22 October 2021 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Librarian, Faculty, Student/Researcher

Axe Murders, Dead Relatives and Disembodied Music: The World’s Creepiest Dissertations

Scratch your Halloween itch by diving into the dark side of academic research

By Beth Dempsey

We often write about the usefulness of ProQuest Dissertations & Theses as a starting point for writing research papers – its 5.4 million graduate works cover even the most niche topics and are loaded with bibliographies that guide students to solid, credible sources.

But right now, we’re craving spooky, creepy, eerie entertainment and we’ve turned to ProQuest Dissertations & Theses once again. We searched topics like “Haunted Houses,” “Paranormal Investigations” – and we’ll admit it, “Axe Murders” – to deliver some reading that’s ideal for the season and handy for conversation starters.

Read on for spine-tingling highlights and some helpful hints on whom you should choose as your Ouija partner.

Your departed loved ones have something to tell you…

Brian A. Peterson from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology examined the phenomena of people seeing dead loved ones. His dissertation, Psychology and Ghosts: A Historical Review and Phenomenological Analysis of Apparitions Perceived in the Context of Mourning1, includes stories and narratives of encounters like Holly’s, who awakened one night to find her long-dead great-grandmother standing next to her bed. She talked with Holly for several minutes, expressing support for Holly’s decision to go to college. Then, Holly says, “she was like…gone.” The next day Holly called her mother to tell her what happened only to learn the great-grandmother had also appeared to Holly’s aunt.

Then there’s Joan, who has been seeing her aunt regularly in the 19 years since her death. Her aunt visits in the early evening when Joan is working in the kitchen. Joan hears her name called and turns to see a shadowy apparition wearing her aunt’s favorite black dress. Sometimes a TV turns on by itself when Joan is alone and typically after Joan has redecorated or rearranged furniture in the living room. Unlike Holly, Joan is unnerved by these frequent visits. The family has long believed that the aunt was murdered by her husband and Joan believes her aunt is coming back to tell her what happened.

Location, location, location… of the body

Julia Kelso of Memorial University of Newfoundland looked at the effect of untimely death on a home in her dissertation Death and Real Estate: A Study of the Impact of Death Beliefs on Real Estate Values2. Her work is instructive about where buyers draw the line on home purchases (spoiler alert: murder-suicides and hangings are deal killers). It also includes truly spooky narratives from people living in “haunted” houses.

“Brent” tells the story of living in a house where a man shot himself after losing his money and his wife. Brent’s young boys told him frequent (and consistent) stories of a man who floated above them when they played in the basement. A friendly guy, the apparition smiled at the boys, but never chatted. Brent says, “Interestingly, prior to their telling me this, I had the strangest feeling that I wasn't alone. After about a year… we didn’t see him anymore and that was the end of it.”

“Calvin” enjoys the uniqueness of living in a haunted house and is even happier about the great deal he got because of its history. His ghost is a bit picky and punishes Calvin if he hasn’t properly cared for the house. Poltergeist-y kinds of things happen if Calvin causes any damage. He’s learned to never throw out things like lighting fixtures. If he replaces them, the originals are carefully stored in the basement.

If you can’t sell the house, sell the Lizzie Borden story

“It is ironic, in a way, that the Borden family coat of arms was a lion holding an axe,” says Emily Anne Lucitt at University of California, Los Angeles in her thesis Ghosts of the Lizzie Borden House Tour: Hauntology, Historicity and Attention at Work. Lucitt explores how sites of tragedy or mayhem attract voyeurs, historians and thrill-seekers and uses her own trip to the site of the famous late 1800s axe murder as an example.

Lucitt’s work includes a detailed story of Lizzie’s life, the murders and the aftermath. We learn that Lizzie’s family was full of dysfunction. Her father was a wealthy, but miserly widower, who refused to invest in gas lamps or indoor plumbing. She had a strained relationship with her stepmother (who Lizzie called “Mrs. Borden”). Lizzie was unhappy: a social butterfly who wanted to move to a more glamorous neighborhood and she was also the town kleptomaniac.

When Andrew and Abby Borden were found brutally murdered with axe wounds to their heads (more than 10 each, but far less than the 40 and 41 whacks in the nursery rhyme), Lizzie became a prime suspect. Lizzie told the police multiple and conflicting stories of where she was that fateful morning (“she was outside eating pears, she was collecting lures for an upcoming fishing trip, and that she was ironing handkerchiefs”). Just as damning, she was seen burning a dress “days after the murders, claiming that it was soiled with paint.”

