July 19 2024

Haunting the Religious Studies Classroom

by Richard J. Callahan, Jr., University of Missouri

 Black and white photograph of 2 men and 3 women around a table, each with one hand on top of it. A spectre of a hand arises from the floor toward the bottom of the table.

From Ghosts to Haunting

At the outset of my “Haunting and Healing” course we begin with familiar experiences, finding ways to approach them anew. An early assignment is to collect local stories of ghosts and haunted places. Not only to record them; but also to talk with people about where they heard the stories, what they think of them, if they’ve told them to anybody else, and if so, then in what settings. I have multiple pedagogical goals wrapped up in this assignment. First, it encourages students to think locally and concretely, and to see the supernatural as a part of the living culture around them and not only in literature or the movies. Second, it provides a rich collection of material, in which the students have a stake, for class discussion—including, in addition to the subject matter of the stories, the experiences of collecting them. Students often find that people they talked with questioned why a college class, especially a class in religious studies, would be interested in ghost stories. This leads to conversation in class about what is considered “appropriate” material for the academic study of religion and higher education more generally. Students also find that many people claim that they do not “believe” the stories they share, but they share them anyway in particular settings. Moreover, students learn that people’s ideas about the supernatural derive from a variety of sources, usually not connected with religious institutions. Third, as students compare and discuss the stories that they’ve collected, they come to the realization that many of the hauntings have something to do with the Civil War. This makes sense, given the mid-Missouri setting, and the pattern compels students to recognize the ways that a particular past haunts the present in this place. Haunting, they learn, is not just individualistic; it is social and historical, related to shared—and contested—memory and identity.

With that collecting project under their belts, and with the focus still on “lived religion” and “real people,” the class then turns to several folkloristic approaches to supernatural material. The purpose here is to introduce them both to a variety of supernatural traditions that are found in the United States and to a variety of ways of exploring this material academically. They read about the history and morphology of Phantom Hitchhiker legends. They explore storytelling events and supernatural narratives as performances that engross participants and audiences, suspend disbelief, allow people to “try out” their understanding of the limits of reality and what they can know. They learn about ostension (i.e., the practice of enacting the legends they hear) usually by visiting purported sites of haunting or supernatural activity. By this point, they have developed a vocabulary and a bank of comparative material through which to further analyze and interpret the stories they collected at the outset of the course.

The class follows up on this material with three books that also model very different methodological and theoretical approaches to issues of haunting while slowly stretching the valence of “haunting” into different, and more abstract, realms. Reading Darryl Caterine’s (2011) Haunted Ground: Journeys Through a Paranormal America, they learn about different communities formed around paranormal phenomena (spiritualists, UFOlogists, and dowsers) while also grappling with the author’s reflexive ethnographic approach and his interpretation of America’s haunted present as the result of an unsettled relationship to the American land and its indigenous peoples. Sean McCloud’s (2015) American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States presents students with a decidedly non-ethnographic critical method, analyzing texts by influential leaders of the contemporary evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal deliverance ministry movement. McCloud interprets the recent growth of demonology and exorcism among Protestants in the context of the porous borders of global capitalism, neoliberalism, and cultural diversity. Jeffrey Sconce’s (2000) Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television takes up the central role of developments in media technology in his book. To this I add material about spirit photography and social media. Sconce pushes the notion of haunting the furthest, entering through the relationship of the development of the telegraph to the practice of Spiritualism, by taking students on a journey through increasingly abstracted conceptions of the self, society, and presence that coincide with increasingly abstracted electronic communication technologies and epistemologies.

By the end of the course students are familiar with a variety of supernatural phenomena, with a focus on practice and lived experience. They have also encountered and worked with several approaches to this material, and they have expanded their notion of haunting to encompass social, historical, and material analysis and interpretation that is more complex than the question of the independent existence of supernatural beings or forces.

Haunted America

In a classroom discussion, a student describes his trip over the summer with two friends to a cemetery in Stull, Kansas, the location of one of seven earthly “doorways to hell” and site of many legends about terrifying demonic appearances.

Two members of a fraternity that operates a haunted house every Halloween report about strange experiences they have had in the building’s basement, which they say was used as a hospital during the Civil War.

An adult woman visits a slave burial ground one evening, recording the silence of the night on a digital audio recorder. Later, she will play back the recording at various speeds to try to discern the sound of voices carrying a message to her from the invisible realm. Light orbs on the pictures she took with her mobile phone camera have already confirmed for her the presence of ghosts.

Why teach a course like “Haunting and Healing” in a department of religious studies? It is a subject matter largely underexplored in the discipline and in my subfield of American religious studies. Yet all around us there is widespread belief and practice and representation of the supernatural, and there is strong student interest in this material (personally and socially, if not necessarily academically). The supernatural, seemingly so fundamental a component of religion, seemingly so omnipresent in American culture, has seemingly also been classified by scholars of American religion as the stuff of “others”—so-called “primitive” or “premodern” peoples, or groups like Pentecostals, charismatics, or new religious movements who are also relegated to the margins of the American religious mainstream—or it has been considered to mainly be a concern of psychology, explaining why people would hold irrational beliefs. As I have come to understand it, this neglect of the supernatural is the result of several factors influencing the way that religious studies, and in particular the study of religion in the United States, is studied and taught. It assumes a secularization thesis of a sort, a narrative of disenchantment. It also privileges an institutional focus. And mainline Christian groups, as well as other modern/mainstream religious institutions, do not emphasize supernaturalism (the narrative goes). Those religious groups that do are almost by definition not mainstream. Yet there is so much of the supernatural all around us, and the study of religion in America has passed it by. I began teaching this course because I wanted to account for this and correct for its neglect.

