When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I became acquainted with BarBara Lee, an exorcist who was one of Linda Degh's most interesting informants (Degh 2001: 274-290). Having received a telephone call from a student in Eigenmann Hall about a possible haunting, BarBara asked if she could walk through the building with me. Eigenmann was the residence hall where I lived and worked as a Resident Assistant. I had dealt with many complaints loud music, insensitive roommates, and burnt-out light bulbs but I had never been asked to help find a ghost before.
BarBara led me to the fourteenth floor, where she suddenly cried out and pressed her back against the wall. "There's a student here!" she told me. "He jumped out of his window, and he wants to push me out the window too!" Pointing to a nearby door, she said, "There's a funeral wreath hanging there. This is his room." While a few passersby and I watched, she spoke directly to the deceased student, saying, "Let's send you to heaven. You don't want to be earthbound. Let's send you there, okay?"
This was my introduction to the phenomenon of haunted residence halls, which has become well enough known to merit many entries in Dennis Hauck's Haunted Places: The National Directory (1994). Mason Winfield, a collector of New York folklore and author of Spirits of the Great Hill, says that theaters and college campuses are among the most common haunted places. According to Winfield, "it seems as if every college campus anywhere has one alleged haunt" (2001:54). Simon Bronner's Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Student Life includes sections on suicidal ghosts, resident ghosts, lovers' ghosts, and Greek ghosts (1995:148-156). Campus ghost stories can be found in folklore archives, in folklore journals, in books, and on the Internet. Of all of these sources, the Internet is the most readily accessible, although some texts found on the Internet may lack credibility and offer little or no informant data.
During my twenty-five years of teaching at Binghamton University, I have collected many ghost stories from students. Some of the stories are legends, but most are personal experience stories. Almost without exception, the student narrators have been passionately interested in their encounters with the paranormal. Many of them have chosen ghost stories as the subject of their end-of-term projects. On other campuses as well, excitement about meeting ghosts seems to be very common.
Why are campus ghost stories so popular? Some students have told me that they like the excitement of discovering ghosts in their own residence halls and other campus buildings. There are, of course, many horror movies about hauntings. Ever since The Exorcist came out in 1973, stories of spirit possession have captured the popular imagination. (Before 1973, BarBara Lee called her exorcisms "de-possessions"). New York State residents have been fascinated for more than two decades by The Amityville Horror (1979). Even though the exterior of the haunted house in Amityville has been remodeled, teenagers still drive past the house to look for ghosts. Other towns have their own haunted places houses, cemeteries, schools that teenagers like to visit. Some students have become expert at investigating haunted places by the time they arrive at the college of their choice.
The tellers of many ghost stories are freshmen and sophomores, relative newcomers to the halls of academe. These students, busy adjusting to the pressures of college life, are in a liminal state: between adolescence and adulthood, they seek completion of the college degree that will give them safe passage to future success. In some ways, the early years of college provide an initiatory experience similar to the three-part initiation that Victor Turner describes in his classic The Forest of Symbols: a going-in, a seclusion period with age-mates, and a coming-out, upon which the initiate is recognized as having gained higher status (1967:13).
On their first day of college, students arriving at their new residence halls must say goodbye to their parents and siblings. Assembling all the essentials of daily life televisions, microwave ovens, computer they must learn a new way of life in which people close to their own age serve as educators. Roommates, suitemates, and floormates are important companions, but the most influential advisor on many college campuses is the Resident Assistant. Armed with useful information, ready to offer guidance and referrals to experts, the RA helps the initiate become accustomed to college life. Four or five years after the residence hall's opening day, those students who entered as freshmen will walk across a stage to receive their college diplomas. Once they have completed the ritual of Commencement, they will begin their new lives as adults. The cycle of initiation will have come full-circle.
