Inside an iron mine one evening, a Franklin & Marshall College professor joined a group of paranormal investigators to research someone experiencing what investigators call "the touch of a spirit." Then she realized she was being touched.
"I had the strange experience of having all their equipment turned on me," recalled Misty Bastian, F&M's Lewis Audenreid Professor of History and Archaeology. "Later, everyone said that was the moment they decided to invite me back."
"'Touched' is the essence of true contact," the anthropologist told the audience in the Ann & Richard Barshinger Center for Musical Arts.
Bastian spoke at the Feb. 6 Common Hour, a community discussion held every Thursday during the academic year. Her talk, "The Tangibility of Ancestors: Being in Touch with Spirits on Two Continents," focused on how different cultures respond to death. Some Nigerian tribes, for example, believe in reincarnation, while North Americans connect with the dead through photographs or home videos.
"We are aware of the tangibility of ancestors," Bastian said. "The way we talk to people is to give them the benefit of the doubt about their experience."
In the late 1980s, while doing research in Onitsha, Nigeria, Bastian came across an Igbo-speaking woman. The woman told a tale of how she had been possessed by her deceased father at his funeral was and held captive by his spirit as he rearranged the proceedings to his liking and made his presence felt among his family.
"Ada said in English that her father was, in her words, 'a control freak.'" Bastian said. "Ada also told me she was her father's favorite."
The woman, whose father was a tribal leader, said she ran the funeral in her possessed state, but had no recollection of the event or of being "taken over" by her father's spirit.
In Pennsylvania a few years ago, Bastian said she met a paranormal researcher who uses such instruments as an electronic voice phenomena (EVP), a digital recorder for picking up sounds potentially made by ghosts.
"You might call him a ghost hunter, but he would not agree to that description," Bastian said.
She said the researcher, Jonathan, told her the spirit of his father, to whom he had a close relationship, connects with Jonathan to give advice and talk about events that have occurred since the father died.
"He has a sense of peacefulness and calm while this is going on," Bastian said. "He's not afraid of his father's spirit."
Sophomore Joanna Radov, an anthropology and sociology major who is a student of Bastian's, said the idea of connecting or seeking connections to the dead resonates with her. She recalled family and friends keeping a deceased friend's memory alive by pasting his photo in places appropriate for remembering him.
"It was like trying to spread his positivity," Radov said. "I think people definitely, when dealing with death, experience things that can't be explained."