Frontiers

Scare Tactics

The Penn Ghost Project turns a scholarly eye toward things that go bump in the night.
October 31, 2013

This Halloween, the Penn Ghost Project is taking ghosts out of the shadows and bringing them into the classroom. The new initiative, fueled by the shared interest of six Penn Arts and Sciences faculty members who span a wide range of disciplines, kicks off this month with the Ghost and Healing symposium. The workshop is designed not to prove that ghosts exist but to show through diverse explorations into history, literature, religious studies, palliative care, and medicine that belief in ghosts has a direct economic, social, and medical impact in many different cultures.

The project is being coordinated by Justin McDaniel, Associate Professor of Religious Studies. McDaniel spent time as a Buddhist monk in Southeast Asia, where he often encountered rituals having to do with ghosts. He explains the motivation behind this group of scholars at Penn: “Many people have a natural curiosity about ghosts, so our goal is to bring them into a more serious kind of study—how they relate to people’s fear of death and their coping with tragedy, for example. We want to provide resources for the public to think seriously about their beliefs,” he says. “Moreover, culturally, there is a real and pervasive interest in ghosts, and so you can take this initial interest in a topic that we’re inundated with in popular culture, and ask more difficult questions.”

Though it’s no coincidence the first seminar coincides with Halloween, the Penn Ghost Project—which grew out of a grant from the Mellon Faculty Workshop—aims to become a one-stop scholarly resource for everything ghost-related through future events and a comprehensive web site with articles, books, and film resources, as well as materials from other universities. This kind of rich content is made possible by the diverse research interests of the faculty team.

Projit Mukharji, Martin Meyerson Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, is researching the history of ghosts and healing practices in India, while Marjorie Muecke, the assistant dean for global health affairs in the School of Nursing, studies ghosts and healing rituals in Northern Thailand. McDaniel, who has also spent time in Thailand studying the phenomena, says some of the views on ghosts there would seem familiar to Americans—though some are uniquely Thai. “One unique aspect is gender. In Thailand almost all ghosts are considered female. Which is not the same in the West, where the gender of ghosts is relatively balanced,” he says. “Ghosts there are also considered very sympathetic beings. They’re people that deserve our understanding—lonely entities to contact.”

Other experts involved with the project include Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature Ilya Vinitsky, who focuses on the history of Russian mystical awakenings and interactions between Russian literature and various spiritualist and occult trends originating in the West. Joyce White, an archaeologist at Penn Museum who specializes in the pre-literate cultures of Laos and has done extensive excavations on burial sites in the region, has uncovered early practices in preparing for the afterlife. Associate Professor of the History and Sociology of Science David Barnes is a historian of medicine and public health who is currently writing a history of the Lazaretto quarantine station on the Delaware River outside Philadelphia, a magnet for paranormal investigators.

“As part of my research, I have become involved in the effort to preserve and restore the historic site,” says Barnes, “an effort which has put me in contact with a variety of non-academics. Ghost hunters, for example, can be difficult to relate to as an academic, but they have their own very serious, sincere, and engaged way to make connections with the past through historic sites.”

Each faculty member will participate in the symposium, along with experts from outside the university. In the future, McDaniel says, articles and books will hopefully grow out of the collaboration. “Despite cultural differences, it’s striking how similar ghost belief is around the world, whether it’s in Europe, Africa, Latin America, or Asia,” he says. “It tells us a lot about humans that there’s this collective fascination with unsettled beings that are caught between realms of reality. It impacts all corners of society and is an ongoing source for understanding the way we think.”

Visit the Penn Ghost Project site here.

Symposium seating is limited. Contact Justin McDaniel at jmcdan@sas.upenn.edu to reserve a spot.