Oct 31, 2011

A Few Local Campus Ghost Stories to Liven Up the Season

Ghost stories seem to come out of the woodwork this time of year, and colleges within driving distance of DC have more than their fair share.

College of William and Mary, Williamsburg VA
As the nation’s second oldest college, the College of William & Mary claims the oldest academic building still in use on any campus in the US—the Sir Christopher Wren Building. Constructed between 1695 and 1700, Wren functioned as a hospital for French and American troops during the Revolutionary War and is said to be the site of at least one local haunting. Footsteps heard on the upper floors are thought to be those of a French soldier who died in the upstairs wards. Others believe the footsteps could only belong to Sir Christopher as he continues to admire the building he designed.

Located northeast of the Wren Building is the President’s House. The oldest official residence for a college president, the building housed many interesting personalities and boasts a colorful history since its original construction began in 1732. During the Civil War, the house served as the Federal Headquarters for the area and was used as a prison for captured southern soldiers. It is believed that the spirits of Confederate Army ghosts are still trying to escape from the house that imprisoned them and play tricks on unwitting visitors.

Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA
There are several variations on the legend of Gustavus Millhiser and the house he acquired for his “fiancĂ©,” an Italian opera singer, in the early 1890’s. According to some, Millhiser’s lover had an affair with a man living in the Scott House across the street. There are a few fanciful and unlikely stories of a tunnel built between the Millhiser and Scott homes where the lovers would meet in secret. What became of the relationship is unclear, except that Millhiser lived well into his sixties and died a bachelor. Legend suggests that a restless ghost still roams the halls searching for the unfaithful lover.

Millhiser House served as VCU’s first student center. It’s now the home of VCU’s Office of International Exchange and is featured on VCU's historic building tour.

James Madison University, Harrisonburg VA
JMU’s tunnels, stories of ghosts and violence, a restless Confederate general, and the mysterious lady in red provide ample material for the active imagination. Although most have been thoroughly debunked by humorless historians, the legend of the hanging in the Wilson Hall cupola has been a favorite for generations.

The story centers on an undergraduate who was carrying on an affair with a married professor, who unceremoniously dumped her. The student is said to have hung herself in despair in the cupola of Wilson Hall, which looms over the JMU campus. On some nights, when the light is just right, you can see the silhouette of the young woman hanging in the window of the cupola.

George Mason University, Fairfax VA
Folklorist Margaret Yocom, associate professor of English, is George Mason’s official “ghost keeper.” Over the years, Dr. Yocom has collected stories for the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, a number of which document ghostly sightings in the area including a bizarre spirit who haunts the women’s crew team on the Occoquan River and a few strange occurrences at a local restaurant popular with Mason students.

One particularly gruesome story suggests that a small gazebo bordering Mason Pond on the Fairfax campus is frequented by the spirit of a young man who drowned under mysterious circumstances one night. The next morning, his body was allegedly found sitting in the gazebo by two women who happened to be visiting the area. Ever since, the man’s figure has been spotted standing at the edge of Mason Pond or sitting in the gazebo. His spirit beckons young women to join him but instantly disappears when approached.

Georgetown University, Washington DC
With twin Victorian spires dominating the local skyline, Georgetown’s Healy Hall sets the scene for a variety of campus pranks involving stolen clock hands as well as wild stories of student exploits within the labyrinthine tunnels that wind beneath the building. Constructed during the presidency of Father Patrick Healy, between 1877 and 1879, the former dormitory cost the University an enormous amount of money. The debt eventually caused Healy’s retirement and could explain the restless nature of spirits haunting the large stone ediface.

Officially, the 5th floor of Healy Hall does not and never did exist. The Gothic design of the building lends itself to much speculation about secret sealed-off floors and ghostly inhabitants. One story suggests that a young Jesuit student accidently opened the Gates of the Underworld while reading forbidden chants in a book about exorcism within a secret room that is now among those sealed-off to students. Another story documents the gruesome death of a priest who was crushed while working on the clock in the building’s spire and whose groans may be heard by students walking the campus at night.

Since the filming of “The Exorcist” on campus, Georgetown students celebrate Halloween with a screening of the movie either on Copely lawn or in Gaston Hall. At midnight, students gather in the shadow of Healy Hall—at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery—and literally howl at the moon.

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