As a freshman at Boston University in the mid-90s, I fancied that my dorm was the very best of a bad lot. I bunked in Shelton Hall, a converted hotel, in a huge room with a private bathroom that I shared with only one other person. Sure, the view outside my window was mostly composed of bricks interrupted by a narrow sliver of Storrow Drive, but I was a dark soul who did not long for sunlight.
I had been attracted to this dorm in the first place because it boasted a special “Writers’ Corridor,” a floor requiring special application, and which I had envisioned would lead to brilliant coversations about art and literature with my neighbors. At the time, I didn’t know that most writers are antisocial curmudgeons, hopeless narcissists, and/or drunk roughly 50 percent of their waking lives.
I made many wonderful friends on my floor, but most of what we did together was drink and tell one another about our works-in-progress while everyone else pretended to listen, but really just waited to talk.
It doesn’t sound like a good time, but it was. Really.
During one of these conversations, I asked why this particular floor had been earmarked as the Writers’ space. “Because of Eugene O’Neill,” a dude explained. “He died in that room -- the room next to yours.”
Eugene O’Neill, for those of you who didn’t have to read something by him at some point in high school, is considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, having won not only four Pulitzer Prizes for his work, but also the Nobel for Literature.
Sadly, he also suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, and later in life he developed Parkinson’s disease, the resulting tremors of which made it impossible for him to continue writing.
He was living in what was then a Sheraton hotel when death overtook him, and according to legend he is said to have whispered these final words: “I knew it, I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and god damn it, died in a hotel room.”
This happened in the room next to mine, at the end of the hall, in 1953. The following year, the Sheraton hotel became Shelton Hall.
I had heard that our dorm, and specifically our floor, was haunted, but I didn’t know there was anything more behind it than adolescent imaginings. There were curious occurances: The lights were unpredictable. The elevator chronically failed to stop at our floor, no matter how many times it was repaired; after numerous annoying rides to the top of the building and down again, it got to the point where I would get on and not even bother pressing “4,” instead going directly to the 5th floor and taking the stairs down.
Of course, these were things that could just as easily be explained by the fact that the building was old; faulty wiring, perhaps. An elevator more in need of replacement than repair. That made sense to me.
I tend to be a skeptic in such matters, as too often there is a mundane explanation for these things. Of course, it’s far more fun to impose spooky reasons for the quirks of an old building.
However, there was one thing that I could not explain.
Every night, between 3 and 4 in the morning, there was a noise at the door to my room. For the whole first year I lived in this room, I thought I was dreaming it. Early on in my second year there, my roommate asked me one morning: “What is that noise at the door every night? Am I imagining it?” No, I had heard it too. It was real.
The noise, to be precise, sounded like someone trying to fit a wrong key to a lock, sort of a rattling scrape that persisted for a couple of minutes and then faded away. Sometimes there would be knocking at the door as well. A light sleeper, I was regularly awakened by it, although the few times I got out of bed to investigate, the noise immediately stopped.
After our conversation, my roomate and I began to talk to our ghostly squatter; we did it mostly in good fun until one night when the bathroom light refused to turn on until I yelled, “Damn it, Eugene, turn on the bathroom light,” and my request was positively answered.
Again, coincidence, probably -- I am still not comfortable with attributing the effects of old wiring to the mischief of the dead -- but still, there was that noise at the door, and the fact that after that, a polite request for lighting was sufficient to get the bathroom lamp to work.
As a child I was terrified of ghosts, having seen far too many horror movies during my more formative years, and if I had been asked if I was willing to live with a ghost then, I probably would have burst into frightened tears. By the time I lived on O’Neill’s haunted floor, it was less a matter of living with a ghost and more an issue of living with some weird unknown occurances; they were occasionally unnerving, but mostly it was no big deal.
If you walk around Times Square in New York long enough, you’ll run across a Starbucks bearing a commemorative plaque identifying the spot where the Barrett Hotel once stood, in which Eugene O’Neill was born.
Shelton Hall has no plaque, only the ghost stories and legends invented and experienced by the kids living there.
I am still a skeptic, probably more so now than ever, but my some of experiences remain inexplicable, even in 15 years of hindsight.
So now I’m asking you: Do you believe in ghosts?