Salem Spirits and Folklore

SAV FRANZ

With sports teams called the Salem Spirits, it’s hard to deny the paranormal lore that is deeply ingrained in Salem College’s culture.

Established in 1772, Salem’s age also attributes a great deal to the speculation of ghosts and other paranormal specters that supposedly walk the halls of various dorms and academic buildings of this historical campus.

Sharing ghost stories is practically a rite of passage on this campus, with upperclassmen gathering around groups of excited first-years at night to retell tales either experienced by the storyteller, or passed down by word of mouth from students older than them. 

This talk of paranormal activity on campus with prospective students is highly discouraged by administration, however. Hostesses and Honor Guides with campus service group Fremdendienerin are barred from bringing up the topic of ghosts with prospective students to respect their sensitivity and prevent a fear of what might go bump in the night on campus.

Still, the culture around spirits is a hot topic for current and past students, which was expanded upon with the creation of a Facebook group discussing personal paranormal experiences of students on campus. The group garnered a lot of attention at its conception. Students posted dozens of experiences and others added onto these stories or related to these tales if they witnessed similar phenomena. The Salemite reached out to students involved in this group, and their stories highlight some exciting paranormal encounters of the hundreds that circulate throughout campus. 

Sam Thurman, a senior at Salem, recalls an event that happened to her during her sophomore year while working in the Office of Admissions on the third floor of the Single Sisters building.

She was carrying about her day, helping process applications and filing papers for her work study. She was listening to music and getting into the zone, working the latter half of the day in a corner of the office – not realizing everyone else had left for the day. She recalls the time being around 5:30 PM when she started to feel a chill she described as a “cliche chilly atmosphere.” She remembers not being afraid, simply being hyper aware she was not alone. Suddenly, she says, the floorboards began to creak and she ran, without clocking out or closing her workstation, down the steps and slamming the door behind her.

“I WILL NOT stay past 5 o’clock on the third floor ever again. I can’t do it,” Thurman said, finalizing the story.

Personal stories are easy to come by, and most students on campus have had at least a slightly eerie encounter during their time at Salem, but there are some tales that are retold more as folklore to provide possible explanation to the paranormal activity on campus. Most of these tales are simply folklore or rumor, but they are circulated throughout campus so widely most students can recall a tale or two. 

Alum Bree King, Class of 2011, did her senior thesis relating to the paranormal events and folklore of Salem College. Her research settled many of the campus tales’ validity. King conducted her study to gather a survey of paranormal events at Salem, debunk or validate the campus folklore and connect with local paranormal investigators to host an investigation on campus. The investigation was denied, King says, as administration did not desire for Salem to be associated with hauntings.

One of the most notorious stories is that of the little ghost girl of Clewell Residence Hall. The story goes that a young girl visiting her sister at college fell to her death down the elevator shaft that was being built in Clewell at the time. There are very little facts to suggest the actuality of these events, but the elevator shaft was never completed and now sits completely closed off. Clewell residents have described experiencing stuffed animals going missing and being set against the closed off elevator shaft.

Another story involves the possible phantom of the Fine Arts Center. Many art students who work late into the night in the basement level of the FAC have heard the sound of organs and pianos being played in other rooms. When these rooms were explored, however, they have found themselves alone in the room with no evidence of another person being there. This phantom has also been rumored to catch people who trip down the stairs to the basement floor. There is no evidence of any deaths or traumatic events occurring in the FAC, but this remains a location many people report activity. 

Then there is the story of two girls who were electrocuted on the third floor of Gramley Library. This story has not been be validated, but anyone who has spent enough time alone on the third floor has likely felt the desire to look over their shoulder. There is the supposed ghost of Hattie Strong, founder of Strong Residence Hall, who lived in the residence hall for many years. She has been rumored to slam the doors of residents who are getting dressed, which many students claim is to protect their modesty. One story most notably rooted into Salem culture is that of the possibly haunted, or perhaps cursed, portrait of Mary Babcock hanging in the lobby of Babcock Residence Hall. First years who enter the lobby are told to always greet and bid farewell to Mary when passing by her portrait. It is said that if you neglect this, or act obscene to the portrait, bad events will follow the offending student. 

King, on the WordPress for her thesis, describes the only documentation of a violent event on Salem’s campus. Sarah Tilkey, a sixteen-year-old Salem Academy student from Augusta, Georgia, burned to death on Nov. 28, 1873, in the Single Sisters House. Tilkey was practicing piano when a stray ember from a stove caught on her dress and set it on fire. She went running through the building, causing the flames to become stronger, before a music professor, Professor Lineback, finally put out the flames. Tilkey succumbed to her wounds later that night. This extremely tragic event, paired with the fact that the building was once used as an infirmary, could attribute to the building’s possibly haunted nature.

Salem College’s culture is deeply intertwined with the culture of spirits and folklore. Many of these old tales are simply rumors or exaggerations. With the plethora of personal stories to be heard from current students and alum, however, one cannot help but wonder about the possibility of spirits at Salem and respect the sense of community that forms with the storytelling.

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