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Ghost World

A Look at the Supernatural Through the Lens of Six Disciplines

Polly Becker

Do you believe in ghosts?

As Halloween approaches, this question pops up frequently. Virginia Magazine turned to UVA academics from six disciplines and asked them how each of their respective fields interprets the supernatural—spirits, visions, the undead and more.

None of the professors interviewed confessed to believing in ghosts themselves, but all study some aspect of the supernatural. Whether through qualitative anthropological analysis, deconstruction of literature and photography, archaeological digs or examining faulty neurons in the brain, these researchers each shared a bit of their vast and varied understanding about the human longing to believe in the spiritual realm.

Art History

Art historians are no more likely to give credibility to the supernatural than any other segment of the population, but the theme appears in the art of many cultures. Claire Raymond, an art historian at UVA who studies 19th-century spirit photography, says that the idea of ghosts is all about the desire of the living—the desire to not lose the dead.

Do You See What I See?

By Claire Raymond

Claire Raymond Polly Becker

Flip through cable TV channels today and you may come across paranormal investigation shows such as Ghost Hunters, in which “detectives” search for spirits using digital and infrared cameras, among other equipment. Modern and tech-heavy as this phenomenon might seem, it has its roots in a 19th-century practice known as spirit photography, a subject of my research.

In the mid-19th century, Spiritualism, the belief that the dead inhabit a spirit realm and can be contacted by living “mediums,” erupted in the United States and spread to Great Britain and France. The Spiritualist movement was buoyed in the United States by the ferocious death toll of the Civil War, which left survivors longing to make contact with their departed loved ones. One of the strangest adjuncts to this already fantastical belief system is spirit photography.

The Haunted Lane by Melander & Bro., 1889. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Spirit photographers, who claimed to be mediums channeling spirits of the dead, convinced their patrons that they could catch in photographs the images of ghosts. By using double exposures, blurred emulsions and models posing as spirits, they created photographs where a diaphanous spirit image appeared alongside the living subject of the photograph. Few people in the late 19th century understood how cameras worked, and in this pre-Kodak era, before spirit photography was revealed as trickery, the images produced gave some scientific credibility to Spiritualism.

Mary Todd Lincoln with the Ghost of Her Husband, c. 1869–70 William Mumler

Prominent spirit photographers William Mumler and Edouard Buguet were both tried for fraud in the 1860s and ’70s. But even after the prosecutions had proved rather definitively that the “ghosts” of lost loved ones photographed by Mumler and Buguet were fraudulently produced—images created by double exposures, props, models and even dolls—many Spiritualists continued to believe that the photographs were authentic. Despite prominent proponents such as Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, the Spiritualist movement—and spirit photography—waned and largely disappeared in the 20th century.

Why, then, is televised ghost hunting and newfangled spirit photography on the rise today? That may be a question for the media studies department. As an art historian, I see how spirit photography articulates the uncanny properties of light—its ubiquity and exacting force. Art curator and collector Sam Wagstaff, who introduced spirit photography into the fine arts world in the 1970s, described looking at the photographs as “watching a wild party, from a distance, through a lit window.” As pieces of art, the photographs capture the longing that clearly still exists, for some, today, of connecting the world of the living with the dead.

Claire Raymond is an assistant professor in UVA’s McIntire Department of Art and Art History. Her research focuses on the intersections of aesthetic theory and feminist theory, with an emphasis on the photographic image. She teaches art history and sociology courses on the theory of photography, the culture of the image and theories of cultural trauma and haunting.


Literature professors examine the supernatural only through texts, where ghosts or spirits tend to represent something else entirely. UVA professor of Spanish David Gies says that Spanish literature professors “rarely think about the supernatural except when it comes up as a plot device.” Below, Gies, an expert on the literature of Enlightenment and Romantic Spain describes the supernatural elements of 19th-century Spanish texts, where ghosts reflected the turmoil of the times.

