The Sound on the Stairs: Hauntings in Your Local College Town

By Emma Eisler

“…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself at the lakeshore, gazing away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.” 

-Edward H. Rulloff 

Once I’ve known a person long enough for it to not feel too weird, I like to ask if they believe in ghosts. There’s a range of answers I get: the somewhat disparaging “umm, no;” the skeptical, “maybe;” and the unequivocal, “yes, of course.” For one friend of mine, the definition of a ghost is really anything from the past that continues to act in the present, and so ghosts are all around us—indeed, they are memory itself. Another says she believes, not in the white-sheet, “boo!,” Halloween-style ghosts, but in spirits who occupy certain places. 

I don’t think Casper the Friendly Ghost is going to pop out of my closet or anything, but I do believe in haunting. What is the feeling you get when you go over to an acquaintance’s house and you just know that something is wrong or bad there? The chill down your spine when you know you’re alone in a room but still feel as if you’re being watched? defines haunting as “the act of a person or thing that haunts; or a visitation,” while the Cambridge dictionary says it is a “staying in the mind” or “beautiful, but in a sad way and often in a way that cannot be forgotten.” What is this idea of haunting, with its multitude of meanings and moods? A melody that equally can frighten us or make us yearn. Maybe haunting or ghosts are just the best words we have to describe the uneasiness of sensing, of intuiting something from the sound of the wind or a creak in the floorboards, things we cannot explain, but that we know are there. And that combination of knowing, and the inability to explain, is something that raises goosebumps under even our coziest sweaters.  

Rulloff Final.jpg
Art by Leo Levy

All place even—or maybe especially—Ithaca have spectral presences. We have our notoriously big-brained serial killer, possibly better known for the eponymous bar: Edward H. Rulloff, known as the “learned murderer” for his work as an informal philologist, along with a host of other professions. Rulloff’s brain still remains (in all its oversized glory) on display in Uris Hall where an unsuspecting freshman may wander past and feel a sudden chill. Where is Rulloff now? At the bar, or in the lake, or with his brain in Uris Hall? So long as he remains in our memory, can we ever be sure he’s truly gone? As a plaque at Rulloff’s reminds us, he too believed he would continue to haunt us, that even now his spirit remains. Watching. Can we laugh, pass off these words as pure fiction, the oddly poetic rant of a deranged and long-dead man? Do we ever wonder? 

Then there’s the infamous rumor that when a virgin crosses the Arts Quad at midnight the statues of A.D. White and Ezra Cornell will rise and walk to one another to touch hands. Maybe you’ve heard the one (I know I did on my Cornell tour!) that brides who choose to wed in Sage Chapel put on their dresses and makeup in Ezra’s crypt, and that, if this blushing bride begins to sweat a little, or even feel the slightest trepidation, then Ezra himself will rise from the crypt and nudge her down the aisle. Certain buildings, most notably Risley, are rumored to be haunted—in Risley’s case by Prudence Risley herself, though she never actually lived there. Still, she whispers in cold drafts and creaking stairs. Many have apparently spotted a small group of tuxedoed ghosts wandering the midnight halls of Willard Straight, perhaps on their way to a party, many centuries cleaned up. Alice Statler is said to still haunt the halls in the hotel, creeping around corners and breathing down the necks of guests. Whether or not these spectral presences are real and you are likely to encounter them the next time you find yourself alone on the Arts Quads or in one of the many old buildings, they remain in our consciousness, reminding us of the people who once lived here, fashions past, and centuries of youths who’ve passed through these same hills and halls.

Where do our souls go after we die? To our hometowns or houses, our crypts or the statues put up to commemorate us? What if our souls are bad? Can anything (or anyone) truly disappear at all? I’m not sure what I believe exactly, but bodies biodegrade gradually, become part of the soil, food for maggots are fungi. Flesh can never be gone, but instead becomes small parts of so many other things. 

I wonder, maybe more importantly, why we have these ideas of haunting, and if they reflect one aspect of our attempt to write ourselves onto the places we breathe and live. So many of these stories tell us as well about the cultures or histories they come from—whether our fixation with virginity or our fear of being alone. Maybe these stories of haunting are more about history than anything else, a way of saying there was before me, and there will still be after. We write ourselves onto the landscapes that matter to us. Crossing the Arts Quad at night, I have yet to see either statue stand and get up, but sometimes I do think I see, just up ahead, a shimmer of my younger self, longer hair and forehead without bangs, laughing and giggling on her way back from her first college party. Only the shadows, I tell myself. 

Maybe to give something a name makes us feel less afraid. So better that the creak of the stairs in my house when no one is climbing be a ghost than something without even a word that can be applied. Better that the touch a bride may feel on her shoulder be someone than the vast and enigmatic something. Better even that the weight of eyes on our backs at the lakeshore be killer Rulloff than merely the nameless mist. Maybe we spend our lives checking over our shoulder for spectral flickers so that finally, when we are older and less afraid, when our lives have begun to wind down, and we are tired of being haunted, we ourselves can become ghosts. 


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