Ghost stories have their roots in the tradition of oral storytelling. Told around the fire to explain the unseen, they evolved and changed with people’s culture and taught generation what to fear. The way the stories were told influenced them as much as the words spoken and those tales became the bonding force of the society. Listening was not passive. The weight of remembering and retelling helped to form identity. The relationship between those that spoke and those that heard connected the group and signaled an informal initiation.
The tradition is not dead. The passing of ghost stories, whether they are true or not, still has the same effect. No longer is the telling crucial to maintaining the social structure, but its value as part of an initiation lives in sleepovers, camp outs and in the spreading of local legend. To believe is to belong and to be part of the tradition means to be part of a group.
At Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, tales of lost love and ghosts forge a special relationship between those that search today and those that found generations ago.
In 1700 John Hunt built a house for his family outside of the main military complex in Northampton. The area was still a prime location for attacks from the Native Americans in the area, so like most houses of its time, it was built with a secret passage to hide the family from any invaders. The passage perhaps was also designed get them out of the house safely. Some say the passage leads to a nearby pond, but few know for sure. Those that do keep the secret well.
The house passed through different hands over the decades and was finally purchased by Ruth Session in 1900. To earn extra money for her family, she rented out rooms to the students at nearby Smith College until she finally sold them the property in 1921. Sometime before then she is said to have found the secret passage and the legend of what had happened there was born. In the next few years the story grew, and although peopled with actual figures of the day, the truth of what lives in the darkened hallway is only hinted at. The young women who now use Session House as their dorm fully embrace the legend and participate in passing it on to the next generation.
It’s the traditions and rich lore of the campus each student experiences that the online universities of today are lacking.
The story of the hauntings differs depending on the source, but the most accurate account comes from the play put on every Halloween in the dorm. General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne fought against the colonist and was eventually caught and held prisoner in the house, then still owned by Hunt. The war raged on, but the general found comfort in Hunt’s daughter Lucy. The young girl quickly fell in love, but the Generals motives are hinted at as being more out of boredom than passion. Her family was strongly opposed to Burgoyne’s political and military alliances and they were forbidden to see each other. Lucy knew of the secret passage though and encouraged him to meet her there.
Eventually Gentleman Johnny was sent back to England, promising to return for young Lucy. Upon his return he was returned to active service and sent to Ireland never to return to her. Lucy was heartbroken. She eventually married into a passionless marriage but never got over her first love.
Ever since, the ghosts of the two lovers has been seen and heard from the passageway. There is not much detail about the nature of the hauntings, but what is interesting is not the ghosts that might exist in the hallway but the ceremony that has evolved around the them. Every Halloween the young women at Session House are allowed to search for the hidden passageway and the souls that are suppose to haunt there. They are presented with the figures of their past and are invited to become part of the story as actresses dressed as the ghosts that preside in the dorm perform a play of the tragedies that have become legend there. Then for twenty minutes on that night only they search the nooks and crannies of the house without any light looking for the passage that contains the spirits. If they find it, a senior who has found it in one of her previous years is there with a flashlight to congratulate her. She must tell no one that she has found it and must sneak downstairs unseen during the night to tell the house mother. Her accomplishment is announced at the Thanksgiving dinner and for the rest of her college days she cannot reveal the location to anyone who does not know yet. If she has not found it by her senior year she is told where it is.
The unlucky lovers are not the only ghost said to live in the dorm. Another tale tells of a mother and her two children who were alone in the house one night telling ghost stories and scaring each other. The mother thought she heard a noise and grabbed an ax to protect her family. She began to search the house, eventually making it back to the room her children were in. Thinking they were intruders who had broken into the house, she chopped them up. When she saw her mistake, she killed herself in a room on the third floor of the house.
The other famous tale from Session House takes place after it had become a dorm and the passage hunt had already become part of its tradition. Two girls found the secret passage but fell into a hole in the staircase and either broke their necks or injured themselves and starved to death. They are said to be heard as you near the staircase and might also try to push or drag you into the hole.
