash grab, but in truth, ghosts and hauntings have long been at the center of the Colonial Williamsburg project.
The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg examines how the long-dead past comes alive at this living-history museum. In the early twentieth century, local stories about the ghosts of former residents—among them Revolutionary War soldiers and nurses, tavern owners and prominent attorneys, and enslaved African Americans—helped to turn Williamsburg into a desirable site for historical restoration. But, for much of the twentieth century, the museum tried diligently to avoid any discussion of ghosts, considering them frivolous and lowbrow. Alena Pirok explores why historic sites have begun to embrace their spectral residents in recent decades, arguing that through them, patrons experience an emotional connection to place and a palpable understanding of the past through its people.
“The affective and imaginative aspects of history museums and historic sites have gotten new attention in recent years but are still surprisingly understudied. The Spirit of Colonial Williamsburg takes seriously a topic that might seem trivial or sensationalistic.”—Michelle L. McClellan, author of Lady Lushes: Gender, Alcoholism, and Medicine in Modern America
“Pirok has shown Colonial Williamsburg in an intriguing new light, demonstrating that the concept of haunting in this historical place was not a recent development but rather a long-standing arena of contestation about the cultural meaning of the place and how to interpret it.”—Tiya Miles, author of Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era