HST 329: The Supernatural, Religion, and Science in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century America

Last taught: Spring 2018

The supernatural pervades modern American popular culture. We have historically reveled in the weird and fantastical, from ghost stories around the campfire to reports of strange things in the news media. And yet, when people actually experience something inexplicable – something paranormal – for themselves, they often fear sharing what happened to them. For good reason. Historical events show how many experiencers feel socially marginalized by such experiences. At the heart of this course, we will work out why that happens. Why is the supernatural historically so alluring, yet so taboo in modern America?

In this course, you will study how through religion and science from 1800 to 2000, Americans (and, by connection, people from other parts of the world) have negotiated the boundaries of natural and supernatural (or, even more accurately, preternatural – things that occur in nature but have yet to be effectively explained). Boundaries became drawn between what is considered normal and paranormal. How have these boundaries been constructed in religion and science? And how does “boundary-work” seek to expand how we understand nature and self through the supernatural?

We will explore this topic through four significant anomalous phenomena: poltergeists, life after death, strange beings, and extraordinary dreams, as well as ideas about human “superconsciousness.”