School spirits: tales of Occidental’s ghosts enliven the community

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Ghosts of all sorts allegedly haunt Occidental's campus. Kristine White (junior), Opinions editor for The Occidental, reenacts a ghost sighting in Newcomb Hall. Photo by Spencer Patrick, Johnny Franks / The Occidental.

Occidental College has stood in Eagle Rock for nearly 100 years, accumulating stories as students pass through its halls. While many of these stories come from the daily lives of those who live here, some of them arise from a more supernatural source: ghosts. Indoors and outdoors, in residence halls and theaters, tales of the spirits that haunt Occidental persist.

According to Álvaro Alarcón Bernerjo, a visiting student from Spain, the irrational tales make sense.

“[Occidental] is an old place,” Alarcón Bernerjo said. “So much has happened here, so I think that it’s an ideal place for this kind of stuff to happen.”

Despite their relative intangibility, the ghosts of Occidental contribute to the character and culture of the college. While the spirits themselves may not live, students keep their stories alive.

Keck Theater experienced a unique occurrence Sept. 7: the closure of a stairwell leading to the rehearsal rooms due to “supernatural activity,” according to Isabel Schwartzberg (senior). A sign crediting the closure to the Facilities department appeared at the same time, which was signed by Peter Venkman, a fictional character from the Ghostbusters franchise.

“We all walked in for general auditions [Sept. 7], which is one of the busiest days in Keck, and there were these signs on one of the stairwells,” Schwartzberg said. “And we’re all like, ‘What?’”

Schwartzberg recounted that the closure lasted for approximately a week. When the stairwell reopened, a new sign warned students of several unresolved issues, such as sounds resembling crying babies, organ music and unexpected cold spots within the theater.

The new sign also warned students not to contact Facilities in the event of encountering any of the described phenomena, in addition to thanking the cognitive science, religious studies and psychology departments for their help.

Psychology professor Brian Kim refuted any connection to the sign or the closure.

“I have no knowledge of that, and we’d never endorse something of the sort,” Kim said.

Director of Facilities Thomas Polansky suggested that the signs indicated a legitimate paranormal incident.

“While not typical of many spaces on campus, we have seen an uptick in para-normal activity on campus recently,” Polansky said via email. “Reports of a greenish slime continue to come in almost daily, but be assured, our best technicians are on the case.”

However, Occidental’s Director of Communications Jim Tranquada clarified in an email that the vague sign constituted nothing more than a prank.

“The signs in the Keck stairwell were just a joke,” Tranquada said via email.

While the closure surprised frequenters of Keck, paranormal activity comes as an accepted part of theater culture.

“Theaters are just notoriously haunted,” Schwartzberg said. “Anytime anything goes wrong with a show, we generally blame the ghosts.”

Part of the greater theater mythology that Keck participates in includes a ghost light. According to Evan Sarafian (junior), ghosts lights are lights left onstage intended to ward off bad spirits and are found in many theaters.

“Every theater has a ghost, and so you have to have a light on at all times in the theater or else the ghost will [curse the theater],” Sarafian said. “It’s literally a 24/7 war against the supernatural that goes on in theaters.”

Occidental’s paranormal stories do not restrict themselves to just Keck Theater. According to an article in The Occidental written by alum Jennifer Cusenza ’92 (at the time of publishing, Cusenza’s surname was Cowden) published Oct. 25, 1991, the resident advisors (RAs) of Stearns Hall witnessed an extraordinary event.

“People speak of a night when the hall was vacated — only the RAs were there,” Cusenza wrote. “They saw a light come on in a third-story room, accompanied by the sounds of a boombox. Suspecting a party, they went to investigate, only to find the room locked and the lights out.”

Stearns residents presently experience a different kind of haunting. According to current Stearns residents Alarcón Bernerjo and Cristina Serrano Moreno, another visiting student from Spain, a mysterious doll of Disney’s Mulan inexplicably began appearing in random places within the hall in late September.

“We thought it was a joke in the beginning, but like now we’re scared,” Alarcón Bernerjo said. “We saw it in the [common room] once, and we were like, ‘Oh, someone forgot it.’ But then the next day, we saw it again in a different place. And then for like a month it’s been going around the dorms.”

The doll has developed a penchant for appearing in unexpected places within Stearns, including the common room and in front of Alarcón Bernerjo’s and Serrano Moreno’s dorm rooms.

“Sometimes [the doll] would appear, hanging on the door,” Serrano Moreno said.

However, not everyone is convinced that Stearns Hall and the surrounding area exhibits paranormal activity. Troy Van Barter (junior) recalled an event from his first year at Occidental that, while initially mysterious, strengthened his skepticism of Occidental’s ghosts.