In some respects, the first two years of college offer an experience similar to what children go through during pre-adolescence. As I found while doing the fieldwork for my dissertation, "Tradition and Creativity in the Storytelling of Pre-Adolescent Girls" (1977), pre-adolescents often enjoy taking risks, pushing back the boundaries of the comfortable and secure to experiment with things that seem dangerous and frightening. At slumber parties and on camp-outs, the pre-adolescent girls with whom I did my dissertation research enjoyed telling scary stories, "calling back" spirits and monsters, and playing Truth or Dare. They reveled in eating junk food and staying up as late as they could, breaking many of the rules their parents usually set for them.
For new college students, the residence hall offers a setting very similar to the pre-adolescent slumber party. There are no parents to insist upon an early bedtime; the vending machines are full of candy and soda, and nearby pizza places offer late-night delivery. Free to entertain themselves once their studying is done, students may choose to watch movies on TV, play computer games, or surf the Internet together. Sometimes Ouija boards come out from under beds and spirits are summoned or ghost stories are told. Most students' encounters with ghosts take place after midnight, during moments of solitude. Late at night, the residence hall becomes a place where brushes with the supernatural are anticipated, even welcomed.
To understand the ease with which students often welcome the supernatural, it is helpful to consider some insights offered by Barbara Walker in the introduction to her book Out of the Ordinary: Folklore of the Supernatural. Walker explains that "we live in an imprecise and ambiguous world, which in its inexactitude allows for the awesome, the inexplicable, the wondrous" (1995:1). In a statement that seems especially relevant to college students, she says, "There is a leap of faith necessary whenever we adhere to any system of thought, whether it means relying on pi or some other unknown." For some people college students among them the supernatural becomes a "natural part of life" that influences attitudes and behaviors (1995:2).
Americans visiting colleges in Great Britain may find that ghosts are taken for granted. When I traveled through England and Scotland with my family in 1998, every bed and breakfast establishment where we stayed had a reputation for being haunted. In Oxford, where we stayed in an old building near Magdalen College, a newspaper article about the resident White Lady was posted beside the bathroom door. Walking through the more scenic colleges, we discovered that the ghost of Merton College was Colonel Francis Winderbank, shot in 1645 after surrendering to Oliver Cromwell. Archbishop William Laud was known for kicking his head around the library of St. John's College; the face of Dean Liddell appeared on a wall of Christchurch Cathedral, and a secret tunnel connecting The Chequers and The Mitre contained ghosts of monks who had died there and had been making scratching noises ever since. All of these ghosts are described in detail on a Web page from the Oxford Student (http://www.oxfordstudent.com/2000-11-09/features/3). Considering how highly the British value their resident ghosts, it is not surprising that J.K. Rowling made Nearly Headless Nick, Peaves the Poltergeist, and other ghosts of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry prominent characters in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997).
In the United States, the older the campus, the greater the likelihood is that a ghost will be on the prowl. Harvard's Thayer Hall was once a textile mill; its ghosts are said to wear Victorian clothing and to enter or leave through doors that no longer exist. At Yale, a spectral organist in Woolsey Hall plays music that has been heard by both students and staff members (http://www.hollowhill.com/colleges/Nelist.htm). At Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, students claim acquaintance with Helen, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Students at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa have reported moans from the ghost of the only female graduate of the university who died in World War I (http://www.theshadowlands.net/places/iowa.htm). At Gettysburg College, ghosts of Civil War soldiers get credit for knocking posters off walls and appearing in residence hall rooms. On ghost walks, popular tourist attractions in Gettysburg, listeners learn that ghosts have a particular fondness for the college's buildings.
At many American colleges, ghosts are associated with suicide. Sather Tower at the University of California at Berkeley is said to be haunted by the ghost of a student who leaped to his death from the tower in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, a photographer took a picture of a ghostly hand on the grass near the tower (Hauck 32). A story from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa tells of the ghost of a woman in the late 1800s who fell down three flights of stairs in College Hall, broke her neck, and died instantly (http://www.theshadowlands.net/places/iowa.htm). At Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama, the ghost of the Red Lady haunts her former room in Pratt Hall; known for her obsession with the color red, this student was found in her room dressed in her red robe, underneath a red blanket, covered with bright red blood from her slashed wrists (Hauck 1994:7). As Simon Bronner notes in Piled Higher and Deeper, students stories tell of many more suicidal women than suicidal men: if there's a pattern to the finger-pointing stories, it's that the revenants were vulnerable young women meeting a tragic end, often by their own hands (1995:151). College is not just an extended slumber party, a time for amusements and discoveries; it is also a stressful initiatory period when students must prove that they can succeed. Telling stories of suicidal students points out the danger of self-destruction; it also differentiates storytellers from victims. Further collection and analysis of college ghost stories may help to explain why so many victims of suicide in the narratives are women.