Stand-Ins for the Devil

By David Gies

David Gies Polly Becker

Ghosts and phantasms figure prominently in Spanish literature, but nowhere more enthusiastically (and scarily) than during the Romantic period (the first half of the 19th century). From the bone-jangling specters that populate José Espronceda’s spooky narrative poem, “El estudiante de Salamanca” (The Student from Salamanca, 1836) to José Zorrilla’s super-famous drama, Don Juan Tenorio (1844)—where statues appear and disappear, a dead man walks through a wall and the ghost of a deceased lover materializes in order to save the soul of the sinning protagonist— Spanish readers and play-goers reveled in the joys and terrors of other-worldly beings. At the finale of Joaquín Francisco Pacheco’s weirdly incestuous play, Alfredo (1835), the evil (and spectral) Greek appears as a “supernatural” being to the play’s eponymous hero, who is suffering from a nervous breakdown. One of the period’s best-sellers was a four-volume work titled Funereal Gallery of Tragic Stories, Ghosts, and Bloodied Shadows (Agustín Pérez Zaragoza, 1831).

Many of the characters in these works were stand-ins for the Devil, who stood in opposition to God as a controller of the cosmos. While the European Enlightenment (in the 18th century) had promised peace and stability through the exercise of reason and scientific study, the Romantic world discovered that such promises were all lies (Napoleon saw to that), so the Spanish world-view shifted from the collective to the personal, from “us” to “me” (a preview of today’s Me Generation?), from optimistic to profoundly pessimistic. Fatalistic destiny, rather than benevolent concern, now controlled the universe (the Duke of Rivas’ most famous Romantic play is called Don Álvaro or the Force of Destiny, 1835). Enter the ghosts.

David Gies is Commonwealth Professor of Spanish in UVA’s Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and has published 15 books and critical editions of Spanish literature. In October 2007, he was granted a knighthood by His Majesty Juan Carlos, King of Spain.


Anthropologists of religions seek to understand how a community’s religious beliefs—and its engagement with the supernatural—affect daily life and culture. Cultural anthropologist Jalane Schmidt studies the lives and histories of peoples of African descent in the Americas and has both observed and participated in many Afro-Cuban rituals involving the supernatural, such as the one she describes here.

A Message from a Muerto Cimarrón

By Jalane Schmidt

I am continually amazed with human beings’ varied imaginings of the supernatural, and their creative attempts to interact with “It”—whatever they hold “It” to be.

Recently during a hot, humid night in rural Cuba, I found myself being taunted—or perhaps haunted?—by the spirit of a 200-year old escaped slave (cimarrón) who had been summoned by the gathered assembly of spirit mediums. Drawing close to my face, with the rhythms of the drumming ritual still pounding around us in the cramped room, the cimarrón mocked me, the visiting North American anthropologist: “You take a step and you stumble. But when I walk, I arrive!” I received the cimarrón’s unflattering comparison with good humor, and promised to try harder to arrive at an understanding of his words.

In Cuba, as in other former slave societies of the Americas, the memory of slavery still weighs heavily upon the present. Some 10 million Africans were kidnapped, stripped from their kinship networks and forced to labor (and often die) in wretched conditions in the New World. Throughout several centuries of dehumanizing treatment—what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has termed slavery’s “social death”— enslaved blacks asserted their dignity by forging their own systems of meaning. Among the slaves’ concerns—a question shared by many of their present-day descendants—was how to honor their dead, the muertos.

An altar in honor of a muerto cimarrón, prepared for a May 2010 ceremony in El Cobre, Cuba. Jalane Schmidt

Through the 19th century, devotional organizations (cabildos) comprising enslaved and free blacks honored their departed members by sponsoring Catholic masses during which they prayed for the repose of the souls of the deceased. Though approved by civil and church authorities who intended that the cabildos—often named for a Catholic saint—would Christianize blacks, these institutions served as social spaces where blacks elaborated upon earlier African forms of worship. The resulting creolized (hybridized) religious expressions are still popular in Cuba, and include Catholic appeals to the saints—the Christian dead—as well as African-inspired ritual remembrances of the community’s own muertos.

