Back before any of us, or anyone we knew, had attended Grove City College, one tragic night a student on the basketball team crashed through the glass doors of the gym on west campus and bled to death. If you walked across that part of campus at night, it was said, you would see his ghost. Everyone knew his name was Jim, but I never saw him. Folklorist Elizabeth Tucker presents a rare treat of the anomalous and academic in her book Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Professors have traditionally shied away from the paranormal. It can be a risky way to spend your time since the supernatural has been banished from the academy for ages. That doesn’t mean that students and professors have stopped seeing ghosts, though. Tucker, like a good prof, doesn’t just tell us ghost stories and dismiss class. She tries to unpack a bit of what they might mean.
Ghost stories, even when entertaining, are able teachers. Kids going to college find themselves in liminal situations. Not really independent, not really supervised, they test the limits of what they’ve been told. Ghosts, not supposed to exist, are the ultimate rebels. They don’t even obey the laws of physics or biology. But what are ghosts if not the embodiment of the human spirit? We call them spirits, and they represent that part of us that stubbornly refuses to go gentle into that dark night.
Tucker’s book will not convince a skeptic that ghosts exist. It probably won’t cause you any sleepless nights (unless you are about to send your child off to college). Her book is more about what ghost stories say about the living, as would be expected of a folklorist. Although not a comprehensive survey, Haunted Halls may well bring back the ghostly tales of your own college years, for very few places are without their specters, especially on a rainy October night. And even though I never saw Jim as I cut across west campus in the dark, who am I to say that he’s not really there?