Why has an elite cadre of Penn researchers been looking into ghosts for over a year? Isn’t the topic best reserved for Dan Aykroyd, or perhaps Shaggy and Scooby Doo? How can there be an intellectual element to a phenomenon that most scientists believe does not exist?
Justin McDaniel, a professor of religious studies, gives the same answer that many of his colleagues on the Penn Ghost Project give: the fact that some people believe in ghosts, particularly in foreign cultures, means they’re worth studying—especially since the subject has had effects on even the most rational person’s life.
By way of demonstration, here’s a test. If you had a choice between two houses to buy, and one had been the site of a grisly murder, would that affect your decision? If you hesitated, even just a little, then you’ve just demonstrated part of what the Penn Ghost Project is getting at.
“In our group, we’re not trying to test if ghosts are true; we’re studying the sociological truth of ghosts,” McDaniel explained in an interview. “The sociological reality is, real estate prices drop if people believe ghosts are there,” he added. “Ghosts are agents in the world whether we believe in them or not. We’re studying the literary, sociological, psychological, psychosomatic, and historical nature of ghosts and ghost beliefs.”
The Ghost Project, which lists six faculty members as leaders, started in 2013 and will include cemetery tours, films, talks, and research projects this year.
Back in 2012, McDaniel noticed that he was one of several professors at the University who were studying ghosts in modern culture. McDaniel grew up in Philly, where he played in a punk-rock band and hung out at cemeteries as a teenager. In time he turned definitively toward the academic life, earning a bachelor’s degree at Boston College, a master’s at Harvard, and a PhD at Harvard in Sanskrit and Indian studies. At Penn, he had recently finished research for a book on ghosts in Thailand and Laos, published in 2011: The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Thailand (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
“A friend in the nursing school was looking at the psychology of ghosts, in terms of health and healing in Asia,” he recalls. “Another wrote a book on 19th-century ghosts. There were six people on campus—in nursing, psychology, and the history and sociology of science—all working on ghosts.”
McDaniel applied to the School of Arts and Sciences in 2013 and was awarded a $5,000 grant for the Ghost Project for each of two years. The group has applied again and expects to continue hosting events for the University community in years to come.
One of the group’s larger events occurred over Homecoming Weekend this fall, when they held a talk about Penn’s history with ghosts.
The event, which drew approximately 75 people, focused on the time the University hosted a commission to investigate spiritualism. The University of Pennsylvania’s Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism ran studies from 1884 to 1887 that debunked theories about ghosts and mediums, exposing the latter as fraud. A local philanthropist, Henry Seybert, had given donations to the University to study the topic, not knowing how the probe would turn out [“Feet and Faith,” Mar|Apr 2006]. (His gift also established an endowed professorship named for his father, Adam Seybert M1793, which still exists.)
At the alumni event, McDaniel and four other researchers brought letters and items from tests conducted at the University by the commission.
Joyce White G’77 Gr’86, the executive director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology, brought a type of writing slate that mediums claimed was being written on by spirits. White discovered it in the Van Pelt Library archives; it had been used by a magician, Keller, to help disprove the mediums’ claims.
Projit Mukharji, the Martin Meyerson Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies in the history and sociology of science department, brought a handwritten letter written by Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution around the same time as Charles Darwin. Wallace’s 1884 letter was addressed to George S. Fullerton, the commission’s secretary, in response to the commission’s request for Wallace’s stance on spiritualism. Wallace wrote, “My general position with regard to spiritualism is unchanged since I wrote my ‘Miracles and Modern Spiritualism.’ Additional enquiry and observations have still further strengthened my assurance of its fundamental truths.”
“Wallace was not alone,” Mukharji noted. “There were quite a lot of people who were not thinking of science and spiritualism as being opposed. There were people getting Nobel prizes who were devout spiritualists.”
McDaniel considers the Homecoming event a success. “We looked at the records from the archives, old letters, old ghostwriting slates, spirit photography.” And alumni asked about the history of ghost hunters at Penn and the land the University was built on, which once housed a large almshouse for the poor and insane.
In the future, McDaniel said, “We’ll be hosting a series of discussions about 19th-century mystics, a Penn oral history project. We’ll interview 100 students about their experiences with ghosts.”
McDaniel added that when the oral history project begins in the spring, the group will be happy to hear from alumni who have had ghastly experiences as well.
Ilya Vinitsky, who chairs the Slavic languages and literatures department, is another member of the project. “I have been teaching a class on spiritualism and ghosts since 2005, and published a book called Ghostly Paradoxes,” he says. “I do believe in them as a very serious topic for scholarly consideration. We live in an age in which communication breaks down. This kind of communication allows contact with something that’s been missing. It doesn’t matter whether I believe in it or not. What matters is that many people take it seriously.”
Ghost Project member Marjorie Muecke, an adjunct professor of family and community health at the School of Nursing, said, “I have a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology [from the University of Washington, Seattle], and most of my research was in northern Thailand. What I’m interested in, both as an ethnographer and nurse, is: what do things mean to the community you’re working with, so I know how to respond and support them to lead happier, healthier lives?”
In a similar vein, Joyce White observed that communication with spirits provides comfort to some people. She noted that even in the modern United States, ghosts are prominent for certain groups. She recently attended a conference at which a Native American professor talked about growing up in a community that takes ghosts seriously. He reflected on the comfort he found in the notion that “Grandma is right there at the back door, and cousin so-and-so is right there.”
Adam Mohr Gr’08, who earned his doctorate in anthropology at Penn and now studies West African health and healing, said that outside of this country, spirits and ghosts are a bigger part of religious and social life than we might realize. “We live in this secular part of the world, the northeastern US,” he remarked, “but much of the world does believe in ghosts and spirits, and believes that ghosts and spirits interact with people for their benefit and harm.”
But the supernatural remains a curiosity here, too. Mohr noted that a woman came up to him after the alumni event to talk to him.
“She said she was pretty sure her house was haunted, and we could definitely visit her 18th-century home in Valley Forge,” he said. “The Ghost Project gets a lot of feedback from people who have that direct interest.”