This article first appeared in Twisted South Magazine’s Fall 2014 Issue. Photos by Dick Bjornseth. www.twistedsouth.com
Imagine if you will, a city where the discussions of ghosts, hauntings, or the dead are a daily part of community life – where it’s so casual, it’s giving the one about the weather a run for its money. If you’re having trouble imagining chatting about the deceased over your morning coffee or lunching with friends while you tell a good ghost story, then just visit Savannah, Georgia.
Upon arriving, visitors find the town somewhat removed from the 21st Century, so much so that when modernism does creep in (like anything or anyone entering Savannah’s suspended dimension,) it’s absorbed in a flash by the town’s living past. Savannah gives most people some sort of spiritual and mental reconfiguration, even to the general traveler coming to the city for a good dose of Southern gentility – you leave feeling a bit different. Some never know the reason why Savannah grabs hold of them or pulls them back to her. So make no mistake, these are no ordinary ghost stories you are hearing. Not every haunting is scary or should be interpreted that way. As residents of this town, we live with the past as much as with the present – ‘The Savannah Effect’. One has to evaluate other aspects that influence our concept of this “Effect” which is part of the strange consciousness found here.
We’ve all experienced marveling at seeing an old building, often announcing matter-of-factly, “Wow, that building is over 100 years old!” Understandably, most place 100 years between themselves and the object without comprehending how close they are to it by the logic of time. The very years since something was built or created are always right at the back of us in every moment. In Savannah, yesteryear is more a part of the present than usually fathomed. In some sense, there is no yesteryear here, merely the people and some shades of details have changed or been added to the spectrum. We accept that buildings still stand after 100 years, but is it really so strange to consider that so do the people? Granted buildings are buildings and biology is biology, but as buildings housed people and were so central to their lives, the very next question is often (even if subconsciously,) “Where are the people, and are they still here?”
Savannah may seem to stand still but the city is very much concerned with the active preservation of this time phenomenon. The more we aim to preserve something old, the more we are able to connect or stay in touch with the past. It gives us roots, grounds us, supplies us with tools for every type of advancement. To destroy important relics is like reading a worthy novel, but then ripping out the first half or every other page and giving it to a friend to read hoping they will understand it. So you see, to do away with objects made with care, shows carelessness for the past as well as one’s self. In effect, to tend to the cultural old, the very substance of a culture’s soul, may not be a guarantee for the future, but is it not promise of a greater one? Savannah seems to understand this connection of past and present.
What an amazing concept, having an object of the past, living in the present. Well then, what of a whole town and one filled with the objects of life from the spirits of the past that once dwelled there? These object have remained and so too have the people and their stories. So it is YOU who is new to it. Man has been moving around, era after era. It doesn’t die per say, we do. Do you understand now? We are all Savannah’s ‘ghosts’ – floating in and around the place. To marvel at spirits in nature is merely to be astonished by our own reflection! Savannah is filled with lessons of our own mortality – flashback reminders that we are mere life-filler. We are of course substantiating its existence with our own, but life comes with the knowledge that it will not last. We all stumbled out of the dark, and we will all stumble back. Which is a part of the visitor’s awe when absorbing Savannah as a place. It’s almost like survival envy.
Savannah shares her secrets by revealing the lives of the people who built up her neighborhoods, erected her churches, commissioned her statues and cemeteries to those who visit. Spirits wander her streets like a time capsule of love, war, betrayal, happiness, sadness, friendships, life. For many, entering Savannah is like entering Heaven for a time; there is evidence here that your struggle in this life is rewarded in the next. She captures her visitors by teasing them each time with one more story, one more ghost – imprinting their own experiences here but always bringing them back for more.
Savannah’s endurance through time, its ability to withstand and recover, its very existence refutes the nature of our own. People look upon this city and realize their mortality in a single glance. Part of experiencing the joy of Savannah is that all at once we are asked to sound the depth of her sadness, and this can invite some very deep feelings of lament. It is bitter sweet. Yet it is to honor Savannah and ourselves by allowing her to plumb our inner strings so that we might play something back to her. We all leave something behind within her walls after we are gone, and she accepts it with the grace of a sweet Southern lady.