October 21, 2016 6:15 AM EDT

What can we learn from ghost stories? Maybe more than you’d think: in Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey argues that they reveal “the contours of our anxieties” and “the nature of our collective fears and desires.”

Consider the story of New York City’s haunted Merchant’s House. It involves the spirit of a spinster who died there in 1933, decades after her father forbade her to marry her only suitor–a narrative that exploits a long-standing social anxiety regarding single women and matrimony.

Or the story of the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, La., said to be haunted by the ghost of a young slave who was her master’s concubine before he killed her–details that tap into Americans’ lingering discomfort with slavery and racism.

In many ways, Dickey concludes, “ghost stories … are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.”

This appears in the October 31, 2016 issue of TIME.

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