“To the best of my knowledge, the answer is I have not had any ghostly experiences, although people might say that in the world in which I have to function, being in constant touch with dysfunctional governments across the country, that each one of those, maybe in their own way, an experience that could have benefitted from a ghostly presence.” — David L. Cohen, chairman of Penn’s board of trustees and executive vice president of Comcast.
“I’ve not seen any ghosts, but I did see a UFO years ago (not on campus). I was flying from San Francisco to San Diego late at night, about 10 o’clock at night. I was in college. I had just taken an astronomy course, so I was looking out the window, and I thought I saw Venus outside the plane…But then I realized the clouds were passing behind it, so I thought it must be a plane flying along at the same speed we are…Then it started to pulse, didn’t blink, but it woudl dim down, and it started pulsing faster, and faster, and faster and faster. And then it just shot straight up…I didn’t see any metallic shape or anything, but it was certainly an abnormal thing…” Stephen MacCarthy, Vice President, University Communications
“I have never had any contact with ghosts, but I do say when I walk through the Egyptian archives at the museum, I can feel history right there, but I’ve never had anyone talk to me. Not yet.…” But she has felt a closeness with family members who have passed. “I’m a very big spiritual believer in those things, and I like to think that the ghosts that I’d meet are friendly and nice.” — Maureen S. Rush, Vice President for Public Safety
“Not since I left City Hall.” – Gregory S. Rost, Vice President and Chief of Staff
“I can’t say I’ve ever had any ghostly experiences that I can recall in my life. I have no doubt that in the centuries’ long history of this campus there must be numerous ghost stories to be told. Unforunately I have none to tell myself.” – Vincent Price, Provost
Here’s the story on the Penn Ghost Project.
The ghost hunters and the Ivy League professors were 40 minutes into their investigation at the University of Pennsylvania’s museum of Archaeology and Anthropology when Projit B. Mukharji felt something.
The rest of the group had fanned out across the darkened Harrison Auditorium, a spacious art deco room with coffered dome. The paranormal sleuths were training their temperature guns and “electromagnetic frequency meters” — tools that, in theory, register changes should a spirit be present.
Mukharji, 37, was sitting alone in the front row.
“I suddenly started sweating a lot,” he said. “And I thought I got a very strong smell of perfume.”
A major score for a ghost hunter. But for a spirit-agnostic professor?
Mukharji, who teaches the history of science and medicine, isn’t sure what he experienced on that visit last August to the Penn Museum. But he experienced something.
“You could either call it a panic attack,” the professor said, “or you could call it a ghost attack.”
He’s part of a group of Penn professors who are delving into the impact of ghost beliefs across cultures and disciplines.
Just don’t call them ghost busters.
They’re not trying to prove or disprove ghosts.
“We want to understand it as a sociological reality and a cultural reality,” said Justin McDaniel, a professor and chair of the religious studies department at Penn. “It should be given a forum where people can talk about it.”
McDaniel’s group calls itself “The Penn Ghost Project” and later this semester, students will begin recording ghost stories on campus. The goal: to create an online ghost story archive for the ages.
“We want to kind of map out the ghosts at Penn, where are people saying they are,” said McDaniel, 42, a former Buddhist monk who earned his doctorate in Sanskrit at Harvard and isn’t sure whether he believes in ghosts. “If it goes well, we’ll start mapping the ghost history of Philadelphia, which is extensive, probably more extensive than any city in the country, just because it’s big and it’s old.”
McDaniel and five colleagues formed the group more than a year ago after discovering their mutual interest in the incorporeal.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to find a connection between our research interests and everyday life interest in the supernatural,” said another member, Ilya Vinitsky, who chairs the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.
Joyce White, a lecturer, archaeologist and consulting museum scholar, was eager to act on an interest developed while working for two years in Thailand.
“They kept talking about ghosts, and you had to acknowledge at the very least this was a part of their existence,” she said.
David Barnes is considered the group’s biggest skeptic. The historian of medicine and public health became interested in the subject while writing a book about the former Lazaretto quarantine station and hospital on the Delaware River outside Philadelphia. Many people died there, making it a favorite haunt of ghost hunters.
“I don’t feel it,” Barnes said of paranormal activity. “I don’t have any room in my belief system for it, but I’m really interested in the fact that \[they\] do.”
The group has received $10,000 in university funding to bring in speakers, pay student assistants, and set up a website. They’ve taken trips with ghost hunters to learn how they work and they held their first symposium in October 2013.
It was packed, McDaniel said.
The professors also gave a presentation last fall at homecoming, which prompted alumni to share their own ghost experiences.
The project has sparked interest off campus, too, attracting dozens of e-mails. Someone from Ohio donated 468 books on ghost lore.
Professors have disappointed some inquirers, who had hoped Penn would investigate their haunted house.
“That’s not our thing,” McDaniel said.
At one time, however, it was Penn’s thing.
In 1883, with a bequest from a benefactor, Henry Seybert, Penn formed the “Seybert Commission,” a group of scholars headed by the provost who investigated “modern spiritualism,” including attending séances and looking for evidence of spirits.
It found none.
But that hasn’t quelled the stories. The Penn museum has attracted a number of ghost stories over the years, said Alex Pezzati, senior archivist.
Someone spotted a ghost in the archival room in the mid 1990s, he said.
“He walked from behind that shelf just over there,” Pezzati said, pointing a short distance. “He had some old-style clothing, frilly shirt and top hat.”
Then poof. Gone.
Pezzati has spent decades in the museum, including some late nights, but hasn’t experienced anything ghostly himself: “That would be kind of cool. But sorry, no.”
Mukharji still isn’t sure what to make of his museum experience. He also thought he heard the seemingly inexplicable banging of a door in a basement room filled with skulls.
Frank Cassidy, founder of the Delaware County-based Free Spirit Paranormal Investigators, who led the investigation that night, said the group found “no hard evidence” of ghosts.
“It was just senses that we all got while we were there,” he said. “I got the smell of chicken soup. We thought we felt the presence of a person there, an angry, elderly gentleman.”
The students who will assist the professors in ghost-mapping Penn are split on whether they believe in ghosts. But all want people to feel comfortable sharing stories.
“You don’t have to be crazy to have this experience,” said Beatrice Field, 19, a sophomore from West Palm Beach, Fla.
Field, who is from Honduras, said her family once lived in a house possessed by a spirit. It got so bad that the family shared a bedroom and set up barriers so the ghost wouldn’t enter, she said.
“We would have a ritual at night, where we would put out tubs of water, shoes (in the shape of a cross), the bible, a candle and we would all say a prayer,” she said.
Finally, her Aunt Hilda — a large, loud woman — came to the rescue.
“She said, ‘you have to curse him out,’” she said.
And they did.
Khadija Tarver, 20, a junior from Everett, Wa., has sensed the ghost of an elderly man in her apartment near the Penn campus.
“He was grumpy that I was changing things in this place that was his home,” she said.
She hopes to learn more through the project.
Elizabeth Gonzalez, 19, a sophomore from Miami, doesn’t believe in ghosts, but wants to hear the experiences of others.
“My main point of studying it is to understand how it affects the medical realm,” said the aspiring geneticist.
Her research adviser warned her not to put the project on her resume. Science isn’t ready.
“Once I explained what we were doing,” she added, “he was a little more OK.”