Campus Goose Bumps

Colleges and universities have perhaps more than their fair share of ghost sightings.

October 31, 2019
Bruce Solheim

Bruce Solheim, longtime distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in California, is about 6'3", 270 pounds, and he used to fly helicopters in the U.S. Army. Whatever the stereotypical believer in ghosts looks like, he isn’t it. And yet Solheim says he has been experiencing the paranormal -- what he calls “the normal” -- since he was 4 years old, when he became severely ill at his grandmother’s home in remote northern Norway.

Friends and family members thought he was going to die. Then, in the middle of the night, he says, he experienced a warm, bright light. The next morning, he was alive -- and healthy.

Over the years, and especially in academe, Solheim learned to keep his apparitions to himself. But as he approaches retirement, Solheim has decided to let his freak flag fly. He’s published two books on his experiences with the paranormal and has a third in the works. And Citrus, he says, has benevolently let him teach a noncredit course on paranormal personal histories (no cellphones allowed -- they disturb the spirits). The most recent class wrapped up this week -- just in time for Halloween.

As part of the course, Solheim and his students visit parts of campus that are known for otherworldly activity. Solheim uses different equipment to read the rooms for “para-normas.” But he gets much of his intel on where to look from night janitors. Often alone in the quiet darkness, Solheim says, these men and women are some of the most likely to encounter students who never -- ahem -- graduate and employees who never retire.

At Citrus, he says, two locations stand out. One is a haunted playground, at the site of a former childcare center. And the Tech C building is haunted by one particular ghost, a late custodian named Frank, who walks the halls and sometimes knocks things over. Custodial staff will often send new hires to the building for a kind of initiation, Solheim said.

Haunted Campuses

Sound crazy? That’s OK. Solheim is used to skepticism. But he is far from the only academic to believe in ghosts. And Citrus is far from the only college or university to have a spirited reputation. Scores of campuses are said to be haunted, with books, websites, social media posts and walking tours dedicated to spooky sightings.

Gettysburg College, which housed a battlefield hospital during the Civil War and is said to be haunted by spectral soldiers, gets mentioned in local ghost tours, for instance. Bowdoin College is full of spooky sites, according to author and campus developer David Francis -- including Adams Hall, formerly Maine Medical School, where the old floorboards are said to have been made of coffins for the corpses. Smith College hosts a running log of strange encounters. And Pennsylvania State University even saw a multiseason A&E Network reality television show, Paranormal State, about its own student-led Paranormal Research Society.

Solheim said that “transient” locations, through which many people pass over many years, tend to be spiritually active places. Colleges and universities are, of course, just that.

Geography may play a role, as well. Many supposedly haunted campuses are in the Northeast and among the nation’s oldest.

Solheim, for instance, said he never encountered ghosts while earning his doctorate at Bowling Green State University -- perhaps because he was too distracted by the task at hand. But interviewing for a job at New Hampshire’s Colby-Sawyer College was another story. Solheim was put up at the now-defunct Old Academy building, which was once a boys’ school. He heard noises and voices all night long, he said, and once woke up to the angry face of a woman wearing an austere black outfit. The next morning, he went downstairs and saw a portrait of the woman who’d visited him in the night. She happened to be Susan Colby Colgate, the school's first teacher.

Solheim never disclosed to his interviewers what he’d experienced, sensing it wasn’t a good idea. But his experiences sounded very familiar to Beth Camp, director of development at Colby-Sawyer. One current professor at the college heard bumps in the night during his own stay in the Old Academy building, Camp said: again and again throughout his visit, the door to the vacant room across the hall opened. Water later streamed from the room's faucet. Susan Colby Colgate has been spotted over the years, floating through the main Colgate Hall building. And a man in a tall, dark hat has been seen peering out of Colgate Hall's third-floor windows. He's suspected of sometimes ringing the bell in a restricted tower.

Camp said Colby-Sawyer’s residence halls are known to be haunted, as well. She attended the college and experienced “strange and odd things” here and there -- such as a Ouija board piece that truly appeared to move across the board by itself. In another residence hall that used to a be a gym, students spanning decades have reported hearing a basketball bounce down the hall in the middle of the night.

The back of Colby-Sawyer’s campus is referred to as Susan Swamp, not after Susan Colby Colgate but for a student who, according to legend, fell into the lake one night long ago and drowned. (Many ghost stories across campuses involve students and visitors who died in tragic accidents or were murdered.) Students walking by the Colby-Sawyer swamp still report seeing a woman walking in a flowing dress or feeling a cool breeze in otherwise balmy weather.

Among other campus locations, the Colby-Sawyer library is known to be haunted, as well. Some have spotted a boy standing in the history section. Others have reported books spontaneously falling off shelves. Perhaps strangest of all, Camp said, a security guard once reported turning the lights off there at night, again and again, only to have them turn on again. Eventually, following a kind of standoff with the switch, the guard left. The lights turned on again just as he was walking out of the building. Maybe it was the boy in the history section, afraid of the dark? One can only guess.

“I really have no idea why this is the case, but there are so many consistent themes” in the sightings, Camp said. “So many of our buildings do have a great amount of history.”

Katherine Crowe, curator of special collections and archives at the University of Denver, said she’s “on the fence about ghosts” and has never experienced one. But she’s noticed that when campuses are said to be haunted, libraries tend to be involved. The Watson Library at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, for example, is supposedly haunted by its namesake and first librarian, Carrie Watson. And Denver’s Mary Reed Hall, formerly the main library, is also visited by its namesake and donor, the late Mary Reed. 

Crowe said that there’s an enormous portrait of Reed in the building, and sound travels easily there, so it’s easy to feel her presence. 

Architecture, at Denver and elsewhere, probably plays a role in campus hauntings, she added. “There’s nothing more esthetically spooky than Collegiate Gothic buildings at night.” 

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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