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Ghosts and Folklore in American Culture

Pointed turrets stretching up toward the moon, the rustling of unseen creatures moving in the shadows, and the creak of a rusty gate or an ancient, peeling door – from these descriptions, you’re probably already imagining your own version of a ‘haunted house’ (or at least remembering the last scary movie you watched). These Hollywood stereotypes that so often appear on screen are of a different category of dramatics than many of the supposedly true haunted locations, but the creepy imagery and associations with places involving ghost stories and urban legends is often influenced by such films [1]. In fact, “all human habitations have ‘an unseen layer of usages, memory, and significance – an invisible landscape […] of imaginative landmarks’”; however, the layers that are interwoven with myths and legends offer an even more exciting glimpse into the attitudes and ideas that distinguish a specific location [2]. Since our ‘haunted house’ acts as the setting and a character simultaneously, our understanding of the history of its distinct stories plays a significant role in interpreting how the stories and the place fit into a modern context [3].

Ghost stories, myths, and urban legends are unique because they provide a choice for those who hear the stories: the audience can decide if they want to believe the stories and/or if they want to participate in the narrative [4]. Even if a person decides to act as a skeptic and rebut the ‘authenticity’ of a location’s mythology, the story remains and still impacts people’s perceptions regardless [5]. The legends serve as a way for ordinary places to be transformed into mysterious, exciting areas that become ‘personalized’ spaces [6]. This is an important factor to consider when looking at the effect of ghost stories and urban myths on college campuses where personalization is a key factor for students adjusting to a new community and a new stage of life [7]. To help you, as a reader, also adjust to this line of thinking, the next section is dedicated to providing some helpful definitions to use as reference points as you read through the stories of Ursinus that are found in the rest of this site.



Our mission throughout this project was to delve into the kinds of myths and legends previously mentioned (and to hopefully bust some ghosts), but to even know where to start with such a topic, we had to get some general information about definitions to assist us (and you!) along the way. Think of it as a kind of ‘urban legends index’ – your own personal set of short references for the abnormal adventures we take you on throughout the location-specific pages:

Ghost – While this one may seem pretty obvious, there are actually many different meanings to the term ‘ghost’, including ‘a mere shadow’ or ‘the principle of life, the soul, the spirit’; however, we’ll mainly be using the word to describe the soul of a dead person [8].

Specter – This term is usually used in a context that indicates something strange or terrifying is occurring, but it’s also used as a secondary name for a visible, terrifying ghost [9].

• Legend Trip/Legend Tripping – When a person visits a location associated with a myth or legend and desires to actually encounter something supernatural while there, it’s known as legend tripping [10]. In our adventures over the course of the semester, we had the good fortune to go on several legend trips, which you can read about in the location-specific sections!

Ghostly Spaces – The places that are most often claimed as haunted are listed below:

        • Residence halls – Due to the fact that students spend a great deal of time in their living spaces, dormitories and residence halls are often associated with ghostly rumors that are spread to strengthen the bond within the community – check out the Hauntings at Ursinus section for more details about the local Ursinus ghosts [11]!

        • Libraries/theaters/laboratories – Open until long after the sun has set and often housing purposefully silent areas, these on-campus locations have gained reputations as haunted residencies in contemporary American culture [12].

        • Oldest buildings – With age comes a lot of stories, so it’s little wonder that the older buildings, both academic and residential, have quite a bit of notoriety when it comes to ghosts and legends; however, sometimes during years of great turmoil there is a shift in such associations – see The Phantom Peace Tree to learn more about the Ursinus Vietnam memorial that exemplifies this kind of change [13].

        • Basements – Isolated, quiet, and underground, basements serve as liminal spaces where students are often on-guard for anything out of the ordinary – essentially, it’s the perfect place to encounter a ghost [14].

        • Bathrooms – A common, often mundane location where many people feel vulnerable, bathrooms are transformed into incredibly unnerving places when one hears about a legend featuring the nearest toilet (but if you’ve read the second Harry Potter novel, it might seem like quite an exciting place instead) [15] [16].

         • Tunnels – Often forbidden to modern ghost-enthusiasts, on-campus tunnels follow a trend of having legends related to murder, accidental death, and suicide while also acting as ‘secret pathways’ where only the bravest students dare enter. Because they are labelled as ‘forbidden areas’, they often foster intrigue in the minds of those who live right above them, even if their original purposes were rather banal [17].


These definitions have introduced some of the terms and locations that are often entwined with campus mythology and have hopefully been able to clarify some of the ways in which ghost stories/urban legends interrupt everyday life, offering alternative narratives that question the history provided by official resources [18]. They can also entertain and educate, building the community and shaping perceptions of campus through the actions of those who engage with them, whether that be through actually visiting the sites or simply retelling the tale to someone else [19] [20]. We hope that as you explore the legends we have investigated and preserved here, you will be able to experience the lesser-known side of Ursinus’s history that has helped shape the school into the institute it is today through the college’s community.


[1] Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas, Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2007): 29.

[2] Elizabeth Tucker, Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007): 26.

[3] Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas, Haunting Experiences, 144.

[4] Ibid. 26.

[5] Ibid. 8.

[6] Tucker, Haunted Halls, 10.

[7] Ibid. 4, 6.

[8] Ibid. 7.

[9] Ibid. 7.

[10] Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas, Haunting Experiences, 13.

[11] Tucker, Haunted Halls, 31.

[12] Ibid. 31.

[13] Ibid. 31.

[14] Ibid. 37.

[15] Ibid. 39.

[16] Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas, Haunting Experiences, 32.

[17] Tucker, Haunted Halls, 30.

[18] Ibid. 9.

[19] Ibid. 4.

[20] Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas, Haunting Experiences, 44.

Ghosts and Folklore in American Culture