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Campus Legends fascinate professor

Elizabeth Tucker loves to explore the roots of folklore, and the types of stories that flourish at colleges and universities have long held a special place in her heart.

Her new book, Campus Legends: A Handbook (Green wood Press, 2005), addresses the classic ingredients of a legend as well as the history of campus folklore. From there, it plunges into a wealth of stories focused on characters ranging from ghosts and witches to professors and exams.

“I think the stories are very important as a sort of initiation for new students,” said Tucker, an associate professor of English and director of the department’s graduate program. “They’re good stories. They’re interesting, dramatic and strange.”

Tucker remembers the first time a campus legend grabbed her attention. She was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College and rumors circulated about a hatchet man coming to attack co-eds on the East Coast.

“I felt scared out of my mind,” she said. “The person who told it to me told it as a real story.”

Like that tale, many campus legends frighten young people about what might happen when they’re all alone late at night. “Part of this kind of storytelling is dealing with the inevitable dangers of growing up and taking your place in the world,” Tucker said. Tucker and her husband, Geoffrey Gould, traveled extensively for the book, visiting campuses throughout the United States and in Europe. Gould took photos that accompany the stories Tucker gathered.

“I think the photos really make a difference in bringing to life the settings where the stories take place,” Tucker said.

Of course, Binghamton legends are among those highlighted in the book.

“Many legends describe rites of passage that make students feel like full-fledged members of their campuses,” Tucker writes. “For example, students at Newing College at Binghamton University have sometimes told stories about the Lake Lieberman Monster, to which a virgin must be sacri-ficed each fall. These stories come to life in rituals in which female freshmen, called Vestal Virgins, get dunked in the lake while other students clap and cheer. Since Binghamton University is located in Vestal, New York, the term ‘Vestal Virgin’ makes students smile.”

One of Tucker’s favorite stories in the book comes from Sweet Briar College, which was founded in memory of Daisy Williams, a 16-year-old said to have died in a fire at her parents’ plantation house after the Civil War. The house was rebuilt, and is now home to the college president.

“Daisy’s ghost comes back often, and no one will stay in her room on the third floor,” according to one story. “At night you can see a burn-ing candle moving in her room or across the look-out walk on the top of the house.”

Tucker said she has heard stories about Daisy’s ghost taking towels from dormitory rooms and even starting cars. “Daisy and her mother are just presences on that campus,” Tucker said. Tucker believes the campus landscape sets the stage for legends of all types, but especially ghost stories. “There are not only intriguing, mysterious buildings,” she said, “but also a long history of learning.”

Tucker, who’s teaching a class on folklore of the supernatural, is so interested in ghost stories that she’s now working on another book focused entirely on them.

“We’re taught to think scientifically,” she said. “But nevertheless many people have experiences that are hard to explain rationally.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08