Ghosts of college residence halls tend to haunt certain spaces: bathrooms, hallways, elevators, stairwells, and basements. None of these spaces are occupied for long periods of time. People go down the halls, up and down the stairs and elevators. They make brief visits to the basement and go to the bathroom when nature calls. In children's ghost stories, bathrooms and basements are prominently featured; college students also look for ghosts in those sporadically inhabited places (Tucker 1980). One particularly vivid bathroom ghost story from Churchill Hall at Southern Oregon State College tells of a freshman who "caught sight of motion from the corner of his eye in the mirror next to him. The door of one of the stalls started to swing back and forth; dust swirled; water fell with "drop-drop-drop" sound effects, and a puddle of water accumulated on the floor. Perplexed by this experience, the freshman went back to the bathroom later on, bringing a Twix bar for the ghost (http://www.pinn.net/~royaloak/stories/bathroom.htm).
In the late 1990s I collected a story of a bathroom ghost from Kathryn, a student of mine at Binghamton University. Kathryn told me that she had stayed overnight in O'Connor Hall when she was visiting Binghamton as a high school senior, trying to decide where she would go to college. Paying a visit to the bathroom in the basement late at night, she discovered a little girl with long hair and a pale face. "What are you doing here?" she asked the little girl. The little girl did not reply. Later, Kathryn discovered that no children had been in the building that night. "I decided to come to Binghamton in spite of that," she told me with a smile. Before matriculating at the university, she had passed her first test: a test of courage.
Sometimes bathroom ghosts appear in off-campus apartments. Lydia Fish recently told me about a haunted shower stall that troubled two female students at Buffalo State College in the early 1970s:
They'd wake up in the middle of the night and the showers would be on full-blast. Because of the way it was constructed, the shower stall would overflow, and the landlord would be very cross about this. The first time, the grls were willing to believe that one of them had done it. They decided, "We have a sleepwalker!"
They tied their thumbs together to see if one of them got up, but neither of them did, so they decided the shower stall was haunted. I think you cold describe this as a poltergeist. The girl's Italian grandmother came in with charms and did an exorcism. They weren't having trouble any more when I talked to her. I think the movie The Exorcist had something to do with this.
This story shows how water that resists human control can be interpreted as the presence of a ghost. I have collected several other stories in which gushes of water from faucets or shower heads signal a ghost's mischief, and I hope to collect more.
Bathroom ghost stories were common in ancient Greece. Plutarch's Cimon tells of the haunted bathhouse at Chaeronea, where a bandit had been murdered; visitors to the bathhouse heard groans and viewed terrifying apparitions (Felton 1999:36-37). According to the classicist Campbell Bonner, the belief that demons haunted baths was widespread in ancient Greece and continued to flourish in Egypt through medieval and modern times (1932: 203, 207-8). In ancient Greece, some spirits were identified as revenants, others as divine or semi-divine apparitions or demons. The prevalence of both friendly and threatening figures at rivers and other places with flowing water helps to explain the connection between baths and ghosts.
In Asia, bathroom ghosts are notorious. Sally, a student of mine in the mid-1990s who grew up in Korea, was terrified of going to the toilet when she was a child, because she had heard stories about a ghost there:
People would say, "Well, there is a hand that will come out of that pit and ask you whether you want a white tissue, a red tissue or a yellow tissue. They said you had to pick a bright one otherwise, it would take you down to the pit, and you'd die.
