College of Liberal Arts

Spooky Research: The Unexplained Explained

Mon, Oct 26, 2015
Full moon cloudy night on the Texas Gulf Coast
Full moon cloudy night on the Texas Gulf Coast

To the ancient Celtics, Oct. 31 marked the end of harvest and the beginning of barren winter, or a time when life and fertility ended and arid death began.

Today, cultures around the world celebrate Halloween as a day where life and death intersect with traditions based on mystery, magic and superstition. Within the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas, scholars have become entranced by ghostly folklore, the science of superstition and making sense of the unknown.

Below is a collection of their ‘spooky’ scholarly work.

The vampire in Slavic cultures

Thomas Garza, University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Tom Garza researches vampire lore in Slavic culture, the Russian fairytale and the popularity of the vampire in modern America. To him, the vampire’s story is an ”enduring and endearing” text that draws students in to studying Slavic histories, religions, geographies and traditions, while also focusing on the essence of what human beings are truly interested in: What happens after death?

The basis of belief

Aiyana Willard, Psychology Postdoctoral Researcher 

Supernatural belief has existed all throughout human history and continues to exist around the world, with varying beliefs and religions in every culture. Aiyana Willard’s research addresses the universality and cultural diversity of belief, while also determining the foundations of supernatural thought and the role of causal reasoning in creating beliefs.

Life and death in stone

Kathleen Higgins, Professor of Philosophy

Whether it’s tombstones, monuments or statues, stone is used to memorialize the dead around the world. Kathleen Higgins’ research on aesthetics lead her to study how different cultures choose stone to preserve, physically replace, commemorate and communicate with lost loved ones.

Houska Castle, an entrance to Hell

Mark Hopkins, Lecturer in the Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies 


Throughout Mark Hopkins 15 years of traveling and living in the Czech Republic studying the language, literature and culture, he never visited the Houska Castle. That’s probably a good thing considering the castle is known to locals as a gateway to hell—built not to keep an ‘enemy’ outside, but to keep something inside from getting out. 

Slavic folklore’s Domovoi: the protective house spirit

Yekaterina Cotey, lecturer in the Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies 

Yekaterina Cotey studies Russian history, novels and folklore, but her knowledge of Domovoi, the protective house spirit, comes from personal experience. Every Russian household has their own Domovoi, including Cotey. If in good relations with the Domovoi, a household would reap the benefits of protection and good fortune. But those who upset Domovoi just might get pinched or choked in their sleep.


Superstitious thinking and the Candy Witch

Jacqueline Woolley, Chair of the Department of Psychology

Jacqueline Woolley studies children’s understanding of reality and their ability to distinguish fantasy from truth. In one study, Woolley tested children’s ‘gullibility’ by introducing a group of preschoolers to a fantastical being called the Candy Witch, who visits children after they trick-or-treat and exchanges some of their candy for a small toy.


The intersection of science and the supernatural

Cristine Legare, Associate Professor of Psychology 

As technology and scientific knowledge advances, many might think that supernatural or religious explanations for certain phenomena will become displaced in favor of a more scientific explanation. However, Cristine Legare suggests that both religion and science will continue to coexist due to people’s tendency to apply both natural and supernatural reasoning to a single event.

Latino folklore’s La Llorna

Domino Perez, Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies and Associate Professor of English 

Domino Perez studies Chicano literature, popular culture and film. Her book There was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture examines cultural representations of the weeping ghost and how it has shaped Mexican cultural identity.

Featured image: Ray Bodden/Flickr

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