With Halloween here, there could be no more fitting time for the University Press of Mississippi to release Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. In the book, Elizabeth Tucker explores the history and meaning of campus ghost legends. Tucker is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton and author of Campus Legends: A Handbook. Tucker responded via e-mail to questions about her new book.
Q: What led you to this topic?
A: I began my study of campus ghost stories in 2000, when a friend forwarded me an e-mail query about a haunted residence hall. This e-mail message asked residential life professionals for help in responding to students who said they had felt an eerie presence, seen lights going on and off, and experienced other strange phenomena in an old building with a history of suicides and fires. Several residential life members suggested that the best solution to these problems would be exorcism. After seeing this e-mail exchange, I decided that campus ghost stories merited further study.
Q: You note in your book that many ghost stories on campuses deal with broken hearts (of women) or sexual mores. What do you make of the way these legends live on in eras with different mores and ideals for women?
A: Many stories about broken-hearted female ghosts that haunt college buildings reflect courtship patterns of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The legend of the haunted "Wedding Cake House" at the University of Georgia, for example, explains that a young bride-to-be hanged herself in the attic after her groom failed to appear at their wedding. Such legends remind us of the long period of time when men were expected to take the initiative in romantic relationships. Today's courtship mores have more flexibility, but traditional proposals, engagements, and weddings are still important to many young people. Sometimes ghosts seem to have the power to bring couples together. In the "Wedding Cake House," occupied by the sisters of Alpha Gamma Delta, the young woman who lives in the room where the hanging allegedly took place is expected to get lavaliered, pinned, or engaged because of the ghost's influence.
Q: How do you think these stories contribute to cohesion on campuses?
A: I have learned that campuses with lively ghosts usually have strong cohesion; in other words, school spirits reflect school spirit. Ghosts add excitement and mystery to campus life. At Emory University, for example, the ghost of Dooley, a skeleton, has the power to disband classes during a certain week by shooting water at professors with his squirt gun. Dooley has a large group of Facebook friends: 2,484 the last time I checked. A couple of years ago, my folklore class at Binghamton imitated Dooley, shooting water at me with a Super-Soaker and declaring that class had come to an end. I didn't stop the class but told the students that I admired their spirit.
Q: With more recent "ghosts," (faucets that supposedly turn on and off), would you recommend colleges try to disprove these incidents or just accept them?
A: I have found that most stories about campus hauntings involve friendly, playful ghosts that cause no trouble. Most students enjoy talking about their campus' ghosts, especially around Halloween. Situations such as the "eerie presence" that got me going on my research may cause alarm, however. If students seem worried or uneasy, it can be helpful for folklorists and/or residential life staff members to tell the students how ghost stories have circulated on their own campus and others.
Q: What are your favorite campus hauntings and why?
A: One of my favorite campus ghost stories describes a descent to the basement of Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College, where a student finds a "full working civil war hospital" in operation. The magical quality of this sudden return to the past reminds me of some of the best "Twilight Zone" episodes. I'm also very fond of the "Beer Duck" of Brandeis University, which jams students' refrigerator door when they reach for a beer; this ghost is typical of the admonitory presence that many ghosts represent, especially for freshmen. I also love the story of Binghamton University's Brian, who haunts the resident of his former room by writing the words "!!Em Pleh" ("Help me" backwards) on her computer screen. Eventually, Brian explains to the student who lives in his room that he wants her to tell his parents he died accidentally and did not commit suicide. Brian is a kind, caring ghost who doesn't want to scare anyone; he just wants to tell the truth about his accidental death.