'We (Sc)Are': Creepy Commonwealth Campuses share a spirited Penn State tradition

Image of Penn State Abington Lion Shrine at night

The white of Penn State Abington's Lion Shrine can sometimes take on a decidedly spooky cast around Halloween.

Credit: Penn State

Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses have a lot in common with the University Park campus — great students, athletes, faculty, researchers, traditions …

And ghosts.

Penn State’s ghostlore-rich University Park campus has appeared several times over the years in lists of the country’s most haunted universities. These lists, however, may overlook the rich supernatural history available at the University’s Commonwealth Campuses.

We will start our journey into our Commonwealth Campus ghostlore with a visit to not just one of the oldest, most haunted campus buildings, but definitely the oldest and arguably the most haunted building in the entire University system — Penn State Mont Alto’s Wiestling Hall.

Penn State Mont Alto — Col. Wiestling rides again

As Penn State’s oldest building, Wiestling Hall has taken on the other-duties-as-assigned requirement with the hardened determination you might expect from a building that once served as the manor of one of the area’s wealthiest iron masters. Built in 1807, the building has functioned as a dormitory, dining hall, classroom, administrative headquarters and living — term used loosely — space for at least two ghosts.

Students and staff add Col. George Wiestling, the ironmaster who lived in the manor, and “Sarah” — referring, perhaps, to the ghost of Sarah Matheny, who was murdered near the site in 1911 — to the list of possible spectral suspects.

Over the years, students who roomed and dined there have reported hearing what they described as footsteps walking on the attic floor and firm-sounding raps on their doors. More intrepid students who have investigated the haunting claim that the batteries of their flashlights would die, and, adding to the drama, groups of students said their flashlights went dark simultaneously.

After all, when an iron master tells you it's lights out, then it's lights out.

Penn State Abington — high-flying ghosts

Penn State Abington rests on the former site of the Ogontz School for Young Ladies, once a prestigious private school.

One of the young ladies that attended Ogontz was known to climb out onto the roof of the Sutherland Building, a dormitory at the time, to look at the stars. We now know this eyes-on-the-skies student as Amelia Earhart. During Earhart’s high-flying career, the aviator returned to her beloved school to inspire Ogontz students with stories of her latest adventures and tales of record-breaking flying performances.

Some Penn State Abington faithful believe that this star-watching and star-crossed student never left the campus.

While toiling away in Sutherland, numerous witnesses have claimed to hear loud footsteps above, as if someone is walking across the roof. When they go outside to investigate, they discover that there is no one — or, at least, no embodied one — there.

Most of the witnesses believe it’s the spirit of Earhart taking another look at the stars.

A Halloween side note: It is not completely unexpected that the Abington campus is spirit-friendly. The Ogontz School, after all, had several peculiar Halloween traditions. The students of the school used to gather on Halloween, not in white sheets with eyeholes cut out in them, but in their caps and gowns. Halloween night was also the time when the new class motto, class song, class photo and class sponsor were revealed.

Since then, Halloween at Abington has been spirit-filled in every sense of the term.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre — the haunting of Hayfield House

Some campuses are born haunted. Some campuses are thrust into being haunted. And other campuses just move into a haunted mansion.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre was originally founded in 1916 to train engineers for jobs in the region’s coal industry, but the school’s growth forced administrators to seek more space. That wish was granted in the 1960s when the family of coal baron John and his wife, Bertha Conyngham, donated the couple’s majestic Hayfield Farms estate to the University.

Along with the property came more than a few ghost stories, as well as a decades-old mystery that continues to intrigue amateur sleuths in northeast Pennsylvania. According to the legend, shortly after his dream home was built, John Conyngham accidentally — or not so accidentally — fell down the home's elevator shaft to his death. Throughout the years, some people have speculated that the former coal baron jumped; still others say — insert creepy organ music with a hint of foreboding here — it was murder.

While the debate for the official explanation of the mystery continues, some students and staff say that Conyngham's death triggered strange activity at Hayfield House. They claim to hear bizarre noises and slamming doors when the building is supposedly empty. Other say they have found the carpet askew with no explanation.

While many might point the finger at John Conyngham for the supernatural disturbances in the building, most blame his widow, Bertha. To keep the peace, campus staff members say they make sure to treat the building with respect to avoid ticking off Bertha, who, from all accounts, had a strong spirit, especially when it came to maintaining order in her house.

Penn State Hazleton — Schiavo Hall spirits

Penn State Hazleton may have some aristocratic spirits lingering around one of that campus’s showpieces. Schiavo Hall, which now houses administrative offices, was once the manor home of Highacres, the estate of Hazleton’s prosperous Markle family. In fact, most of 125-acre Penn State Hazleton rests on the former estate.

The haunted activity on campus, however, seems to center directly on Schiavo Hall and, from best accounts, happens mostly at night. Staff and members of the maintenance crew claim to hear weird noises while working their nightly shifts or working past hours in Schiavo.

Could it be that members of the Markle family are still keeping watch on their once prized manor?

Ghostlore 101

Even if you don’t believe in collegiate spooks and spirits, folklorists suggest that ghost stories may not necessarily signal that superstition has overrun the scientific process on campus. In fact, these stories may play subtle, but important roles in campus culture.

At their root, campus ghosts represent one of humanity's earliest philosophical quests, said Russell Frank, associate professor of journalism at Penn State.

“It’s a starting point of one of the primary questions that we ask ourselves: what happens when we die,” said Frank, whose graduate degree is in folklore.

Many ghost stories at Penn State and other university campuses touch on philosophical quandaries that revolve around death, such as dualism — the nature of matter and spirit — and the ramifications of improper burial rites, he added. Ghost stories, then, can serve as a way to fill in the blanks when knowledge becomes less certain.

“We are all both rational and irrational and arrive at the irrational when we hit the limits of what we know,” said Frank. “And we can hit those limits pretty fast.”

The ability of students to preserve and pass on ghost stories that have lasted more than a century may show both how complex and how necessary these legends are. In some cases, campus ghost stories can act as cautionary tales. Spirits of murder victims may remind students that potential dangers lurk on even the safest campuses. Ghosts who appear when students violate certain codes of conduct are, in a sense, also passing on almost parental advice.

“There’s also a didactic nature to many of these stories — you can use a story to warn people not to do something that is socially unacceptable by telling them that something scary might happen to them if they do,” said Frank.

Ghost stories can also contain historic and cultural information for transitory student populations. A story of Amelia Earhart, or an iron baron, can quickly give a freshman some sense of campus history, for example.

Campus ghosts, then, somewhat fittingly, are here to teach lessons.

Puts a whole new spin on the idea of finals, doesn't it?