uniaktuell The online magazine of the University of Bern

uniaktuell from 2015

Award-winning ghost researcher

Yesterday Zoë Lehmann Imfeld was awarded the Marie Heim-Vögtlin Prize from the Swiss National Science Foundation for her thesis on the figure of the ghost in Victorian literature. In an interview with "unikatuell" she tells us from where her interest in ghosts comes, and why she is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Space and Habitability CSH, where exoplanets and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life are explored from different perspectives.

Interview: Brigit Bucher

«uniaktuell»: In your dissertation you deal with Victorian ghost stories. What makes this literary genre special?
Zoë Lehmann Imfeld: Victorian ghost stories are incredibly exciting to study as they tell so much about the anxieties and preoccupations of the Victorian period. So many authors wrote ghost stories at the end of the nineteenth century – even those who usually wrote realist novels. That gives us a fascinating combination of writers of high literary standing producing works which were extremely popular amongst the general public of readers. 

A serious question: Have you ever encountered a ghost?
No! And after reading all these horror stories I hope I never do! Actually, I find the idea of ghosts much more interesting for what they tell us about ourselves and human nature, than if they are „real“. In my readings of the ghost stories I have tried to show that the human protagonists are actually much more important to the stories than the ghosts or apparitions.

You studied English literature and theology. In your dissertation you now propose a new reading of ghost stories applying theological and philosophical concepts. To what extent does this change the interpretation of the stories?
The Victorian period is often studied and written about for its religious anxieties and the rise of scepticism and agnosticism. As literature scholars, we are used to reading literature from the period in the context of this scepticism. My suggestion is that the horror fiction of the period actually expresses complex theological themes which we are in danger of missing if we don’t engage with the themes fully. Historians have already been reconsidering the Victorian ‘religious crisis’ as being more complicated than we thought, and now it is time for literary studies to do the same. 

Besides your work as a lecturer in the English department, you are also a post-doc at the Centre for Space and Habitability (CSH), where exoplanets and the posibilities for extraterrestrial life are explored. To what extent can the study of literature and theology contribute to the exploration of life in space?
In research into (potentially habitable) exoplanets and evidence of extra-terrestrial life, the nature oft he research inevitably raises wider philosophical questions. In their interdisciplinary project, the CSH has invited researchers from the humanities to engage in those questions. I’m not alone as a ‚non scientist’ – Andrea Loettgers is working on the project from the philosophy department, and Andreas Losch from theology. From my literary perspective it is fascinating to see that actually many of the themes and questions that are shown in Victorian horror fiction is relevant to space research. Mankind has to come to terms with being confronted with something completely ‘alien’ (excuse the pun) to human knowledge. For my part, I am looking at how literature, particularly science fiction, has dealt with these questions, and what kind of conversations this fiction might have with the hard sciences. 

Your PhD was funded by a Marie Heim-Vögtlin grant, and now you have received the Marie Heim-Vögtlin prize. How important was this support?
The Marie Heim-Vögtlin grant is an SNF stipend for women who have had (or would have) an interruption in their careers for family obligations. I applied for the grant as I have two small children, and needed to juggle my PhD work with the financial and time demands of having a family. The grant is an incredibly important support for female academics, and should be considered a jewel in the crown of the Swiss academic system. The academy is a career which demands dedication and energy, and the MHV grant helps women to demonstrate that dedication and energy. It’s crucial though, that the grant was so important only because my supervisor (Professor Virginia Richter) and my department were also supportive. Actions such as the MHV grant can only be effective if the same culture is reflected in the university working environment.

About Zoë Lehmann Imfeld


Zoë Lehmann Imfeld studied English literature and theology, and combined these disciplines for her PhD thesis on Victorian ghost stories, which was funded by a Marie Hei-Vögtlin grant (SNF). Her monograph The Victorian Ghost Story and Theology: from Le Fanu to James will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2016. Zoë Lehmann Imfeld is now continuing her interdisciplinary focus as a post-doctoral fellow with the Centre for Space and Habitability. She also continues to teach in the English department. Her research interests include literature and theology, literature and philosophy, fictionality, Victorian literature, gothic and supernatural fiction and science fiction.

More information about the publication


Dr. Zoë Lehmann Imfeld
Universität Bern
Institut für Englische Sprachen und Literaturen
Telefon direkt: +41 31 631 36 60
Telefon Institution: +41 31 631 82 45

Center for Space and Habitability (CSH)

The "Center for Space and Habitability" (CSH) at the University of Bern brings together natural scientists and scholars of different disciplines from all over the world to study exoplanets and the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life, while developing interdisciplinary networks and new research perspectives. Aware that such research raises conceptual issues and fundamental questions of human self-understanding, the centre has also involved the disciplines of literature, philosophy and theology.

Marie Heim-Vögtlin-Beiträge

Every year, the SNSF awards some 35 Marie Heim-Vögtlin (MHV) grants to enable female researchers with excellent qualifications to make up for time spent performing family duties and to afford them better prospects for the next stage of their scientific careers.

The MHV Prize is awarded to a beneficiary of one of these grants for the exceptional quality of her research work and progress in their career.

About the author

Brigit Bucher works as the Deputy Manager of Corporate Communication at the University of Bern, and is an editor at “uniaktuell”.