Celebrating spooky season with ‘Haunted Histories’

In the 2020 iteration of their yearly Halloween tradition, the Classics Students’ Association (CSA) and History Students’ Association (HSA) co-hosted “Haunted Histories,” a night of short Halloween-themed lectures that drew over 80 Zoom participants. Prior to the Oct. 27 event, each department asked two of their professors to speak about a spooky or Halloween-related topic. 

This year, Dr. Philip Gooding and Professor Andrea Tone represented the History department, while the Classics department nominated Dr. Brahm Kleinman and Dr. Martin Sirois. Traditionally, lecturers are given free rein to choose their topic, as long as it suits the event’s “haunted” theme. HSA President Dalton Liggett, U3 Arts, discussed the process by which the professors and the respective students’ associations selected topics.

“The professors share a ‘pitch’ with us in advance about what story they will tell and we then either confirm their pitch or suggest any adjustments if there are any concerns about topicality, spookiness, [and] appropriateness,” Liggett said.

“Haunted Histories” has been running for over five years, and has become a hallowed tradition, even outside of the History and Classics departments. Usually, it is held in a dimly-lit lecture hall where attendees can pass around Halloween candy and listen to spooky music. 

However, like all other event organizers this semester, the CSA and HSA had to make adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, this year’s event was hosted on Zoom, bringing the bloodcurdling lectures to students’ homes. Despite the adjustments, CSA President Taryn Power, U2 Arts, had faith that students still enjoyed the stories.

“It [wasn’t] the same [as previous versions], but I think that hearing the stories the professors have prepared [is] still a fun way to mark the season altogether,” Power said.

Gooding discussed lakes and ocean spirits in the nineteenth-century Western Indian Ocean world. The activities of spirits, referred to in Swahili as majini, were believed to have a lot of influence on the physical world. If appeased correctly, majini would guide sailors, but if not, they could destroy ships. There was said to be a hidden city under the sea in Lake Tanganyika that was run by majini, so people believed it is important to appease them through rituals.

Next, Kleinman presented on spooky specters and haunted houses in the Roman Empire. 

“I’m very excited, not just to tell you all about scary Roman ghosts, but also to learn from the other presenters,” Kleinman said at the beginning of his lecture. 

Kleinman told listeners about the Roman Emperor Pliny, who wrote letters to his friend Lucius Licinius Sura about his conviction in believing in ghosts, based on three ghost stories. The moral of many of the stories was the importance of properly burying the dead.

Then, Tone talked about Walter Freeman, an American physician who specialized in lobotomy and carried with him an ice pick and a hammer around West Virginia. He “liberated” mentally ill patients by lobotomizing them, which he believed would also “liberate” taxpayers financially. 

Lastly, Sirois discussed the origins of the novel. Typically, early novels were written in prose and featured young couples in love, epic adventures, and internal storytelling. There were also stories of mysterious “false” deaths, such as the ancient story of the maiden Philinnion, who was said to have died and come back to life around 350 BCE. 

After the lectures, participants engaged with the presenters during a Q&A session. The instructors’ passion for their topics made for a fascinating and captivating night.

“The heart of the series is offering professors a platform to share with History and Classics students any of the spookiest stories they’ve encountered while doing their historical research,” Liggett said.

Overall, it was a successful night of storytelling and celebrating the spooky season. Students who missed this event or could not attend due to time zone differences can still enjoy the tales, as a recording of the event has been temporarily uploaded to YouTube. CSA and HSA will also collaborate in February to create a “Love in the Time of…” Valentine’s Day lecture series next February.

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