The Columns

The History of Ghosts A Washington and Lee Spring Term class examined the history of ghost belief and local ghost lore.

— by on June 13th, 2016

Every college has at least one ghost story that is passed down through generations of students, and Washington and Lee University is no different. But school spirit took on new meaning during W&L’s 2016 Spring Term, when history professor Michelle Brock and her students delved into the belief in ghosts and how it informs our understanding of history, society, religion, culture, psychology, literature and other fields of study.

The History of Ghosts, a four-week course, started with a look at ghost legends from medieval Europe to modern America, then drilled down to ghost history in Rockbridge County. Students conducted Pew Research Center-style surveys of ghost belief, went on a Lexington ghost tour that perfectly illustrated the commodification of ghosts in the modern age, and made podcasts about local ghost legends.

“What I really wanted my students to do with both the Pew-style polls and the ‘Ghosts of Rockbridge’ interviews was to participate in the creation of a public living history, seeing themselves as historians recording these ideas about ghosts for future students and teachers and researchers to use,” Brock said.

The course is one of a cluster that sprang from a $150,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant, received by the university in 2015, was intended to support the study of how lessons from history can enhance understanding of contemporary issues.

“I think one of the reasons ghosts remain so interesting in the modern, secularized, scientific world is because they allow us to connect with history, with our past.”

Whether the students themselves believe in ghosts became part of the class discussion, but only as a lens through which to analyze the origins and endurance of such beliefs throughout history. “I am a skeptic, and I was honest with the students from day one about that,” Brock said. “But I really wanted to make the class an environment in which everyone felt comfortable experiencing their own reactions. I always really enjoy that.”

Reading materials such as Owen Davies’ “The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts” and “Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts,” by R.C. Finucane, exposed the class to ghost story tropes, and allowed them to see how tales of ghost encounters have changed and evolved, along with society, over hundreds of years.

For example, according to Davies, during the 18th century the poor often buried their dead in shrouds or white sheets; ghost stories from this time period often have the apparitions clad in flowing white fabric. In the second half of the 19th century, reports of ghosts wearing black became common — right about the time silk crepe prices dipped in Victorian England and black mourning attire was prevalent.

On the first day of class, lively discussion materialized around these correlations, which resonated with students throughout the course.

“The general trends we see in history can be mapped out in ghost belief,” said Christina Gordon ’19. Added Emily Utter ’16: “It’s just interesting to see how much it has changed over time.”

Some of the same trends revealed themselves in the results of the surveys, which students conducted in teams and posted to the class website. For example, they found that females they surveyed tended to be more open than males to the possibility that ghosts exist, and that religious belief seems to impact ghost belief (i.e., the more religious the person, the more open-minded about the existence of ghosts).

During the third week of class, students went on a Lexington ghost tour led by local artist and businessman Mark Cline, who told tales about ghost cats and dogs, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Lee’s horse, Traveller, who is the subject of W&L’s most famous ghost story. According to the tale, Lee used to leave open the doors of the stable next to his house so Traveller could come and go as he pleased. To this day, the doors, are left open so the ghost of Traveller can wander campus.

Brock said she and the students found the tour more entertaining than educational on its surface. It dovetailed perfectly, however, with a discussion they’d had in class earlier that day, about businesses that have developed around the notion of ghosts and ghost encounters, such as Cline’s tour and television shows about paranormal investigations.

Finally, students interviewed W&L employees and Lexington residents who have personal stories to share about ghost encounters. Senior Academic Technologist Brandon Bucy gave the students a tutorial on the audio-editing software Audacity, which they used to create podcasts out of their interviews. The podcasts have been posted to the class website and will be donated to the Rockbridge Historical Society.

“I met with both Bucy and [Digital Humanities Librarian] Mackenzie Brooks when I was conceiving of what I wanted to do with this course,” Brock said. “Washington and Lee has an unbelievable team of folks at the library who will provide the tools and expertise to make these ideas possible.”

Interview subjects for the podcasts included W&L First Lady Kim Ruscio; Tom Camden, head of special collections and archives in the university library; Dean of the College Suzanne Keen; Doug Harwood, editor and publisher of the Rockbridge Advocate; and Donald Gaylord, W&L research archaeologist and instructor of anthropology.

Camden told of his late grandmother’s rocking chair, which rocked itself in the attic of his childhood home; Keen talked about the infamous Payne Hall ghost of W&L; Gaylord spoke of a spooky incident in the Anthropology Laboratory, during which he heard a woman’s voice before finding his dog, Murphy, locked in a bathroom; and Harwood told a story about locked doors being flung open repeatedly in a farmhouse one stormy night.

During her interview, Kim Ruscio said she’d had some strange experiences while living in the Lee House, which has served as the president’s house on campus since 1869.

“I don’t know that I actually believe in ghosts,” she said, “but I absolutely believe in the spirits of a house.”

Ruscio said she’s heard laughter and the patter of footsteps, as well as the piano seeming to play itself. No matter where they put the Christmas tree each year, she said, the same gold ornament falls off the tree every night during the season. And on the floor of the dining room is a circular mark at the location of Lee’s deathbed. The floor has been refinished, but the mark always returns.

Of course, the Ruscios follow the tradition of keeping the doors to the stable, now used as a garage, open for the spirit of Traveller, and someone — they don’t know who — places fresh hay and apples in the rear of the garage, which used to be the stable, every couple of months. Kim Ruscio said nobody has ever seen this person … or spirit?

Participation in class discussion factored heavily into grades in The History of Ghosts. Brock was pleased to have a diverse range of majors in the class, including anthropology, neuroscience, psychology and English. That mix has fostered excellent discussion, she said, because “the students had so many different skills and interests to bring to bear on the materials.”

These are some of the questions they considered around the table: Why is ghost belief so enduring, especially in a world that has become increasingly secularized? Why do Americans like to be scared? Why do some people believe in angels and demons, but not ghosts? Are ghosts simply a vehicle for society to deal with difficult truths, such as death?

“You leave the class and you continue to think about it,” said Gordon. “It’s not just something you leave in the classroom.”

Because of the enthusiastic buy-in from students, and the skills they learned through their class research, presentations and immersion in new technology, Brock said she would like to teach the class again. This year, it had a wait list.

“I think one of the reasons ghosts remain so interesting in the modern, secularized, scientific world is because they allow us to connect with history, with our past,” Brock said, “and also to think about the afterlife, which is a big part of it.”

To see student surveys about ghost beliefs and listen to podcasts produced in The History of Ghosts, visit the class website.