Probing Question: Why Do So Many College Campuses Have Ghost Legends?

Tis the season — the season for fright, that is. Haunted houses, monster mazes, horror movies, and ghost stories: October is the month in which we dwell in the darker corners of our imaginations. But with today’s news channels filled with scary true-life tales of epidemics and war, why do people seek out make-believe chills and thrills?

“I think it’s human nature, and perhaps a result of natural selection, that we focus on threats,” says journalist Matt Swayne, lecturer in Penn State’s College of Communications and author of the book, America’s Haunted Universities: Ghosts that Roam Hallowed Halls. “Human beings have always explored new environments, and if we can be alert for potential dangers around us, that gives us a clear survival advantage.”

Research suggests that teens and young adults are particularly hard-wired for sensation seeking and exploration, perhaps in order to establish independence from their parents, Swayne notes. Horror movies and ghost stories may be two safe ways to get that adrenaline rush — and live to tell about it. “Many young people are living on college campuses and these can be some of the best settings for spooky tales,” he explains. “Typically, there are large, old buildings and sites with lots of history being visited by a bunch of smart, creative students. It doesn’t take much to imagine a ghost walking some of those corridors.” Throw in some autumn leaves, crisp winds, and a full moon a few times in the semester, says Swayne, and you have a great backdrop for a chilling ghost story.

“I’m convinced that one role of ghost stories on campus is to help create a sense of community among the transitory populations of students. Remember that students arrive on campus from all over the world and they will only be staying for a few years,” he adds. “Ghost stories can pass on historical information and clues about our values. For instance, here at Penn State, ghost stories about Old Coaly — a mule that worked in the fields and on building projects during Penn State’s founding — also gives us hints about what we value: hard work, service, and sacrifice, good working-class values that you might find on the farms and in the factories of central Pennsylvania at the University’s founding.”

“Ghost stories can also offer us warnings about real threats,” Swayne says. “Murders and suicides are statistically rare events on campuses, but there are a number of college ghost legends about them. Perhaps the stories serve, in part, as warnings about these tragedies.” When young people are away from home for the first time, he adds, there’s also a case to be made that by fearing the ‘ghosts’ around them, they may feel more inclined to seek safety in the community.” In his view, he continues, “campus ghost stories are similar to the creation and origin myths we see across many cultures. The late mythologist and storyteller Joseph Campbell suggested that people tell myths for many reasons, including cosmological, sociological, educational, and metaphysical concerns. I see similarities in the reasons we tell ghost stories. They tell us about our social order, how to behave, and what may exist beyond the realms of the here and now.”

With a Halloween birthday, Swayne jokes that he “was born to write about ghost stories.” When he worked at the Daily Herald in his hometown of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, “I was typically assigned Halloween stories,” he explains. “One year I came up a little short and decided to investigate Penn State ghost stories. I was intrigued to explore why ghost stories would find such favor in university environments that value reason and science over superstition and the supernatural.”

“I especially love the ghost stories of Southern campuses,” Swayne admits. “They have that particularly Southern twist of serious and zany. One of my favorites is the ghost of Evening Primrose, who is said to haunt Hoskins Library at the University of Tennessee.” Explains Swayne, “It’s believed that, as a graduate student, she studied so much at the library that a stack of books fell on her and crushed her to death. People say she’ll knock books off the shelves and fool around with elevator buttons.”

Maybe this is a Southern way of reminding students to take a study break and stop and smell the magnolias, laughs Swayne. At the very least, he says, make time for a good old-fashionedghost story.
Matt Swayne is an adjunct instructor in the College of Communications and a research writer in the Office of Research Communications. He can be reached at mls29@psu.edu.

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