However, Lizzie was not the only suspect and she was ultimately acquitted. It’s the “did she do it?” that has cemented the story in history, according to Lucitt, and fuels the opportunity to “commercialize the past.” The Borden house still stands in Fall River, Massachusetts, where it draws a steady stream of tourists, including Lucitt.

Despite her intense research into the Borden murders, Lucitt writes,

“This did not prepare me for the uncanny feeling I received when arriving at the Borden House. The house next door is also Victorian in architectural style, and it has been painted in a pleasing yellow color. However, the Borden house is an ominous dark green color and towers over the rest of the street. You cannot miss it if you tried. When you arrive, you are directed to the barn out back… there is an odd feeling as if you are trespassing.”

She tells of tour guides who relay the facts of the murders, enabling visitors to become “part of the jury.” They lead their charges throughout the house, into the living room where Andrew was murdered while napping and up the curving stairway, where they can look to the left to see exactly the spot where Abby Borden was found in a pool of blood. Guides encourage visitors to see what investigators saw on August 4, 1892. “In a way, I felt as if I embodied history. I not only entered the space of a specific historical event, but I became part of it,” says Lucitt.

Playlists from beyond the grave

Melvyn J. Willin from the University of Sheffield investigated supernatural music in his dissertation Paramusicology: An Investigation of Music and Paranormal Phenomena4. His work is rife with historical musical anecdotes like one about the opera Charles VI by Halevy. One of the arias carries a curse that has killed three people (so far) when it has been performed. Not scary enough? There’s an ancient song that will cause you to burst into flames if you sing it. (Safety tip: when you’re making your Karaoke selection, stick with what you know.)

Willin also details stories of mediums who have been contacted by dead composers with a goal of finishing some work. Take the medium who said that John Lennon routinely visits to collaborate on songs with themes of love and forgiveness. She’s published a handful of them. Are they from Lennon? Maybe not. Willin quotes Bill Barry, an expert on Lennon lyrics: "John never wrote songs as bad as that."

Sometimes musicians don’t work through the living and just show up on their own. The Airlie Castle in Scotland is said to be haunted by the ghost of a drummer who was caught in a tryst with Lady AirIie. “He was seized, boxed up in his own drum and flung off the highest tower to his death,” writes Willin. Since then, drumming is heard around the castle when a family member is about to die.

Bonus reading in this dissertation: it includes a comprehensive list of churches in the UK where disembodied music is heard.

Finding the right people for your seance

Remember Brent and Calvin, who lived in haunted houses, and Joan and Holly, who spent time with their dead relatives? Cara Leann Smith at Regent University explores the traits of people like them in her dissertation Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena5. If you want to hear first-hand experiences like theirs, Smith has some advice for you: make friends with people who are open to new ideas and have a very low tolerance for boredom. Smith’s work shares research that shows the most powerful predictor of paranormal beliefs is “a vivid imagination and an active fantasy life.” People with these traits – “sensation seekers” – keep their boredom with the outside world in check by creating interesting “inner worlds.”

Want more? Check out ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global

Easier than finding new friends with runaway imaginations is tapping ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. There’s a rich body of scholarly work that can satisfy your taste for the supernatural or help you write an October-y research paper. Search the phrase or key word that aligns with your interests: Vampire? Find 22,000+ opportunities to explore. “Hauntology” delivers 1,100 results. Or go for the classic “zombie” and get 18,000 hits – plenty to keep you occupied on a dark and stormy night.

Happy hunting!

Notes (all resources are available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global):

    1. Petersen, B. A. (2001). Psychology and Ghosts: A Historical Review and Phenomenological Analysis of Apparitions Perceived in the Context of Mourning (Order No. 3011841).
    2. Kelso, J. (1999). Death and Real Estate: A Study of the Impact of Death Beliefs on Real Estate Value (Order No. MQ42401).
    3. Lucitt, E. A. (2014). Ghosts of the Lizzie Borden House Tour: Hauntology, Historicity and Attention at Work (Order No. 1557609).
    4. Willin, M. J. (1999). Paramusicology: An Investigation of Music and Paranormal Phenomena (Order No. U114921).
    5. Smith, Cara Leann (2004). Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena (Order No. 620608335).