Thomas Lee Freese,
Shaker Spirits, Shaker Ghosts
(Schiffer, 2012)

In Shaker Spirits, Shaker Ghosts, author Thomas Lee Freese brings us haunted tales a-plenty, as well as fascinating historical information about America's Shakers. I've always wanted to visit a Shaker Village, so full of rich, unique history and an "oasis of tranquility in a hard-boiled world." In Freese's offering, I felt as though I had come to stay for a while, to share the Shaker experience first-hand and learn to appreciate the Shakers' spiritually minded nature.

Freese explains how the Shakers shared "a deep love for life, God, and their fellow mortals." They felt that the essence of a person passes to the spirit world after mortal death, and firmly believed they could communicate with the spirits of those passed. Perhaps this has something to do with why Shaker villages remain so very active ghostly locations. All the usual things happen. Toilets flush themselves, lights and water turn on and off, people hear their names called. A light tap on the shoulder ... an unexpected breath and whisper in the ear ... apparitions and spirits that can interact with modern-day people. A whole host of individuals experience these happenings, from guests to workers to believers to skeptics.

What sets these hauntings apart from the average are the Shakers themselves. They used music, singing and dancing as a central part of their worship and, by all accounts, they haven't stopped. Shaker hymns can call visible spirits and angels. Songs sung "in tongues," the angel language, is often heard by individuals as English. Shakers are still acting as custodians of their land, on which they lived harmoniously with the world of nature and the Native American spirits that reside there still. Shakers saw nothing peculiar about astral travel and visions of angels, spirits and the future. They were one of the most spiritually "tuned in" group of people that ever existed together in one place, and their communes were places of shared industriousness, spirituality and camaraderie.

One thing I must mention is that the stories, fascinating though they are, begin to get a bit repetitive. Each taken on its own merit is interesting, but we see Shakers moving through the streets of the village, standing in a window or glimpsed in the meeting house over and over. Footsteps and singing are heard, locked doors won't stay shut, people have that feeling of being "watched." Again. And again. And again. The fault lies not in the book or with the author, but in the simple fact that Shaker villages are relatively small places to write about, and repetitive things happened there. It's not really a complaint -- just something to note. I think the author is simply trying to drive home the fact that these little villages are truly haunted, and many people share similar "Shaker experiences," which speaks to their validity.

Shaker Spirits, Shaker Ghosts brings us a historical view of the Shakers' lives and spiritual attitudes as well as plenty of engagingly written, fascinating and unique ghostly tales that run the gamut from amusing to annoying to scary. Some of these tales will make you smile, some will make you chuckle and some will effectively put a lead ball in the pit of your stomach. Freese has amassed an impressive collection of Shaker ghost tales from a variety of witnesses. Enthusiasts for 19th-century history with a penchant for the paranormal will love this book, as will anyone else who loves to curl up with a good ghost story or two.

So why have so many Shakers remained behind? Often, hauntings are attributed to mortal suffering or an untimely death. But the Shakers were very happy people, content with the lives they led. Conceivably, they loved their homes and way of life so dearly they did not wish to depart. Possibly, in this case, it is happiness that keeps them here, rather than tragedy. The Shakers firmly believed that their spirits would remain in Shakertown until Judgment Day. Perhaps that is what they are waiting for. In any case, I for one am glad they are still here.

book review by
Lee Lukaszewicz

2 February 2013

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