Penn symposium explores history of ghosts

Do you believe in ghosts?

Justin McDaniel, a professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, does. And he’s not alone. A number of Penn faculty members conduct serious scholarly research on ghosts—so seriously, in fact, that last spring they formed the Penn Ghost Project, a faculty working group of the School of Arts & Sciences. The project is comprised of faculty from diverse disciplines, including literature, art history, nursing, archaeology, religious studies, the history and sociology of science, and medicine.

“Either we’re all crazy or ghosts are a part of human phenomena, and have been a mass phenomenon for a long, long time,” says McDaniel, the project director. 

On Friday, Oct. 25, the Penn Ghost Project will present a daylong public symposium titled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying Otherworldly Allies” from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Nevil Gallery in the Penn Museum. The seminar will focus on ghosts in history, healing, and healthcare.

McDaniel says the program is not set out to prove that ghosts exist; rather, it intends to show that ghosts have been and continue to be economic, social, and medical allies in many different cultures.

A session on “Conjuring, Communicating, and Coercing” will open the conference. Molly McGarry, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside; Ilya Vinitsky, a professor and chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Penn; and David Barnes, an associate professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at Penn, will offer a range of introductory comments on the history of contacting ghosts.

Later, a session with Projit Mukharji, an assistant professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science, will address “Ghosts of Memory: A Visual Journey through Bengali and Hindi Films.” An afternoon session, “Healing and Transforming,” will be led by Marjorie Muecke, assistant dean for global health affairs at the Penn School of Nursing.

McDaniel, author of the award-winning book, “The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand,” says it’s no coincidence that the researchers and other ghost enthusiasts all ended up teaching at Penn. 

“It was kind of odd that we all came here,” he says. “We might have already been a center for scholarly ghost research in America and didn’t even know it.”

College Hall