We Asked An Expert Why People Believe In—and Hunt—Ghosts

Justin McDaniel, one of the founders of the Penn Ghost Project, an interdisciplinary group of academics that explores humanity's relationship with the otherworldly.

by Michael Cuby
Nov 2 2015, 7:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Matthias Rhomberg

When you think of ghosts, what comes to mind? Translucent floating objects with peculiarly cutout black eyeholes? Dead spirits that roam around dilapidated abandoned buildings? King Hamlet? At the University of Pennsylvania, a group of professors—all from different academic backgrounds—have come together to ask themselves this very question. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying ghosts, members of The Penn Ghost Project have spent the better part of the last four years using "diverse explorations into history, literature, religious studies, palliative care, and medicine" to show that ghosts can be (and often are) more than something to spook you out at night.

VICE spoke with professor Justin McDaniel, who chairs the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of the Penn Ghost Project, to find out more about his research. We chatted about his research, the history of ghost hunting, and why people are so ashamed admit that they believe in them.

VICE: How did the Penn Ghost Project start?
Justin McDaniel: It started about four years ago when I realized that on Penn's campus we had about twelve experts from lots of different departments—psychology, nursing, art history, history of science, South Asian studies, Middle Eastern studies, religious studies, Slavic studies—that had either written books or done research on ghost phenomenons from different countries. They all had their own disciplinary perspectives. So I thought that was a little odd that we had this many people on campus, and thought that we should get together and start sharing our work, sharing our research. It kind of grew from there, and we've been holding a series of talks, researching ghost hunters, looking at the history of ghost research in the United States and abroad, and we have a film series and stuff like that.

How did you find out that you all had this mutual interest?
Well, you know, there are 2,000 professors on campus but we're actually kind of a small community even though there's that many of us. We meet each other at chair meetings, and at other events and other talks. I kept seeing the same people show up for talks at the museum or lectures in the psychology department, so, you know, one thing leads to another. And it's been really kind of a nice intellectual experience. We have so many colleagues that spend a lot of time working on this, and the conversations are good. It's really sparked an interest. We thought we would hold [events] and like five people would show up. But, you know what? Lots of people come.

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You're the chair of the religious studies department. Do you think that a belief in ghosts can act as a sort of religion in and of itself?
Well, it's interesting. A lot of people in different cultures who believe in ghosts aren't necessarily very religious. Sometimes it seems like they go hand-in-hand, but they don't—sometimes they do, but a lot of times they don't. For example, in extremely secular countries like Japan—I think Japan is the most secular industrial country in the world—they have very low rates of people participating in institutional religion, but very high rates of ghost belief. And we find similar things even among people who don't affiliate with a particular religion in the United States that will at least acknowledge the possibility that there are ghosts.

But in my own research in religious studies, I look at ghost practices, ghost rituals, and ghost beliefs of Buddhists—primarily in Southeast Asia and a little bit in Japan. We find across the board that whether a person is Buddhist, or Christian, or Muslim living in these cultures, ghost beliefs are quite high across religions.

Right. You wrote a book called The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk that delves into the centrality of ghosts in Thai Buddhism. Would you say that ghost beliefs are common whether or not they're tied into a specific religion?
That's right. [Although] a conservative Jew [and] a Roman Catholic [might have] quite different daily practices, quite different beliefs, different rituals in their own tradition, they actually share a lot of similar beliefs about what ghosts are. The religious belief doesn't necessarily affect the ghost belief, and it seems to be much more a cultural phenomena than an institutionally religious belief.

Is the fact that it's such a "cultural phenomena" a primary reason why you've chosen to study ghosts from an academic standpoint?
You know, there's really no religion on earth and no culture in history that hasn't had some belief in spiritual beings that are not divine, but [instead] come from certain kinds of the soul existing after death. And different cultures across the board often believe that there is some way of contacting these spirits. And we investigate it. We're not concerned with whether ghosts are true or not.

I mean—this was done 130 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania—there was a group that actually did investigate ghosts. So in the past—especially in the late 19th century, early 20th century—academics were very involved in trying to prove or disprove this, but we're not concerned with this at all. We don't think that there really is any evidence for the existence of ghosts and so we're not concerned about it. What we are concerned about is the sociological and cultural reality of ghosts—meaning that regardless [of whether] they exist or not, they have an impact on economics (for example in real estate sales), they have an impact on literature and movies, they affect the way people act, they affect people's day-to-day fears and how they express those fears. So they are a sociological and psychological reality for many people, and that's what we study.

Photo via Flickr user Instill Moments

You mentioned ghosts affecting real estate. Is that because real estate agents are required to disclose when someone has died in a house, and potential buyers aren't really okay with the idea of dead people roaming the halls?
Exactly. A person could say they don't believe in ghosts, but if they're given a choice between one house that has had a murder in it with rumors of ghosts and ghost stories connected to it and one that hasn't, all things being equal, they'll stay away from the ghosts.

I have one student doing research on tracking home sales throughout the city and then tracking houses that have had associations with ghost stories. They're finding that [those houses are] certainly [more] below market value than their neighbors. So when people say, "Why would an academic study something that sounds a little bit wacky or a little bit kooky?" or something like that—and certainly, that's a legitimate concern—but our [response] is that it doesn't matter if those are not true or not, it's that they're actually having an economic impact, regardless of their ontology.

