The Penn Ghost Project Symposium

The Penn Ghost Project: A Humanities Symposium and Workshop

If you have any questions or would like to attend the event, please contact Justin McDaniel at

Friday October 25, 2013


Nevill Room, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology

The Penn Ghost Project: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying Otherworldly

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. 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 will be to focus on ghosts, healing, and


David Barnes, Daniel Sou, Justin McDaniel, Molly McGarry, Marjorie Muecke,
Projit Mukharji, Ilya Vinitsky


9:00-9:30am Coffee and welcome

9:30-11:30: Conjuring, Communicating, and Coercing

In this session Molly McGarry (University of California at Riverside), Ilya
Vinitsky (University of Pennsylvania), and David Barnes (University of
Pennsylvania) will offer a range of introductory comments on the subject of the
history of contacting ghosts in the West. McGarry will focus on the practice of
séances in 19th century America actually influenced the development of the
telephone by Watson and Bell, and even Edison. Spiritualists embraced technologies of modernity -- from spiritual telegraphy to spectral photography -- for spiritual contact and connection.  Spectral technologies were a new media, magical in more than metaphor. She will explore the sensorium of Spiritualist media, asking the question: What is the sound of
prophecy? Ilya Vinitsky will address one historical phenomenon that has largely been ignored by scholars -- “table-turning”, a foundational stage in the mystical movement, which was first prevalent in America at the end of the 1840s, and which had spread to all of Europe by the 1850s. He will focus on the history of its practice in mid-19th century Russia. He will show that the epidemic of table-turning from 1853-1855 can be imagined as a specific kind of cultural metaphor for the process of psychological and cultural decompression of society. The cultural practice of communicating with another world, no matter how naïve and fantastical it might appear to us, had a corrosive effect on the unidimensional monolith of the “closed” society of Empire and articulated, albeit in an extremely bizarre form, certain modernist tendencies of the culminating period. David Barnes will explore how paranormal investigators engage with historic sites today.  It is based on informal observation of paranormal enthusiasts at the Lazaretto quarantine station, Fort Mifflin, and other local historic sites, as well as in-depth interviews with two paranormal investigators who have been active in preservation efforts at the Lazaretto.  For these investigators, ghost hunting is an extension or a complement to other kinds of engagement with the past, such as genealogical research and historical reenactment (or "living history").  There is an intriguing and fundamental tension in their investigations between the scientific imperative of objectivity, skepticism, and methodological rigor on the one hand, and the ineffable allure of subjective experiences that elude detection and measurement.

11:30-11:45: Break

11:45-1:30: Projit Mukharji: Ghosts of Memory: A Visual Journey through Bengali
and Hindi Films

In this special session, Dr.Projit Mukharji will look closely at Bengali
cinema—in both its art-house and popular forms—which has used ghosts as a
narrative device to articulate, outline, describe and occasionally critique
social memory. By contrast to Hindi films, spectral images of the Bengali
screen have frequently been reflexive tropes used to explore the nature of
social memory, rather than either as artefacts of cultural belief or indeed
simply as a form of reality. Our visual journey will take us through a series
of clips from mostly Bengali, but also a few Hindi, films depicting ghosts. The
individual clips will be strung together by minimal framing commentary.

1:30-2:30: Boxed Lunch (Guests and Speakers are welcome to eat in the lecture
room or outside in the Museum’s courtyards).

2:30-4:30: Healing and Transforming

In the afternoon session, we will open up a discussion on ways ghosts are
invoked and used in healing ceremonies. Rather than seen as haunting specters
to be avoided, the three speakers will show the persistent beneficial effects
for employing ghosts. Marjorie Muecke (University of Pennsylvania) shows how
ghosts and spirits were explicitly integral parts of life and death in northern
Thailand in the 1970s.  Lowlander Theravadin Buddhists, the majority population,
generally accepted the superior hierarchical authority of the supernatural over
humans, and credited spirits with the authority and power to preserve family
structure, sexual morals, intergenerational bonding, and to heal, preserve or
harm persons, town or city.  Justin McDaniel will look at various practices of
creating amulets and protective images through the
harvesting of certain body parts and fluids from both aborted fetuses, deceased
children, and the elderly. I will show a variety of methods of caring for
corpses in order to obtain the power of ghosts after a friend or family-member
passes away in the region. Daniel Sou relies on new manuscript evidence from early China. Instead of focusing on the elite though, his manuscripts, which were found in a series of newly excavated tombs and known as the Shuihudi, Baoshan, and Guanju bamboo manuscripts, reveal the religious lives of the common people. Sou’s sources, especially the manuscript of the Book of Days, deal with the practical concerns of hunger and disease. His detailed examination of the practice of dealing with ghosts in exorcism rites and shows how larger theories about the relation between the body and the unseen worlds were expressed in ritual.