Florida · Halloweenathon 2023 · Horrorthon365 · Microreview · Television · Travel

Halloweenathon 2023: Reading HBO’s The Gilded Age as a Ghost Story

On the twenty-ninth day of Halloween: THE GILDED AGE (2022-)

Settle in, dearies. To explain why HBO’s The Gilded Age, premiering on October 29, 2023 would be part of my Halloweenathon requires telling my own real-life ghost story.

In July 2022 I was in St Augustine, the USA’s oldest city, on a family trip. One of our outings was to visit the Lightner Museum, the site of Henry Flagler’s Gilded Age Alcazar Hotel that’s now the home of Otto Lightner’s hobby collection. The Alcazar was also the first ever indoor pool in North America and an entire casino wing was built around the marvelous structure.

It’s the Alcazar’s pool where my ghost story properly begins. The space has been converted into a cafe, and that’s where we were to eat lunch that Wednesday. The moment I set just one foot into the old casino wing something happened to me. A zap from the past. Covered in chills, it was like I could hear voices from history. I wasn’t scared. I felt oddly at home as I wandered around the epic structure, listening and absorbing. I began wondering about all the people who used to work there. And the people who built the massive building. It seemed someone wanted their story told. And I was well prepared to oblige.

That night I dreamed of the old Alcazar Hotel. And I would dream of it every single night for months. Every time I closed my eyes I was back there. And people were introducing themselves to me in my dreams. A maid who used to sneak down to the pool for midnight swims. A Black elder who worked in the horrendous steam laundry. Sex workers who visited the hotel from nearby brothels. And the silent film actress Theda Bara, a lifelong favorite of mine who I discovered used to live at the Alcazar for months at a time while filming in St Augustine.

The nightly returns to the Alcazar spurred an obsession. I went to the library and checked out every single book that mentioned the Alcazar. I began reading about Flagler. I began reaching out to local historians and scholars about the people who used to work at the Alcazar and other Flagler hotels. My idea was to write a working class history of the spaces, something that’s never been done. I even applied for NPR’s Code Switch fellowship to develop my research further.

And imagine my surprise as I was learning about the Reconstruction and Gilded Age — a massive gap in my own knowledge base — to find HBO had released their own The Gilded Age show, one with numerous plot points that intersected with my own findings about Florida during these times.

When I got my Much Ado About Keanu book deal, I even went back to St Augustine to celebrate. But also to investigate further. I went on the most amazing tour of the Alcazar with the museum director and events director, that included the servants quarters now closed to the public. It was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on. And gave me so much insight into what life was like back then for the workers who kept that enormous machine running.

Unfortunately NPR cancelled all their fellowships, so I didn’t have the funding to continue my research. And wow, I was uncovering so much disturbing history that’s been wholly whitewashed not just from Florida’s historical record. Like, Flagler used convict labor and debt peonage to build his hotels and properties. A shocking revelation indeed. I even made some historical connections that have never been made before. But without financial resources to back my work, I was at an impasse.

At the same time, my hand injuries worsened and all I could manage was working on Much Ado About Keanu. The Alcazar ghosts quieted down, but not before thanking me for all my efforts. I knew I’d return to the work when I was able.

Tonight, the second season of HBO’s The Gilded Age returns, and with it a fresh blast from the past bringing my Alcazar research back to the surface. As I’ve been meditating on all my Alcazar ghost visits, it occurred to me that all of these historic dramas are in essence ghost stories. They are often about real people (or fictionalized versions of them) who are long dead, brought back to life on screen often to reflect something important about our present. And with the various Black history bans that Florida’s governor has enacted in the meantime, The Gilded Age being back on TV makes my Alcazar research newly relevant. All the ghosts who visited me will be happy to hear it. They still wait for the justice of recognition for their hard work, even if it was over 100 years ago. Maybe especially because. They’ve waited long enough for people to hear their stories.

✨Aunt Ada/5 stars. Highly recommend reading up about the Reconstruction era of American history.✨