Every school college campus has a haunted story to tell, and I love hunting around for haunted ghostlore. By ghost, I mean "the disembodied spirit of a dead person". Ghost stories have a spooky tendency to bring us together, especially students starting out on new paths; they entertain us, educate us, excite us.
Supernatural tales in folklore have a dual structure: there is the ghostly aspect the story where a spirit appears and then the historical background of the haunting that often explains why it’s happening/what its function is.
There’s More To Haunted Tales Than Meets the Eye
Folklorists have identified the functions behind ghost stories. They can reassure us that horrible tragedies won't happen to us while also warning about the dangers of college life such as rape, binge drinking, and drug abuse. These stories can also communicate the painful pasts of places and the people who lived there.
Age and history factor into how often haunted tales are told about a place, as does the validity of these experiences, which boils down to memorates, or first-person experiences that happened directly to you.
Legends Form a Part of Rites of Passage
Folklorists know that legends in general have an "initiatory function for adolescents"; they are part of rites of passage during transitional times of life. The same symbols come up in these legends, as American folklorist Alan Dundes uncovered when he explored the subject. They also help as a coping mechanism for stress when students are presented with new challenges.
Legends have an element of needing to test out what kids grew up hearing, according to Linda Dégh's work; Bill Ellis' study backs this up by explaining how legends include elements of "play and rituals of rebellion". Legend-tripping, or the visiting of these haunted places, hoping for an experience, is the next logical step. Adults also do this when they go to places like Sleepy Hollow or Lily Dale. This type of tourism is usually more sanctioned, paid for, and much less illegal than when teens legend-trip.
Who are These Ghosts?
Many stories of college ghosts are about former students, but there are also stories of professors, presidents and other staff members. Lots of college campus stories oddly have children as a focal point (which is strange, considering colleges have mainly adolescents); these child ghosts tend to disturb the peace of those who live in their former residence. Its theorized by folklorists that children are reminiscent of who college students used to be, running and playing whenever one wanted. This type of story communicates danger and a feeling of home; such tales resemble the kind kids tell at camp.
The most haunted places tend to be residence halls, libraries and theaters because that’s where students spend a lot of their time. Liminal spaces like attics, basements, elevators, and bathrooms tend to be the focal points of hauntings.
Folkloric Memories from my School Days
The most folklore I ever heard was at Loy Elementary in Montana, which was right before the Internet became extremely popular. I often added to the local stories by whatever I read or saw that week on TV. Aside from my additions, I grew up hearing about a kid who got crushed in the cafeteria folding tables, girls pretending they were choked by an unseen presence, and seeing strange faces in the bathroom mirrors.
At the University of Wyoming, legend had it that if you threw an acorn into the mouth of whatever creature we had as a statue (I genuinely don't remember what it was) then you would pass all your exams. I saw people do this a few times come exam season. This comes down to an element of magical thinking—people most likely didn't believe this exactly but did it just in case because you never know. Another tale of this type is at Brown University, that rubbing the bust of John Hay will bring them good luck; on the flip side, a legend about staring at a portrait of Lady Burford at Indiana State University for too long means you will have bad luck.
At Utah State University, lore exists about a girl who committed suicide in the bell tower and that because of her, access to the tower is restricted, when it probably was to begin with. USU’s Lyric theater has an actor in Shakespearean clothes who was supposedly killed by another actor and buried under the theater. There also is a library room of legends collected by folklore students at USU, which is real because I’ve been in it.
Another example of haunted files of ghost stories exists at Mount Saint Mary's. An elevator in the English Department at Utah State University was said to be haunted just because it was old and creepy. No one had had an experience in the elevator itself as far as I know, but the joke that it was haunted. The 4th floor graduate student offices was also continually said to be haunted, so whenever something strange happened, it created the expectation that if something weird did happen, you had already been warned.
Oral Storytelling and the Internet
The Internet is how most legends proliferate now, but oral storytelling is still something we see widely happening on college campuses. I think storytelling, whether in idle gossip or through local folklore, is how we stay connected to each other and get to know new people. The Internet does spread stories extremely quickly, but to me, it’ll never beat the delightful shiver you get when someone tells you a really good story about a place you know, especially if they experienced it themselves. A lack of stories would mean further disconnection, so it’s best we keep telling our spooky stories.
De Caro, Frank. 2015, Putting the Supernatural in its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal, edited by Jeannie Banks Thomas.
Tucker, Elizabeth. 2007. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses.