Binghamton University professor redefines school 'spirit'
BINGHAMTON, NY – Across America, ghost stories help college students learn the rules of life on campus and aid young people in navigating complex relationships. But don’t be spooked: The ghosts of campus legends are generally friendly, helpful presences, or spirits who wish to share a cautionary tale of some sort.
That’s what Elizabeth Tucker, associate professor of English at Binghamton University, found when she set out to write a book about campus ghost stories. The tales she heard and the meaning this folklorist draws from them are the basis for her latest book, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses, to be published next month by the University Press of Mississippi.
“What ties these stories together is that they educate freshmen about how to live well in college,” Tucker said. “It’s morality plays for the modern era.”
Tucker e-mailed and spoke by phone with students around the country. She also visited some campuses and used information from college archives. She’s careful not to make judgments about what’s “real” when it comes to ghost stories. “Belief is personal,” she said, “and I don’t come down hard on one side or another. Many people have seen mysterious things, including some of my colleagues in folklore.”
Some of the stories Tucker heard are quite recent; others go back more than 100 years.
One of the most recent features a ghost named Brian who comes through the computer and types “EM PLEH,” which is “help me” spelled backward.
The story goes that he was studying for a test and drowned after he overdosed on caffeine pills. He haunts his old dorm room to get its current occupant to tell his parents that he didn’t commit suicide, but died by accident.
The story may feature such modern accouterments as instant messaging, but some elements, especially backward writing, are found in tales going back to Gettysburg, Tucker said.
An old tale that was of special interest to Tucker centers on a woman who stabbed herself after her lover died in a duel. Her ghost now haunts a Louisiana college.
It’s just one of many legends focused on unhappy relationships and how women, in particular, deal with them. In the stories, some of the women commit suicide; others are pushed down staircases, which are a common setting for college ghost tales.
“These stories sensitize students not to get into dangerous relationships themselves,” Tucker said. “College life can be stressful, and it’s hard to sustain peaceful relationships while going to school. These stories reflect that.”
The relationship ghost stories grew out of an era in which men did the choosing and women were the chosen. There may be less anxiety and more equality now, but students retain an interest in those bygone ways. “One possibility,” Tucker said, “is that courtship is so much more free form now that people find it interesting to look back at those days.”
Whether ancient or recent, all ghost stories rely on students’ interest in their school’s heritage. “It’s a pun, in a way,” Tucker said. “School spirits reflect school spirit. You don’t find ghost stories at schools without a sense of pride.”