Arrested Decay: The Exorcism of an American Ghost Town

By Meagan Day.

Bodie, California is a ghost town. Or rather, it was a ghost town—now it is a historic park and tourist destination. It endures in a state of “arrested decay,” meaning that nothing can be newly constructed onsite, but neither are its standing buildings permitted to deteriorate any further. The state of California has suspended the town in its process of ruination, stabilizing its entropy and halting its decline.  If its decay is forestalled, its grounds rigorously maintained and its aesthetic carefully cultivated, can it be called a ghost town any longer?

Bodie is a former gold rush encampment located on the remote eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a dozen miles from the Nevada state border. It was hastily populated in the late 19th century and just as hastily deserted in the early 20th century, leaving a husk of a settlement in its wake. The town boasted ten thousand residents in 1880 and none by the early 1940s, after the mines had dried up and a devastating fire had driven the last few residents away.[1] What remained after its abandonment was a captivating ruin—miners’ coats still hanging on hooks in wooden cabins, books still piled up on pupils’ desks in the schoolhouse, beakers and test tubes intact in the pharmacy, dusty coffins in the undertaker’s studio, and an unfinished billiards game in the saloon.

In 1962, at the height of the nation’s pop culture fascination with the mythic Wild West, the state of California transformed Bodie into a park designed to entice tourists visiting nearby Yosemite National Park. Bodie now draws hundreds of thousands of travelers per year, mostly white, middle-class American families. These visitors are allowed to roam the streets of the town, often on guided tours, and peer into windows to view the antique contents that remain in the site’s dilapidated buildings—oil lamps, perfume bottles, threadbare curtains, faded wallpaper, neglected hymnals. Visitors are not allowed inside most of the buildings; the windows are paned with glass, the doors are bolted, and alarms are nestled in the rotted roof beams. The maintenance crew regularly does work on the buildings to ensure that they don’t fall down, but the state aims to keep the site aesthetically identical to when it was reincorporated in 1962. For California’s conservation efforts, Bodie is “widely applauded for its authenticity.”[2]

We might surmise from the term “ghost town” that Bodie had, in its raw abandoned state, some sort of haunting potential. As Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hauntology” and a host of derived theory underscore, the capacity to haunt is also the capacity to transgress, to disturb, to pervert perception and to undermine stability. By this measure Bodie may have once been a ghost town, but its ghosts have been exorcised, and it no longer haunts. It’s difficult to get goosebumps when surrounded by groups of tourists waiting impatiently to press their camera lenses, one by one, up to the glossy glass panes. It’s not uncommon to witness a tourist standoff at Bodie, several amateur photographers lingering in hopes that the others will move out of the frame.

A Google image search of Bodie reveals thousands of identical photos, many Photoshopped to accentuate the site’s rust and grime and decay. But ghosts are camera-shy, and these days the town’s dilapidation feels less eerily entropic than sentimentally stylized.

"Bodie Ghost Town" by artist Ben Pacificar.

“Bodie Ghost Town” by artist Ben Pacificar.

Academics often discuss ruins in terms of their refusal to conform to the normative rules of space and time. According to the mid-20th century critique of modernity, which generally imagines the modern built environment as repressive and stultifying (the Situationists use the term “urbanism of despair”[3]), the ruin is often identified as an exception to contemporary spatial rubrics, a site of emancipation and liberation from the sedating linear efficiency of modern life. Postmodern theory tends to figure the ruin as a capacious, heterotopic dreamspace that permits and even demands transgression.

As haunting spaces, modern ruins reveal the limitations of dominant conceptions of space, time, memory, nature, and death. They are the excess, the residue, the casualties of the modern world’s aspirations and promises, and evidence of its deceptions and failures. Their blueprints are chaotic, their thresholds literally and figuratively eroded. Ruins are therefore, as Julia Hell phrases it, “invested with the power to call for resistance to a stifling contemporary political order.”[4] Amir Eshel says that “ruins reveal the possibility of thought along lines that move through different temporal realms—between what occurred, what persists, and what can still occur—and thus suggest the potential for change.”[5] Ruins matter, Eshel continues, “because they signify the promise of action—our ability to build, destroy, and build again.”[6]

Tim Edensor, a strident champion of ruination’s emancipatory potential, sees ruins as marginal spaces that consequently permit the flourishing of peripheral ideas and ways of being. They have a special ability to provoke kinds of imagination and activity that are deterred by the sterile and ultra-functional spaces that postmodern theorists often associate with modern architecture and infrastructure. “Ruins are exemplary spaces,” writes Edensor, “that simultaneously produce disorder and semiotic and material excess.” They therefore contain “manifold unruly resources with which people can construct meaning, stories and practices” outside the norm.[7]

The modernist architect Le Corbusier’s 1925 vision of Paris. Postmodern theorists have often imagined the ruin as an alternative to and escape from the stultifying efficiency of modern space.

The modernist architect Le Corbusier’s 1925 vision of Paris. Postmodern theorists have often imagined the ruin as an alternative to and escape from the stultifying efficiency of modern space.

