Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke is not only one of the oldest schools in the country – it’s the first institution in the United States to educate women. As is common with historic colleges, the ghost stories abound. In fact, there are so many that the Mount Holyoke Archives has an official form for submitting your moment of horror
With a late night study snack tradition dubbed M+Cs (Milk and Cookies), a campus aesthetically compared to Hogwarts, and dorm life described as “one big sleepover”, is it any surprise that these stories live on as some of the school’s spookiest oral traditions?
Light a fire, roast your marshmallows, a flashlight, and your most suspenseful voice – we’re telling ghost stories.
The Mandelle Portrait – My first year on campus was spent in the Mandelles, and I’d be doing a disservice not to mention this one. Everyone’s heard of the haunted painting of Mary Mandelle, but the exact story is different depending on who you ask. Most of it revolves around a séance conducted by students a long time ago. (Doesn’t it always?)
The first account is that while they conducted their ritual, the portrait began to shake and fell off the wall, right into a fire, where it was damaged. The second account is that students had played with a Ouiji board back when the fireplaces were still active and a fire broke out, but mysteriously only damaged the painting. The punch line: Mandelle allegedly died in a house fire. Some report seeing her in the halls, in their rooms, or watching the painting move.
Discreditors insist the painting was donated by her but is not of her, and that she never had a physical encounter with campus when she donated her money.
While I’ve never seen anything interesting with the painting, my roommate and I definitely had some weird things happen in our room. Closet opened and closed, motion lights within were triggered in the middle of the night and woke us up, and even Siri responded to our conversations with weirdly specific comments without either of us touching our iPhones. (That’s a modern day spook if I’ve ever heard it!)
The weirdest bit was when a mug of hot tea, filled to the brim, was moved from a tall desk to the center of our floor without spilling or breaking – several feet away.
I know these things happened, I don’t know if the Mandelles ghost is the explanation. I’m from Connecticut, where everything and everyone is so haunted. (Seriously, my parents’ first date was in Dudley Town – a famously haunted, abandoned ghost town.) Nutmeggers are half-funding the ghost hunter reality TV industry just by existing. Nothing surprises me, but it takes a lot to convince me. I’ve seen some stuff! (Go Constitution State and its creepy graveyards, asylums, inns, and theatres!)
Don’t worry firsties. You’ve got nothing to worry about. If this was a ghost, it was a WEAK ghost. Move my tea? Slide my closet hangers around? Open my doors? Weak! Call me when it goes full poltergeist.
(Wait… an interest in clothes? Tea? Moving doors? Maybe this is Mary Mandelle! Nice petticoat, girl!)
The Lower Lake Bridge Girl – or, if you want to get fancy, ‘The Lady of Lower Lake’ – this one involves a tiny wooden bridge students cross to get from Mandelles and 1837 to the center of campus without circling Lower Lake. The story is that a student overwhelmed by stress killed herself by jumping into the water. Some say she stabbed herself as she fell, others say she weighed herself down and drowned. It’s also said that she had been dead for over an hour when witnesses first heard her cry out, as if she had only just fallen in.
While the college says no such person died in such a way, it does say something interesting about the “stress culture” of hardcore studiers and an infamously stressful finals week. The campus is rigorous and full of high-achievers, many of whom are perfectionists. It’s told to scare first years both of finals AND of not being too hard on themselves for finals.
Wrap your mind around that one!
Mary Lyon – yes, the founder herself! Students have claimed to see her walking the grounds, visiting different dorms, appearing as an omen that you’ll fail your finals, or being frustrated with the liberal ways of the once-conservative protestant seminary she designed. (Rumor has it, the reason why residential life has so many single room accommodations is so the first students could study their bibles and pray in privacy.)
This haunting claim might not be so surprising considering the fact that she is buried next to the Amphitheatre.
Oh, did I forget to mention that one?
See, it’s not just that she’s buried in the center of campus. It’s that her graveis surrounded by a gothic fence and juxtaposed to a picnic table used for studying in fine weather. It’s an interactive space – it’s part of the graduation ceremony, and students have been known to leave ice cream there on her birthday. Friends and I used it as a filming location for shooting last year!
Mary Lyon isn’t just the founder, she’s the literal center of campus. She’s the subject of films, plays, and alumnae works (you can see Bull in a China Shop, inspired by Lyon’s story, next semester at Rooke Theatre!).
