The informant, a 20-year-old college student, attended a private Ivy League Preparatory school in New York, the Hackley School, for grades 6-12. While I was out to lunch between classes with the informant, I asked if she could tell me about her school’s history, and if there were any traditions or narratives related to this history that all of the students know about.
“Well, Hackley is named after the woman who founded it over a century ago, Miss Hackley. Everyone thinks of her as this old, gray-haired, witch-like woman. Deep in the library there are a lot of old books and paintings. The story goes that in this one really old painting of the school, there was a shadowy figure towards the back for as long as anyone could remember. Then, a few years ago, the figure disappeared. So supposedly that was Miss Hackley, and she moves in and out of pictures and paintings throughout the campus watching the students’ every move and making sure that nobody is acting out or being disrespectful.”
This legend regarding the founder of the informant’s school is a way to keep the institution’s history alive by implying that the school’s long-dead founder is still very much aware of whether the students are being respectful and behaving appropriately. The informant said that while she does not believe that Miss Hackley’s spirit inhabits the school, thinking about the possibility still creeps her out. This legend functions to keep the students at Hackley School in line by providing an ultimatum that, while perhaps not entirely threatening, would make a student think twice before sneaking off into empty classrooms or cutting class: if you fail to obey the school’s code of conduct you are disrespecting Miss Hackley, and if she knows of these the potential for her to discipline you exists. The legend is not dependent on students believing that Miss Hackley’s spirit actually inhabits the school, but rather on the slightest bit of doubt that it possibly could. I think that the nature of the institution, as an old, elite private school on the east coast, allows the legend to operate much more effectively than it would at, say, a relatively new public school on the west coast, due to the fact that the older school as a more extensive, and unknown, history that a newer school would lack.
Me: “Did you ever go to the house in person?”
Informant: “It was on the bus route which was somewhat long, so it wouldn’t have made sense to. But I don’t think anyone would have wanted to anyway…”
A house on the informant’s elementary school bus route in southwest Ohio had a very eerie exterior. The owner had built extra things on to it — weird overhands, banisters, small porches — which led to a unique structure. All the additions were poorly put together, so as a whole, it looked like a bit of a wreck. Kids would always look at it as they passed. Over time things were added to it or changed, but they never saw the owner or someone working on the house. It never looked like anyone was home. The story behind the house among the children was that a drug dealer lived there. If someone stepped on to the lawn, he would shoot them for trespassing.
The informant assumed that there wasn’t a reason behind the story of the man who was there. He had heard it from fellow classmates, who heard it from siblings, but as far as he knew there was not a specific reason that led to that explanation. He still remembered how weird the house looked and that the structure alone was cause for curiosity and a little uneasiness. In us talking about it, he posited that if anything, the arbitrary construction was sort of unnerving as to the mental stability of the owner. I asked if he stopped by the house on foot at any point, but because it was just one location along a bus route, there wasn’t an opportunity to. Nor would he have, he said, since there was just a general fear of it among the kids.
Around the age of 12 when the informant had this experience, kids are starting to get exposed to anti-drug education from schools and parents. There wasn’t any basis for the “drug dealer” bit, but perhaps it was created to associate a fear of the unknown with the growing awareness of a negative thing like drugs. It seems most school stories like this have no clear generation or grade where they started, but are simply an evolution that caters to the active issue around that age range. In this case, drug awareness is connected to a mysterious but haunting looking house.
Information about the Informant
My informant is an English teacher at a high school in Southern California, and has been teaching for over twenty-five years. She has been featured as an Influential Teacher of the Month within the last five years, and has received great reviews and praise from her former students as a teacher who cares about and motivates her students to succeed. I met her next to Tommy Trojan when she brought her class to USC campus on a college visit and she gave me this school ghost story in the short time before she had to collect her class.
“I teach at the oldest high school in [school name and location removed]. And there is a common story that, um, circulates. And that is that one of the math classes is haunted. And so everyone goes in, I–usually on a Thursday morning, and you can note the differences in air temperature. Um, on a Thursday morning, you can, at any other time, on any other day. So, we really believe that something is going on in that school, or in that room, or something occurred there that–and that is an ongoing reminder to us that something negative occurred in there, because it’s always cold.”
Collector: “Is there any, like, theory as to what it might be?”
