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Higher Learning or Haunted Learning?: Natural and Supernatural Reasons Why Ghosts Haunt Our Campuses

This article was written by Matthew L. Swayne
posted under Ghosts & Hauntings

If I asked you to name a few areas where you would most likely find stories about ghosts, poltergeists, or other haunted activities, I bet you would could rattle off a few spots right away.

Battlefields are probably the first that come to mind; stories of ghosts abound in places like Gettysburg and Bunker Hill. Places known for tragedy and violence are fertile grounds for haunted legends and lore.

Cemeteries go without saying; there's nothing like a few acres of corpses and stoic marble monuments to inspire ghost stories.

Any big, old home is bound to have a few ghosts lurking about, too. Think about the castles in Scotland and manor homes on plantations.

While those three guesses are pretty good, the most haunted space in the United States may be a little surprising. The campuses of America's universities and colleges arguably hold more ghosts and spirits per square acre than any other place in the country. This seems a little odd. After all, universities are the institutions responsible for passing on the rigors of the scientific method for discovery and espousing a rational, empirical approach to understanding reality. University-trained scientists do not have a lot of time for spooks and sprites.

Yet, practically every campus holds paranormal secrets. Tales of long-dead founders walking the halls of administration buildings, accounts of murdered co-eds visiting feuding dorm roommates, and poltergeist outbreaks are just some of the stories that are passed around by students, staff, and even faculty members at America's universities.

There are a few explanations—both normal and paranormal—for this contradictory position that universities have as institutions of both higher learning and haunted learning.

First, folklorists point out that universities have "transitory populations." In other words, each year a new class of students enters the university and another class graduates, moving on to explore their lives outside of the university gates. Most students will live on or near the campus for only four years.

Ghost stories, then, provide a quick and compelling way to pass on a university's history and its moral codes to new students. For example, consider the story of the ghost of the Chancellor's daughter who reportedly haunts the campus of North Carolina State. According to some versions of the legend, she died while caring for the sick during an influenza outbreak. Whether we believe her ghost can still be seen in the old infirmary isn't the important part of the story. Within a sentence or two, a student can understand a little bit about the history of the school, as well as learn lessons of self-sacrifice and commitment.

Other legends may teach the student about how the university was founded and how it grew and changed over time. Campus ghost stories may also subtly point out ideal student behavior. After all, you don't want the ghost of a one-time university president catch you staggering back to your dorm room after a kegger.

All of this information can be conveyed in a few minutes with a really gripping story that is designed to be passed around.

That leads to another reason for ghost stories on campus: protection. For most students, attending college is the first time they spend an extended period of time away from their parents. It's also the first time they are away from their parents' good advice. (Although, many college students are not likely to admit that.)

Campus ghost stories often provide cautionary lessons. A story about the ghost of a co-ed who was murdered while walking through campus late one evening is a warning to students to limit journeys at night and travel in groups. It may also warn the student against too much late night carousing. That's good old parental advice.

So, is that all there are to campus ghost stories, then? Simply fun, spooky stories that provide a history lesson, or a public service announcement?

Most folklorists will say that there is nothing supernatural about campus ghost stories, but there are a number of strange accounts that don't fit neatly into the "natural explanation" box.

As I wrote and researched books on campus ghost stories, a few folks have sought me out with first-hand accounts of hauntings on campus. A late-night janitor in a building with a reputation for housing a poltergeist told me that as he was cleaning he heard a series of tremendous crashes. He assumed a student was trashing a lab for some unknown reason. He guessed by the noise that the room was just around the corner. But, when he turned the corner, the noises ceased. He checked each room—there was no sign of a disturbance. The rooms were neat and orderly, just as he left them.

A student told me that a group of his friends conducted an informal ghost hunt in the reportedly haunted attic of their dorm. The student said that during the hunt, they heard strange noises, like footsteps of someone who was walking right in front of them, and, then, two flashlights faded and completely died out at the same time. Once the group left the attic, the flashlights turned back on again with fully-charged batteries.

Obviously, these people may be lying. But why? Usually, people beg not to have their names used in any printed accounts. So, fame can’t be the reason. Nor, do they seem unbalanced or—for want of a better term—crazy. These witnesses seem genuinely baffled by these occurrences.

A few paranormal investigators and researchers say there are a few reasons why universities are so haunted. One of the main reasons is something they call residual psychic energy.

Anyone who has witnessed a stadium full of college kids rock a football stadium should have a little glimpse into how much psychic energy generation is possible by a group of young adults. What paranormal researchers do is take this psychic energy to the next level. According to them, this power constantly etches itself into the fiber of a location and creates some of the paranormal outbreaks that we have talked about—residual spirits, poltergeists, and active hauntings.

Also, researchers say that if there is a high concentration of people in a certain location, you're bound to have your share of tragedies and misfortunes. The recipe for ghost stories includes a mixture of tragedies and misfortunes that lead to spirits with unfinished business on this plane of existence.

Whether you want to believe that there are natural explanations for ghosts on campus, or that there really are haunted universities, you have to admit there really is something to that whole school spirit thing, then, it seems.

Matthew L. Swayne
Matthew L. Swayne (State College, PA) is a journalist who currently works as a research writer at Penn State. Matt has worked as a reporter and as a music reviewer for several newspapers and online outlets, such...  Read more

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