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St. John's College students, staff tell stories of paranormal activity

St. John's College senior Babak Zarin says that, according to school lore, ghosts at McDowell Hall often made such a commotion that hall residents held seances to tell them — politely — to keep it down.

Kathy Dulisse, director of community programs, said that once when she was alone on the second floor of the Carroll Barrister House, she caught a glimpse of a cloak of someone heading upstairs. She subsequently headed up to see who it was, and no one was there.

Security officer Henry Smith said that one night this past summer at 2 a.m., while leaving the school gymnasium, he heard a "powerful whistling sound" close by. Later, while reading pamphlets in another building, he came across a story about a so-called ghost named "The Whistler" who makes the same sound in front of the gym during the early-morning hours.

"Man, that did it for me," said Smith. "I said, 'Maybe I wasn't just hearing things.' "

To hear folks at the small Annapolis college tell it, the campus, more than two centuries old — which was once the site of a Civil War camp, hospital and morgue — is a virtual haven for paranormal activity. For years, students, faculty and staff have recounted stories of eerie sightings, chilling sounds and sudden, unexplainable drops in temperature in a given setting.

Some say that certain buildings, like Barrister House, simply give you a creepy feeling.

"Sometimes you walk in there and you get a goose-bumpy feeling, and your hair stands up," said security officer Jack Little.

Zarin is among several students who have published stories chronicling reports of such activity.

While walking through McDowell just days before Halloween, Zarin spoke of a 1990s story about a student who opened the door of a second-floor classroom there and saw a man reading by a fireplace. According to Zarin, the student said, "Excuse me," and closed the door. Then sensing something unusual about what she had seen, she reopened the door and saw no one there.

Such stories have been told over and over. And they're not merely about ghosts. Little said that often while walking across a hill between the upper and lower campus early morning, he'll reach a spot that is much colder than any other place in the area.

"You can just be walking along, and all of a sudden it's like you've opened a refrigerator door," he said. "You go from hot and summer to a very noticeable cold spot. And then you just walk right through it."

School officials say that the ghost stories are popular not only on campus but among residents in Annapolis. St. John's Vice President Barbara Goyette said there hasn't been an effort by the administration to address the topic.

"Because it's a historic campus and a historic, Colonial city, it's not surprising that there would be ghost stories and people would be interested in that topic," said Goyette. "In terms of our prospective students, I don't think they would have heard anything. Tell me the five most important things about St. John's, and it's probably not on that list."

In fact, most people who tell such stories have a don't-bother-them-and-they-won't-bother-you attitude.

Smith said that being on a campus known for reports of such activity can be a bit unsettling, but added, "It's OK. I believe in God." Still he added with a laugh, "I keep this stuff going, and I have security officers now scared to do their posts."

By far the most popular story on campus has been that of the so-called Whistler, accounts of which stretch back generations. Zarin said that according to school lore, there have been attempts to capture The Whistler, who makes rounds throughout campus. The school has tried to cordon off certain areas, he said, but reports of the whistling sound have continued.

The school has a Personal Whistle Safety Program, where whistles are available at no charge to students, who are encouraged to blow them to signal a need for help or frighten someone away.

Despite writing on the topic and hearing many stories about ghosts since freshman year, Zarin said he still doesn't believe in them. "My view might fall similar to that of Mark Twain: I don't believe, but I respect them," said Zarin.

"There are obviously a lot of stories that people will say are of this spirit or that spirit or this supernatural thing or that supernatural thing, that can obviously be explained very easily," he said. "Someone you didn't know was running in the bottom of the building. There was construction going on, this event, that event.

"That said, there is a strong sense of human nature to assume there is something beyond us. And to me, considering what I have heard of it, belief aside, the kinds of things that we generally assume are beyond us are not the kinds of things I would want to upset or disrespect. And for the people who do believe in it, I don't want to disrespect them, either."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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