As part of the CDLA (Center for Digital Liberal Arts) and Library Services’ Search Party program, the Haunted Library tour gave brave guests an inside look at the supernatural side of the Mary Norton Clapp Library the evening of Oct. 29. Led by CDLA Data and Information Specialist Drew LaFave, the tour featured accounts of strange, unexplainable events in the library dating back to its opening in 1924.
Guests arrived at the Braun Room, whose newly-donned “Haunted Mansion”-esque decor set the stage for a night of eerie narration. The spectral sounds of Director of Academic Advising Edmond Johnson’s theremin — an electronic, hands-free instrument often heard in the soundtrack of scary movies — enhanced the unnerving ambiance of the candlelit room.
According to Brian Chambers, Director of User Services, Communication and Assessment for Library Services, the inspiration for the supernatural tour came from an Occidental student in the 1950s. Helena de Lemos, Special Collections instruction and research librarian, said the student, Edna Vance, borrowed a late-19th century German book of photography from the Occidental library, but never returned it.
In fact, she stole it.
As Vance neared the end of her life, she insisted that her daughter return the book to its rightful home, and her daughter obliged. Guests were told that as Special Collections prepared to return the book to circulation, it had transformed into much more than a dated black-and-white photography book. Over the course of her life, Vance used the book to collect 87 accounts of mysterious events that occurred in the Mary Norton Clapp Library, from inexplicable lights and noises to ghostly apparitions.
Narrated by the lively LaFave, the tour brought guests to several of the library’s spookiest nooks and crannies, where Vance’s documents of supernatural sightings purportedly occurred. According to de Lemos, the history and physical structure of the building makes it an ideal location for paranormal exploration.
“They bring a lot of stories in the more condensed space,” de Lemos said. “These spaces, they’re like little time capsules. I think they maintain this air of mystery [and] remembrance of things past.”
The booming timbre of LaFave’s voice carried through the halls as he read from documents collected in Vance’s stolen book. As guests traipsed through the stacks and stairwells, they learned about a ghostly apparition sighted in the Jeffers Room in 1924, an inexplicable scratching in the walls of the college librarian’s office in 1958 and a mysterious girl in search of a lost angel’s cap near the maintenance tunnel entrance in 1994.
The tour ended with a jump scare in the Press Room after de Lemos, decked in ghoulish garb, emerged from a dark corner.
Although LaFave later revealed that he fabricated the documents to bring these stories to life, the legend of Vance’s stolen book returning to the college is true. According to Chambers, the popularity of library building tours, coupled with the recurring question of whether or not the building is haunted, inspired members of the CDLA and Library Services to generate the lore.
“They just smashed together and it was like, ‘This is it, this is our angle,’” Chambers said. “It’s really kind of been an across-the-board group effort, idea brainstorming, all of it. I think we’ve all really pulled together to bring this about.”
Despite the ghost tales being a product of LaFave’s imagination, de Lemos and Chambers said that library does contain undeniably uncanny energy.
“I constantly roam the building and I get spooked out quite a bit, especially in the tiers,” Chambers said. “I’ve encountered weird objects, I’ve encountered things that have moved that I couldn’t quite figure out why they were there or how they got there.”
According to de Lemos, visitors to the library can feel the presence of two Occidental students from the early 20th century while in the building. Lawrence Clark Powell ’28 and Ward Ritchie ’28 were lifelong best friends who contributed to the foundation of Special Collections, and de Lemos said she finds curiously-placed clues that keep their memories alive.
“Sometimes, I feel like they’re watching over my shoulder,” de Lemos said. “Once, I pulled a book … and there was a message from Powell. I really felt like I was receiving this message in a bottle. I feel like they’re watching and happy to see what they cared for being cared for.”
For tour attendee and circulation desk worker Rory Hayes (junior), the most bone-chilling aspect of working in the library is not the undead haunting the halls, but the ghastly conduct of the living.
“It’s not necessarily the things I can’t see that scare me, it’s the students that come to the library that don’t have any etiquette, don’t know how to ask for something properly,” Hayes said. “That’s the true horror.”
Regardless of whether or not library-goers believe in the supernatural undercurrent of the building, Chambers and LaFave said they see potential to expand the event to an annual collaborative storytelling tradition.
“There’s so much to be inspired by and work with as sources of inspiration in this building that we could definitely play more with what we have to offer here,” de Lemos said.