Many of my book reports involve works focused on ghosts from earlier eras, say, the Victorian or the Classical periods. Elizabeth Tucker’s Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses is much more modern, recounting ghostly legends that have been told for decades but are still a part of academic life in the 21st Century.
Tucker explains that ghost stories have special resonance with college students. “Close scrutiny of college legend-telling,” she writes, “shows how ghost stories initiate students into college and young adulthood. Through sensory evidence of ghostly intrusions, students probe the nature of reality while adjusting to academic stress and residence hall social life.” Tucker even sites a study that suggests attending college increases one’s belief in ghosts. The lesson seems to be that students practice dealing with high stress and unknowns by enjoying a scary story that may or may not be real.
Tucker narrates and analyzes campus ghost stories from across the United States, ranging from the 1960s to the present, though some of the tales call upon a much deeper history. One of the most intriguing insights that I took from these tales is the relationship between ghosts and liminal spaces. Think of how many ghosts are said to lurk in attics or basements, the outer edges of a residence. After my wife and I moved into a two-story apartment, she asked me — if we had a ghost — where would it be? I paused before answering, “The staircase.” She replied, “YESSSSS!” Ghosts seem to love those in-between spaces, and Tucker suggests that college students see something of themselves in that. Not still a child, not yet an adult. In-between.
Anyone who has noticed repeated patterns in some ghost stories might especially like this book’s “Index of Tale Types and Motifs,” which gives numerical designations for such patterns. For example, E3220.127.116.11 designates “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” and E338.1(f) indicates “Ghost haunts bedroom.” (Tucker uses the Stith Thompson index, which is available here.) Lately, I’ve been noticing variations on E750.0.1, “Soul cannot enter heaven till body is buried.” I stumbled across an 1878 ghostly memoir, by Hezekiah Butterworth (now, that’s a name!), concerning a weird experience the author had while staying in an allegedly haunted room. Years later, he says, skeletons were found buried beneath the house. This reminded me of 1) the legend of Athenodorus locating bones buried unceremoniously at a haunted house in Athens, 2) the bones found in the Fox Sisters’ house decades after they claimed to have made contact with a spirit there, 3) the resolution of Ralph Adams Cram’s short story “Sister Maddelena,” and 4) Arthur Conan Doyle’s claim that bones were found at a house where, years earlier, he had investigated a poltergeist. I suspect I could find more examples of this spooky epilogue acting as an exclamation point to a ghost story, be it fiction or non-fiction.
Though Haunted Halls is filled with ghost stories, its purpose isn’t especially to give readers a chill. Rather, Tucker’s goal is to explore reasons why ghost stories persist and are so compelling — at least, among college students. Its implications, though, encompass almost anyone who enjoys ghostly tales.