17 min read

What Makes a Place Haunted? (Haunted Fordham University)

A look at different theories behind hauntings and the paranormal, with an eye to why Fordham University’s Bronx campus might be so haunted. This episode focuses on the spread of urban legends and theories behind urban legends.
What Makes a Place Haunted? (Haunted Fordham University)

What Makes a Place Haunted? A look at different theories behind hauntings and the paranormal, with an eye to why Fordham University’s Bronx campus might be so haunted. This episode focuses on the spread of urban legends and theories behind urban legends.

Highlights include:
• Comparisons with hauntings at Vassar, Columbia, and NYU
• Thoughts about urban legends and why they spread
• Interesting books I’ve read while working on this series
• Psychogeography and hauntology

Episode Script for What Makes a Place Haunted?

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

  • I’m trying to answer the question: what makes a place haunted, and specifically why might Fordham be so haunted?
    • In theory, this episode wraps up my series on haunted Fordham University, but that’s not reaaaally what I want to explore here. Of course, I do have closing thoughts on the series I did on Fordham University, but it shouldn’t matter if you’ve listened to the series or not, since what I really want to do here is look at theories behind hauntings and the paranormal and what makes a place haunted.
      • The question I’m really trying to answer is this episode is: why are some places more haunted than other? What causes hauntings, or if not hauntings, then urban legends about hauntings?
      • This is a HUGE topic that I know it’s impossible to cover in just an episode or two, but I want to at least spent a bit of time exploring the question. This is a question that a lot of people have explored a lot of different ways, and there are a number of podcasts looking into why a certain area might have strange stuff associated with it (for example, the podcast Penny Royal looks at the town of Somerset, KY, and really dives deep into it–so if you’re interested in the subject and haven’t already listened to Penny Royal, you should check it out).
      • I want to at least scrape the surface of the subject, so let’s get into it.
    • First off, there’s a clarification that I wanted to give: Throughout this series, I think I’ve probably fallen into the trap of talking about phenomena as if everything’s a ghost, and every “ghost” is the spirit of a dead person. That is, in part, because that’s what a lot of the urban legends have posited. It’s probably also related to the less complex ideas I had about the paranormal while I was in school. It’s also because, when looking at urban legends and trying to analyze them, it’s hard to know what to look into aside from the history of the people who lived in that location, and the location’s past.
      • But just to be completely clear, I don’t think that all paranormal phenomena are ghosts. I tend to be of the opinion that all paranormal stuff, whether it’s apparently ghostly experiences, or UFOs, or cryptids, etc, are all connected somehow and potentially part of the same phenomena.
    • I started publishing this series in October 2021. (Though I did most of the Fordham-related research for it back in 2020.)
      • Since last October, I’ve been delving more into what I guess you’d call theory, looking at stuff like folklore, urban legends, psychogeography, and hauntology, trying to get some additional angles through which to see these phenomena that I’ve been looking at. Though I haven’t necessarily been talking about these books, I still wanted to mention them because I believe that they’re of interest, and because they’ve helped me contextualize and think of a lot of the stuff I’ve been talking about. So, the specific books that I wanted to mention were:
        • Magic in the Landscape: Earth Mysteries and Geomancy by Nigel Pennick
          • I read this because I was interested in ley lines. I had this thought in October, which was, “Could Fordham possibly lie on a ley line?” so that question led me to read more about the subject. This book was a good intro to the topic.
        • Psychogeography by Merlin Coverly (2006)
        • Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverly (2020)
          • Both of these Merlin Coverly books were very good and interesting, though please don’t ask me what psychogeography or hauntology are. I think they’re better known concepts in the UK, and it also sounds like the sort of mean a lot of things and nothing at once.
          • But if I were to give my best, and probably very incorrect or at least incomplete definition:
            • Psychogeography is about place
        • The Official Guide to Randonautica: Everything You Need to Know about Creating Your Random Adventure Story by Joshua Lengfelder and Auburn Salcedo (2021)
          • I should do an episode about randonautica sometime, but I read this book because randonauting is a form of psychogeography. And if that sentence made no sense to you, don’t worry, I’ll explain randonautica in a future episode.
        • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor (2017)
        • Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman (2021)
        • The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand (1981)
  • In a 3/25/82 issue of The Ram, there’s an interview with a elderly Jesuit theology professor named Robert Gleason.
    • There’s an interesting, seemingly random question thrown into the middle of the interview. The interviewer asks: “What is this “curse” on Fordham that I’ve heard about?” and the priest answers “That’s a very old, long-lived Jesuit story. I heard it first 50 years ago and many times since. A strange curse is supposed to lie on the land—why, I wonder? Of course, much more interesting, we have a Jesuit “ghost” they tell me, who roams and moans at night. My advice—better get home early!”

So basically the Jesuit just jokes about it, but interesting that back then everyone was like, “oh, you know, Fordham’s curse.”