“From my kids? No, we’ve no theory. We have no idea because we cannot, um, there’s no accounting of anything had ever happened in there. So it could be that prior to the building being built, that some violent occurrence was there. Maybe, you know, some, uh, early settlers or maybe some of the indigenous people, or something like that that was in–that was, gave that piece of land or that little area kind of a negative quality.”
When asked how this possibly haunted classroom affected people at the school, whether staff members or students, my informant told me that all it seemed to do was reaffirm the beliefs that the students or staff members already had. For those students (and possibly members of the staff) who already believed in an afterlife that included ghosts or some sort of spiritual remnant left in the world after death, the story “gives credence” to that belief. But for those who did not believe in ghosts, they simply believed the unnatural cold was due to “wind pattern or something.”
This is an interesting example as it’s an instance of a ghost story where there is no actual ghost, but merely an unnatural phenomenon that could easily be attributed to a natural cause. It’s interesting to observe because, rather than attribute the cold to a problem with the cooling system or weather patterns, it seems like people at the school are more than willing to try to find a “supernatural” explanation for the cold, even undertaking, it sounds like, research into the history of the school to find out if anything violent had ever occurred on the school’s property. It’s an interesting example because it provides a look at how an experience may turn into a memorate, the process by which an experience can become a memorate, where the experience is something strange but explainable and those involved instead search for a way to incorporate it into the genre of ghost stories, using the tropes about ghost stories that they already know (e.g. that if there is a ghost, there must have been some violent incident in the past; that settlers or indigenous people may have cursed the ground long ago).
He (my colleague) was… walking home one day, from his office down in Bishop Hall… when he noticed this lady coming down the chapel steps. And… he goes in front of her and he can see that she has no face. It’s just… black (encircles face with hands), all black inside this cowl. And at that point he realizes that she’s not walking… she’s floating a few inches off the ground, and her left shoulder was up a little higher and she was just floating, floating until she floated right through that grating at Bishop.
I used to teach high school… and one of the kids in my AP (homeroom), he worked running the lights in Dillingham auditorium. And he’s looking over at the right side and he sees a shadow, but then he’s looking around for… well you know, he works with lights, so he knows where all the sources of light would be; how could a shadow be over there on that wall, when there’s no light source? And then he takes his light, and with his hands steers it over to shine it on the shadow, because it should just disappear, but what the shadow does, it kind of turns, like it’s facing him, stands up, and then walks down into a crack…
How did you come across this folklore: “This is a story that was told to me by a friend, another Punahou faculty member, and another story of a similar interaction from a former student that told me what happened to him.”
Punahou is a very old school, with some buildings well over a century old… and lots of eerie things are known to happen from time to time. In other more detailed versions of the story, the Grey Lady is supposed to be a spirit of a former Punahou faculty member who inhabits the school chapel and reveals herself to people on campus, usually at night and when they are alone. She usually just scares people, and doesn’t cause harm. One of the purposes of this legend is to make the Punahou community more exclusive–it’s a campus wide legend, she stays on campus, and typically is only seen by students, faculty, or staff of the school.
Informant: “One little thing that me and my friends used to do, like before every exam—and in China, every class stayed with the same students, so we all had the same tests at the same time—and what we would do was buy these ridiculous, feathery pens that were really brightly colored and had these puffy, feathery tops and ribbons, and we used them on our tests for good luck.
Our teacher would obviously look at us like we were weird, ‘cause our whole class had the crazy pens, but they made us feel like safe, and they were a good luck charm.”
Me: “How long did you do this for?”
Informant: “Um, in middle school we did it, so for like three years there, and then we stopped our first year of high school ‘cause then we outgrew them, I guess.”
Me: “Do you still wish you did it?”
Informant: “Um, I don’t know. It was our kind of rebellion I suppose, because we had to use blue or black ink on our tests, so we wrote in blue or black ink with feathers the most obnoxious pens ever. In China, like there were a lot of thrift stores that sold them, so we’d go there before every class to get them.”
Me: “Did you get a new one for every test?”
Informant: “Yes. They didn’t last very long, but they were cheap so it was like, whatever.”
