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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Ghost light keeps Gipp company

When the plays conclude and the casts depart, a single bright bulb on a tall black pole is placed on center stage at Washington Hall.


Either to ward off ghosts ... or to keep them company, student activities assistant director Kathleen Van Vleet said. It’s called a ghost light; many theaters have one.

Van Vleet has worked at Washington Hall, the most notoriously haunted building on campus, for 13 years. She won't say it's haunted for sure, but she also doesn't disbelieve, she said.

"It’s just a feeling that you’re not alone and that someone might want you to go," she said. "Whenever I get freaked out, I just remind them I’m taking care of their building. I literally just say ‘Hey, I’m doing my job, taking care of your building,’ and then I go about my business."

Van Vleet has felt inclined to speak out loud into an empty room. And that is something I don't take lightly. So Wednesday night a trusty friend and I sat silently in the otherwise empty audience at Washington Hall. It didn't take long for us to get spooked.

Hundreds of empty seats enclosed us. The floor to ceiling maroon curtains looked like they could have been there since 1881, the year the building was constructed. The steam pipes hummed off and on in the silence, swishing like a passing body.

"The building, being as old as it is, makes a lot of noise and the steam heat sometimes knocks in ways that makes you think someone is trying to get out of the wall," Van Vleet said.

Joe Wheeler, the maintenance technician, added that the steam pipes "make a horrendous noise when it's really quiet and you’re by yourself in there and it's dark. I mean I’m a grown man but that scares the crap out of me."

But the pipes can’t explain everything.

Van Vleet said alumni return and tell her paranormal stories from their time spent in Washington Hall. One talked of sitting in the light booth when the lights began inexplicably flickering, others of doors closing themselves. Another alum told Van Vleet they had finished cleaning up in the downstairs scene shop and were gathering their belongings upstairs when they heard a loud noise below. When they returned to the scene shop, “Get out” was written on the chalkboard.

Another group of students received a spooky message from a Ouija board in the ’80s, said Tom Barkes, who used to work in Washington Hall and now works as the Director of Finance and Operations at DPAC. Alumn Joe Zonies, class of ’87, concealed himself in the catwalk and when Barkes closed up, he let a group of friends in. They used a Ouija board, asked if anyone was there, and received a repeated message: “SG goodbye." The students ran out. While they were debriefing outside, they saw a light inside in the green room and about 30 seconds later, a security guard came outside the same door they exited. Now the message made sense: SG stood for security guard. The ghost was warning them to leave.

“They were delighted to know the ghost was friendly to them and kept them from getting caught,” said Barkes.

Who is the ghost of Washington Hall? Most students attribute the title to football player George Gipp, “The Gipper,” who died of pneumonia a few weeks after supposedly spending a night sleeping outside Washington Hall. Others say it might be a steeplejack who died during construction, a student professor who lived in what is now the lab theatre that died of pneumonia or a priest that died sitting in the audience while watching a movie. Perhaps there are multiple ghosts.

Was the theatre truly empty when my friend and I sat there? Or where there perhaps some spirits performing for us on stage under the ghost light?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.