One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “Is your office haunted?”
It isn’t, but I think the origin of that question comes from western media’s ongoing obsession with the macabre.
People ask if my collection is haunted because the imagery they have been shown from childhood correlates human bones with horror, demons, voodoo, psychological terror, and anything related to fear.
An exhibit shown at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts: It's Alive: Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection illustrated this point beautifully. Kirk Hammett, the guitarist of Metallica, has an extensive collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia that documents an incredible history of film, and the culture it was responding to. For example, Japanese Kaiju films, such as Godzilla, directly play upon fears of the fallout of nuclear war.
One part in particular stood out to me: the section detailing voodoo films, and their offshoot, zombie films. As racial tension reached a boiling point in the United States, film reflected these anxieties. Films othering and demonizing voodoo, or Vodou, a cultural practice of many black and brown people from the Caribbean, Haiti in particular, became popular when the civil rights movements of the 1960s reached national attention. These films would depict voodoo as a practice of human sacrifice, inevitably with white people as the victims and black people as the perpetrators. Zombie films were born from this genre, as leagues of voodoo practitioners created undead armies for their evil machinations, in a reflection of white anxieties regarding the loss of social and political power.
I think many of the questions I receive about paranormal activity are rooted in social anxiety regarding death. In a culture that stigmatizes bones from childhood with Halloween, scary movies, and ghost stories, it can only be expected that seeing bones in any context might trigger these kinds of anxieties. Bones are an easy representative of horrific consequences. For bones to be visible, the person they belonged to must be deceased. While we know little of the lives and causes of death of the original owners of the bones in our showroom, a lifetime of cultural training has caused many of us to try to fill in those gaps. And when the bones themselves are shrouded in mystery, a ghostly presence might give some kind of answer. Bones represent a cultural anxiety towards death: ghosts and paranormal activity are a perfectly logical leap for a person to make when faced with a fear of death, as a continuation of life.
Many cultures believe in the presence of spirits of the deceased on Earth. While we respect these beliefs and practices, we approach the osteology in our collection from a neutral, scientific, medical standpoint. These bones are not scary props for haunted houses, they are not for religious practice, and they are not fodder for scary folktales. While other cultures might use non-medical bones in those ways, we do not use our medical bones for those purposes. They are teaching tools for scientific, anatomical understanding.
That being said, our showroom has shown no signs of paranormal activity, just the antics of two cats keeping away pests.