 

Urban legends

  • First, I want to talk about urban legends. There’s one big reason why a college would have more stories about hauntings, because I think that universities, especially residential ones, are a perfect petri dish for urban legend creation and proliferation.
    • Here’s why:
      • In a college with dorms, a bunch of people who all presumably know each other or are likely to interact are all living in close proximity, partying together, etc.
        • By contrast, when you’re a regular person living in an apartment or house, the only thing that you and your neighbors share for sure is just geographic proximity. You may not be the same age, run in similar social circles, etc. So you might know your neighbors, or you might not. Unless your neighborhood has a lot of block parties, though, you probably don’t spent large amounts of time partying with, hanging out and talking to your neighbors, swapping stories, etc.
          1. So for example, I’ve talked before on the podcast about some paranormal activity in my current apartment. But I’ve never talked to my neighbors about it. Usually we just say hi, maybe quickly talk about the weather, etc. But we’re certainly not swapping strange stories.
          2. Contrast that with a university, where not only is there already a shared trait between all students (the fact that they’re students there), but there are socially acceptable reasons why you might be hanging out more with your classmates, maybe getting drunk and telling wild stories, etc.
      • Also, undergraduates usually only spend 4 years living on campus and then they move away.
        • So it makes it easier to spread weird, unlikely urban legends.
        • Say that today one of my neighbors told me that another neighbor, who’d been living in the building for a couple decades, had a weird experience 6 years ago. I would be able to ask the other neighbor about it, hear it firsthand. And even if I didn’t do that, my neighbor might be less inclined to exaggerate, because they’d know that I could just check with the original source if I wanted to.
        • Again, contrast that with a university, where people usually only live in dorms for about 9 months at a time, and, if they’re lucky, don’t spend more than 4 years in college. It would be so easy for an upperclassman to tell a freshman a weird story, and then for that story to get passed down from class to class. The upperclassman would be long gone, so it’s not like anyone’s going to ask that person about it. Also, there are lots of parties where people are gossiping, spreading urban legends, etc, so that gives things a chance to spread far and wide and to possibly get embroidered with each retelling.
      • So to me, a college is the perfect breeding ground for urban legends. Now, this isn’t to say that all of the stories of Fordham hauntings are urban legends. It’s just that I think urban legends are far more likely to form.
  • Here’s a bit of an explanation of what urban legends do, from The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand (1981):
    • “In common with age old folk legends about lost mines, buried treasure, omens, ghosts, and Robin Hood-like outlaw heroes, urban legends are told seriously, circulate largely by word of mouth, are generally anonymous, and vary constantly in particular details from one telling to another, while always preserving a central core of traditional elements or ‘motifs.’ . . . Like traditional folklore, the stories do tell one kind of truth. They are a unique, unselfconscious reflection of major concerns of individuals in the societies in which the legends circulate.”
  • At Fordham, there are a number of stories about people encountering ghostly priests, especially while studying. So in theory, the urban legends about Fordham could be related to it being a Catholic university, and to students being anxious about doing well in school, especially since some priests there are professors.
    • And of course there are other concerns that individuals may have that I’m not thinking of. Those are just the two most obvious ones to me.
  • Also, I mentioned this in prior episodes, but stories about Fordham hauntings only appeared in print starting in the 1970s. There are several reasons for that, I think:
    • Parts of The Exorcist were filmed on campus in the early 70s
      • That both added a creepiness factor to campus, since The Exorcist was such a defining cultural product, and it also served as a reminder that the Catholic church still performs exorcisms.
    • Also, the number of students living on campus increased steadily starting in the 70s or so (it became less and less of a commuter school, so people had more time on campus to either witness hauntings, swap scary stories late at night, etc.)
    • The satanic panic in the 1980s clearly influenced campus urban legends (for example, stories of “cultish” paintings in Hughes Hall in the 1980s)
  • So in thinking about this, I was wondering whether any university would have the number of paranormal stories that Fordham has. I was curious whether I was just thought Fordham was more haunted because I went there, but I might have felt the same about any school I might have gone to. So to try to answer this question, I wanted to look at some other colleges
  • First, I wanted to think about NY private schools with a large amount of students who live in student housing

“Years later, during World War II, the United States launched the Manhattan Project to secretly develop a nuclear weapon. The project mainly took place at Columbia, where researchers, students, and physicists worked on creating these atomic bombs.