Another reason for wanting to teach a course on the supernatural was my conviction that many (if not most) Americans come by many of their religious ideas and practices not from the sources that scholars generally recognize as religious authorities. Rather, they get them from popular culture—movies, television, novels, music, etc.—and folklore (stories they hear others tell, hearsay, rumors, etc.). They are disseminated and maintained by cultural practices that make up memory, identity, and sense of place. And these ideas and practices are more of a repertoire of familiar idioms and affects than they are “beliefs.” They can provide a subject matter around which to stage debates about what matters and what is real and what is not, and they often have cultural force and resonance in either case. I also wanted to focus on real people’s involvement with the supernatural—that is, the course would not be just a literary or popular cultural catalog and analysis of treatments of supernatural themes and stories, but real instances of this stuff in practice, in real people’s lives. Part of understanding how religion is actually practiced in the United States means taking ghosts and haunting seriously.

Finally, I also justify my course by way of my interest in what has been called the “spectral turn” in cultural studies, a consideration of haunting and ghosts as a way of thinking about culture and society that has seemed to me to be a particularly fruitful and exciting development, and a fitting method for religious studies to think with. The spectral turn not only takes ghosts seriously, viewing them not as superstition but as real markers of lingering, unfinished business; it also treats haunting as an affective reality of material life. Seemingly paradoxically, it is the limitations of materiality that give rise to the felt presence of invisible worlds: The absence of people who were once present; The unfinished business of justice deferred in history; The unacknowledged debts and sacrifices that have made the present possible. I felt that placing these cultural critical methods, which can be traced back to Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s “Theory of Ghosts” (from their book Dialectic of Enlightenment), in connection with more “familiar” examples of haunting and ghosts might help students to find new ways of seeing and thinking about both the supernatural and about cultural and social formations and forces.

The Reality of Ghosts

The danger of a course on the supernatural in America is that it risks becoming too amorphous, a show-and-tell or a cataloguing of varieties of ghostly experience. “Haunting and Healing” has gone through several transformations over the years as I have tried to reign it in and give it more coherence. It began with more of a balance between content focused on ghosts and haunting, on the one hand, and content that focused specifically on supernatural healing (faith healing, Audrey Santo, exorcisms, that sort of thing) on the other hand. After one or two iterations, I decided that I was covering too much material and lacking a focus. The current version of the course really took shape from the following quotation from sociologist Avery Gordon’s (1997, 8) book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination:

The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.

I discuss this passage in class at the beginning of the semester, then we revisit it at the end. That revisiting shows students how much they have learned as they show how they can apply it and explain it. Whether supernatural beings or forces have independent existence, I tell students, is a question for physicists, theologians, paranormal researchers, and other specialists. But examining the cultural and social uses and practices of ghosts and haunting in America, we find, among other things, that ghosts and haunting are signs of unresolved or complex issues—personal, social, and cultural—and therefore cry for healing of one sort or another. And they are therefore a real part of our reality as social, cultural beings in time and place. Through taking haunting seriously, we end up with a new perspective on thinking about history, identity, and place. As Avery Gordon notes, sometimes being attentive to ghosts, rather than fearing or dismissing them, can help us to see our world more clearly by disrupting our taken-for-granted-realities.


There is a teaching goal embedded in this perspective on haunting that I believe is relevant for religious studies and the humanities more generally: to be comfortable with ambiguity and ambivalence, to be willing to try various methodological and theoretical approaches, to refuse a single positivist answer. Ghosts and haunting, as we treat them in this course, push against black-and-white, dichotomous analysis and interpretation. They evade absolute answers. They return to remind you that your “expertise” is neglecting something. The course as a whole is a series of exercises for entering into different epistemological modalities through which to explore different conceptions and perceptions of reality and experience, while still maintaining academic integrity and not resorting simply to statements of faith or belief. I see it as a possible method of religious studies for a post-secular age, intent not on debunking but on reflexively exploring “reparative” or creatively constructive readings of cultural phenomena. This approach practices the expansion of an analysis of religious subject matter to pertain to more widespread social, cultural, and material phenomena. Likewise, it takes seriously the interdisciplinary nature of our discipline and the humanly-constructed nature of our categories (including the category of “religion” itself), and thus explores multiple methods, meanings, and applications towards both the subject matter and its objectivity, opening epistemological cracks and engaging creative redeployment of analytical, interpretive, critical description and subject matter and categories. As the spectral turn, like the literary turn in cultural studies before it, imagined new ways of seeing familiar phenomena, and therefore new ways of producing knowledge and engaging the world, so too this haunted approach to the study of religion and culture.



del Pilar Blanco, Maria and Peeren, Esther. 2013. The Spectralities Reader. NewYork: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Caterine, Darryl. 2011. Haunted Ground: Journeys Through a Paranormal America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Ellis, Bill. 2003. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Gordon, Avery. 1997. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McCloud, Sean. 2015. American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sconce, Jeffrey. 2000. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

photo of Richard Callahan wearing a baseball cap, blue polo, with trees in the background.Richard J. Callahan, Jr., is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust (Indiana University Press, 2008) and editor of New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase (University of Missouri Press, 2008). He is past cochair of the Religion and Popular Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion.