Studying the Supernatural

October 31, 2012—Each year on Halloween, we turn to the spooky, the scary, and the macabre. But year-round, professors and students study the supernatural in courses at Georgetown to learn what our fascination with monsters, fantasy, and ghosts can tell us about our own lives.

Why do we love monsters so much? What do monsters say about us, if anything?
“I think we love monsters because they evoke primal emotions and thus allow us to temporarily tap into our unconscious, which is a wild, exciting, though often scary, place to be. Also, monsters reveal a lot about the current anxieties of our cultural moment since they tend to represent boundary markers that signal, ‘do not go further.’ In this sense, monsters make good teachers. I thought that developing a class about monsters was a great way to study human culture, since monsters so often serve as quintessential others—they become the repositories for what we don’t like to accept in ourselves.” —B. Niles Tomlinson, a lecturer in the English department who teaches Monsters in Literature, Film, and Culture.

How have you found about the characters in your class, Russian Devils?
“All of the characters are pretty tormented and imperfect, and it may sound kind of macabre but . . . that really draws me in! The Russians are just so good at making these anti-hero protagonists that are good and evil at the same time, but you end up falling in love with them in the end. Maybe they’re really on to something. Humans are seriously complex, after all.”—Rebecca Hong (F’15)

Why is so much of science fiction and fantasy set in the future?
“The future remains our foremost preoccupation as all of our current lives are literally governed by the very concept of the future. We obsess over trends, statistics, probabilities, and predictions almost like modern-day soothsayers or fortune-tellers. We worry about our future job prospects, our mortgages, and our savings. We approach national security in terms of what we think will happen before it happens. We are fearful of the fate of the planet for our children and our children’s children. Our security, life, health, reproduction, population growth, financial stability, and human welfare are all inextricably connected to the future. In reality, it is our present lives that are constantly being governed by the future. Science fiction and fantasy merely reflect these major facets of our lives as they enlarge the future for us. Our hopes take the form of utopian thought, while our fears fixate on the coming dystopia or apocalypse. Our fantasy stories consider what will be the fate and destiny of humanity.” —Christopher Shinn, a lecturer in the English department who teaches Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Why is there the fascination with ghosts in Gothic literature?
“This was an age aware of a vanishing past and an uncertain future so ghosts offer an ‘in between’ state of longing/desire for the Victorian simultaneously frightened and fascinated by letting go and embracing the new. Ghost stories share some way of confronting evil—and sometimes, intriguingly, the complex, the perplexing, the good, the dark, the demonic, doubles, death, the unknowable, the inexplicable, the uncertain, the vague—and often allow madness and insanity spine-tingling capers or wild rampages.” —Rebecca Boylan, a lecturer in the English department who teaches 19th-Century British Novels and Through a Lens Darkly: Phantoms Haunting 19th-Century Literature.

What can science fiction and fantasy tell us about real life?
“While it may seem like we are trying to escape reality when we read science fiction and fantasy, in fact science fiction and fantasy actually help us process our sense of reality in highly symbolic terms much like a dream is an unconscious working through of our conscious lives. Science fiction becomes speculative fiction in particular when it addresses very realistic circumstances. Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting) functions as a true-to-life cautionary tale about the need to protect the biosphere and come to terms with the disastrous effects of globalization. Georgetown alumnus Paul Erdman (F’56) wrote stories about ‘financial Armageddon’ in the not-too-distant future, involving the collapse of banks, a massive oil crisis, and the precipitous downfall of the global market. Many of his novels have proven to be eerily prescient.” —Christopher Shinn

Any recent ghost sightings?
“In a recent class, a student group was presenting on Bleak House—on gothic transmissions of decay and decadence, ghostly London passageways, dangerously mysterious narrators when . . . BOOM! The wind burst a window open into our classroom and all of us literally jumped. Spirits are playfully alive at Georgetown and actively crossing thresholds to interact with our pursuit of them!” —Rebecca Boylan


Related information

See more from professors studying the supernatural and fear at Georgetown: