Powell wasn’t alone. More than 100 people applied to take the course, which was originally restricted to 20 students. Brower expanded the roster to 31 and said the high level of interest among students reflects a fascination with the supernatural itself and how it intersects with other elements of everyday life, including life on campus.
“Many students have had destabilizing, weird, and confusing experiences that haunt them in various ways. Some practice magic arts, and others want to know how supernatural and occult discourses play out in a contemporary world that appears to be deeply committed to scientific rationality,” said Brower.
Senior Yash Kumbhat said the class had helped address a lifelong fears of ghosts.
“It’s been great. All the students in the class are really invested in the class, and I’m not really afraid anymore. I just get excited by ghosts. I want to go and explore other places where they might exist,” said Kumbhat, an English concentrator. “It changes the way you walk through campus. You become a tiny person in a huge place with a long history. You just welcome the ghosts into your life for a little bit.”
“This class allows students to tap into their own folk traditions as legitimate sources,” said Brower. “We want to give credence to supernatural storytelling and supernatural belief and take it seriously as embodied experience, as powerful metaphor, and as deeply meaningful informal human communication.”
“Supernatural Storytelling” also focuses on the interactions between paranormal activity and inflection points in culture and politics. Class readings include texts on religious and patriarchal persecution of women during the Salem witch trials and the use of supernatural myths among white enslavers to exploit and oppress enslaved Black Americans.
After their time in the library, the group reconvened on the lawn behind the Malkin Athletic Center to discuss their experiences and hear student presentations on the week’s readings. Brower noted that sitting together and telling stories is a particularly meaningful experience after more than a year of remote instruction and activities.
“Upper-year students feel immense pressure to pass on Harvard traditions to new students,” after so many months away from campus, said Brower. And Harvard legends and rituals “help foster a sense of belonging.”
“The stories give students a chance to claim vernacular ownership over what can sometimes feel like an intimidating, ungraspable place. And after the silences of the pandemic, we want to make campus loud with stories again,” he said.