You may not believe in ghosts or spirits or things that go bump in the night, but folklorists believe human beings have just cause to hold a fascination with apparitions. And what better place to go ghost-hunting than a university campus?
If asked, two administrative clerks will likely tell you.
It wasn’t normal.
But it happened.
It happened on the Indiana State campus in a two-story brick, Italianate-style house where a reverend and his wife lost infant twins around 1860.
One hundred years later, the Victorian-era home was bequeathed to the university. For 15 years up until 2008, the stately Condit House served as the office for the university president.
In separate rooms, two female administrative assistants worked on the ground floor. One called out, “I’m going back to the kitchen.”
Not long after, a shadow of a woman slipped by. The other assistant hollered, “You back already?”
She asked again. Then stood up and peered into the neighboring office. She gazed down the hallway. Finally, she walked to the kitchen, where she found her colleague.
“Did you just return back to your office?”
They were the only two people in the house at the time.
Unexplained footsteps on the stairs in the Condit House were so frequently heard, the clerks took the unknown visitor for granted. They wondered if the recurring spirit belonged to Helen Condit, who died in the 1960s and bequeathed the house to the university. Or perhaps the infant twins, Helen’s siblings, who passed away in the house, never really left?
Could the incident be normal, abnormal or even paranormal?
You may not believe in ghosts or spirits or things that go bump in the night. If you don’t, you might be surprised to discover about half of your friends and colleagues do, according to a 2012 Huffington Post poll that found 45 percent of adults believe in apparitions.
An older Gallup Poll (2005) determined three out of four Americans believe in the paranormal.
Folklorists believe human beings have just cause to hold a fascination with apparitions.
“We need ghosts, because they meet a variety of cultural concerns, including the reality that everyday life is full of uncertainties and mysteries. Ghost stories excel at speaking to and capturing these mysteries and uncertainties. They remind us that our everyday worlds are not entirely knowable,” said Jeannie Thomas, a former Indiana State professor.
What better setting for the intersection of the knowable and the unknowable than a college campus, with buildings dating back to the 19th century?
According to Nan McEntire, folklorist and associate professor emerita of English and women’s studies at Indiana State, “Campuses are places of exploration, transformation and initiation. It makes sense that stories about the supernatural find welcome homes in the historic buildings, the dormitories and the pastoral settings of colleges throughout the world.”
Indiana State is certainly no exception. Before retiring, McEntire created a campus ghost tour for students, and they’re still held each year during Sycamore Scare Week, which occurs around Halloween.
Many versions of the Sycamores’ tales paint moral imperatives: Study hard, be wary in love and choose good friends.
Students live in residence halls … and perhaps so do other, non-tuition-paying, beings. Nestled among residence hall towers in Sycamore Plaza, a tall, thin structure reaches into the sky with an Icarus-type yearning. Since the early 1990s, several accounts of a spirit that haunts room 1221 of Cromwell Hall have been told.
Stressed during finals’ week, a male student jumped to his death — but not before he painted a white cross under a 12th-floor window on the exterior of the building. Many say the maintenance crews have removed the cross from the exterior of Cromwell Hall, only to find the cross mysteriously repainted.
A heartbroken student is said to have tied bed sheets around her neck and hanged herself. Traumatized students stood around her mangled body. Some believe the victim was pushed.
In the late 1960s, in the residential six-story low-rise Burford Hall, female students would lie awake all night petrified. They slept behind locked doors and shoved furniture against them for extra protection. This ghost was easily heard: She laughed, vomited and then kindly flushed the toilet. By morning, somehow the young women’s doors would be unlocked.
“Barfing Barb,” as she is known, is not the lone spirit in Burford Hall. Accounts gathered by folklorists speak of others, such as the evil-eye stare of the matronly picture of Mrs. Burford. Rumors have been spread that “Old Lady Burford” committed suicide there. (She did not.)
In 1910, Mrs. Charlotte Burford became the college’s second dean of women and served until 1946. Today, on a visit to Burford Hall’s first floor, you will find the picture of an older, stern woman with a plaque that documents her service. Charlotte survived a patriarchal culture and thrived as the dean of women, a job of power.
For cynics of ghosts and the supernatural, it is helpful to turn to science. On campus, Investigation: Supernatural Unit’s (I:SU) budding scientists strive to verify claims with facts to prove the existence of ghosts and paranormal activity. Founded in 2012 by alumnus Sean Green, ’13, I:SU claims “Paranormal is our normal.”
Now led by president Emily Rigdon, the student organization is dedicated to discovering if locations are haunted by collecting evidence on film and audio. They labor to discover EVP — Electronic Voice Phenomena. They attempt to record ghost chatter and seek documented proof.
As with the famous and compelling 1936 photograph snapped of a ghostly female form in a residence in Norfolk, England, I:SU is always up against skeptics. Some argue photographic and audio evidence, while compelling, can be faked.
Some believe, some don’t. But ghost stories and haunted places aren’t likely to leave Indiana State, other college campuses or beyond, given that cultures have been fascinated with the spirit world and apparitions for centuries.
For Sycamores, whether or not they want to delve into paranormal science or ghost-busting, they tend to appreciate the ability to ace tests. Supposedly, prior to any exam, this can be done by placing hands on a campus plaque with a grammatical error. Touch the error. Be error-free.