There’s also conspiracies that she’s not really buried in the grave, but somewhere unmarked on campus, or even back in her hometown. Some say Wheaton seminary students stole her body in a grand heist and were never caught.
Anything’s possible! Where there are brilliant minds, there are slightly demented imaginations – and Mount Holyoke is full of both.
Woman in White, more commonly called “The Wilder Ghost” – this one is probably the most common mentioned by word of mouth. The Mount Holyoke Archives says the story is that she hung herself in the rafters after being stood up by a date, or getting pregnant by a no-good Amherst boyfriend. (There’s a great deal of talk about the Five Colleges on campus, and they have an interesting role in Mount Holyoke culture and mythology.)
As a student, I’ve heard different – that she was hit by a tree that fell through the ceiling, or died in her sleep some other way.
The story of the Wilder Ghost isn’t just the building, though students have claimed to see her walking the halls. It’s often associated with a specific room in the building students avoid in the housing lottery each year. Still, it doesn’t stop anyone from visiting on a ghost hunt! Some have reported getting headaches walking by the door, or being startled by apparitions in the adjacent staircases.
Last time I walked through the hall, there were religious protective symbols posted on nearby doors. Coincidence?
The ghost of every other dorm on campus –
Students have reported seeing figures, being touched, watching things move, and watching doors open and close – I’ve heard it from people I know and people I’ve read about, and, gulp, point 1 implies I just became one of them!
I will say that rumors that alumna Emily Dickinson haunts Dickinson makes no sense, as she didn’t live in it and it’s not actually named after her – contrary to popular belief. (I’m moving in this fall – I’ll let you know if experiential evidence proves me wrong.) For now, mark me a naysayer.
A quick Google search brings up blogs, forums, and archive records of ghost reports in nearly every area of campus. Older dorms, such as Rockies, Mandelles, and Wilder, are often hotspots.
It’s easy to picture spirits in any one place! Campus is both small and huge, isolated and interconnected, rural and buzzing, very old and fiercely progressive. There’s spooky walkways, plenty of tree cover and forests, and late eighteenth century everything that only becomes more precious in the winter. In the older dorms, there are doors that open and doors that lead to nowhere, rumors of walled-in dumbwaiters, and full chimneys. Storm winds whistle strangely through old windows and plentiful trees, and across the gorgeous lakes on campus. Residents of far-flung dorms like Mandelles can hear hooting owls and see right into a stunning forest that’s blackened out at night.
These dorms are Old, capital O. They have a movie-like aesthetic, and the gossip of supernatural melodrama is bound to follow. There are chandeliers and grand pianos in most common rooms, and even TV rooms have bookshelves with browning sometimes-leather-bound volumes as old as the campus itself. I’d be disappointed if there were no spirits! These stories add a magical sense of history.
Still, the cynical part of me wants to point out some context: the floors above and below most rooms have students and staff moving about at all hours, and those new to dorm living aren’t use to that. It’s often credited for the sounds. In fact, one night I was started by a wailing woman in the woods only to realize it was a singer (potentially from an a cappella club, but it sounded like a full on nordic yoiker) who hiked up to be discrete as she practiced. There were also singers sitting in their cars at night – so carrying voices really can be attributed to anything!
If interested, there’s an extensive list of debunked stories not featured here on the Alumnae website here:
Don’t let that get you down, though. As the alumnae association was quick to point out – a busted myth doesn’t mean all stories are fake!
The legacy and popularity of these stories may be a testament to the tradition-rich Mount Holyoke campus culture. Others say that these tales are part of the classic ‘old New England college’ experience – where libraries look like castles, alums are famous, and the campus feels older than the westward expansion. When your college's town was founded before the country, there tends to be a ghost story for every creaking room of every tower and spire.
Still, there are believers. While not every student who passes on the ghost stories believes them, there are a portion of students who insist they’re true. I’ve yet to meet anyone in person who’s claimed to witness the more popular myths like Lyon walking the campus grounds or the girl of Lower Lake bridge. The most adamant believers are usually insistent about their own specific encounter, but either way, students and alums alike still are happy to tell these fun tales – whether its theirs, or part of the Mount Holyoke mythology.
Next time you visit campus, be sure to ask a student – or head on over to the Mount Holyoke Archives for an extensive collection of student haunting reports. Spend a night on campus, and you might just add a frightening account of your own.