With Halloween just around the corner, Tyrone native Matt L. Swayne sat down with The Mirror to talk a bit about things that go bump in the night. His book, America's Haunted Universities, came out last year and in the spring Llewellyn Publications is releasing his latest writing project about the Rock and Roll hauntings.
Mirror: How did your Haunted Universities come about?
Answer: I started that when I was at (Tyrone) The Daily Herald. I was born on Halloween so that's really when the train jumped the tracks. At the Herald, I always liked writing the Halloween stories and each year I would try to find a different angle and so one time I pitched (editor) Harry Hartman, I said, I'm going to write some ghost lore around the area - and there's a couple ghost stories - Sylvia, Baughman Cemetery. But as I looked into it there wasn't really enough to write a feature story so I'll look at the Altoona Campus. And I found some Lady of the Buckhorn things there.
Author Matt L. Swayne, creator of “America’s Haunted Universities,” sits with a copy of his book.
I looked at Penn State and I got a hold of some newspapers and there were just tons of stories about ghosts in Pattee Library, in Old Botany, Schwab Auditorium, the Runkle Hall poltergeist and the legend of Old Coaly.
To me that was really striking because you think of universities as these places where you have science and you get rid of these kinds of superstitions. That seemed to be the case, but it's not. Year after year in the '90s, I'd started finding other stories from other universities with really deep folklore, or ghost lore as they call it.
Q: Why do people like these kind of stories?
A: There are actually a lot of solid folklore researchers, not just in ghost lore. Simon Bronner from Penn State Harrisburg is one, and he came up with some theories as to why it happens.
One reason is you have students coming with a lot of anxiety and they're away from home for the first time so they're finding these stories, and a lot have a motherly feel to them. They're helpful spirits who try to unite roommates that are fighting, or they are there to help through troubled times.
I kind of believe that, but I think there are some other reasons. One is that folklore tends to unite people. When you have stories, they give everyone a common language and a common vocabulary. It gives people who have been there a couple years a little bit of a feeling they have the history and traditions that they are passing on.
A legend like Old Coaly (at Penn State), which is there's a ghost of mule that appears in some of the places they had the bones of Old Coaly, and Old Coaly was one of the first investments that Penn State as a farm school. They purchased this mule, and Old Coaly would haul the limestone from the quarry. When you talk about Old Coaly, within a minute and a half I told you a little about blue collar work, farm and ag. You get the idea of the traditions of the university.
I think the key is with all these legends, whether it's ghost stories or any of the other sports legend stories, is this is a very transient population. You have a class coming in and a class leaving. So in four years, you have to create your own culture. And that's what they do and I think they're sort of amazing.
To me they're either hallucinating, or they're lying or there might be something to them. I just try to keep an open mind and let the readers decide. I find it fascinating and some of the histories involved with some of these schools are really interesting.
What really blossomed for me was the Internet, I was able to access the school newspapers. I don't think I could have done the book without the Internet. I would search the week before Halloween and see what they had.
In ghost lore it's always a very anonymous source. A freshman had a brother in a fraternity tell him a ghost appeared, blah, blah, blah. Every once in a while you'll have people go on the record - and I have a few of those in the book - where staff have seen things or heard things they can't explain.
I've never had anything happen to me at Penn State - paranormal. I've see a lot of weird stuff, but it wasn't paranormal.
Q: What's your favorite story?
A: The southern schools have such great legends. Overall, you can see a regional difference. The southern schools have a lot of southern belles and gentlemen. In the Midwest, you have a lot of spirits that unite friends.
The University of Tennessee had a lot of interesting things. One is that the University of Tennessee was built near some Native American burial grounds. That is one of the paranormal no-nos, so all sorts of stories creep up about that. They have a story about a ghost dog on campus, and the University of Tennessee was also a battlefield. I think the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama had some of my favorites.
A lot of them are kind of funny, too, so you know they're making stuff up.
Q: You've written a book that you mentioned is about ghost lore and folklore of Rock and Roll. What kind of stories will it entail?
A: There's a lot of folk lore and a lot of ghost lore about how Robert Johnson was a lousy guitar player. It's a historical fact. Other blues artist at the time stepped up and said, he wanted to be a good guitar player but he just wasn't. He was mediocre at best is how I think most of them described it.
What I wasn't aware of and I learned is if you were a good guitar player in the Delta, you got paid much better than everyone else who is essentially picking cotton and doing a lot of field work. But, you also got a lot of ladies and the booze was flowing free in those days. It was really something to strive for.
So the story is he left for about a year and no one knew where he went and he came back and he had this amazing repertoire of guitar licks, and was by far the best guitar player in the Delta.
And then, subtly throughout a lot of his songs, he had laid out a rumor he had sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. I researched that and discovered from a writer in England that there's a folklore that builds up around bridges in Europe that is basically the same thing. The devil - if you need something and go to these bridges at Midnight - will appear and give you 20 years of fame and fortune if you sign over your soul. One of them happens to be in Liverpool, so there's actually a legend about John Lennon.
Q: Is Halloween your favorite holiday because you were born on Oct. 31?
A: This has always been one of my favorite holidays. That is why I got into horror movies and anything spooky. Although, I've never been on a ghost hunt. I've never gone on any of those things. The hours sound lousy to me.
I have friends who are ghost hunters and rely on them to verify some of this stuff but I kind approach it as a reporter. I pull in all the different sources and let other people decide.