Secular Sacred Sites and Ghost Hunting

November 12, 2013

It is not hard to find sacred religious sites; churches, synagogues, shrines, mosques, and other such places dot the landscape, offering a place for followers of one religious faith or another to join with others and worship. There are many non-religious sacred places as well, such as those for New Agers who flock to the supposed energy vortices in Sedona, Arizona; the ancient ruins at Macchu Picchu, Peru; and England's Stonehenge, for example.

Other areas and locations are sacred by convention or tradition but don't necessarily have anything to do with particular beliefs, such as cemeteries. The same is true for historic battlegrounds like Gettysburg where thousands died. You don't need to be a Christian or a believer in ghosts to know that some respect is due the dead in such places.

There is another kind of secular sacred site that also involves respect for the dead, or at the very least respect for tragedy. Though not necessarily a modern invention, it is, I would argue, very much a product of the Internet age and its associated social activism. "Ground Zero" at the World Trade Center is one example; the Sandy Hook Elementary School is another, though the extent to which it is being hallowed is unprecedented:

"When the old Sandy Hook Elementary School is demolished, building materials will be pulverized on site and metal will be taken away and melted down in an effort to eliminate nearly every trace of the building where a gunman killed 26 people last December. Contractors also will be required to sign confidentiality agreements and workers will guard the property's perimeter to prevent onlookers from taking photographs or videos. The goal is to prevent exploitation of any remnants of the building, Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra said.

The contractors' confidentiality agreements... forbid public discussion of the site as well as photographs or disclosure of any information about the building. Llodra, the superintendent of schools and other town officials have been discussing how to handle the demolition for weeks. Llodra said they want to shield the victims' families and the community from more trauma, and don't want any part of the school used for personal gain. Most of the building will be completely crushed and hauled away to an undisclosed location. Some of the demolition dust may be used in the foundation and driveway of the new school, Llodra said. The town also is requiring documentation that metal and other materials that can't be crushed and are hauled off-site are destroyed, she said."

Similar measures were taken to destroy the house at 2207 Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, where Amanda Berry and two other women were abducted and held captive for years. In fact even overhead photographs of the house are claimed to be so powerful and sacred that images of it have been obscured. According to an Associated Press story, "The house where three women were held captive for over a decade was wiped off the map before demolition began on Wednesday. Ariel Castro's home at 2207 Seymour Ave. has been blurred out on Google Earth. The company's privacy and security policy allows users to report an ‘inappropriate' image."

While the desire to protect these locations from exploitation is understandable, it raises interesting and thorny social questions. Do you destroy these buildings, and if so, why? Where do you draw the line? It's easy enough to demolish a private house like Castro's in Cleveland. But was demolishing the entire Sandy Hook Elementary School necessary or financially prudent? Here is a short list of how other tragedies were handled:

  • South Carolina's John D. Long lake, where Susan Smith infamously drowned her two sons in 1994, was not filled in or altered to make sure that visitors were not reminded of the tragedy.
  • Columbine High School, where two killers went on a shooting rampage that left twelve students and one teacher dead (along with 23 people injured) in 1999, was not demolished and remained standing (though the school spent over $1 million to renovate the library, repaint, patch bullet holes, replace carpeting, etc.).
  •  The Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 in a shooting spree last year, remains standing and open for business.

  Of course these buildings are simply brick, mortar, wood, and concrete. The paint, moldings, tiles, and electrical wires don't know or care what happened there. The significance, if any, of what happened at a location does not reside in the buildings, trees, or earth but in the minds of people. Why is a photograph of a Cleveland house-where no one died though three people were held captive-taken from a satellite so disturbing and powerful that someone felt that it was so "inappropriate" that it needed to be blurred out of some sort of reverence to the victims? Will not having a clear photo of the house from space available online somehow bring comfort to the survivors?

Whether the public's concern about these sites is legitimate can be debated, but it's interesting to note that these sorts of ideas are very similar to those held by paranormal believers. The pseudoscience of psychometry, claimed as real by many psychics and New Agers, holds that bad or tragic events leave some sort of psychic trace on objects and the environment.

In this way, psychics claim, they can hold an object once owned by a missing person-a set of keys or jewelry for example-and divine their location or destiny. Many ghost hunters use the same premise when they arrive at a supposedly haunted location, claiming that ghosts or vibrations can tell them the history of the place, including murders, betrayals, and other alleged ghost-creating tragedies.

There is a natural and understandable human reverence for sacred and secular-sacred sites, but it can also lead away from critical thinking and skepticism.

Comments:

#1 Randy (Guest) on Tuesday November 12, 2013 at 7:37pm

Thank you.  The kind of fanatical destruction of sites is just a tiny step away from the fanatical destruction of people, and it should be opposed wherever it is proposed.

#2 Tim P. Farley on Wednesday November 13, 2013 at 9:02am

Another interesting example was the house where the “Heaven’s Gate” mass suicide took place, in an upscale neighborhood outside San Diego. So many people were coming by to gawk at the house that they changed the name of the street to make it harder for people to find it. The new owner of the building demolished it and built a new house on the spot. I don’t know if any special measures were taken in the demolition as described here.

#3 steve hayman (Guest) on Wednesday November 13, 2013 at 1:54pm

I live in New Zealand. I thought it was unique to us, to destroy a property where a tragedy had occurred. More than 10 years ago a teenager shot his entire family and tried to frame his murdered father. In a hasty investigation the police did not collect evidence as well as they could. The property was burned down by the fire department. The inability to revisit the crime scene helped the murderer to escape justice at a retrial.

#4 Kitty Mervine (Guest) on Sunday November 17, 2013 at 10:51am

I do think a place becoming a shrine is also hard.  on families and also can lead to tragedy sometimes. 

#5 Ben Radford on Tuesday November 19, 2013 at 11:14am

Tim- That’s another excellent example, I hadn’t thought of the Heaven’s Gate case. It’s all part of people’s fascination with death and fame, I find it strange. Like serial killer memorabilia.

Steve, that’s an interesting case, I’ll have to research it… Can you give more details?  Seems like a good example of “What’s the Harm?” since the public concern over the tragedy compounded the tragedy.

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