The time of year is upon us for celebrating Halloween, when some traditions honor the dead and we tell scary stories. Spirits are said to visit and bother the living with pranks and fearsome mischief. Warding off evil spirits was one reason people dressed in costumes.
Being 200 years old, the University of Virginia has had its share of ghosts and strange occurrences. From a controversial addition to the Academical Village all the way to a more recent addition on a nearby mountain, collected here are several stories of hauntings – or at least mysterious happenings – that just might raise the hair on the back of your neck.
And Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t the only UVA student with a mind for the macabre: Students of Brown College at Monroe Hill add to the scary season as they let their imaginations run wild in creating a haunted tour designed around a different theme each year. Their tradition returns this year to scare anyone who dares to climb the hill and enter their spooky realm.
Old Cabell Hall: Where the Lights Go Off
Like a dagger driven through the heart, an iron girder swung vertically and pierced the building under construction, plunging through four or five floors as Old Cabell Hall, then called the Academical Building, was being constructed close to the dawn of the 20th century, in the wake of the 1895 Rotunda fire.
Following its contentious origins, Old Cabell Hall might just be the most confusing – and spookiest – building on Grounds, with stairs that lead nowhere, secret rooms and floors that don’t connect, at least if you ask Joel Jacobus, director of music production. He has spent time digging into the history of the building and has lived to tell some of its strange tales.
Famed architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White argued with UVA leaders about changes in the Academical Building’s design and stubbornly stuck to his plans, trucking in dirt (thus creating what became Mad Bowl) to create the hillside where it was built. Old Cabell Hall’s front doors from the Lawn open to the building’s sixth floor.
Although music department employees haven’t been working in person on that floor regularly since the pandemic, they used to go to a room furnished with cubicles. Every once in a while, the strong scent of a woman’s perfume would suddenly permeate the room, noticeable enough that most people would stand up to see who was there, but no one had entered. They called it the “perfume ghost,” Jacobus said.
Some who’ve worked there for more than a decade have encountered what seem to be the antics of an angry ghost, “Mean Jean.” A hard-working housekeeper, she apparently disliked people, especially students, messing up “her” building. The story goes that she was found dead, dressed in her uniform, waiting for a ride to come to work. So some think it’s as if she still comes to work at Old Cabell, Jacobus said. They attribute doors slamming, lights going off and laughter heard to Mean Jean.
Because of his job, Jacobus, who has worked in Old Cabell since 2004, would often stay late to close the building after performances. He has been there alone and suddenly found himself in the dark with no explanation for the lights going off, he said.
An eerie utility room under the portico used to serve as a spot for employees to put their belongings. Those working evening shifts have gotten locked in this room and lights have gone out, plunging them into darkness. Jacobus has let someone out who got locked in this room, known as “The Cave” by those who work there (as distinct from the snack bar of the same name that was renovated as part of the music library).
For some unknown reason, there’s a covered hole in the floor there that is not a drain and is barely big enough for a person to fit through. Jacobus likened it to an “oubliette,” an underground room like a dungeon, but only accessible through a trapdoor.
Among other strange happenings, a door in the west loge often opens by itself during performances. Facilities Management electricians have checked it out and can’t find any mechanical reason why that would happen.
About Old Cabell Hall, new librarian Amy Hunsaker said in a recent Q&A, “UVA possesses a fabulous music collection held within the catacombs of an historic – possibly haunted – building. Who could say no to that?”
Morven Farm: Where the Lights Come On
Things that go bump in the night – and even in the daytime – seem to visit Morven Farm, which media mogul John Kluge donated to the University of Virginia Foundation in 2001. (Kluge died in 2010.) A beautiful pastoral estate on nearly 3,000 acres just down the road from James Monroe’s Highland, Morven has a long history and changed ownership several times before Kluge purchased it in 1988.
Tom Woodson, whose job as a security guard at Morven dates back to when Kluge owned it, has heard of unexplained occurrences for some 30 years. Rebecca Lewis Deeds, program manager for eight years, has a few stories of her own from working in the oldest standing building on the property, known as the Claim House, built in 1815.
Deeds, a 2009 UVA alumna who majored in English, has been in a few of the Morven buildings at night (there are 43 on the property), as UVA holds events and rents out spaces, including the renovated main house, meeting barn and several other houses and gardens.
The Claim House is small, with room for a couple of offices and a porch. Behind an inside door, a steep staircase leads to an attic that was refinished for storage – until a former coworker fell down the stairs years ago. (The stairs are designed like a ship’s ladder, with staggered steps a person is supposed to descend facing front.) After that, Morven’s overseers decided not to use the attic anymore and locked the door.
One night, Deeds stayed after hours to close up after an event in the main house. As she drove by the Claim House, she saw a light on in the attic. The thing is, Deeds said, the light switch is inside that locked door. Only the two security guards had a key. She called Linda, the guard on duty, who said she had not been in there; when she went to turn off the light, no one was there.
