Saturday, July 23, 2011

Haunting the Holy City—Charleston, South Carolina

To borrow a term from another blogger, I’m “Haunt Jaunting” off to Charleston for a few days. My show will close tomorrow after a successful run and my week of teaching theatre camp came to an end yesterday. I can really use a vacation, even if I spend most of it photographing the city (possibly Georgetown and Columbia, SC and Augusta, GA, as well) for two blogs.

Charleston is the apotheosis of so much of what I love about the South. It’s also the setting of one of my favorite novels, Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline. Conroy’s alternating adulation and disdain for the city are so marvelously outlined in the prologue to the book. I’ll let him speak for himself.

Broad Street looking towards St. Michael's Church, 2010.
Photo by Khanrak, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The city of Charleston, in the green feathery modesty of its palms, in the certitude of its style, in the economy and stringency of its lines, and the serenity of its mansions South of Broad Street, is a feast for the human eye. But to me, Charleston is a dark city, a melancholy city, whose severe covenants and secrets are as powerful and beguiling as its elegance, who demons dance their alley dances and compose their malign hymns to the dark side of the moon I cannot see. […]

Though I will always be a visitor to Charleston, I will always remain one with a passionate belief that it is the most beautiful city in America and that to walk the old section of the city at night is to step into the bloodstream of a history extravagantly lived by a people born to a fierce and unshakable advocacy of their past. To walk in the spire-proud shade of Church Street is to experience the chronicle of a mythology that is particular to this city and this city alone, a trinitarian mythology with equal parts of the sublime, the mysterious, and the grotesque. But there is nothing to warn you of Charleston’s refined cruelty. […]

Entering Charleston is like walking through the brilliant carbon forest of a diamond with the light dazzling you in a thousand ways, an assault of light and shadow caused by light. The sun and the city have struck up an irreversible alliance. [from The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy, 1980]

But, really so much of the Holy City’s image in my mind is based upon Conroy’s writing. As a Bicentennial Baby, I have a false nostalgia for the South Carolina low country in the 1960’s all from his books like The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Water is Wide, The Great Santini and South of Broad. The soundtrack for this region in my mind is Motown with The Drifters warbling about hanging out on rooftops and under boardwalks, Mary Wells singing about her guy while The Temptations croon about their girl and Martha and The Vandellas blissfully battle a heatwave in their hearts. It all makes we want to don my penny loafers and dance a Carolina shag on a verandah next to the Atlantic.

As the region comes to mind, these nostalgic images merge with the history and the legends. African spirituals strike up: drums and rattles pound with shuffling feet and murmuring chants from the slaves and the lilting dialect of the Gullahs fill the air. The rhythmic tramp of marching feet from the British, Colonial, Union and Confederate armies interrupt those sounds. Marsh birds soar above grey sand beaches while I drink sweet tea and perhaps a genteel mint julep. Grey men walk the beaches warning of hurricanes and white clad wraiths flit through the halls of old homes and cemeteries. The low country is romantic, beautiful and sad; an ancient woman in a decaying mansion still clad in her wedding finery dreaming of the married life she never had.

The highly modern Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River.
This is the longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
Photo 2007, by bbatsell, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Much has been written of the regions legends and ghosts. One of the earliest books on Charleston is Margaret Rhett Martin’s Charleston Ghosts. Recently, three books by Edward Macy and Julian Buxton III have appeared with Denis Rolfe’s Ghosts and Legends of Charleston and Cathy Pickens’ Charleston Mysteries: Ghosts Haunts in the Holy City. A number of books about ghosts of South Carolina have also been published that include Charleston. It’s a fairly well-documented region.

My trip will consist mostly of visiting and photographing as many haunted locations and cemeteries as I can. I’ll also be taking a ghost tour one evening and I plan to write about that as well. Perhaps I’ll take away an experience from the Holy City, but with the choosy spirits of Charleston, I doubt it, however, I’ll be once again in the cold embrace of the Holy City.


  1. Have a blast! I can't wait to see it all. I admit that my favorite book of all time was Pat Conroy's "Prince of Tides" and I do believe that when I read it and then saw the movie, I thought he had sneaked into my life and stole the story. It was absolutely shocking, especially the mother and troubled children--my family exactly.

  2. I'm so glad to hear you are "haunt jaunting". I've never been to Charleston and I can't wait to see your pictures and read your stories!

  3. Love the stories and the photos. I live here and love my Holy City and her ghosts. Have my own paranormal group here as well.