On the one hand Bodie is a ruin par excellence. It’s a richly decayed place, by some definition indisputably authentic. “It was once a real gold-mining town,” Dydia DeLyser offers in her study of the site, “and what remains of that town today stands little altered,”[8] unless you consider that preservation is an alteration of its entropic course. In any case, “no building has been reproduced, no fallen building has ever been resurrected, no new buildings of any kind have ever been added within the townsite. Furthermore, no building has ever been restored, repainted or repaired to look new again.”[9]

There is no doubt that Bodie, with its aborted calendars and forsaken pulpits, can be sumptuously ruinous. But Bodie also fails to deviate from what Edensor identifies as the conventions of normative modern space. The rangers on the grounds and alarms in the buildings indicate surveillance and a managerial presence. There are strict legal criteria for what can and cannot be done to, on, and with the space, signaling the planning, regulations and zoning policies that ruins theoretically evade. Some buildings you can’t enter at all, others only in the company of a guide—here we see the bounding of discrete spaces and the control of the flow of human traffic, as well as principles of private property. Admission costs seven dollars, meaning that the park generates some (insignificant, given the maintenance costs) revenue for the state. The very fact of this fee renders the space financially functional and reinvests it with capitalist value. Surveillance, regulation, modulation, capitalist functionalism—these are all supposed trappings of normative spaces, like malls and office parks.

And then there’s Bodie’s gift shop, its promotional materials and scripted tours emphasizing kitschy Wild West themes—gunfights, brothels, stagecoach robberies—meant to evoke “images to visitors from movie Westerns: heroic images of American pioneers.”[10] DeLyser reasons that Bodie is essentially a monument to the bravery and morality of white male settlers, explicitly reinforcing “popularly held notions about the mythic West and American virtues.”[11] She finds evidence of this objective in the original plan for the park, which she quotes as saying:

The visitor to this park will see an example of an early day mining town in a remote area and apart from the usual oppressive elements of our civilized world… In this setting he will be able to better understand the courage and resourcefulness of our ancestors in building this nation.[12]

In present-day Bodie there seems to be little attempt to conceal this propagandistic impulse. When I visited the gift shop in the summer of 2013 I came across a book detailing the town’s history, the back of which reads:

Most of Bodie’s population consisted of mining camp men—virile, enthusiastic and free-living. They were bound by few of the rules of conventional society, though they had an admirable code of their own: liberal-minded, square-dealing, generous, and devoid of pretense or hypocrisy. These men gave Bodie its distinctive flavor.[13]

Edensor calls this type of effort to mediate visitors’ interpretation of a site “place promotion,” something that again ruins are supposed to evade. In light of this ideological intervention, along with the myriad ways that space and movement are controlled on the grounds, it’s clear that Bodie fails to meet the criteria for ruination as Edensor sees it, which is also his basis for associating ruins with transgression.

"Teen Girls at Bodie" by artist Kerry Drager, 2004.

“Teen Girls at Bodie” by artist Kerry Drager, 2004.

According to the strain of postmodern thought that exceptionalizes the ruin, a ghost town ought to escape the modulation and hyperregulation that typifies planned and controlled space, productive space, policed space, municipal and industrial space, and other normative space. There are plenty of examples of subversive and transgressive ruin sites, but as Bodie makes clear, it’s also evident that capital and the state have strategies for absorbing and neutralizing the unstable and threatening phenomena set in motion by ruination. In Bodie the ruin’s anarchic energy has been harnessed, its disorderly potentials checked and stemmed to ensure the persistence of a particular interpretation of history. The ruin’s fugitive qualities, its vagabond tendencies, have been arrested along with its decay.

Or, to put it another way, its ghosts have been evicted. In her essay “Haunted Habitability” Christine Wilson explores how and why haunted houses in the popular narratives of modernity are settled, quieted and exorcised of their spirits. Bodie’s transformation from neglected ruin to tourist destination follows the same trajectory—a disobedient space tamed, its functionality restored and its spatiotemporal tensions resolved. A ghost town, as both a ruin and a haunting place, is an unwieldy site. The arrest of Bodie’s decay can be seen as an effort to reign such a site in, an endeavor to temper its disobedience. The historic park format is an “attempt to settle unruly houses,” as Wilson puts it .[14]

Bodie troubles a false dichotomy between normative space and ruin space, suggesting that the ruin, too, is vulnerable to regulation, sterilization, and corrective intervention. To arrest a ruin’s decay is to tame its feral traces, to reconcile its haunting dissonances and make it comprehensible, manageable, and placid. If ghost towns are places that have been abandoned by people, it would appear that some have been abandoned by their ghosts as well. The new residents—in this case, the state of California and dominant modern spatial relations more generally—are like the happy couple at the end of a haunted house film, photogenic and ghost-free.

[1]Bodie State Historic Park.” Official tour pamphlet. 2013. Print.

[2] DeLyser, Dydia. “Authenticity on the Ground: Engaging the Past in a California Ghost Town.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89.4 (1999), p. 602.

[3] “The Geopolitics of Hibernation.” Situationist International Online. <;

[4] Hell, Julia. “Imperial Ruin Gazers, or Why Did Scipio Weep?” Ruins of Modernity. p. 98.

[5] Eshel, Amir. “Layered Time: Ruins as Shattered Post, Ruins as Hope in Israeli and German Landscapes and Literatures.” Ruins of Modernity. p. 136.

[6] Ibid. p. 147.

[7] Edensor, Tim. Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics, and Materiality. p. 62.

[8] DeLyser, p. 623.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 603.

[11] Ibid. p. 606.

[12] In DeLyser, p. 602.

[13] McDonald, Douglas. Bodie: Boom Town—Gold Town!: The Last of California’s Old-time Mining Camps.

[14] Wilson, Christine. “Haunted Habitability: Wilderness and American Haunted House Narratives,” Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. p. 204.


Meagan Day completed her MA in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London (’13) and her BA in Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College (’12). She is an editor for Full Stop, an online publication of literary and cultural criticism.

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