The Allure of the Supernatural

By

Current and Former Instances of the Supernatural at Harvard

 

By GRAHAM WALTER

 

In a culture as superstitious as currently exists, there is a surprising lack of research into the existence of ghosts and other such spirits. Hollywood has broached the subject with mockumentaries such as “Paranormal Activity” or reflected on more religious-like spirits like in “The Exorcist,” but the field of science has largely failed to intersect significantly with that of the supernatural. 

There is an entire field of science, or more probably, an entire field of pseudoscience that is found in CBS’s “The Ghost Whisperer,” NBC’s “Medium,” or Scyfy’s “Ghost Hunters” that may suggest that ghosts do exist and are in fact discoverable. While in the current day, the existence of ghosts is unproven, there does exist this mystical grey area, millions of Americans believe in ghosts. According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 37% of Americans believed that haunted houses were real; further, a larger percent believed in ghosts or other types of spirits and about 75% of Americans believed in some sort of figure beyond on realm. The percentages differ from country to country, depending on the history and traditions of the country. In England, these figures were far higher, which can be rationalized considering the deeper literary and historical associations with the supernatural. 

Bringing this all back to Harvard, a campus older than the United States, the Independent conducted a survey regarding common beliefs beliefs here on campus. Harvard serves as a particularly interesting location to conduct such a survey, given the wide variance given its age, historical significance, variance in spiritual and cultural beliefs, and variety in rationalism. Focusing in on ghosts and other such spirits, the study revealed a greater proportion of belief in the mystical than the national averages previously discussed. 

First, almost half of the respondents said they did not believe in ghosts. There was a nearly identical divide with the remaining half, where 23% were skeptics, and 29% fully believed in ghosts. In terms of other types of spirits, demons, and other poltergeist-like creatures, 44% of respondents stated yes, indicating a greater proportion of believers. While conducting such a study may reveal something generally about campus populous, in the cases of the supernatural, however, the statistics are often-times less interesting than the particular stories behind the responses. 

For many like myself, an event that we or another witnessed is the only proof we have for these ghosts. In my own case, my father bought an old house up in Massachusetts with my two older brothers; they were only around five and six and at the time, incapable of too much mischief. About once a week, my brothers would be found with unexplainable large bruises or items from places they couldn’t reach. While this was all somewhat easy to rationally explain (they were small children after all), in special instances, there seemed to be a voice that would tell them to leave and physically push the children away. Needless to say, my family sold the house not long after.

Because neither the supernatural, nor the psyche is fully understood, several respondents believed in ghosts, but with reservation. One said that he or she has “hallucinated dead family members speaking” but there is a possibility “that could entirely be my own psyche, who knows!” Similarly, another respondent reported that their “sister believes that her sleep paralysis is actually hauntings.” A third respondent went with a more philosophical approach, stating “we are the supernatural… coexisting with infinite realities of other naturals and supernaturals.” These responses are reflective of the fact that for many, the supernatural is far more than a halloween scary story or frightening mishap: it can be a facet of day to day life, intellectual discourse, or philosophical reflection. 

A final respondent gave us a more detailed and spooky story: 

“I do not generally believe in ghosts, but my mother, one of the most rational people I know, and her best friend, also an astute, rational person, saw and independently described a little girl in Victorian dress that haunted the bathtub in their apartment in 1980s Berlin. They could not find any rational explanation for both of them to hallucinate this image. The girl was quiet and mostly still, but not frozen, and if she was some kind of supernatural presence, she did not seem angry or aggressive. My mother’s friend described her as an echo or a memory, but again, could not come up with a reasonable explanation for both of them to imagine the same little girl. They had a washing machine but no dryer, so they had a drying rack hung above the bathtub, and they would often see her while they were hanging their clothes up to dry.”

Even within such recountings, the current perspective on ghosts is clear to see: an emphasis is made on the mother and her friend being highly rational as a precursor for the story to be believable. At Harvard, rationality may say that ghosts are not real, but at the same time, rationality may also posit: if there were any educational institution to have ghosts, would it not be this one? 

Here at Harvard, considering its steep tradition and the millions of people who have lived here, it seems as if there is bound to be a group of ghosts that appear in our halls or residencies. In the opening few days, like many of my classmates, one of the first stories disseminated across the class of 2021 happened to be the ghosts underneath the basement of Sanders Theater. TFs and students alike say that at odd hours of the day, the instrument lockers will slam and other creepy noises will echo through the halls. 

More grounded in science, William James, a Harvard philosopher and psychologist devoted a lot of time and energy to proving the existence of spirits. This work was primarily done through the observations of the famous early 20th century medium Leonora Piper. More about his research and unique stories can be found in Deborah Blum’s book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

In the book, Blum details the life of James and his rapid fixation on séances after the death of his child in 1884. A considerable portion of his testaments have high praise for the medium. She seems to be off on details, but information that transcended her knowledge seemed to commonly come up. Other professors from Harvard would have their lives read, and the results went beyond reason. Piper seemed to know secret messages, real names, and other uncanny details.

Whether creepy or jolly, Holbrook Smith, an undocumented student from 1914 would often chat with students in Mass Hall B entryway: the oldest building at Harvard. At one point, according to the legend, Dean of Freshman William C. “Burriss” Young confronted the ghost after complaints from students. As it has been reported many times before, Smith looked Young straight in the eyes and “with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen,” Young recalled that he said “‘You’ve ruined a perfectly good thing,’” never to be seen again.

Further, Apthorp House, the yellow house in Adams House, is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the revolutionary war. The house was built in 1760 and was the prison for general John Burgoyne. When you have time, look further into Lowell house’s (best house’s) ghosts starting with Elliott Perkins and poet Amy Lowell, the Pulitzer Prize winning imagist who didn’t technically go to Harvard, but has spent several lifetimes leaving a trace of cigar smoke and a full bodied apparition in front of her portrait.

All of these surreal experiences lead us further into the question of what the supernatural actually is and how do we find proof. While the reputation of “ghost-hunting” is not the best, it is always interesting when experiencing or listening to stories about the supernatural. The reasons behind our natural curiosity lie in the fact that there is so much grey area within the topic, and short of pulling an argument based on logical positivism, we cannot say whether ghosts exist. The lack of proof, again, makes the entire subject so alluring and transfixing. 

 

Graham Walter (@[email protected]) writes news for the Indy.