“Of course I don’t believe in ghosts.” That is what I told my friend, and it is true…mostly. I do not believe in plasmoidal, discorporated spirits that walk the earth after the deaths of their respective bodies. But I do believe in the soul, in a God, and in supernatural power. And I have always been fascinated by the premises of ghost stories–derivations on the idea that a being with unfinished business can leave his or her soul behind to complete its purpose. And, a few weeks ago, I found that I very much believed in the notion that a place could be haunted–perhaps not by bodily ghosts, but by the people who have passed through and the tragedies that have been witnessed there.
On Moreland Avenue, south of the Starlight Drive-in and well within the city of Atlanta, stands an abandoned honor farm, consisting of nearly 500 acres of rolling hills and a few prison buildings. And, a few weeks ago, I went there with some friends from Atlanta and some friends from Rice who came to visit for the weekend. The buildings have burned twice, and the evidences of fire are still heavy in parts of the main edifice. There are various artifacts, such as a room of smashed toilets, and vines twist from the ceiling to greet the plants that have settled in the foundations. Most strikingly, however, there is graffiti covering every available inch of the walls. The place is truly remarkable–a living installation of art and obscenity splashed across a canvas of history.
What I was unable to photograph, however, was one particular hallway, which contained the solitary cells. The first area we explored, it was dark and chill, lit only by a vent at the end of the hallway and one or two doors open at the back of abandoned cells. People had graffitied the insides of the cells–one artist drew an inmate over a cell’s bench, with a speech bubble holding the words, “Mama tried.” As we made our way down the corridor, stopping to look in each cell, I was struck by the impression of the people who had passed parts of their lives there, who had probably been lost to loneliness in those rooms. The debris of beer cans and post-prison trash told, also, of the people who had passed through since, tourists in the darkness and loneliness. And the ever-changing graffiti speaks to another kind of tourism, leaving a bit of oneself in that place to join the souls that were lost there.
I became anxious at this point, keeping one friend in front of me and one behind. As we moved through the rest of the prison, I stepped cautiously, but I inevitably broke tiles and displaced the dust. I was anxious not to leave any of myself behind, but such a goal was impossible. I was also tourist in a world that was clearly haunted.
“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself, time and time again until it rights the wrong that was done.” This quote, from 2013’s Mama, is one of my favorite characterizations of ghosts. But I actually think that haunting has more to do with history than with anything else. As people come and go through places–especially older places that have already borne witness to the course of history–they leave bits of themselves behind. Another crack in the tiles, a cigarette butt among the shards–these are the ghosts that remain. The Atlanta Prison Farm is haunted, I do not doubt, but not with ghosts. It is haunted by the weight of all the of the people it has witnessed, the layers of art on its walls, the curiosity of the myriad tourists, ever coming and going.