Haunted Penn State

Penn State’s deep vein of ghost-lore seems connected to a few aspects of the University’s rich heritage and culture, including dark and stormy nights.

Penn Staters are used to seeing the University perched at the top of lots of rankings—academic and athletic, national and international.

But unless you have ever had the chance to take a late evening stroll through campus in the waning days of autumn, or spent the night toiling alone in the stacks of the Pattee Library, you might not realize that the University is tops in another category: ghost stories.

Old Botany's History of Haunting

Penn State's haunted heritage goes way back—the whole way back to one of the oldest buildings on campus, in fact.

Old Botany, the quaint, red brick cottage tucked off of Pollack Road, looks innocent enough, but masks, if you believe some ghost-hunting buffs, a range of supernatural phenomena.

Old Botany building as seen from Schwab Auditorium.

Old Botany from Schwab Auditorium

In one legend, Frances Atherton, the wife of George Atherton, uses the windows in the top floor of Old Botany to keep an eye on her husband’s grave, which rests across the street from Old Botany.

Image: Michelle Bixby

Ghost stories pass on pieces of Penn State tradition, culture, and history through an easily remembered narrative that can circulate among each new generation of Penn Staters.

In one legend, Frances Atherton, the wife of George Atherton, uses the windows in the top floor of Old Botany to keep an eye on her husband’s grave, which rests across the street from Old Botany.

As students trudge along Pollock Road—one of the busiest walkways through campus—they cast an eye on the upper-floor windows, half-expecting to see the worried gaze of Frances looking back at them.

Legends of Stage and Scream

One of the most haunted spots on the University Park campus is Schwab Auditorium, a theatre that seats a little more than 900 people with enough room left over for at least two or three ghosts.

People have reported spotting a few apparitions—including the ghost of a janitor—in the auditorium over the years, according to Rachel Moeser, president of the 40-member Paranormal Research Society, one of the nation's first university clubs formed to study the paranormal.

Her team has scoured the theatre looking for evidence of the haunting and who's behind it.

She says that some speculate that Charles Schwab—the industrialist, not the stockbroker—is haunting the auditorium.

A former Penn State trustee who funded the construction of the auditorium, Schwab loved supporting the arts and going to the theatre so much that he has stuck around long after his lifetime passes expired, or so the theory goes.

An interior shot of Schwab Auditorium

Schwab Auditorium

One of the most haunted spots on the University Park campus is Schwab Auditorium, a theatre that seats a little more than 900 people with enough room left over for at least two or three ghosts.

Image: Michelle Bixby

There is a huge amount of Penn State history contained in the ghost story about Old Coaly and plenty to learn about Penn State’s founders in the stories about Schwab Auditorium’s legends.

The theatre isn’t haunted only by industrialist-sized theatre goers, though, according to Moeser.

"I think Schwab [Auditorium] is active," says Moeser. "There seems to be the ghost of a janitor, and we think there is a female spirit in the theatre."

Over the years, students, staff, and faculty claim to have heard strange noises echoing from the building’s upper floors. They say they hear footsteps, feel scratches, and see objects moving across the floor.

When someone goes upstairs to check, there is no sign of a presence—at least a human presence.

Because of the confusion about exactly who—or what—is doing the haunting in Schwab, students gave the auditorium’s paranormal presence a generic nickname, “Schwaboo.”

Old Coaly, the Paranormal Mule

While ghost stories about university presidents, founders, and donors haunting the halls of campus buildings are not unique in higher education ghost-lore, Penn State has a spirit that separates it from the rest of its collegiate competition—the ghost of a mule.

Born in 1855, the same year as Penn State’s traditionally observed founding, Old Coaly traveled from his native Kentucky to, among many other duties-as-assigned, labor tirelessly at lugging limestone blocks from a quarry at the corner of what is now the southeast corner of the Old Main lawn to the construction site of the original Old Main.

"Ironically, ghost stories, as spooky as they can sound sometimes, are designed to ease anxiety."—Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore, Penn State Harrisburg

The mule quickly became a favorite of the students at the Farm School—which was what most people called the University at the time—and almost became the school’s mascot.

It’s true that, but for a twist here or there in campus history, we may be watching the Nittany Mule do pushups at Beaver Stadium during home football games.

Old Coaly was so loved and appreciated by the entire University community that his bones were preserved once he shuffled off to the great pasture in the sky on New Year’s Day of 1893.

But he wasn’t quite ready to retire.

It seemed every place where Old Coaly’s bones were displayed—in Watts Hall, for example—ghost stories would follow. Students claimed to hear, usually during the dead of night, the sound of plodding hooves thudding down dark, empty halls and the occasional braying of a mule echoing through the silence.

Most people suspected a prankster was behind the "paranor-mule" phenomenon.

The spirit of Old Coaly, by the way, seems pretty content now in his current resting spot in the HUB-Robeson Center. At least, no one has reported seeing the ghost of a mule, or heard the rumble of hooves in the HUB so far.

Why We Are … So Haunted

Penn State’s deep vein of ghost-lore seems connected to a few aspects of the University’s rich heritage and culture.

Like all folklore, ghost stories are powerful ways to build communities.

When students—and the occasional research writer—tell ghost stories to an arriving class of students, they pass on pieces of Penn State tradition, culture and history through an easily remembered narrative that can circulate among each new generation of Penn Staters.

There is, for instance, a huge amount of Penn State history contained in the ghost story about Old Coaly and plenty to learn about Penn State’s founders in the stories about Schwab Auditorium’s legends.

Ironically, ghost stories, as spooky as they can sound sometimes, are designed to ease anxiety, says Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore, Penn State Harrisburg.

When students arrive at the University, they are often away from their friends, family and homes for the first time. Bronner says that friendly campus ghosts—and most of Penn State's ghosts are pretty friendly—ease the anxiety associated with making the transition from home to college.

He adds that students at University Park, who frequently compare State College's weather to soggy Seattle, may be comforted that the frequent rain makes it perfect for dark and stormy nights.

"I have also heard from students," he said, "that the weather, including frequent fogs and chilly, dark nights, are great backdrops for storytelling."

Header photo: The Arboretum at Penn State's 2013 Pumpkin Festival