Elizabeth Tucker. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. $50.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.
Popular volumes dedicated to ghosts and the supernatural typically consist of little more than anthologies of ghastly tales, divorced from the contexts in which they are told and presented uncritically as sources of frightening entertainment. This pattern echoes a broader trend of popular engagement with folkloric material, a textual obsession characteristic of earlier days of folklore studies that contrasts starkly with contemporary scholarly attitudes toward folklore, which focus on such concepts as context, performance, and other theoretical issues that deemphasize the bounded text.
In Haunted Halls, Elizabeth Tucker presents a collection of ghost stories gathered from American college students through interviews and emails. Unlike many popular anthologies, Tucker makes an appreciable effort to position each tale within a broad context (US college campuses), to elaborate on the history surrounding many of the stories, and to provide some commentary on the social and cultural implications of the tales.
Tucker argues that ghost stories “primarily initiate entering students into a new community and a new stage of life” (4); to support her claim, her analyses of tales typically include a strong didactic emphasis. The chapters are organized by themes, such as “Ghostly Warnings” and “Spectral Indians,” and the tales presented in each are supplemented by brief analyses and occasional anecdotal evidence from Tucker’s own career. The stories themselves are often presented as transcripts of instant messenger conversations, emails, and other forms of digital communication from students, helping to center Tucker’s study in a contemporary technological context. On the other hand, the presentation of tales in the form of digital transcripts immediately reemphasizes their textual dimension, effectively removing them from their lived social contexts. Tucker’s analyses are generally geared toward the American college campus in general. She argues, for example: “Some campus buildings are more likely than others to be haunted. High on the ‘most-haunted’ list are residence halls, where students spend much of their time; libraries and theaters also have a strong traditional connection with haunting” (31).
While Tucker attempts to balance the textual thrust of her study with pertinent contextual information, the balance tends to favor the text. Theory is applied somewhat arbitrarily: “For each legend text, I apply the appropriate kind of theory. Legends about reflections of ghosts in mirrors, for example, call for psychological analysis, while legends about spectral Indians necessitate cultural analysis” (5). Mirrors, for Tucker, “help students to explore a more mature sense of self” (96). Ghostly Indians are important primarily because they highlight ethnic differences that students become acutely aware of for the first time in college (154). What makes a theory “appropriate” is not always obvious, but regardless of the theory she chooses, Tucker’s initial claim–that ghost stories serve above all else to pull students into the new phase of life that college represents–is never forgotten.
Tucker’s study is of considerable value for the way it addresses a cultural phenomenon that, theoretically at least, should be very familiar to college students. Haunted Halls is an accessible and enjoyable, if extremely broad, introduction to folkloristics. The book is very well-suited for use in undergraduate classrooms, thanks to its sparing use of theory, its unchallenging language, and of course, its primary concern with the college experience. While tale collections are no longer the primary mode of inquiry in folklore scholarship, they remain compelling and, most importantly, entertaining. Books like this can help attract students to the field, and in that regard, we could use more of them.