Some children died in bathrooms in Korea before the advent of modern plumbing; the footholds were perilous for small feet. Stories told of young unmarried women who committed suicide in bathrooms. For women and children, the bathroom represented peril and uncertainty.
J.K. Rowling includes a bathroom ghost, Moaning Myrtle, in her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999). Harry, Hermione, and Ron discover that a small, serpent-shaped engraving on a faucet opens the passageway to a mysterious underground chamber beneath the girls' bathroom. Inside the chamber, the Basilisk offers a dangerous but thrilling challenge. For Harry and his friends, entering the Chamber of Secrets requires courage, but talking to Moaning Myrtle is easy; she is a familiar member of the Hogwarts community. Similarly, college students often learn to recognize ghosts as relatively harmless figures that offer important tests of bravery and skill.
In the spring of 2001, I took the members of my introductory folklore class to the sub-basement of O'Connor Hall, where, according to campus legendry, a ghost had revealed itself three years before. Reaching up to clean a light fixture, Alice, one of the residence hall's janitors, had suddenly felt chilled and fainted, falling off her stool. After she regained consciousness, she claimed that a ghost had caused her fall and refused to clean the sub-basement again. Students who had heard this story began to tell of encounters of their own, and a complex cycle of local legends and personal experience stories developed. Visiting the site of Alice's fall with my students, I told them a few of the stories.
As we stood in the sub-basement, we noticed that a chilly breeze was blowing toward us from a locked door marked "DANGER," and loud noises were coming from the space behind it. Although these loud noises seemed to be part of the building's heating system, the combination of noises and a breeze intrigued the students.
Late that night, without my knowledge, some of the students went back to the basement with a flashlight and chisel, determined to open the door marked "DANGER" and discover the origin of the ghost. Fortunately, they did not succeed in opening the door. I learned about their expedition in a paper written by one of the students.
While residence halls are some of the most popular sites of campus hauntings, other buildings also harbor ghosts: chapels, libraries, administration buildings, theaters, and others. Campus theater lore is especially rich and varied. Rockwell Hall at Buffalo State College contains a theater that was sealed off for a long period of time; during those years, legends of spectral sounds and lights circulated on the Buffalo State campus. One student collector wrote, "In many theatres there is a thing known as "The Spirit of the Theatre" which dwells in the building. It brings good luck to any show that plays there. To keep the spirit from leaving you have to leave at least one light on that casts light on the stage" (Drexelius 1973). This spirit of the theater resembles spirits of sacred places in ancient Greece. By practicing certain restrictions never wearing green or yellow, never looking into mirrors over anyone else's shoulder, always saying "Break a leg" rather than "Good luck" students and other actors pacify the spirit of the theater, ensuring good luck for their performances.
This is just a brief sampling of the treasure trove of campus ghostlore. I am working on enlarging my collection of campus ghost stories and would be grateful for contributions. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks very much.
I would like to thank Lydia Fish, my first folklore teacher, for her kindness in helping me to launch this project. Her own stories and texts from the Buffalo State College Folklore Archive have been wonderful additions to my collection.
Bonner, Campbell. 1932. "Demons of the Baths." In Studies Presented to F. L. Griffith, ed. S.R.F. Glanville, pp. 203-8. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Bronner, Simon. 1995. Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Student Life. Little Rock: August House.
Degh, Linda. 2001. Legend and Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Drexelius, Joe. 1973. "Theatre Superstitions." Niagara Frontier Folklore Archive.
Felton, D. 1999. Haunted Greece and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hauck, Dennis. 1994. Haunted Places: The National Directory. New York: Penguin Books.
Rowling, J.K. 1999. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic.
--------. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic..
Tucker, Elizabeth. 1980. "Concepts of Space in Children's Narratives." In Folklore on Two Continents: Essays in Honor of Linda Degh, pp. 19-25. Bloomington, Indiana: Trickster Press.
Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Walker, Barbara. 1995. Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural. Logan:Utah State University Press.
Winfield, Mason. 2001. Spirits of the Great Hill. Buffalo: Western New