Scholarship on the inseparability between hauntings, the use and meaning of place, and the observer informed our research of the experiences and stories of ghosts at UVM.
Throughout our study, we found a common question or debate in most discussions of ghosts or hauntings is that of individual belief in the supernatural. In a study among university students in Ghana, Gustav Jahoda discovered belief in the supernatural was dependent on being from Africa (other students were from Europe), parental occupation and familial belief, and scoring lower on intelligence tests (Jahoda, 1970). These trends highlight the tendency to favor logical, physical evidence in Western nations over the supernatural. In “Unstable Landscapes: Affect, Representation, and a Multiplicity of Hauntings,” Ruth Heholt uses non-representational theory to argue that ghosts are inherent parts of the landscape beyond our dominant modes of interpreting physical world (Heholt, 2016). Hauntings are often unseen, so how an observer experiences or feels a haunting or ghost story in their body matters much more than if they “believe.” Ghosts and landscapes are not separate from the human world, but instead co-construct human understanding and experience of that place.
Hauntings illuminate and disrupt the temporality of place, as many scholars defined ghosts as representations of past events manifested in the future (Holloway and Kneale, 2008; Maddern and Adey, 2008; McKay, 2012). In “Locating a Haunting: A Ghost Hunter’s Guide,” Holloway and Kneale argue that ghosts are “something alive that appears to be dead,” in that they disrupt temporality by representing a mysterious death or tragedy of the past, but haunt these same places in different ways with different observers, and so create new relationships. Places and objects hold particular meanings and emotions for people (Holloway and Kneale, 2008). By disrupting our understandings of the concrete, physical world, hauntings create new interpretative frameworks of the mysterious and “otherworldly” aspects of the spaces and places we inhabit today.
When people think of ghosts, they often imagine spooky, old or abandoned haunted houses. Research shows, however, that the use associated with a place is just as important as the age (Cowdell, 2014; Heholt, 2016). In his study of hauntings in London, Paul Cowdell found that a bridge with a recent history of suicide was more haunted than centuries old buildings (Cowdell, 2014). In this situation, the use of the space (the bridge) to carry out a traumatic event caused the haunting. From another perspective, Ruth Heholt’s discussion on affect theory demonstrates the significance of the use of space by a witness of a haunting arguing, “haunting itself is merely or only affect; it has no existence without affect” (Heholt, 2016). Without the presence of witnesses to observe and experience the ghost, however it manifests itself, the haunting cannot exist.
Much of the literature emphasized the relationship between traumatic events or meaning associated with a place and the potential for haunting. Kathy McKay used female suicide in China to illustrate how ghosts stem more frequently from tragedy then from joyous occasions (McKay, 2012). Similar conclusions can be drawn from Cowdell’s study in England, as the older a building is, the more time for trauma to occur and attract hauntings, and for “ghostlore” to be passed down (Cowdell, 2014). This relationship between a haunting or ghost story and trauma exemplifies the interpretive frameworks hauntings give to the observer to understanding the world. In their editorial, “Spectro-Geographies,” Maddern and Adey argue that ghosts are employed for humans to apprehend those aspects of the world that we do not understand, expect, or represent (Maddern and Adey, 2008). McKay’s work in China exemplifies this because the hauntings from suicide were understood as a deterrent to this type of future trauma (McKay, 2012).
Our empirical evidence in the following sections demonstrates how the ghost stories of UVM influence and disrupt how students and faculty use and make meaning of places on UVM’s campus today.