“Legend has it that one of the students working on the project was exposed to radioactive material and fatally poisoned. Students say that he haunts the tunnels below campus, which are remnants from the asylum. Supposedly, desperate physics students go looking for him, hoping he can help them with their exams. “

  • I was actually shocked to find so few hauntings, considering the fact that Columbia has some similarities to Fordham, because an iconic paranormal-related movie was filmed there (Ghostbusters) and because it was literally built on the former site of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. The main library building was built on the site of the original insane asylum, which could house up to 200 people.
    • https://news.columbia.edu/news/6-spookiest-things-you-should-know-about-columbia-university
    • This is anecdotal, of course, but my wife went to grad school at Columbia and lived just off campus, and she worked in one of the libraries when it was being renovated so spent lots of time alone during a renovation, which supposedly kicks up hauntings. Despite being really sensitive, my wife said she never experienced anything weird, got any weird vibes, or heard other people talk about ghosts, hauntings, or urban legends on campus.
  • Vassar
    • My wife went to Vassar, which is a school in upstate NY, for her undergrad, and said that it did have a kind of creepy vibe at times, so I wanted to include it.
      • From Vassar.edu:
        • “Main fifth floor, Main third floor, Pratt House, Alumnae House, Davison fifth floor, Old Observatory.

“Many people have reported feelings of “a presence” watching them in these places. According to legend, Main is the refuge of the spirits of suicidal students and deceased employees. Pratt House is inhabited by a ghost who is friendly to Vassar folk, but often disturbs those not officially affiliated with the college.”

  • A 2014 article in the Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper tells stories of ghostly maids, people’s spirits hanging out after dying, ghostly Victorian women, the ghost of Matthew Vassar (who died while giving a speech to the board), phantom footsteps, and people feeling invisible hands touching them, hearing voices, etc. An emeritus dean said that “A now rather famous performance artist in the Class of ’81 supposedly governed a coven somewhere in the South Tower of Main” and that another time he was he was “were called into the basement where some wallboard had been removed to determine if graffiti there were satanic markings. Our inexpert conclusion was that they weren’t.” The graffiti thing was interesting since it made me think of the Fordham story.
  • Vassar’s Main Building was designed by James Renwick, Jr., of Renwick Smallpox Hospital fame
  • “If you’ve ever visited the Blodgett basement, you’re probably not surprised to hear that Vassar is infested with ghosts. Specifically, spirits roam the third and fifth floors of Main, the fifth floor of Davison, the Alumnae/i House and the Old Observatory. There’s the friendly ghost of Pratt House, who only haunts those not officially affiliated with the College.”
  • I’ve been thinking about parallels between Vassar and Fordham and trying to see why they might both be pretty haunted. You almost couldn’t find schools that are more opposite of each other. They’re almost inverses or reflections of each other, as far as I can tell.
    • Sure, they’re both extremely overpriced private schools in New York State, but Vassar is suburban and upstate, where as Fordham is urban and downstate. Vassar is famous for its, uh, liberalism (politically, culturally, sexually, etc), and Fordham is extremely conservative and repressed.
    • Vassar started out as a women’s college (though it’s open to all genders now), and I was curious if other women’s colleges had a lot of hauntings. I just checked one other one, Smith College, but Smith does seem to have a lot of stories of hauntings and shows up on a lot of most-haunted-school lists that I was finding.
    • I haven’t done a deep dive into this, but what this says to me is that while schools like NYU might be haunted because of their location, some other colleges may be haunted because of their students. Like, the people who choose to go there.
    • This may be tenuous, but hear me out:
      • Fordham is a Catholic school, and the Catholic church is famous for a lot of beliefs that some people might consider paranormal. I’m talking exorcisms, ghosts, demons, etc.
      • Vassar is a women’s school that was founded in the 19th century, and women have historically been linked to spiritualism, seances, mediumistic talents, witchcraft, etc. I have NO idea whether there are actually any links between Vassar students and spiritualism so I’m not trying to make any solid assertions there, I’m more saying that there’s a historic link between women and the paranormal, just like there’s a historic link between the Catholic Church and the paranormal, and I wonder if there’s something in that. Because it doesn’t matter how many ghosts a school has, if the people who go there refuse to acknowledge the existence of the paranormal, then there won’t be paranormal stories coming out of that school.
      • Also, importantly, both schools have a population of students who live on campus. Since the 1970s or so, Fordham has had a steadily increasing number of students residing on campus, and I think it’s no coincidence that ghost stories started arising at Fordham starting in the 1970s. The more time you spend in a place, especially at night, the more likely you might witness something weird.
      • Also, and this may be completely unrelated, especially since many paranormal stories happened to men, especially in the 70s, but Fordham became co-ed in 1974.
  • Then I wanted to look at other Catholic universities, since I think Fordham’s Jesuit identity has an influence on the hauntings, since there are so many stories of ghostly priests.

Don’t miss past episodes about Fordham’s history and hauntings:

Sources consulted RE: What Makes a Place Haunted?

See sources page for the full source list for the series

Books consulted

  • Magic in the Landscape: Earth Mysteries and Geomancy by Nigel Pennick
  • Psychogeography by Merlin Coverly (2006)
  • Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverly (2020)
  • The Official Guide to Randonautica: Everything You Need to Know about Creating Your Random Adventure Story by Joshua Lengfelder and Auburn Salcedo (2021)
  • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor (2017)
  • Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman (2021)
  • The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand (1981)