It is clear why this silly pen tradition was important to my informant. They provided solidarity, a quiet way to rebel against school and authorities, an opportunity to keep secrets from adults, and perhaps most importantly, a way to simply have a laugh on an otherwise stressful occasion. While the students may have honestly believed that the fluffy, feathery pens bought them good luck on their exams, I think they continued this tradition for three or so years mainly because it did bring them together as a class. In my personal experience of test-taking, there is always a sense of jovial camaraderie within the class if everyone is doubting themselves or if everyone is worried over a particular question. This isn’t exactly a positive thing, and yet there is comfort in knowing that everyone else is in the same situation. The pens would serve as a physical reminder to the students that they are joined together against the institution, especially as they go on outings to buy the pens with their own money and then use them ostentatiously in class. There is even the added glee that the students were committing an act that wasn’t entirely within the school rules. They were following directions, but bending them slightly, and in such a manner that they couldn’t actually get in trouble.
It would be doubtful that anyone would abstain from using the silly pens, even if it was ridiculous or uncomfortable to write with them, simply because no young student would want to be left out. After all, I’d imagine they would provide an abundance of fond memories and laughter.
While she was at school, my informant partook in a Valentine’s Day activity wherein each child in the class makes Valentine’s cards for everyone, and then makes a box and decorates the box. Children then go around and put their cards in everyone else’s box. She said that she was not very good at arts and crafts as a young child and so she thought her box was terrible and plain compared to everyone else’s. According to my informant, the other children’s boxes had dancers and straws and ballerinas and other fancy figures on the side of the box, and she felt very embarrassed about the state of her box. Later in life, she said she realized that the other children had fancy boxes because their parent’s helped to make them.
When I was in elementary school, we too participated in the ritual of exchanging Valentine’s day cards. We made our own box, but we usually just went out and bought a set of Valentine’s day cards at the store, which came in packs of 16 or 20. Also it was tradition to tape a small portion of candy onto your Valentine’s cards. Cards were given to every student regardless of the gender of the giver or the recipient. For us, Valentine’s day was less about the making of boxes and more about getting free candy.
My informant played a game similar to what is now known today as Wallball. His version of the game was called Ledgeball due to the ledge against which it was played. Ledgeball does not have the same free-for-all nature that Wallball does, and is played for points instead of for staying power. However, it still involves throwing a ball against a flat surface and catching it.
According to my informant, the game was played by a group of throwers and one or two defenders. Throwers would take turns throwing the ball against the ledge and trying to get it to land inside a marked area. The defenders would attempt to catch the ball before it hit the ground. If it hit the ground the throwers got a point. If the defenders caught it or if it landed outside the marked area, then the defenders got a point. One of the strategies that throwers could use was aiming very low on the ledge, so that the ball would only go a little bit before hitting the ground. Another strategy was to throw it so that it would bounce over the heads of the defenders. People who frequently defended would get really fast and develop good reflexes. Ledgeball was played with either a tennis ball or a rubber playground ball, with tennis balls being preferred.
While this is markedly different from the Wallball that I played in my youth, this has many of the same traits. Players throw a ball against a wall, other players attempt to catch it. And most importantly it is played with either a tennis ball or a playground ball, both of which are still used in Wallball today. Granted, this version of Wallball was played back in the 30’s so it will understandably be very different from what we know today, although it could be an ancestor or cousin of modern Wallball.
According to my informant, he and his classmates would play a game they called Handball during recess. The ‘court’ was a specific area in the school between a set of stairs one one side and a railing on the other. Games were played with a rubber playground ball. If a player hit the ball at either of these points, that player was out. Also there was a small hole in the court, and hitting the ball there also merited an out. Additionally, there was a grey line partway up the wall, and if a player hit the ball above this line, that player would be out.
In a way, this game seems to be similar to regular handball, where the player must hit the ball against a wall in between a lower and upper line. However, my informant’s version of the game involved a large number of players, usually 15 to 20 at the start, and had more specific boundaries that can be attributed to the nature of the court they used. Overall, this appears to be a mix of regular handball and playground wallball.
My informant told me of various rumors circulating the USC campus about Folklore professor, Tok Thompson. There are many suspicions of Professor Thompson’s wild nature outside of the classroom. She stated that she has overheard some of her classmates talking about beliefs that he could be a vampire or a werewolf. Their suspicions seemed validated by his hatred for garlic. The dead giveaway though, as she explained is the red bull and coffee that he comes to class with everyday, without fail. She stated that he must be in need of a pick-me-up after being up all night prowling the streets. Furthermore, his knowledge of vampire and werewolf folklore is suspiciously extensive.
Her belief as to why this legend about professor Thompson is passed around is because of how unusual a professor he is. Students need an explanation for a Professor who has dedicated his life to the discipline of folklore.