Friday, Oct. 28, 2016
At colleges and universities around the world, tales of haunted elevators, mysterious noises and ghostly apparitions are as abundant as the tomes found in campus libraries. The older the institution, the more these tales are whispered from one freshman class to the next.
Virginia Commonwealth University is no stranger to these specters. Surrounded by a historic city and with buildings dating back to the mid-1800s, this 178-year-old institution has plenty of things that go bump in the night.
The Ginter House at the corner of Franklin and Shafer streets is often brought up whenever stories of eerie happenings are shared. Whether it’s mentions of a previous owner dying in his bed upstairs or a story of a ghost floating up the central staircase before disappearing into thin air, the 128-year-old meandering building seems to house its fair share of spirits.
Shake, rattle and roll
In 1999, a new VCU Police officer was working the midnight shift and was instructed to perform a routine check of the Ginter House to make sure no one was inside after hours.
After clearing the building, the officer entered a restroom on the second floor. Several moments later, he heard the door handle start to violently rattle back and forth — as if someone was trying to get in.
He quickly exited the room to pursue whoever might be on the other side of the door, but the hallway outside was completely empty.
The shadow in the ladies’ room
More recently, Kristen Luck, in the VCU Office of the Provost, has experienced a ghostly presence on a semi-regular basis. She is one of only a handful of people who work in the basement of the Ginter House.
“It’s generally quiet downstairs,” Luck said. “But there are some rooms in the back that we tend to avoid, because they’re just kind of creepy.”
The room that seems to see the most activity, however, is one she and her co-workers use every day — the ladies’ restroom. In general, the room is empty when Luck enters and it’s easy to know when someone else joins her, because of the raucous, groaning squeak the door makes whenever it’s unlocked and opened.
“A few times I noticed when I went to the bathroom I’d see something out of the corner of my eye and I’d turn around and look and there wouldn’t be anybody there,” she said. “And if I’m in a bathroom stall and I’m facing the door, there are gaps on either side of it where the stall door hinges open. You can see a shadow move by pretty quickly from one gap to the next and that’s how I know it’s there.
“I finally jokingly asked a co-worker, ‘Is there a ghost down here?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ So, I’m not the only one that’s experienced this phenomenon.”
But who is the ghostly visitor?
“One of my co-workers thinks that it’s a woman and that it was probably a worker in the Lewis Ginter House in the early 1900s,” Luck said. “I’m a little more skeptical. Whatever it is, it’s not scary, you just know it’s there sometimes and that’s it.”
All lit up
Some students from the VCU Brandcenter knew little about the building other than that it was old when they invited a local paranormal team in to investigate it one winter night in January 2016.
Lisa Wiggins is part of the Historic Paranormal Research team that arrived that evening to do a cold search of the building, which was originally a carriage house for the nearby Jefferson Hotel. Using audio recording devices to collect electronic voice phenomena and EMF meters to measure electromagnetic fields, they walked through the darkened building searching for any abnormal sights and sounds. A little after 10 p.m., the spirits of the Brandcenter made their grand entrance.
“Two of the investigators asked to the building’s air, ‘Can you turn the lights on?’” Wiggins said.
Wiggins explained that it’s a common tactic to ask simple leading questions like this when the investigation team doesn’t yet know what they’re looking for, if anything.
“And boom, every light on every floor of the building all of a sudden turned on,” she said. “To turn out the lights, we had to go and manually switch off every light in the building on each of the three floors.”
When the team left, they spent time investigating whether there was a logical explanation for the phenomenon. Facilities staff explained that the only way for that to have happened is if more than one person had been standing at the electrical box and flipped every switch on at the same time — an impossible task in and of itself.
Curious as to whether they could discover more, the team returned in May for a second investigation. Again, and by pure coincidence of timing, a little after 10 p.m. the team repeated their request for whatever was in the building to turn a light on and again the entire building lit up from top to bottom.
“The second time we also caught EVPs,” Wiggins said. “There’s an EVP of a female child’s voice saying, ‘Momma.’
“And on the third floor, where we felt a totally different energy, there is at least one male voice, if not two,” she said. The voice or voices angrily asked what the investigators were doing there.
Wiggins went on to say that she heard a story that roughly a month after their second investigation, the building’s lights all came on at the same time for a third time. Perhaps there’s a faulty circuit breaker — or perhaps there are spirits at the Brandcenter who prefer quiet time once the faculty and students go home for the day.
A chilling encounter
About 12 years ago, two VCU Police officers were checking buildings along Franklin Street one night following a rash of reported break-ins. As they circled around the back of the Scott House, an early 20th-century mansion patterned after the Petit Trianon at Versailles, they found an open door and entered it to check the building for trespassers.
After searching and clearing the second floor, they headed down the main staircase. It was then that they both felt something brush by them — an icy cold breeze on their faces and necks.
They quickly checked other rooms in the Scott House to make sure it was empty, then left as soon as the building was secured.
Built in 1846, the Egyptian Building is the oldest structure still used on either the medical or academic campuses of VCU. Though it now houses only offices and lecture space, it once held ventilated wards and dissection rooms in its top floors, making it an obvious candidate for spooky stories.
