Ghosts and the Gothic: A Supernatural Encounter at Washington and Lee

Every W&L English major has heard at least one story about the alleged Payne Hall ghost: doors slamming, lights flickering, books falling off of shelves. Numerous professors will attest to their supernatural experiences in Payne Hall; it’s rumored that Dean Keen has even seen the ghost run up the stairs. Every W&L English major has also read at least one gothic novel and should be familiar with tropes of the supernatural. I have always erred on the skeptical side when it comes to ghosts or the supernatural, but when I was invited to a séance this past weekend, I had to accept out of curiosity.

One of my friends, coincidentally an English major, is writing her sociology thesis on the ways in which we talk about the supernatural, so she decided to try and contact some of the Colonnade ghosts via Ouija board. The Ouija board came out of the 19th century American obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. Spiritualism became widely popular during the Civil War, as people grew desperate to receive messages from the dead and connect with loved ones lost in battle. Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House after her 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862.

While most gothic novels don’t mention Ouija boards, many reference encounters with the supernatural. Jane Eyre, for example, includes an alleged ghost encounter in the second chapter while Jane is locked in the red room as punishment: “a light gleamed on the wall… it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head… I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world” (18). While Jane reflects that she later knew the light was probably from a lantern, at that moment, she “had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene” (19).

We were all set up in Newcomb Hall — candles, dimmed lights, sage, salt, the whole deal — but didn’t get even a glimmer of a response, so we packed up and moved over to Payne Hall, the neighboring building on Washington and Lee’s Colonnade. The failed attempt in Newcomb solidified my skepticism about ghosts and our ability to talk to them. Whenever I had used Ouija boards in the past, usually at a sleep-away camp or with my big sister, I was convinced someone else was moving the planchette – a small, typically heart-shaped device used for automatic writing and in séances – to manipulate the situation.

Payne did not provide the most ideal set up for a séance. All of the classrooms were locked, so we settled for the sitting area in the second-floor hallway. The overhead lights wouldn’t turn off (so much for the green energy initiative), so we had to forgo any sort of mood lighting. We went against all the tropes: there were no dimmed lights, flickering candles, strange sounds, or chilling breezes. This added to my skepticism; I was convinced that if we couldn’t contact a ghost in Newcomb, there was no way we were going to talk to a spirit in a very well-lit hallway in Payne.


Regardless of the less-than-perfect setting, we resolved to try again. We moved the planchette around the board to generate some energy then settled on “Hello.” My friend asked if there were any spirits in the room and, after a few moments, the planchette moved to yes. Cliché as it may be, the energy in the room definitely shifted. It wasn’t as dramatic as the mysterious cackle or torn veil in Jane Eyre, but you could definitely feel a change. One participant said that they started to feel sad and a little sick. Another said they got a headache that got progressively worse as we continued. When asked for a name, the spirit responded with “MYH” and confirmed those were his initials (we also asked for their gender preference, to which the spirit responded male). MYH said he was neither a W&L student nor a W&L faculty member, and when we asked his connection to W&L, he responded simply with, “no.” When we followed up asking if he had anything else he wanted to share, he moved the planchette to “Goodbye.” Several participants were really shaken by that response and the abruptness with which the encounter ended. I was more excited by it. I wanted to keep going, either by trying to contact MYH again or trying to connect with another spirit.

Even though I walked into that séance skeptical about ghosts and the supernatural, the encounter convinced me otherwise. I didn’t faint quite like Jane in Jane Eyre, but I will attest to a sort of vague presence in the room. I can also say that my interest in gothic novels has since been piqued.

Citation: Lutz, Deborah, and Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre: an Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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