All of these stories add to the aura of a classic site for a ghostly haunting. The college dorm has been the set of ghost stories as long as there have been underclassmen for upperclassmen to tell stories to. The older the college, the more tradition contained within its walls, the more colorful and powerful the story becomes. If you were looking for a set for a Gothic story you would search the campuses in New England in the wall when the leaves are starting to change and the grey skies match the masonry. They are often isolated and in rural settings.
Taking a walk through these campuses in late summer when the students have gone reinforces the weight of the power of these buildings. They are larger, more overwhelming versions of the classic haunted house seen in every town. In fall the students arrive from all parts of the country bring the tales of their hometowns with them.
These stories feed into the already active minds of people on their own who have been forced to start taking responsibility for their actions. The fear and pressure of the situation becomes fertile ground for ghost stories. Add the architecture of older college buildings, the mystic of secret societies and the already charged atmosphere of fall, the start of the school year and the season of Halloween, and those anxieties manifest themselves as scratches on the wall and ghostly visions. A quick check of most college students usually finds at least one story of a famous haunting on campus. That fear gets more intense when the dorm is used by women.
There is an entire section of urban legends that focus on females at college. Most people have heard of the student who comes home to the darkened dorm room and thinks that her roommate is engaged with her boyfriend. Not wanting to disturb them she slips under the sheets and pretends not to hear them. When she wakes up she finds her roommate dead and the word, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights'” written in blood on the wall. There are also several tales where one girl goes out and the other stays in. Later she begins to get scared and hears a scratching on the door. She locks herself in but in the morning she finds her roommate dead outside the door with her fingernails broken off. They are extensions of legends involving younger girls who become victims of murders while babysitting and older women who lose their children because they leave the house for their own benefit.
The traditional interpretation of these tales is that the woman deserves what she gets because she should not be at college in the first place. They reflect people’s subconscious objections to the woman’s leaving the home and rejecting what has been her role for generations. She should be in the home learning to become a good mother and wife and not learning to become a professionals and leader. This may only be part of the inspiration of these stories though. Society does not frown on a woman getting an education like it did during the genesis of these urban legends. There is still a prejudice acting in the subconscious and the stories have already taken on a life of their own, but similar tales were alive and well before women even started to attend college. For hundred of years men at college have shared their classrooms with the supernatural and the bonding experience of telling of these stories serves the same purpose no matter what the sex. It would seem the role of women outside the
house might add to the depth to the legends and act as a variation, not just the cause.
What purpose does it serve for the women of Session House and is it a genuine haunting or a localized legend? The first hint is that it is probably only a legend is the fact that it is not localized at all. While there may be historical people mentioned throughout, and it might involve an actual location, the themes talked about are seen in other stories since the beginning of oral and written history. Here we have the ageless story of two people kept apart who return from the grave to live out their love. In some of the tales, Lucy is the only ghost, searching the passage for Gentleman Johnny and unable to rest until they are reunited, searching for in death what she could not have in life. Some stories say that she killed herself, one of the most common elements to cause a spirit to not rest peacefully. They set the table perfectly for a haunting and draw us in because we can feel the passion for a lost love and enjoy the romantic notion that their love could exist even in the afterlife.
It also is common to have secret passages where ghost may be. There are several stories throughout the country of hauntings in passages that used to be used to hide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. The Winchester House in Seattle is known for its hidden hallways and the ghosts that walk them. In Massachusetts, there is the House of Seven Gables and other historical buildings that either are known to be haunted or have inspired ghosts stories from the people that have seen them. It is not unusual for the dark areas of our house to produce fear. In the safest place for a person, the one place where everything is thought to be secure, there is something secret and foreign invading that peace.
