Sure, ghosts might not exist, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t haunted our footsteps.
Bridging subjects from religious studies to nursing to East Asian studies and more, the Penn Ghost Project consists of a group of interdisciplinary professors and academics, who all are interested in studying the social phenomena surrounding ghosts. The initiative started three years ago and has recently expanded its project list.
“Penn was really the only center that ever did anything like this,” Religious Studies professor Justin McDaniel said.
Penn is unique in having a history of paranormal academia.
The Penn Ghost Project even draws an uncanny parallel to the Seybert commission, a 19th century study on whether ghosts are real or not. The study was prompted by a monetary gift with the caveat that “the University should appoint a Commission to investigate ‘all systems of Morals, Religion or Philosophy which assume to represent the Truth, and particularly of Modern Spiritualism” — in simpler terms, whether ghosts exist.
And while the Seybert commission concluded that ghosts are not a real phenomenon, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to study about them.
“We’re taking the study of ghosts both sociologically, psychologically and aesthetically, seriously,” McDaniel said. The group focuses on studying and documenting the idea of ghosts, the ways in which the concept of the lingering deceased has been and continues to be alive and well throughout the world. A 2013 Harris Poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.
In the past, the Penn Ghost Project has brought speakers to Penn, as well as going on ghost hunts and having events.
In the next few weeks, the Project plans to start documenting ghost stories among the Penn undergraduate community. Inspired by the people who would come up to them at events and share their experiences with the supernatural, the group is undertaking the recording of more than a hundred stories, with hopes of expanding the project to the Penn graduate community and beyond. “The reason we’re doing this is because there’s a huge interest,” McDaniel said. “It’s almost impossible to meet someone who doesn’t have one eerie experience.”
Both the spectrally-inclined and spectrally-skeptical are encouraged to come speak about their supernatural experiences. “We’re interested in hearing those experiences, even from people who don’t believe them — people who are like ‘I’m sure there’s another explanation but I can’t explain what that explanation is,’” McDaniel added.
The group is surprised by the amount of feedback and support it’s received from the community.
The oral history project will be up for public participation in early February.
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