Being a scholar of both religious studies and of African American Studies, I found myself in rural Cuba, attending a ceremony in Cabildo Cimarrón, a religious community led by a friend of mine, Juan Madelaine González. A renowned local spiritist medium, Madelaine, as he is known, attracts a clientele who seek healing for their ailments, whether these are physical, psychological, social or some combination of thereof. Madelaine’s helper in his healing practice is his muerto cimarrón, a spirit of a long-dead escaped slave who, during consultations and drumming ceremonies, at times animates Madelaine’s body in the form of possession trance episodes.

Madelaine is normally a calm man. His muerto cimarrón is not. So present-day spiritists of the Cabildo Cimarrón must coax the cimarrón out of hiding from the slavecatchers who chase him, even in the afterlife. As Madelaine’s body spasms and his consciousness recedes, the assembly beckons the cimarrón with polyrhythmic drumming, clapping, and chanting: “Come, Congo cimarrón! Complete your mission!” Initially, the cimarrón shouts to us reluctantly, because he harbors suspicion that we, the attendees, might be in league with his pursuers. After attendees allay his fears (and ply him with rum and the occasional offering of a sacrificed animal), the cimarrón arrives. The ceremony is celebratory as the cimarrón is greeted as an honored guest while he offers otherworldly oracular advice to the gathering. For a time, the rent fabric of history is healed by the welcomed presence of the dead.

Jalane Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist of religion in UVA’s Department of Religious Studies. Her current research explores how the history of slavery is performed in spirit possession rituals and expressed in the material culture of African diaspora regions of the Caribbean and Latin America.


In the field of neurology, supernatural sightings are nothing more than visual hallucinations, a symptom of neurological disorders such as seizures and delirium, or diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Visual hallucinations are common in psychiatric disease as well, especially with schizophrenia, depression and substance abuse. Two UVA neurologists show us what happens when vision-related neurons in the brain don’t behave as they should, while also acknowledging that hallucinations can be a normal part of mourning.

“Ghostly Visions”

By Lisa S. Toran, MD and Sarah M. Jones, MD

Lisa S. Toran Polly Becker
Sarah M. Jones Polly Becker

Have you ever looked into a mirror and actually made it all the way through three “Bloody Mary” declarations, and as you go to turn away, out of the corner of your eye you think you actually see something … just before you run out of the room in fear?

This is most likely a visual illusion, and is actually quite common. The “Bloody Mary” phenomenon is referred to as the “strange face-in-the-mirror illusion,” and in studies it has been easily replicated by simply taking a group of people, putting them in a dimly lit room with a mirror and asking them what they see. In one study, 28 percent of people reported seeing the face of a stranger rather than their own, while a full 48 percent saw “fantastical and monstrous beings.” The author of this study suggests that there is an area of the brain specifically designed for interpretation of faces. When your face is distorted by low lighting—for example by drawing shadows and lines in places that you would not typically see in a lighted bathroom mirror—your brain misinterprets the image and identifies it as someone else’s.

We rely on the visual system to experience and navigate our world. Reflected light enters our eye and is transmitted through our visual pathways to the brain. The signal also is transmitted to areas of the brain involved with memory, emotional response and conscious interpretation of the image. These areas are therefore known as “visual association pathways.” But what if those vision-related neurons in your brain were not behaving as they should? This is the general idea behind the cause of visual hallucinations.

One way to think about visual hallucinations is to consider the case of hallucinations in epilepsy. Scientists think that a group of abnormal neurons in the visual pathway, or in the visual association pathways, are activated spontaneously and cause an electrical storm. This could lead you to experience a vision that is not actually present in the outside world. Thus, the image is generated from inside the brain. So just as an abnormal electrical discharge of a brain nerve can cause shaking of a limb, a similar abnormal discharge in just the right spot in the brain can potentially cause you to see all kinds of visions.