The next morning when Deeds checked, she found no evidence of anyone having been up there. A few nights later, it happened again under the same circumstances. She has since seen the light on again on several other occasions. They’ve never found that any living person there has unlocked that door and used that room.
The day after this reporter visited, Deeds wrote in email, “We must have disturbed the spirits by opening the upstairs room for you.” The event coordinator swore she heard furniture moving around in the attic, counting the noise in regular 10-second intervals, but the room was completely empty.
A light has also been seen turned on in one of the big barns, even when it’s not being rented for a special occasion. Woodson has heard of other things that have never been explained from night watchmen who worked there when Kluge owned the farm.
Barn No. 3, built in the 1990s to replace a previous barn, seems to be the location of the most ghost-like or strange happenings. At times, the barn housed thoroughbreds. One night while the latest version was under construction, Woodson was doing his security rounds about a mile away when a car approached. The night watchman got out to ask if he had been over near the barn, to which Woodson answered “no.” The shaken watchman said he had heard someone walking and dragging something through the gravel of the building site. The scraping sounds got closer and closer and the night watchman called out Woodson’s name repeatedly – but no one answered or appeared when he looked around.
After the barn – a large structure almost 205 feet long – was rebuilt, another night watchman, Ed, told Woodson of a night when he was checking the building and heard what sounded like a fight going on, with stomping and loud noises coming from a hayloft above some stalls. He went to investigate, but no one was there.
A night watchman named Herman told Woodson of a time when two of them were talking in the dark outside near barn No. 2 when suddenly a big, wide light flashed behind barn No. 3, lighting up the sky. But there were no events happening that night. They never heard of an explanation.
Another time, Herman was mucking out the stalls and he saw someone walk by the wide double doors at the far end of the barn. He called out and the person seemed to look at him without saying anything and then was gone. He went down to investigate, but again, found no indication anyone had been there.
Herman often took a boom box into the barn when cleaning and to keep the horses calm. One time he came to get the player and found it had been smashed to the ground. No one had been there to have done it, he told Woodson.
For those who want to get scared on purpose, as part of the Virginia Film Festival, Morven will show four spooky classics to celebrate Halloween at its drive-in setting, Thursday through Sunday nights: “Dracula,” “Scream,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Addams Family.
Brown College on Monroe Hill: Where They’re Out to Scare You
For their annual “Hauntings on the Hill,” Brown College residents – being the smart, creative students that they are – pick a different theme each year that’s not only scary, but also stimulates them to offer a wry critique on some aspect of society.
Last year, the pandemic canceled their usual public event, the biggest of the year for the University’s first residential college and its major fund-raiser for charity. They held a small gathering instead, just for their peers who were on Grounds. This year’s co-chairs of Hauntings, Regan Borucke, Renee Erickson and Maggie McHaty, are glad to get back to making it open to the community, with the theme “Maul of America.”
“Hauntings is a huge point of pride for Brown residents,” Erickson said.
“We want the entire experience to be scary and also funny,” Borucke said in email, adding that the social commentary – this time attacking “commercialism and shopping and big business” – is all in good fun.
Following COVID safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask, this year’s haunting will be held on Monroe Hill on Friday and Saturday, from 7 p.m. to midnight, with the first hour designated “family hour.” Tickets are $5 per person, and this year the event supports the C-ville Climate Collaborative.
Brown College students design and create everything, haunted-house style, coming up with ideas and decorations for a series of rooms that people go through. This year, as in recent times, they’re making rooms inside canopy tents using wooden frames hung with black paper to make walls. A room, for example, might be dedicated to a certain home goods store and appear to have a bathtub full of (fake) blood.
Emily Stover, an anthropology major who graduated in 2013, worked on Hauntings for three years as a room designer and actor. “The best rooms usually featured an unexpected jump scare,” she wrote in email.
“I can vividly recall the ‘Dot Room’ where the lights were totally shut off and guests moved through walls painted with neon dots. Little did they know that ‘ninjas’ dressed all in black were lurking around. They might whisper in your ear or suddenly move (we had a firm rule of no touching).”
Now a double Hoo, having earned her M.B.A. from Darden earlier this year, Stover recently started working for the Hershey Company, “appropriately as an associate brand manager on Halloween, where I can put my Hauntings experience to good use!”
For Stover, “Despite all the spookiness inside Hauntings, it could be just as creepy putting the thing together. The infamous Hauntings closet in Brown College for storing all of our fake body parts, gravestones, masks, and well-worn chicken suits was a sight (and honestly, smell) to behold. The first time someone let me in there I was definitely horror-stricken as soon as they turned the light on! If any part of Brown College is haunted, it’s that closet.”