CentreTerm 2015: Students explore the history behind haunted America
Legends and lore surrounding the supernatural have intrigued humans throughout history, and now a new CentreTerm course at Centre College led by Assistant Professor of History Sara Egge is seeking to shed some light on the subject of things that go bump in the night. Her Haunted American History class isn’t intended to address whether or not ghosts exist, but it instead uses stories of haunted places to uncover broader historical and cultural meanings, examining history of the environments in which the legends were allowed to grow.
“The class is about what ghost stories mean and what they reveal about the moments from which the stories emerge, in a historical context,” Egge says. “They allow us to understand what was scary at these times and why there are ghost stories associated with a time and a place—and place, in particular in American history, is very powerful.
“It’s also a matter of historical memory,” she adds, “how we as a culture understand places and how ghost stories factor into these understandings.”
The students in Egge’s class are taking a number of excursions to reputedly haunted locations. Among them are Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Ky., Liberty Hall in Frankfort, Ky. and Traveller’s Rest Plantation in Nashville, Tenn. Closer to home, the students will experience a guided tour of Centre’s haunted spaces led by Wayne King, director of facilities management and legendary “campus story-teller.”
Waverly Hills Sanatorium opened in 1912 as a hospital for tuberculosis patients stricken during an epidemic that swept through the area. While it has been called “the most haunted place in America,” the course challenged students to go beyond the supernatural legends with an academic inquiry into some of the broader contextual meanings. By exploring the prevailing attitudes of culture at the time, the students considered how culture dealt with disease in the early 20th Century; how epidemics impacted entire regions for generations to come; medical knowledge of the era; and the history of the cure for tuberculosis.
“We’re using a story to uncover the history behind it,” Egge continues, “while at the same time reading historically rich primary sources about the history of these places.”
“Being able to understand why some events have more ghost stories than others can give us a lot of insights about what people valued in a specific space and time,” says junior Emily Rodes. “It helps us to understand how people thought, what they feared and what they cared about most.
“It may seem like death is a scary thing to study,” she continues, “but in studying stories surrounding ghost encounters and hauntings, we discover what people in that time valued in life.”
King’s tour of “haunted” campus spaces was also a hit with students.
“College campuses all over the U.S. are allegedly haunted by different spirits, including Centre College,” Rodes continues. “In our research, we have found that college students are the most susceptible to believing in ghost stories. This is because we are in a state of life that is in between that of our childhood and living an adult life.”
CentreTerm may only be a short three weeks, but Egge has managed to pack it with several opportunities for experiential learning.
“The students can use their senses and experience these places first-hand,” she says. “They come away with more knowledge than I can impart to them in a classroom.”
Learn more about CentreTerm.
by Cindy Long
Top photo: Kit Thomas ’15 appears to see something out of the ordinary while she and Madeline Rukavina ’15 (center) listen to a guide during a tour of Waverly Hills Sanatorium.