Upon leaving the Mary Norton Clapp Library while walking to Braun Hall at approximately 5:00 a.m. in the morning, Van Barter witnessed a curious phenomenon near Stearns in Sycamore Glen.

“I paused because I saw these white shadows moving across the glen,” Van Barter said. “It looked like sheets almost, and I was like ‘Oh s–t, are those ghosts?”

Upon closer examination, however, Van Barter realized that the sheet-like apparitions were in fact from the sprinklers.

“I was like, ‘Hold on, let’s think about this for one second.’ I listened a little bit closer and thought ‘Oh, that sounds kinda normal,” Van Barter said. “So it wasn’t really that exciting, but very convincing with the lighting that made it look like ghosts.”

Legends regarding a pair of ghosts haunting Erdman persist on the internet, with one website going so far as to rank it as one of the 10 most terrifying haunted college spots in California. The first of the pair, known colloquially as ‘the Friendly Ghost,’ reportedly plays with faucets and light switches, turning them off and on erratically. The other, described as a looming and dark presence that appears at night, inhabits closets but does little in the way of trickery. The two supposedly frequent the center of the second floor.

Current Erdman resident Shareef Khwajazada (sophomore) remains skeptical of the rumors, despite living within the supposedly haunted zone, the center of the second floor.

“I haven’t noticed anything on the second floor. It’s all good up there,” Khwajazada said.

Erdman’s first floor provides different supernatural phenomena. Current Erdman RA Ethan Heffernan (senior) remembered oddly inconsistent lights in the first-floor restroom when working as an Erdman RA during his sophomore year.

“Several times, the lights have malfunctioned and turned off when they were not supposed to, or turned on when nobody else was in the restroom,” Heffernan said.

Heffernan also recalled feeling as if he was being watched.

“I’d be [in the bathroom] for a while, and the lights would turn off. And before I could get up to move to turn them on, it seemed like a benevolent spirit turned them back on for me,” Heffernan said.

Newcomb Hall may be known as the most haunted location in all of Occidental. According to Cusenza’s article, students experienced everything from unexplainable lights and sounds, mysterious messages on the hall’s former landline and, most intriguingly, the possible death of a former student. Unsolved Mysteries and Cusenza’s article reference a young woman who allegedly killed herself on either the second or third floor of the hall, her spirit haunting the hall to this day. Cusenza suggests that the room may, in fact, be one of the designated RA rooms.

Tranquada said he had no concrete knowledge on the plausibility of the Newcomb hauntings.

“I’m afraid I don’t know anything about a factual basis for the Newcomb rumors,” Tranquada said.

Current Newcomb RA Richard Henry Via (senior) offered a different take on the mystery.

“I don’t believe it’s a rumor. I’ve had it confirmed to me. I’m almost positive I live in the room where she/he hung themselves in,” Via said via Facebook message.

Via initially heard the story about a year ago from a Graduate Hall Coordinator (GHC) who he declined to name, and noted that it occurred approximately 60 years ago.

According to former Newcomb RA Quinn Taylor (senior), who lived in the room where Via currently resides, the rumors are likely just that: rumors.

“I did not really encounter anything,” Taylor said. “I know people tend to be very creeped out by [Newcomb] just in general. But, no, I didn’t really witness anything out of the ordinary.”

As opposed to attributing the supernatural for inexplicable happenings within the hall, Taylor chose a more rational explanation.

“Most of the things that were strange I just chalked up to residents being residents,” Taylor said. “I feel like — I know, as an RA — that people can do stupid things and weird things.”

Taylor stated that the rumors regarding Newcomb carry on from RA to RA, passed down and kept alive by those who live in the hall.

“It’s an unofficial Oxy tradition,” Taylor said.

Via, however, refuted Taylor’s claim.

“I wouldn’t say passed down. I would say Quinn himself was like, ‘Have fun in the haunted room,'” Via said.

Via suggested that the legend’s survival over time has more to do with a tradition of superstition among students than just RAs.

“It’s one of those things people are drawn to. You say ‘Haunted Room’ and people pay attention,” Via said.

Occidental’s history with the paranormal could suggest that the school does, in fact, maintain a special relationship to the supernatural, if one believes the explanation for the stairwell closure offered by Polansky. Alternatively, the tales could reflect more about the student body and the culture of the school than the specters that haunt the halls. As Via noted, the supernatural piques the interest of students, who spread the stories. Even if they themselves are not alive, the ghosts of Occidental live on as part of a greater culture of superstition at the school.