What usually happens in one of your group's meetings?
We bring speakers in from various disciplines. So we'll talk to a psychiatrist who specializes in early childhood psychology, and we kind of study the imagination. How do children develop ideas that there are anthropomorphic entities that we can't see—a belief in the invisible world? All children have some beliefs like that. And we talk to evolutionary biologists, then we look at cultural anthropologists and their work.

And then we meet with other faculty and we discuss these issues—not in a sense to get an answer that ghost belief comes from [one] cause, because there's never a single cause for any phenomena, but trying to kind of create categories, kind of trying to lay out a map. Is it mostly psychological why people believe [in ghosts]? Or is it mostly social pressure? Is it purely cultural? Is it related to biogenetic reasons? We're looking at a wide variety of things and discussing them.

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What else does the Penn Ghost Project do?
A secondary part of the project: We have participated in now, I think, about four or five ghost hunts—meaning that we contact professional ghost hunters. We don't necessarily care about finding ghosts on ghost hunts, but we want to investigate why they participate in this, what is their belief, what techniques they use, what reasoning they use. We've found [that] a wide variety of people participate in ghost hunts, and a wide variety of people have different ways of doing it. Some people are really into the technical side with different forms of gadgets and machines, other people are very emotional and have an emotional connection to ghosts; we found people who enjoy participating in historical reenactments like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, things like this; [then there are] local historians in different places.

As part of this research, we also research ghost hunting in the past. Primarily right now we're looking into Philadelphia history. Philadelphia has these massive archives of newspapers—you know, being the oldest, and for a long time, the biggest city in the country—this massive amount of data on those hunters in the 1830s that were showing up, and in the 1870s, the 1920s. So we can see historically how this profession has changed. It's kind of a wide-ranging amorphous project at this point.

Photo via Flickr user Keoni Cabral

I'm assuming that you don't view ghosts as these malicious creatures.
In our first year we really focused on feeling and health. A lot of times when you ask [people about ghosts] in the Western European culture, you generally find that ghosts are seen as menacing or haunting by a lot of people. But in many cultures of the world, ghosts are seen as medical allies. So if you have a child who's sick or a relative who's sick, you can invoke the spirit through those ancestors and those spirits or ghosts that live in the community—or are believed to live in the community—and they can be allies in healing that relative with chants or rituals for them. Ghosts are a part of a medical regimen for a person in many cultures. A person that will go to a child oncologist and who would be getting modern treatments for a child [might also say], "If these things aren't working, I will also consult a person who is a medium that can contact spirits in the other world." If anybody has a sick child or sick relative, they would do anything that they can to help. And many people do multiple treatments and some of those treatments involve ghosts.

Are you trying to debunk the theory of ghosts being inherently spooky things?
Well yeah. Not necessarily debunk it, but show that there are multiple ways of thinking about ghosts in different cultures. I think one of our talks is called "Otherworldly Allies," so we're looking at other countries that see ghosts as allies—in health, or in business in terms of trying to get someone to come in and talk to the spirits of the building, talk to the spirits of the neighborhood and get them to get on your side vs. being against you. Politicians in various countries of the world have spiritual specialists who help with things—and they're not all visions of Rasputin, but actually consultants, spiritual consultants.

How does the work in Penn Ghost Project extend onto the larger campus? Are there any ghost studies courses?
Oh yeah! I'm teaching a course right now called Gods, Ghosts, and Monsters. Big class, it's about 100 or 90 students in the class—Penn has pretty large classes, I think—there's a lot of student interest. We have two professors in the History of Science and Medicine Department that talk about ghosts in the history of science; and in the psychology department we have a focus on the psychology of fear and the psychology of imagination; we have a professor of Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism who wrote a book on angels and demons and teaches a course. So yeah, lots and lots of courses.

I teach first and second year students to get them interested in the very idea of why there are so many cultures throughout history that have beliefs in things we can't prove—gods, and ghosts, and monsters—and what are the economic reasons, sociological reasons, psychological reasons, and biological reasons for this, and how can we explore them? It's a common part of our curriculum.

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Have you ever had any direct experiences with ghosts?
Yes, many of our members have. I think almost 100 percent of them are very skeptical about their own minds—even though they probably were hallucinations or probably related to what they ate that day. Who knows the reasons? But almost everyone has had some experience. And almost every one of my students has had some experience. It's interesting—and I've done this on many different occasions—when I ask big groups of students, "Who in the room believes in ghosts," you get very few hands going up. Or "Who has had experiences [with ghosts]?" Again, very few hands go up. But if you do anonymous surveys with those same groups (and we do), then you get very high percentages. But people don't like to, in public around their peers, talk about it. But if they are anonymous, it's quite high. In some cases, 75 percent of the students believe in the possibility of ghosts and over 20 percent firmly believe [that they've had an experience] with an otherworldly being. That's pretty high. But again, that's anonymous—if you ask them to raise their hands, they rarely do.

Why is that? Do you think it relates to a cultural stigma?
Exactly. They want to be seen as perfectly rational. And I think that's particular, especially when students are thinking about their careers. When you're old like me, you worry less and less about that.

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