Visual hallucinations can be found in many neurologic conditions, including seizures, migraines, delirium, encephalitis and dementia. Hallucinations come in a wide array of different subtypes; they can be categorized as simple or complex. For example, people with migraine headaches may experience simple hallucinations, with flashes of light, zigzags of color and kaleidoscope swirls. For people with dementia or delirium, hallucinations can be far more complex. The observed object can be clearly defined and have specific form. The hallucinations can take the shape of animals or people and perhaps even ghosts.

Visual hallucinations can also be a normal part of mourning. Up to 80 percent of elderly subjects experience seeing their dead spouse within one month of their death, and this is considered a normal part of bereavement. The exact reason for this is unclear, but it is theorized that “their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing.” It is similar, in a way, to when staring at a light for too long can result in a negative image of the light when we look away.

It is interesting to consider how all these conditions we currently classify as explainable causes of hallucinations were viewed in the distant (and not so distant) past. How many people with visions due to epilepsy were merely classified as “crazy,” and how many put pen to paper to describe their hallucinations in the form of ghost stories? So next time you consider the existence of ghosts, just remember they may just exist inside our minds.

Lisa S. Toran (Res’16) is a 4th-year resident physician in neurology at the UVA Medical Center.

Sarah M. Jones is a physician and an assistant professor in the UVA Department of Neurology.

Religious Studies

As a field of inquiry, religious studies takes an agnostic stance toward the supernatural: It neither affirms nor denies it, says religious studies professor Greg Schmidt Goering. Most of the world’s people practice religion in some form, and many of these religions believe in the existence of supernatural realms. Goering sees his research as a way to understand the ways humans find solace and meaning through practices like the Mexican Day of the Dead ritual.

Soul Food

By Greg Schmidt Goering

Greg Schmidt Goering Polly Becker

As a scholar of religion, I want to know what ideas about the supernatural people hold, why they believe what they do, and how such beliefs in the supernatural affect their behaviors. In my course Sensing the Sacred, we examine the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Like Halloween, Day of the Dead abuts the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2).

In Mexican tradition, the celebration constitutes a family reunion during which, it is believed, one’s deceased ancestors return home to commune with their living relatives for a few brief hours.

Two Day of the Dead skeletal figurines. According to Goering, the figurines speak to the idea that life and death are not all that separate.

Leading up to Day of the Dead, Mexican families construct elaborate home altars decorated with the foods and drinks that the deceased enjoyed in life. Tamales and sweets sit alongside flowers, candles, skeletal figurines, copal incense and photographs of deceased loved ones. The living make these offerings to the dead, who, it is believed, return from the cemetery once a year to visit their relatives and partake of these offerings. The disembodied souls do not eat the food offerings physically; rather they consume them spiritually. After the dead have had their fill, the living partake of the food and drink and share leftovers with friends and family.

Relatives also strew a line of marigold petals from the door of the home to the altar. The deceased ancestors follow the scent of the orange and yellow flowers to the food offerings. In order that the dead can find their way back afterwards, petals are also scattered from the home in the direction of the cemetery.

A Day of the Dead decorative skull.

What do Day of the Dead rituals tell us about ghosts and the supernatural? About the senses in Mexican culture? I’ve always thought of death as the end of sentient experience. But clearly Day of the Dead practices insist that some sensory faculties persist even in death; the practices of preparing favorite foods and creating paths with marigold petals suggest that the dead can smell and taste, if not see or hear. The rituals indicate that the realms of the dead and the living are not so separate—taste and smell provide an ongoing communion between the two.

Greg Schmidt Goering is an associate professor in UVA’s Department of Religious Studies. His research examines how ancient Jewish sages developed wisdom bodily in their students by educating the senses and constructing a sensorium. He teaches courses such as The Nature and Nurture of the Senses and Sensing the Sacred: Sensory Perception and Religious Imagination.


