Hillsdale College needs a ghost.
Every college should have one, and the best already do. A tradition says that King Charles I, beheaded in 1649, roams Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. The Harvard Gazette, an official publication of its university, has reported on spectral stories. The Syfy channel has produced “School Spirits,” a six-episode series about paranormal encounters at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.
Have you ever seen a ghost on our campus? Neither have I. We have many blessings here, but it seems we lack a good haunting.
A few years ago, I went on a Halloween tour of Oak Grove Cemetery, led by college archivist Linda Moore. She took us to gravesites and told tales about the bones beneath our feet. Yet she never mentioned an apparition.
I once held a class in that resting place, which is just north of campus. Associate Professor of Psychology Collin Barnes and I were teaching a one-credit course on H.P. Lovecraft, the horror writer. We met at night in Kendall Hall, except for that first session of the fall semester, when we gathered among the dead. As the sun went down, I read aloud “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” which describes the excavation of an old tomb. We finished in darkness. It set the right mood.
“Most of us enjoy being scared, so long as we are reasonably confident that nothing dreadful really will overtake us,” wrote Russell Kirk, the conservative intellectual who taught at Hillsdale. This explains the appeal of everything from movie marathons that feature “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring” to last week’s “Trail of Terror” sponsored by Campus Rec at Hayden Park.
Edith Wharton called it “the fun of the shudder,” and the fun of it indeed may come from the knowledge that we’re safe. The shudder draws from a different source: the possibility, as Hamlet says in Shakespeare’s famous ghost story, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
This line warns us to be modest about what we think we know.
What do you think you know about ghosts? A lot of Americans are believers: 20% say that ghosts “definitely exist” and another 25% say they “probably exist,” according to a poll last year by YouGov. Here’s your next dorm-room debate topic: Discuss why Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to think ghosts are real.
Whatever the truth, these numbers mean that many of us are at least receptive to the idea that our college is haunted.
But by whom?
This question inspired me to ask Linda, who recently retired from the college but remains our leading expert on its history. Are there any legends about ghosts? Nope, she replied. “They’ve been left out of our folklore.”
Then she mentioned an excellent candidate for ghostliness: Cedelia Eliza Dunn, who was the first person to die in a building on campus.
She was the 12-year-old daughter of Ransom Dunn, the pastor and professor who was one of Hillsdale’s founding fathers. In the spring of 1858, Cedelia was “mature and womanly” and “a bright pupil,” according to an account by her sister, Helen Dunn Gates. “But an unseen hand was beckoning her way.” This was scarlet fever and it killed her in three days. Cedelia’s final words, spoken from her deathbed, were: “I have found Him!”
That’s a comforting thought. Let’s hope that she rests in peace. One of the attractions of ghosts, however, is that their existence, peaceable or otherwise, would prove that there really is an afterlife, even as it would add to the mysteries that surround us.
So be on the lookout for little Cedelia. If you see her wandering the stacks of Mossey Library or standing atop the tower of Central Hall, let me know.
John J. Miller is the director of the Dow Journalism Program and a contributor to National Review.