One UI Ph.D. student is studying America’s haunted memories

A UI Ph.D. student, Diann Rozsa, is researching what it is about vernacular hauntings that scares Americans the most.


Photo of Diann Rozsa. Contributed.

Morgan Ungs, News Reporter

As Halloween approaches, many at the University of Iowa are watching horror movies from their couches — one UI student is researching how real-life institutions make their way into scary stories.

Diann Rozsa, a UI doctoral American Studies student, wanted to know why mental institutions and prisons are common tropes in post-industrial American horror stories.

Rozsa’s interest in places viewed as haunted institutions began during her undergraduate research at Cal State University Channel Islands, a former mental health institution.

Her project is looking into something she calls “vernacular hauntings.” The term, which she coined, refers to spooks that are not ghosts and spirits themselves, but the underlying memories left in local areas after institutions with dark histories close down.

The dissertation titled “Haunting Takes Place: The Ghostly Afterlives of Carceral Spaces in the Post-industrial Imaginary” will cover how memories and traces of what gets left behind in these institutions are remembered through culture and every day media such as blogs or website forms.

A lot of these types of places are turned into Halloween attractions, which Rozsa explains is proof that these institutions serve as a symbol of what scares society the most.  For example, she writes about the oldest penitentiary in the U.S., the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each year they hold a haunted attraction to help them fund the museum.

“They say they are doing prison reform, they want to educate the American public about what prison is like in America and how a prison functions and how it’s not fair,” Rozsa said. “But at the same time, they utilize tropes of prison for their haunted attraction.”

She said the haunted attraction at the prison allows people to choose whether they would like to have jump scares or physical contact. The staff acting as zombies dressed in riot gear would make physical contact with visitors. She started researching how this echoes America’s culture of police dressing in riot gear to counter protests.

Rozsa also argues that one can separate asylums from prisons because of deinstitutionalization. She says that when asylums close down, many of these people will end up in prison because of not receiving the treatment they need.

Laura Rigal, a UI professor in Rosza’s field, said the research looks into what does it mean about our current culture that these old industrial era sites are seen and treated as being haunted.

“One of the arguments in our present moment since the 1980s is that we’ve lived through a massive social and economic transformation,” Rigal said. “The industrial infrastructure of the 20th century — the car production factories and the whole industrial infrastructure of the country — has decayed and we’re now in an information economy.”

The professor mentioned that this transformation is scary for workers. It makes sense that people are registering these abandoned infrastructures in America as haunted. This kind of terror, Rigal said, is a historical transformation because of a completely different kind of economic and social way of organizing ourselves.

Rozsa is also looking at a Pennsylvania attraction called the Pennhurst Asylum. An old mental-health institution that closed down because workers were abusing children in the ’70s, such as putting them in cages. Rozsa said a lot of the characters in the haunted attraction were dressed as zombified patients.

“I find that fascinating because I think, for America, mental illness is something we don’t see,” she said. “We still can’t wrap our head around how someone may look perfectly fine. And as long as there’s mockeries out there for it, it’s harder to fight for America to take it seriously.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, in 2017 nearly one in five adults had a mental illness in America.

Her husband, George Rozsa, is a Ph.D. student at Iowa studying Native American environmentalism and anti-nuclear activism. He said that the last few years his wife has persevered to wrap up her dissertation after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and the death of a pet.

“That same year she developed an autoimmune disorder that she is still dealing with while writing her dissertation,” he said. “A number of things have come up, which I might have said enough and quit, but she hasn’t. She’s determined to defend this year.”

In her research, Rozsa asks what’s going on in the every day life of America that’s reproducing itself in these haunted places, and she thinks it shows that prison reform and mental health are real-life issues that need to be addressed.

“That’s the haunting for me,” Rozsa said. “Not the tour or the fake ghosts — but these things that tend to rupture through society.”