The faucet fiend
Over winter break in 2015, Amanda Shaw, who works in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, experienced one of the more hair-raising phenomenon of this collection of tales.
“I came in around 5 a.m. one morning and the bathroom is right out there and I heard this kind of white noise. I couldn’t really identify it,” Shaw said. “I thought maybe something was wrong with the cooling system — there’s stuff that happens like that all of the time in this building. So, I just ignored it and did what I did every day by coming in here and locking myself in my office to work when I think I’m the only one in the building.”
She worked until around 10 a.m. when she finally got up for a stretch break.
“I came out of my office and I was still hearing that noise.”
She quickly realized it was coming from the men’s bathroom.
“My first instinct was, ‘There’s a pipe that’s burst,’ but there’s no water out in the hall or anything,” she said. “So, I kicked the door in and just looked and was like, ‘Hello?’”
All three sinks were turned on — both their hot and cold water handles twisted open to let the water roar out of them.
“I thought someone must’ve turned them on,” she said. “So, I got a little nervous and stepped out into the hallway (about six feet from the men’s bathroom door) to call VCU Police from my cell phone. ‘Hey, can you come and check the building? I feel like there might be someone in here turning on faucets,’” Shaw told police.
Despite the unusual request, dispatch told her they’d send someone right over.
While she waited, she decided she should turn the water off. But as she started to walk toward the bathroom door the noise abruptly stopped. When Shaw opened the door again the faucets were off and the handles were back in their regular positions.
She quickly backed away and a few minutes later VCU Police arrived to check the restroom. Nobody was found inside the stalls or anywhere else in the building.
Apparently whoever or whatever turned on the faucets just wanted to make a splash.
The disappearing doctor
That wasn’t the only spooky encounter for Shaw in the Egyptian building.
Previously, on the third floor of the building, in a corner office with a window that looked onto an interior hallway, she was disturbed from her work when a “tall, lean doctor with dark hair in a buttoned-up lab coat” walked by.
“I was focused on my computer screen when he walked past the window that was directly behind my monitor. I didn’t recognize him. But, we have a lot of researchers who come through the building and I thought maybe he was lost,” Shaw said. “So, I waited for him to come around the corner so that I could ask if I could help him find someone, but he never appeared.”
Thinking that perhaps the man had stopped in the hallway to type an email on his cellphone behind the small portion of wall that blocked her view, she got up from her desk to walk around it and ask if the man needed directions.
“There was nobody there.”
WILLIAM H. GRANT HOUSE
Built in 1857, the Grant House on VCU’s MCV Campus later was home to the Sheltering Arms Hospital for more than 70 years, complete with a morgue and an incinerator in the subbasement. Perhaps because of this history, it is known for its “strange occurrences.”
When Rochelle Clarke first began working in the Grant House in 2007, many of the faculty and staff shared stories of unexplained things they had encountered.
“One of the first things I noticed was the footsteps on the third floor,” Clarke said. “I would come in on weekends when I first started working in Health Administration to update computers and set up systems while there was no traffic in the house. Almost every time I was here I would hear footsteps upstairs, heavy footsteps that sounded like someone was wearing cement boots.”
At first, she assumed that someone else was in the house working too. She ignored the frequent sound for a long time until finally one Saturday she decided to investigate.
“I was on the first floor and thought to myself, ‘I need to see who this is,’” she said. “I walked up to the second floor, trying there first, looked around and called out but did not see anyone. The footsteps continued and I could tell they were coming from above on the third floor. I went up there and it too was empty. I and others in my department hear the footsteps regularly, as it often happens during working hours. We can always tell they are not normal footsteps, because of how heavy they sound.”
The interior decorator
Probably the most eerie of Clarke’s experiences occurred about two weeks into her employment at the Grant House. Her office is located along a short hall that has three offices on each side. Four paintings are hung between the offices.
“I came into work one morning and I was the first person on my hall,” she said. “I noticed that all of the paintings were tilted — all in the same direction, and if I had measured I am pretty sure they were all tilted at the same angle.”
Clarke immediately thought someone, perhaps one of the students, was just being funny or had been moving some office furniture and maybe brushed up against them. She straightened them out and didn’t give it a second thought until about two weeks later when she found them askew again.
“Same direction, same angle,” she said. “I straightened them once more and said aloud in the hallway ‘Whomever is messing with these paintings needs to stop,’ and apparently they listened, because it never happened again.”
What goes bump in the kitchen
After a department holiday party last December, Megan McDermott, a Department of Health Administration staff member, volunteered to return the dishes and leftovers to the Grant House’s second-floor kitchenette. She assumed she was alone in the room as she bent over to put supplies away underneath a cabinet, but when she stood up she brushed up against a solid mass behind her.
“I actually went, ‘Oh! Sorry!’ thinking someone was behind me,” McDermott said. “But when I turned around, there was no one there.”
No other furniture or cabinetry was in close proximity when she turned around.
“It was like I had bumped into someone or something.”