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Ghosts Might Attend These 7 Supposedly Haunted Colleges and Universities

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Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 (Fordham), iStock (Ghost)

Universities aren’t just for higher learning—some are reportedly the locations of pretty freaky paranormal activity. Whether or not there's any real evidence behind them, these stories are more than just a little goosebump-inducing.

1. FORDHAM UNIVERSITY

If you need any context for the rumored hauntings at Fordham University, note that some scenes of The Exorcist were filmed on its campus. Elizabeth Tucker recalled one of the school’s most popular legends in her book Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. According to Tucker, one night in the summer of 2003, a resident assistant was filling out a damage report when he noticed mattresses that should have been flat on the floor standing upright against the walls. Around 2:30 the next morning, a Jesuit priest knocked on the R.A.’s door to explain he’d “taken care of” the evil spirit responsible for messing with the mattresses. Fordham University’s library website reports that the R.A. later tried to track down the Jesuit and eventually learned that the likeness he saw was that of a man who died 10 years prior.

2. UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

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Tales of the supernatural don’t faze the University of Toronto. In fact, the school embraces the lore, giving haunted tours of the campus. Multiple specters are rumored to linger on U of T’s grounds, but perhaps the creepiest story of all is that of Russian stonemason Ivan Reznikoff. U of T Magazine recounts the tale of the builder, who was working on the University College building in 1856. The project’s foreman, Paul Diablos, played a joke by carving one of the building’s gargoyles in Reznikoff’s likeness. One night Reznikoff returned to the site to alter a gargoyle in Diablos’ image—and vanished.

A student journalist quoted by the U of T Magazine reported that in 1889 Reznikoff’s ghost came back to visit one of the university's students, in the form of a mysterious long-haired figure. The figure explained that while he had been carving the gargoyle, he spotted Diablos with his fiancée, Susan. Reznikoff tried to attack Diablos with an axe, missing the man and hitting a door instead. Diablos retaliated by stabbing the Russian with a knife, killing him and hiding the body in a ventilation shaft. U of T Magazine says the mark from the axe can still be seen in University College’s southwest corner, and workers later found the skeleton of a man wearing a belt buckle with a stonemason’s emblem in a ventilation shaft.

3. OHIO UNIVERSITY

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Some insist Ohio University is one of the most haunted campuses in the country. While ghost stories abound, one bone-chilling feature is the location of the school’s Wilson Hall. According to Haunted Athens Ohio, the building is surrounded by five cemeteries. When viewed on a map, and with an especially active imagination, Wilson Hall and the graveyards supposedly form the shape of a pentagram.

Naturally, Wilson Hall is rumored to be haunted. As the story goes, in the 1970s a female student died a violent death in Room 428 after performing some kind of an occult ritual. In the following years, students residing in the room claimed to hear strange noises and saw objects moving on their own. The room is now said to be permanently sealed.

4. SAINT MARY-OF-THE-WOODS COLLEGE

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The name “Faceless Nun” is enough to send goose bumps skittering up your arms. The story behind the specter is no less chilling. In her book Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore, Josepha Sherman explains that the ghost, who still wears her habit, floats through Foley Hall, where she once taught art. The Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods website further details the legend in a 1974 interview with Sister Esther Newport, who also taught in the art department from 1931 to 1964. Newport recalled numerous instances in which an art department worker named Isabel interacted with the Faceless Nun. In one of many incidents, Isabel complained to Newport of a nun who constantly came around, standing between her and the light. “She leaves when I speak to her,” Isabel explained, “and I never see her face.”

5. UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA–CHAMPAIGN

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One of the University of Illinois’ hauntings dates back to the reported death of a student in the 1900s. In his book Haunting the Prairie: A Tourist's Guide to the Weird and Wild Places of Illinois, Michael Kleen writes that the student either drowned or committed suicide in the campus’ English Building, originally known as the Women's Building. At the time, it was a female dormitory, but had a swimming pool on its lower level. ExploreCU elaborates on this story, explaining that the woman’s ghost is rumored to roam the halls of the building, flickering lights and slamming doors. While the building did formerly have a swimming pool, there is no evidence of the student’s death.

6. PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Ghost stories are common at PSU, especially in relation to Old Botany, one of the campus’ oldest buildings. Penn State’s official website details the lore surrounding the cottage, explaining that “In one legend, [the deceased] Frances Atherton, the wife of [former PSU president] George Atherton, uses the windows in the top floor of Old Botany to keep an eye on her husband’s grave, which rests across the street from Old Botany. As students trudge along Pollock Road—one of the busiest walkways through campus—they cast an eye on the upper-floor windows, half-expecting to see the worried gaze of Frances looking back at them.” Creepy, right? 

In a 2003 article in the Daily Collegian, one of the building’s staff members, Karen Snare, recalled a particularly eerie instance she experienced in Old Botany. "I came to work one day and put the key in the door and they both flew open," Snare said, after explaining that usually only one of the doors opens. "You have to physically pull a chain and lift the bolt from the floor [to open the other door]." She noted that there were other creepy abnormalities that day, such as a roll of carpeting changing location and what sounded like books hitting the floor of an empty room.

7. UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME

Notre Dame has been described as a “breeding ground” for ghosts—and for good reason. In Matthew Swayne's book America’s Haunted Universities: Ghosts that Roam Hallowed Halls, he writes of numerous reports of paranormal activity in the South Dining Hall. Workers reportedly heard claps and moans, saw weird flashes, and one person even claimed to see a white figure floating by the entrance—only to later recognize him in a campus portrait. The figure was reportedly Father Sorin, the founder of Notre Dame. As Notre Dame Magazine notes, Sorin died on Halloween in 1893, which only adds to the creepiness of the story.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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