Archaeologists generally agree that the ancient Greeks believed in things that we now consider supernatural. UVA alumna and archaeologist Carrie Sulosky Weaver, who conducts research in southeastern Sicily, made a rare discovery of ancient tombs that showed a fear of the undead.

Invoking and Suppressing the Dead at Kamarina

By Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver

Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver Polly Becker

Within the Passo Marinaro necropolis, in use from the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE, and located in the ancient Greek colony of Kamarina in southeastern Sicily, some graves contain skeletons that are intentionally trapped in their tombs, while others possess tablets with magical inscriptions addressed to Underworld deities. These macabre and unusual archaeological findings suggest that the ancient Greeks may have participated in rituals intended to both ward off and summon the dead.

The ancient Greeks believed that death was not necessarily a permanent state, and supernatural occurrences are described by ancient authors such as Homer and Plutarch. Fear of the dead, or necrophobia, is palpable in the stories that describe bodies rising from their graves, while other tales involve the efforts of the living to invoke the spirits of the dead, known as necromancy.

Drawing of the burial in Tomb 693. This tomb contains a child approximately 8 to 13 years old, with five large stones place on top. It appears that the stones were used to trap the body in its grave. D. Weiss from G. Di Stefano's excavation journals

Necrophobia centers on the belief that the dead are able to physically reanimate and exist in a state that is neither living nor dead, but rather “undead.” Scholars typically refer to the undead as “revenants” from the Latin word for “returning,” revenans. The concept is popular on a number on current television shows, including the French drama Les Revenants (The Returned). In the ancient world, revenants are feared because it is believed that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living. To prevent them from departing their graves, revenants must be sufficiently “killed” by means of incineration or dismemberment. Alternatively, revenants could be trapped in their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, buried exceptionally deep, or pinned with rocks or other heavy objects.

Tomb number 653 in Kamarina’s Passo Marinaro necropolis contains an adult whose head and feet are completely covered by large fragments of an amphora (a ceramic storage vessel), presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising. The second tomb, number 693, contains a child approximately 8 to 13 years old, with five large stones placed on top. Like the amphora fragments, it appears that these stones were used to trap the body in its grave. Although the reasons for entrapment will never be fully known, I have considered numerous explanations for these unusual findings. A supernatural interpretation is plausible, and these individuals could have been pinned to their graves to prevent them from harming the living.

Drawing of the burial in Tomb 653. This tomb contains an adult whose head and feet are completely covered by large fragments of an amphora, presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising. D. Weiss from G. Di Stefano's excavation journals

The material remains of necromancy, the purposeful invocation of the dead, have also been found in the necropolis. The dead were invoked covertly through the use of curse tablets, which the Greeks called katadesmoi. These were binding spells inscribed on thin sheets of lead, often shaped like tongues or leaves, which were deposited in graves during secret nighttime ceremonies. The messages on katadesmoi were intended for Underworld deities who were expected to coerce the souls of the dead into fulfilling the requests of the living. Often, petitioners sought to redress a wrong that had been committed, such as murder or the theft of an inheritance, but katadesmoi were also used so that one might gain an advantage in love or business.

To date, thirteen katadesmoi have been recovered from Kamarina’s Passo Marinaro necropolis. Due to the degradation of their inscribed surfaces, these tablets have not been fully translated, but four of them were clearly pierced by nails. Nails were used to puncture or symbolically “kill” objects, presumably to ensure their arrival in the Underworld or to draw the attention of Underworld deities.

Drawing of a katadesmos from Kamarina. D. Weiss

Although rare, the material remains of supernatural beliefs and practices are preserved in the archaeological record, and they present modern archaeologists with the difficult task of their interpretation. Remains such as those found at Kamarina provide additional evidence for necrophobia and necromancy and shed light on a dark but fascinating aspect of ancient Greek burial practices.

Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver (Grad ’13) earned a PhD in the history of art and architecture from the University of Virginia. She is an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. More information about the supernatural practices uncovered at Kamarina can be found in her book The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily (University Press of Florida, 2015).