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Century old campus home to intriguing hauntings

Imagine it’s a cold, gray night. The moon has cast a pale glow on the tree-lined paths of the Mills College campus, and you’re walking alone. As you walk, you go over the events of the day: that midterm you aced, the homework you didn’t do, your cute new crush.

All of a sudden, you see a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye that interrupts you. It might be a shadowy figure, a mysterious woman in a red nightgown, or a horse-drawn carriage disappearing into the night.

You wouldn’t be the first to see or hear things on campus that you cannot explain. With buildings like Mills Hall as much as 140 years old, it is no surprise that Mills has collected a bevy of spooky legends over the years that even the bravest student might find unsettling.

Each year students and faculty report strange occurrences: eerie wailing in the Music Building, papers rustling by themselves in Ethel Moore Residence Hall, and shadowy figures looming around the Cowell Building, which, legend has it, used to be a morgue.

Are their imaginations running wild? Senior Lucy Moore doesn’t think so.

“Though I didn’t completely doubt the presence of ghosts, I wasn’t convinced until I came to Mills,” said Moore.

While practicing piano in Warren Olney early one weekend morning when she was a first-year, Moore soon learned she had an unexpected audience. Responding to the sound of footsteps, she glanced up from the piano keys only to find a strange looking couple barging in through the room’s double doors. They were dressed from another era; the woman’s hair was pale, loose and long, and the man wore a jaunty old-fashioned hat.

“They kept walking and I kept playing. When I looked up again, through the wooden pillars a woman looked straight into my eyes for one strange moment,” said Moore.

“They moved quickly, but as soon as they were gone it was simply the feeling that came over me that let me know there was something unreal about them. It’s hard to describe what it was, other than a shuddering feeling in my gut.”

If there’s anyone who wouldn’t be surprised by this story, it’s Alex Wright, who has been compiling Mills ghost stories on his website for a few years. The son of two faculty members, Wright grew up on campus. One perk of living at the College (besides having sprawling wooded acres as his personal playground) was hearing the spooky legends that passed through generations of Mills students.

“Part of what made, and makes, them more real is that I heard the same stories from students in the late 1970’s as I did from students a decade or more later,” said Wright. “You figure those people never met, never spoke to each other but yet they have a shared experience. That makes you believe a bit more in that experience. That’s why I believe in all the stories.”

Wright hasn’t personally experienced the majority of the hauntings he describes on his website. In fact, he’s still waiting for the day he will see the ghostly horse-drawn carriage that supposedly tumbles down the hill behind Ethel Moore and Mary Morse resident halls.

Until then, he’ll have to be satisfied with the one eerie experience he did have on the Mills campus. Wright is one of many members of the Mills community convinced that a ghost roams Lisser Hall. Like many, Wright has reported hearing eerie creaking and unexplained footsteps pacing back and forth on the Lisser stage.

“If I am certain of anything in my life it is that the stage of the theater is haunted,” Wright said.

“The sound of the pacing was as clear as could be and whether you believed in ghosts or not, there was no mistaking that something was happening.”

Believers of the legend disagree on the identity of the ghost. Some believe it is Louis Lisser, the Hall’s namesake, who roams the building angrily, still seething from his disagreement with Susan Mills over the fate of the college— Lisser wanted to turn the school into a music conservatory while Mills wanted to keep it a liberal arts college. Some believe the ghost is that of Susan Mills herself, whose body was purportedly held in Lisser Hall before she was buried in Sunnyside Cemetery.

Perhaps the College’s one shot at putting this argument to rest is Sandra Belanger, a Mills alumna, Public Safety officer, and spirit medium.

Belanger, with her parrot in Sunnyside Cemetary, in front of Cyrus Mills' grave. (Rashida Harmon)
Belanger, with her parrot in Sunnyside Cemetery in front of Cyrus Mills' grave. (Rashida Harmon)

Belanger, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in Anthropology, has been using Electronic Voice Phenomena software since 1998, which she says captures the messages from the dead. She sets up her laptop in a room, hits record and waits for a minute or two. Then later, after hours of sound extraction, she listens for any voices found on the recording.

Through this method, Belanger claims to have communicated with former dean Hettie Belle Ege, who said “I’m on the pillar with the others on the cemetery,” and other deceased professors and faculty members, who have said Belanger’s name and relayed cryptic messages.

Belanger recognizes that some people can’t digest the work she does. She herself acknowledges that paranormal research can seem crazy.

“When you start to hear voices, you come to one of two conclusions: either you’re losing your mind, or these people are really trying to communicate with you,” she said, her parrot Horus perched on her shoulder.

Still, as the historian for the Mills chapter of honors society Phi Beta Kappa, she feels her work is useful in that in unearths the College’s little-known secrets. For example, after repeatedly hearing the name Edgar during her sessions, coupled with a “z” word she could not decipher, Belanger did some research. What she found startled her: in the 1940s an Austrian physicist named Edgar Zilsel was invited to teach at Mills. Soon after he began teaching, he committed suicide in his office by overdosing on pills. According to Belanger, his message was clear: “My death was a big secret.”

Whether these stories are true or not is a matter of opinion. Still, between the solemn lone pillar of Sunnyside Cemetery, and the etching over the Olney Hall fireplace that reads “Studious let me sit and hold high converse with the mighty dead,” it is easy to imagine Mills as the backdrop for a series of hauntings.

As Wright put it, “Who could stand on the oval on a dark night and look up at the windows of Mills Hall without thinking that a face from the past might suddenly appear to stare back at you? The buildings themselves look like they have stories to tell, so it’s easy to let the mind wander and think about what ghosts might still live there.”