Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pittsburgh Things That Go Bump In The Night

Today's post will be a PSA for my Pittsburgh area homeys as the Steel City prepares for its annual descent into Halloween gore, featuring fright-nights and the Three Rivers' favorite undead, zombies.

First, the Post-Gazette covers all the fright night haunts in the region from Hundred Acres Mansion to the Demon House in Faith Cotter's article "Spreading Fear."

The Tribune Review posts its mansions of mayhem, too, including some that are gently haunted for the kiddies and a movie schedule in its piece "Scary Season." It also has an older story by Michael Machosky called "Pittsburgh's Obsession With The Undead" that gives a neat little background on "Zombietown, USA."

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the Zombie Fest, which will be held at Market Square on Saturday, October 8th, featuring bands and fun events like the brain-eating contest. It starts at noon; after all, zombies need their beauty sleep.

Hey, hometown pride runs deeper than the sports teams in da 'Burg. In some circles, George Romero is held in higher esteem than Hines Ward and Mario Lemieux. So wave your freak flag proudly, Tri-State spook fans. It's your season to screech.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jersey City School Spirits

New Jersey State University Tower

New Jersey City University opened in 1929 as the New Jersey State Normal School at Jersey City. The school evolved into a Teachers College in 1935, Jersey City State College in 1958, and an accredited liberal arts institution in 1968. In 1998, it became a university. And no matter what name it's known by, the school has some spooky lore.

There are some typical tales. Vodra Hall, a dorm located in the middle of campus, is the alleged site of unexplained laughter and music (at least it has happy spooks). And the old Science Center, now replaced and used by Hudson County CC, has a legend that claims an elevator workman was electrocuted on the second floor, and ever since the elevator often stops there whether or not the button is pushed.

But the primo paranormal spot is a gothic tower and theatre that are part of the oldest building on campus, the equally gothic Hepburn Hall (the structures are so associated with the school that its teams are known as the Gothics), which opened in 1930.

Hepburn Hall, the only school building used during the first 25 years of NJCU's existence, houses administrative offices, classrooms and the Margaret Williams Theater.

Opened in 1931 as an addition to Hepburn, the theatre was originally designed as a combination auditorium and gym like you see in most high schools. In 1968 it was renovated for use solely as a theatre and named after long-time faculty member Margaret Williams. She must have been pleased; it's said she's never left the building.

The classroom closest to the theater (Room 220) and under the Tower is always cold. Students have reported odd sounds coming from the attic and backstage of the theatre. The actual theatre sometimes has a spotlight that turns on and tracks an unseen phantom performance; some claim to hear songs and music coming from an empty stage.

But the most popular lore is the sighting of Margaret William's ghost floating through the halls. She's been reported seen in various rooms and the theatre. It's said that at night, you can sometimes see Williams peering down at you from the Tower. She haunted the theatre area during life, and looks like she's still comfortable there in death.

If you want to check out NJCU a little more, its lore is part of the popular Weird New Jersey series by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

SUNY Plattsburgh

MacDonough Hall from School Designs

SUNY Plattsburgh started its days as the Plattsburgh Normal and Training School when it opened its doors in 1890 as a two-year teaching and nursing institution in Clinton County. It joined the state university system in 1948.

Now you'd think after a dozen decades that this bastion of academia would do its duty and graduate a few ghoulish stories to spread around campus. But we could only come up with two haunted halls, and one may be in paranormal remission.

That would be the old Normal School building, the oldest structure on campus. As chronicled by Cheri Farnsworth in Haunted Northern New York, a turn-of-the-century schoolmarm sent one of her students to the basement to find out why the heat wasn't on. He found the answer hanging from the ceiling in the person of the janitor.

Cheri changed that a little later in her Big Book of New York Ghost Stories after some extra newspaper research. Just a few particulars were altered: in 1917, janitor John Blanchard did kill himself by inhaling gas because he was despondent over his wife's recent death.

Regardless of the year or method, the janitor reportedly didn't leave the Normal School after his departure from this vale of tears. Blanchard was often seen during the ensuing years walking the halls and checking the roof, just as if he were performing his everyday rounds.

The Normal School burned completely to ashes on January 26th, 1929, and it took more than three years to replace the original structure, built on the bones of the old. In 1955, it was renamed after Plattsburgh's longest tenured leader, George Hawkins, who was the school's principal (similar to president) when it was rebuilt.

Did Blanchard finally find the light home after the fire? Probably - he hasn't been seen since, although some still sense his presence.

But don't fear. There's still a dorm around that's full of unexplained phenomena and spooks, MacDonough Hall, the oldest resident hall on campus.

In 1948, work on the dorm, named in honor of General Thomas MacDonough, who led his troops to victory over the British in the Battle of Plattsburgh that capped the War of 1812, began. The field behind MacDonough Hall was used as a public hanging grounds for the nearby Arsenal, which was destroyed by a British raid on July 30th, 1813.

When workers began their site excavations, they found two old tombstones (some say remains were discovered, too) of a woman and a child, both believed to be among the oldest settlers in the area. The stones were moved to the roadway to be picked up and the digging went on. But the next morning, the markers couldn't be found. To this day, their disappearance has never been solved.

Hanging grounds? Disturbed graveyards? Hey, no good can come of a location like that, and MacDonough has its share of tales to tell.

Students have seen flickering on/off lights, heard piano music coming from an empty lobby and eerie children's laughter and crying echoing through the hallways. Some have seen grotesque images reflected from mirrors and windows, and heard the screams of a woman. One student reported being smothered in bed as her name was being called, supposedly verified by her roomie. A paranormal team went through the building, and got an EVP of a woman whispering to them in the attic.

One legend, reported on Shadowlands and some other sites, is that the basement of MacDonough Hall was once the morgue for the old city hospital. That's one bit of lore we can debunk. MacDonough opened in 1951 as a dormitory and has never been used as anything but a residence since then.

The morgue story has its roots in the web of underground passages beneath the building. They're not sinister. The "catacombs," as they're sometimes known, are used as maintenance tunnels, and back in the good ol' days of the Cold War also served as the school's bomb shelters in case the Russki Bear decided to drop the big one. And Plattsburgh was a primo target then; the nearby Air Force base was Top Ten on the hit list.

In fact, the base is supposed to be a haven to quite a few spooks itself, but we'll save that post for another day.

If you want to know a little more about Plattsburgh's haunted halls, open a copy of Haunted Northern New York or the Big Book of New York Ghost Stories by Cheri (Ravai) Farnsworth. Or enroll; your choice.