It might be unfair to say something has not happened because it reflects a theme seen in other hauntings, but there are other elements to the story that make it seem more like legend. There are glaring inconsistencies in the story of the hauntings as well as the ritual the girls play out. Some accounts say both ghosts haunt the site while others say it is just Lucy. Some say Gentleman Johnny returned and found her married and went back to England. Some say she immediately killed herself while others say she married, left and only returned after her death. Some sources say the women are allowed twenty minutes and others fifteen. One account has Martha, another daughter of John Hunt, as the woman who loved the wrong man.
The other hauntings in the dorm raise an eyebrow as well. It seems highly improbable that a mother searching a house would come in through the room she came from and attack her own children. There is however many legends where a person, often a parent, mistakes an ally for a foe and accidentally kills them. There are also no records of students dying in a hole in the passage at Session House. If it had happened there would have been an investigation that would have revealed the location of it. The most common response for this is that the college covered it up to avoid negative publicity. That excuse always comes at the end of a good urban legend and offered as the reason the story is known to only a few. This is in conflict, however, with how the students tell and retell the story. It is the details that are somewhat mysterious, but the deaths are stated as fact. And why where the screams of the girls or the fall not heard by the senior hidden in the passage? Let us not forget there are also conflicting stories of how the girls died from the voices inside the house telling the tale to the girls on Halloween, something unusual when you consider the story is fairly recent and not likely to be forgotten.
It is important to note all three stories involve places the young women come into contact with over the course of the night. The lovers haunt the hidden passage and the ghosts of the former students are there waiting for them. This heightens the excitement and anticipation as they look for it with no lights. The mistaken woman kills her children in the same room where the students sit hearing the story. One can imagine the story being told by candlelight and the shadows dancing against the wall looking like axes and nooses. How many good ghost stories begin, “It was a night just like this,” or, “It was three years ago tonight?”
None of these elements alone prove the story false. Tales often change over time and each teller adds their own personal slant to the story. Several different newspaper articles written at different time use the same language and terms to describe the story at Smith College. It seems likely one paper used the other as research and one error in reporting led to new facts presented as fact. With the invention of the Internet the information is spread to countless people who tell the story to their friends and distort the details even more. People make the stories their own and there is something to creating an aura when telling a story. When everything is taken together, though, you have to start to wonder about the truth of the story.
What the truth is does not seem to matter to the young women involved in the ceremony. It is hardly the point in this setting and the truth is not what the students need. We know most of the ghost stories we hear are not true and yet that does not diminish our enjoyment of them. We doubt the things we hear could happen, but we still sleep with the lights on. It is the possibility of the improbable; the fact that we do not know for sure that awakens our imagination and turns the things around us into apparitions.
The students at Session House take it one step further though. The telling and retelling of the stories that happened there bonds them as much as singing a school fight song or remembering the long list of past presidents of a sorority. While most colleges shy away from any ghost that might be rumored on their campuses, Smith College embraces them. A check of their website finds several references to the ghosts at Session House and pictures of the play are displayed with pride.
This has an impact on the student inside the dorm and forms their belief in the spirits and their likelihood of seeing things other college students might deny. To dismiss the story is to be on the outside looking in among your peers in a small community during a time where it is difficult to fit in. To not look for the passage is to be isolated from your friends and roommates. Who wants to be the one not to find the passage, especially when those that do are praised? To believe in them means instant belonging, which might account for the added stories of paranormal happenings inside the house. The tradition creates an environment where seeing a ghost is not only accepted, it instantly burns a place for you in the lore of the house.
When the story of Lucy Hunt is told and the young women of Session House listen they are tapping into a larger tradition of the college and the dorm. Candles replace a fire and upperclassmen replace the elders pressed to preserve their ancestors. It gives them an automatic past, a legacy to be a part of. Their stories become part of the myth and will be told as legend to generations that follow them. They become the heroes and villains of a living, breathing history book. The women are also part of a larger play, one that continues whenever we hear or read or watch a ghost story and feel the skin on our arms start to rise.