Recently, the University of Pennsylvania has become a center for research on ghosts. Usually restricted to the fields of (Para)Psychology and Religious Studies, the study of ghosts has never been approached in a serious or comprehensive way in the humanities, the social sciences, or healthcare. In the academy, ghost belief has been something to be explained away. Studies that consistently show that large percentages of people in Japan, Brazil, South Africa, the United States, India, France, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and many other places believe in ghosts or claim to have felt or seen ghosts are treated with a metaphorical smirk or a disappointing shake of the head. How could people believe in something that has no scientific proof? Why believe in something that does not have comforting psychological benefit that belief in “higher powers” (gods, goddesses) does? Why would people continue to create literature, art, ritual, film about menacing specters? In efforts to account for this irrational belief, ghosts have been relegated to symptoms of socio-economic conditions, a lack of access to education, a pre-modern religio-cultural leftover, or simply as a psychological coping mechanism.
At Penn, a group of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds (literature, art history, nursing, archaeology, religious studies, and the history of science and medicine) wants to take research on ghosts seriously. The goal of this workshop is not to prove that ghosts exist, but to show through diverse explorations into history, literature, religious studies, palliative care, and medicine that ghosts are not simply entities that haunt us, but have been and continue to be economic, social, and medical allies in many different cultures. In many traditions, ghosts are not something to be feared, but to be befriended. The main focus of the workshop in its first year will be to focus on ghosts, healing, and healthcare. We hope to work closely with the Penn Humanities Forum whose annual theme in 2013 is on “violence.” Since ghosts in many traditions are the products humans who are victims of violent deaths, they are seen as entities that can protect the living from violence.