Ghost studies at Penn cross over into several disciplines

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    John Pollack of Penn's Kislak Center for Special Collections

    John Pollack of Penn's Kislak Center for Special Collections

    Halloween weekend is a great time for a ghost story, but here’s one that’s been a hundred years in the making.

    In 1883, the University of Pennsylvania received a strange commission.

    “It wasn’t called the Penn Ghost Project back then. It was called the Seybert Commission,” says Justin McDaniel, professor of religious studies at Penn.  “A wealthy donor wanted Penn professors and scientists to study ghosts, the existence of ghosts, seriously and offer a report to prove or disprove. And it was high level, you know, the head of the med school at the time, the provost, deans.”

    They talked to people about their experiences with ghosts, interviewed mediums and tested them for their reputed skills. Despite their serious effort, in the end, the commission admitted they’d found nothing. 

    Fast forward to the 21st century, and Justin McDaniel is involved in ghost research of his own.  

    “I’ve written extensively on protective ghosts in Thailand and Laos,” he explains. “The ghost stories we’ve grown up with in the U.S., ghosts are menacing. In many parts of the world it’s the exact opposite. These are people whose help you can enlist in curing diseases, in coping with emotional difficulties.”

    About a year ago, McDaniel became aware of others at Penn with similar ghostly interests. “I found out, at first, that there were six people on campus engaged in active research on ghosts: history of ghosts, sociology of ghosts, sociology of belief, psychology of fear, psychology of belief in the otherworldly.” They came from departments ranging from Slavic Studies to the School of Nursing. 

    They began meeting, and formed the Penn Ghost Project.  Others soon joined in.  

    “The idea is to look at the social phenomenon of the belief in ghosts. Even if ghosts are not a physical reality, they’re clearly a sociological reality,” McDaniel notes.

    In the meantime, the collection of reports, books and other materials from the original Penn Ghost Project, the Seybert Commission, remains at Penn.  “So what that means nowadays is we have an excellent research collection,” notes John Pollack, a librarian in Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. “For someone studying 19th century American culture, this is not an oddball collection but a very central one.”

    The Penn Ghost Project is organizing outings to ghostly sites in Philadelphia, and is planning an oral history collection of ghost stories across cultures and generations. 

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