Ghost of Clement Hall

May 4, 2010

On a visit to the University of Tennessee at Martin, to give a well-attended lecture on March 24, 2010, I learned of UTM’s Ghost of Clement Hall, termed "one of the most popular ghost stories of West Tennessee." (See "The Ghost of Clement Hall," online at . . . ) I determined to looked into the case, ably assisted in my investigation by members of the group that sponsored my talk, the UTM Freethinkers Society (president Trey Hamilton, who video-recorded my onsite interviews with staff; Angelia Stinnett, who helped throughout; Stetson Ford, who did online research; and advisor Lionel Crews, who also assisted in various ways).

Reportedly, the apparition of a young woman in white confirms the legend of a student who committed suicide on the fourth floor of the campus’ oldest dormitory. The story was also the subject of a 2008 movie, A Rose for Caitlin , made by Virtual Light Films (UTM students). Caitlin or Caitlyn is simply the nickname students have given to the "spirit of the unknown girl." See "Haunted tour . . ." . . . )

In addition to apparitions, other allegedly ghostly phenomena include flickering lights and strange noises — in other words, nothing of a convincing evidential nature. Consider one reported sighting, made by David Belote, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. He remains unsure just what he saw in the building’s attic in the early 1980s. Something moved quickly between some stacked boxes, but, he says, the movement could be attributed to a bird or something else. "It could have been my imagination," he concedes, admitting he has embellished the story over the years when relating it to students. Again, Stephanie Mueller, an advisor to special-needs students — having worked in the building for years, both day and night — attributes the flickering shadow she once saw on the floor to a failing light bulb. She added that the building’s radiator heat, which expands and contracts pipes, could be responsible for many noises.

UTM’s Director of Housing, Earl Wright, believes the ghost story originated in an incident in the early 1970s. Wright’s sister and her roommate, who were working on an art project, had left some life-sized Halloween-themed figures standing in a shower stall to dry. These frightened a fellow student who came upon them and, Wright thinks, sparked the ghost story. (Again see "The Ghost of Clement Hall.") However, the hypothesis fails to explain many factors, including how the cutouts, promptly revealed as such, were transformed into a persistently haunting spirit.

In any case, housing director Wright insists that the allegation of a student having committed suicide on the top floor of Clement Hall is untrue. And Stephanie Mueller told me pointedly that there were "different versions" of the tale. These are what folklorists call variants and are evidence of the folklore process at work. The differences include the supposed reason for the "suicide" (the young woman was simply jilted, or she walked in on her cheating boyfriend flagrante delecto ) as well as the place and manner of death (she hanged herself in a men’s shower stall where there is a bent curtain rod, or perhaps she died in another way, as evidenced by "blood" splatters on a hallway door). Another women’s dorm, McCord Hall, likewise has a story of a suicide by hanging — possibly indicating that the legend (i.e., a supposedly true folktale) is migratory (to use other folklorists’ terms).

Indeed, the UTM tale’s cluster of motifs (or narrative elements) provided a basis for an Internet search (generously conducted for me by CFI Libraries director Timothy Binga). This showed that similar stories of a Suicidal Dorm Resident, who returns to haunt the place of tragedy, are found, not only on other Tennessee campuses, but also across the country, from Charlotte to Tulsa and beyond. The evidence thus suggests that it is a migratory legend — part of the narrative lore of college folk, transmitted widely. It seems that, no matter how much the imaginary ghost wanders, she can always find a place to stay: among those who can most empathize with her.