America is littered with corpses. Not just the fleshy variety, decomposing softly into the soil, but those made of crumbling brick and sanded mortar, spongy wood and frayed tar paper. Abandoned buildings are the rotting husks of dead American dreams. If we listen to them whisper, they have much to tell us about our own uncertain futures.
Victorian Skeletons: Decadence and Decay
When you imagine a haunted house, what does it look like? In American popular culture, the stereotypical haunted house is an old Victorian with drooping shutters and shingles, broken windows, and crumbling turrets. Of all architectural forms, why is the Victorian manse at the end of the lane most likely to be infested with spirits? Why do pitched gables and mansard roofs inspire dread?
We associate the Victorian period with Gothic horror and ghost stories, séances, Spiritualism, and ectoplasm. They are also some of the last homes in which Americans held viewings for their dead, waking them in the front parlor.
But there are other forces at work here as well. Victorian homes are associated with heaviness, their spaces filled with endless knickknacks and ornamentation, overstuffed furniture and books. For the bourgeoisie, domestic life was dominated by the ostentatious consumption of luxury goods as a sign of social status. Once brought into home, these commodities never saw the light of day. Victorians barricaded themselves and their myriad belongings against the natural world beyond their windows with heavy velvet drapes. They created carpeted house-wombs that could only be escaped through death.
By the mid-twentieth century, modern homes were open-concept. Filled with light, they had plenty of storage closets for all of the NEW things people might buy at the local shopping mall—things that could be disposed of and easily replaced. Victorian houses were seen as gaudy eyesores, symbols of old-world elitism, decadence, and decay that had no place in modernity. And so they were left behind, rotting corpses haunted by a dead culture.
A similar, albeit more insidious, dynamic pertains to abandoned Victorian institutions. Eastern State Penitentiary and the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, for example, are nineteenth-century prisons reputed to be haunted. Built in Gothic style, they are overbearing and inhuman structures, heavy and dark, meant to inspire terror in their inmates.
Victorian asylums and sanitariums exhibit the same characteristics. Gothic Kirkbride structures like those at the now-defunct Worcester and Danvers Asylums in Massachusetts were designed to control those who entered their doors. Over time, both the neglected inmates and the institutions that hid them died and were forgotten.
After deinstitutionalization in the 60s and 70s, the buildings were left to decompose behind wire fences to keep out the curious.
In more recent years, a few of these structures have been converted into prisons (Gardner State Hospital) or condominiums (Danvers Asylum)—institutions that may have more in common than we would like to admit. Most have crumbled until only skeletons remain or have been buried beneath fields, leaving no trace of their dark pasts.
The Modern Dead: Industrial Cities
Modernity is rotting as well. Rust Belt cities sit slumped along the watery arteries of the American heartland. East Saint Louis, Missouri. Gary, Indiana. Detroit, Michigan. Each of these cities has a history of violence rooted in racial inequality.
They are also the festering remains of twentieth-century capitalism. East Saint Louis, which started off as a meat-packing town, became a military industrial complex during World War I. Gary and Detroit grew around the production of automobiles and heavy equipment. In the second half of the twentieth century, the invisible hand of laissez-faire swept away these industries, leaving architectural corpses and economic devastation in its wake.
Factories designed to vomit forth endless products for public consumption sit silent, their bellies cold. Unlike Victorian asylums, these hyper-specialized behemoths cannot be re-purposed into condominiums or malls. Like dinosaurs, they are slowly consumed by nature, visited only by occasional humans who, like bacteria, pick through the skeletal debris.
Post-Modern Decay: Deep Ecology
Nature is dismantling Victorian and modern monuments to conspicuous consumption and overproduction, thereby contesting the sustainability of human life under the yoke of capitalism. Despite this, the American government—driven by late-stage capitalist ideals and led by irrational and self-interested forces—has determined to “turn back the clock” and “resurrect” long-dead industries. A pack of wealthy white old men would like to drag all of us, kicking and screaming, into the warped dreams of their childhood. Black smoke billows from smokestacks. Unprotected workers labor for low wages, die young, and are replaced with new human fodder. Non-western nations are reduced to colonial suppression. The earth is raped for resources, and no one fights back. “The good old days of the dark satanic mills shall return!”
Like all romantic visions made manifest, this one will fail and take us all down with it unless we fight. But how?
On the large scale, we can support environmental defense groups such as Sea Shepherd. Following in the ideological footsteps of nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, these folks have been fighting capitalist forces on the high seas for forty years They protect the seals, the cod, the water—our very future.
Not all of us can be pirates, but we can aspire to Green Witchery. The Green Witch understands Deep Ecology, knows instinctively that humans do not command the natural world, but are members of an ecological community. We are equals to the plants and the fish, as dependent on bacteria as they are on us. We rise or fall together. Green Witches are humbled by nature; their lives are small-scale, locally grown. They take what they need and give back all they can. They feed squirrels and nurture flowers. Magic surrounds them because they are connected to the earth. It is an existence that cannot be manufactured in any factory or purchased in any store.
We live in a nation of corpses, rotting husks of late-stage capitalism. We are facing forces that would create more bodies to be strewn across the landscape. Let us fight along side our Mother and find better ways to live—before it is too late.