Ghosts, Witches, and Their Harrowing Stories
In a new book, an alumna and owner of a New York City ghost tour company explores the lives and empowering legends of female ghosts and witches.
Fascinated by the paranormal since she was a young girl, Andrea Janes (M.A. ’05, Liberal Studies), today tells ghost stories for a living. She is the owner of Boroughs of the Dead, a walking tour company that introduces people to New York City’s ghosts and haunted sites, and now is the co-author of a new book on ghosts and witches, A Haunted History of Invisible Women.
The book explores women’s intimate connections to the spirit world. Many of the most famous ghosts are female. Women have traditionally hovered close to spirits, drawn to their stories or communicating with them as mediums and psychics, Janes said. Janes and co-author Leanna Renee Hieber, a guide in her company, examine these connections and the ways in which ghost stories immortalize and even empower women, who are often marginalized in life.
“A ghost becomes a subconscious fixture in the imagination of a place or a group of people, and she has intergenerational staying power,” Janes said. “Her name, whether it's her real name or a symbolic name, is repeated. She is a source of inspiration, a source of fear. And most importantly, she is not forgotten, and she does not go away.”
Janes spoke to the Graduate Center about the liberating power of ghost stories and how they can promote the greater good.
The Graduate Center: What prompted you to write this book?
Janes: It was an outgrowth of the business. I had been doing regular ghost tours for a long time, and then one winter was very mild, and one spring was very mild. And I was like, “Let's do a women's history tour for March. Let's make it thematic.” I adapted an existing Greenwich Village ghost tour because I saw there were a lot of stops that had female ghosts. I called it Ghostly Women of Greenwich Village, and it was really popular; people loved it. I got a lot of press attention for it. The New York Times covered it, and I sort of accidentally fell into inventing the city's first feminist ghost tour.
Then one of my tour guides, Leanna Renee Hieber, who is a fiction writer, was giving a tour and an editor was on her tour and said you should write a nonfiction book of New York City ghost stories. So she looped me in because she's a very collaborative person. One thing led to another, and the book’s focus became female ghosts.
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GC: In the book, you write that “women have always lived cheek by jowl with death.” Can you explain that?
Janes: This is very much grounded in a 19th-century lived experience. Leanna and I are both innately interested in this period. During that time, women were charged with the care of dead bodies and funerary rites, that would have been something they did at home and it fell under the umbrella of the domestic. Consider childbirth, you're walking a fine line with death at almost any point in that process, and, unfortunately, maternal mortality remains a problem in the United States to this day and is higher among women of color. Historically speaking, child mortality would have been something that women dealt with on a regular basis. And the threat, sadly, of physical violence, spousal violence, murder. These are real-life issues that affect women. Hence their interest in true crime and ghost stories as ways to safely explore these fears and these feelings.
GC: How has writing the book influenced the way you approach ghost tours or how you run your business?
Janes: I never want to suck the mystery and the beauty and that strange ephemeral magnetism out of a ghost story. It's a beautiful and really delicate thing, but I would say writing the book has strengthened my resolve to make dark tourism a force for good.
GC: Can you talk more about this force for good or the ethics of telling ghost stories?
Janes: My own conscience has kind of pricked me from the very beginning when I first started doing ghost tours as an employee in someone else's business. One of my very first tours was a big group so we split it up. And the tour guide who took the other group, I saw him standing in a cemetery, encouraging his group to hoot and holler and whoop and cheer. I wasn't sure what he was doing, but I thought it was strangely disrespectful to the cemetery and the sacred space. And I would hear these ghost stories that were really problematic and really difficult presented on the tours in these very uncritical ways. For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a really difficult story to tell, and to tell it in the context of a ghost tour, how do we do this? How do we do this and still sleep at night?
So when Leanna, my co-writer, and I present the Triangle story, for example, we talk about the idea that a physical location can be haunted by a sense of place memory. This place memory can keep these actual women who lived and died at the forefront of our conscience, and when we talk about the garment industry of 1911, there are still parallels to the global garment industry of 2022. We can be mindful of how the garment industry continues to be problematic, and we continue to fight for justice for all workers. That could be the gig workers of our modern economy, which includes tour guides, or a woman in a garment factory in Bangladesh or China. So we talk about these ghosts as haunting our conscience now. I have found our customers incredibly receptive to this.
GC: How has your Graduate Center experience influenced your work?
Janes: I am a proud CUNY graduate. When I started working in tourism, and in the ghost tour business specifically, it gave me alternate perspectives that I brought to this material and allowed me to question and interrogate some of the ways this material is presented in standard ghost tour narratives and say, “Now, wait a minute, whose perspective is this story told from?”
Going to the Graduate Center made me feel like a New Yorker right away. I've felt that as a tour guide I'm able to speak with a lot of authority because I feel this is my home, even though I'm not from here. And I'm just really grateful. I'm grateful for what I learned. I'm grateful for having had intersectional classes with multicultural perspectives, diverse perspectives, that have made me realize that this isn't rhetoric, and it isn't just empty language. There is a whole city of people who have very diverse experiences and perspectives and viewpoints.
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