Legend has it that the forests surrounding Reed College in Portland, Oregon, are home to not only standard flora and fauna, but also a slightly lesser known species: zombie monkeys. The mutant albino monkeys are rumored to be the former subjects of a psychology professor’s secret experiments in his underground lab. At some point, the primates were allegedly freed by an animal-rights activist group and now run amok in the canyon beside the school’s campus—potential threats to students wandering around a little too late at night.
Meanwhile, near Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a Loch-Ness-like creature (lovingly nicknamed Champ) has reportedly been spotted in the depths of Lake Champlain over the years, becoming a local attraction. And at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, a duck spirit is thought to roam the halls and block the refrigerator doors of unsuspecting freshmen students trying to drink beer. Many colleges across the country have their own version of a lurking zombie monkey, sea monster, or duck (and in some cases, the all-too-real rumor of human-size cockroaches or rats roaming the halls). And that’s on top of the myriad tales of haunted dorms and classrooms. At Emory University, for example, a playful ghost named Dooley who died from alcoholism and went on to teach anatomy using his bones, is such a household name that stuffed animals of his skeletal likeness are sold at the campus bookstore and a spirit week every spring claims him as mascot, according to Elizabeth Tucker’s Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses.
Simon Bronner, an American studies and folklore professor at Penn State Harrisburg, says such urban legends emerge on campuses as a manifestation of student anxiety about the college experience—often serving as an outlet through which they can express their fears about being away from home. In other words, they’re often a means students can use to acknowledge and contain this apprehension without having to be completely vulnerable about it. Bronner, who authored the book Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University, cites legends that center on romantic relationships and roommates as cases when the stories function as stand-ins for students’ own fears. “Telling them is partly ritual, partly humorous,” he says. “Students are using that frame of lore to raise issues about aging, about where they are on a strange place on their own for the first time.” Many of the college legends—which may warn against partying too much or caving to academic pressures or even staying out so late a zombie monkey might appear—are “cautionary tales” that provide nuggets of “cultural advice,” he says.
According to Bronner, these stories—most of which are similar to oral histories in that they’re passed down verbally, through bits and pieces that people have heard, told and retold by peers—also help students to foster connections with both classmates and the institution itself. Through interviews conducted for his Campus Traditions book, Bronner found that many of these tales are perpetuated during late-night conversations in the dorms. “Often, students are strangers to one another—and they’re sharing information and stories with one another as a way to not only report what they’ve heard about the campus, but also to get commentary,” he says. “It’s often an open-ended statement like, ‘Do you believe what happened?’ or ‘That’s what I heard.’”
In some instances, stories that calcify into legend are borne from a kernel of truth and connected to a historical event, serving as a way for students to feel closer to the heritage of a school or better understand it. At Georgetown University, the fifth floor of the Healy Building is rumored to be sealed because an exorcism took place there (the same one that inspired the The Exorcist, later partly filmed on campus), when in fact there is evidence that such an event once occurred at the school’s hospital in 1949. At Sweet Briar College, Daisy Williams—the real daughter of the school’s founder who died at a young age after being stricken with pneumonia—is a ghost who’s believed to watch over the school and appear during times of need to take care of the campus and its students, including after a devastating fire in 1927. The act of telling (and partly believing) these stories becomes a college tradition in itself, says Bronner, forming bonds between generations of students who attend these institutions.
“Another aspect of the supernatural is that many college campuses are on locations occupied by ancient visitors or stories of the dead, including Native American areas,” he notes. Tucker also addresses these ghost stories in her book, and says in a recent Vice story that the presence of Native American ghosts can symbolize the ongoing guilt that people continue to feel about the oppression these populations faced and serve as a persistent reminder to reckon with a place’s history.
Other legends—particularly those involving statues—may help students feel a sense of control amid the uncertainty they are experiencing during the tumult of college. At Columbia University, as the story goes, the first student in each class to spot the owl on the main courtyard’s Alma Mater statue is guaranteed the status of valedictorian. During finals season, students at the University of Maryland-College Park offer food sacrifices to the Terrapin statue, Testudo, in the hopes of good grades, also touching his nose for good fortune before athletic events. “There are a lot of statues that are rubbed for luck for exams and wins on games,” Bronner says. “A lot of those are because of insuring success.”
Ultimately, urban legends take on a unique role at college because of how they reflect and respond to the contradictions young adults are facing at that point in their lives—when they feel simultaneously strong, youthful, and vibrant as well as vulnerable and insecure at the same time, says Bronner. “This paradox,” he continues, “is often resolved through the supernatural.”