The ghost of a Confederate soldier is said to haunt 100-year-old Cotten Hall, which supposedly was built over his grave.
ales of unexplained occurrences in East Carolina’s historic halls saturate campus life. Recollections like Brockmann’s abound, and older, more widely circulated ghost stories at ECU have withstood years of whispered repeatings and survived the tweaks that campus legends endure as they are passed on. These ghostly tales have helped preserve some of the history and tradition at a university with a storied past.
There’s the Cotten Hall ghost, which is purported to be a wandering suicide victim returning to the scene. Students and staff have reported seeing the specter of a Confederate soldier near the Mall and west campus, a part of which supposedly covers the graveyard where he was laid to rest. A shadowy apparition in Christenbury gym is said to swing from the rafters, the result of another suicide. McGinnis Theatre, according to some who frequent it, is plagued with mysterious bumps in the night.
Ghost or no ghost, the eerie tales told at ECU offer the campus community an example of how, as the backdrop for a century of history and the scene of countless pivotal moments in the lives of so many students, the past meets the present every day.
One story tells of a girl preparing
for a starring role in a show who
stayed late one night in McGinnis Theatre to record the piano music
for her musical number. Afterwards, when she replayed the recording,
a ghostly voice was singing the
lyrics to her accompaniment. She later heard that another actress, years earlier, had tragically died during her stint in the same role
of the same show.
Most college campuses have ghost stories, and East Carolina is no exception. Why? For one thing, ECU is in a region that has seen its share of historic events: wars, natural disasters, civil unrest. There’s also a simpler answer: People, especially students, like to be scared.
“High school and college are the perfect ages to enjoy and perpetuate ‘wonder’ tales,” says Mason Winfield, author, researcher and nationally known paranormal historian. “Most college kids are away from home for the first time and spreading tradition to new contacts. No wonder a few ghost stories would do the rounds at colleges.”
The residence halls near the Mall seem to be particularly fertile fodder for the tales. Cotten and Fleming are the most mentioned when it comes to these accounts.
“In Fleming Hall, students say it has ghosts but that the ghost typically does not wander the hallways like the Cotten ghost. Rather, the ghost moves things around in students’ rooms,” Brockmann says. “Students also say they hear odd noises that are not necessarily attributed to the building or pipes and such. It is a rattling of drawer handles and the like.”
Not far away, McGinnis Theatre has a “mischief ghost” that rattles chains, opens doors that were once firmly closed and says “hello” to those who find themselves alone there at night, says Jeff Woodruff, managing director of most of the theater’s shows. “Every theater is haunted to some degree, or so the legends go,” Woodruff says.
Students have reported seeing gray figures and hearing unexplained noises while alone in McGinnis. A light is left on in the theater at night for safety, and, some say, so spirits watching from the shadows can see who’s there. One story tells of a girl preparing for a starring role in a show who stayed late one night to record the piano music for her musical number. Afterwards, when she replayed the recording, a ghostly voice was singing the lyrics to her accompaniment. She later heard that another actress, years earlier, had tragically died during her stint in the same role of the same show.
“A theater is one type of community or site that gathers ‘wonder’ tradition; a college is another,” Winfield says. “When you have a theater at a college, you have a double, maybe even a triple whammy.”
Other campus buildings are equally plagued with rumors. Howard House, home to the ECU News Bureau, is said to be haunted by a noisy ghost, and visitors to Ward Guest House have vacated its rooms in favor of a hotel in the middle of the night. Sorority and fraternity houses are home to legends of suicides, untimely deaths and disgruntled spirits. Flanagan Building and even Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium are said to be the sites of suicides and other violent events, with the spirits of the dead restlessly roaming the grounds.
Most of the stories have been passed down by students looking for fun—much like the Pactolus Light story and tales of deaths on Halloween—but the lore also is studied in academic settings.
English professor James Kirkland teaches a folklore class during which he asks which stories his students have heard and where the tales originated.
“The details of the stories change depending on popular culture, when they’re passed on through the oral process,” Kirkland says. “The core of these stories always stays the same. There’s a sort of intrigue with these things. With the supernatural, if there’s something you can’t explain in rational terms, then you fill the gap with what you do understand.”
ECU’s stories seem to follow the same pattern as those on other college campuses: suicide from unrequited love, buildings erected atop graveyards, ghosts of those who died tragic and untimely deaths. Others, including accounts of seeing the apparitions of children in residence halls, come from unknown beginnings. The stories also normally take place in attics, basements, empty residence halls or other locations where people often find themselves alone.
No matter the setting, the stories help give people a sense of East Carolina’s history and help them understand where they fit into that timeline. The ghost of the Confederate soldier connects the campus to a time rich in historical meaning. The idea of living and studying in buildings that may be built over graveyards makes students wonder about lives gone by. “There’s a sort of intrigue with these things,” Kirkland says.
Even as ECU’s popular ghost stories change over time, they still lend themselves to preservation of campus tradition. Whether or not there’s any truth to them and no matter where they originated, the tales, and perhaps the spirits they recall, live on.
Did you experience something spooky on campus? Tell us what you saw or heard in an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org