UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Halloween and UND

UND folklorist explains genesis of All Hallow’s Day, others share their own campus ghost stories

Gustafson Hall
Many UND ghost stories revolve around old Gustafson Hall, on the southern edge of campus, where over the years a tragic history has played out. UND archival image.

Editor’s Note: UND Today is having a little fun with this year’s observance of Halloween on campus. Below is a mostly lighthearted, sometimes tragic, look at the ghoulish holiday, from its roots in early Irish folklore and migration to America to UND’s own tales from the crypt from students, past and present, and others.

So “Boo” to you from UND Today!

UND History Professor Hans Broedel, a national authority on early folklore, traces the roots of Halloween and the legend of the Jack-O-Lantern back to Ireland.

Out-deviling the devil

Jack is a scoundrel. He wagers and fights and drinks.

One night, with both his wallet and glass empty, he murmured, “I would sell my soul for a swig.”

The devil heard him and offered a deal. The devil would bestow Jack with 10 propitious years in return for his soul after that.

In the next decade, Jack had it all – money and alcohol and squandered time. One day, the devil appeared.

“Time to go to Hell, Jack.”

Jack did not demur but he wondered, “If you are the devil, can you make yourself larger?”

The devil sure did.

“But can you make yourself smaller,” Jack inquired.

The devil shrunk to a mouse.

Jack leaped, grabbed a jar and slammed it over the devil. He hastily scribbled a cross atop, so the devil could not escape, and wandered off.

Several years elapsed until the devil freed himself. He summoned Jack once more. Jack again outwitted him. And again and again and again – until Jack passed away of old age.

But Jack did not ascend to heaven. Instead, he found himself in a pit of blackness, banging on the door to hell. The devil, bitter over the past encounters, would not let him in.

“Please, I am cold, alone and in the dark.”

The devil relented. He handed Jack a tiny piece of hell to keep him warm and lighten his way. The shred was so hot it singed Jack’s hands.

As ingenious as ever, Jack carved out a turnip and dropped his char of hell inside. For eternity, he roamed around with his bright lantern – his Jack-o-lantern.

UND's Broedel says that, although, Halloween has retained its veneer of a kids' festivity, over the years, adults, more and more are dabbling in the late October holiday. Image courtesy of Hans Broedel.
UND’s Broedel says that, although Halloween has retained its veneer as a kids’ festivity over the years, adults, more and more, are dabbling in the late October holiday. Image courtesy of Hans Broedel.

Catholic observance?

This is how the Halloween staple originated in the folklore of Ireland, the country better known for giving the world St. Patrick’s Day, pretty much invented October’s capstone holiday, too.

Irish kids would make turnip lanterns – pumpkins are a New World plant – as early as the 16th century, said UND History Professor Hans Broedel, a national authority on early folklore.

They would take them to graveyards at night to look like ghosts. Back then, those shenanigans were not for pure thrill, of course. They intended to remind people that the dead had returned and needed a bit of help to rise to heaven.

In Catholic Ireland, living relatives had to solicit prayers for the deceased in purgatory– preferably from kids.

“The prayer of a little child counts a lot more with God than [an older person’s],” said Broedel.

In exchange for prayers, children would receive soul cakes or small pastries. It worked a lot like today’s trick or treat.

There is a reason why the departed would come back on Halloween, or All Hallows’ Day. It precedes All Souls’ Day, a Catholic observance of the dead that goes back centuries.

Contrary to beliefs that Halloween resuscitates pagan rituals and fiendish rites, the holiday stems from Christianity; Catholicism, to be precise, Broedel said.

“The problem is that for Protestants all of this is ridiculous,” said Broedel. “They do not believe in the purgatory. They don’t believe that the dead are ever allowed to leave heaven or hell, which is where they necessarily go if they are Protestant.”

Hence, as early as the 16th century, Protestants infused Halloween – as well as Christmas – with demonic undertones.

Not just kids’ stuff

Two centuries later, Irish immigrants brought Halloween to America, where it evolved to a predominantly children’s holiday.

“In the early 20th century, it was kind of moving into the direction of approximately where it is now,” said Broedel.

So where is it today?

Although Halloween has retained its veneer as a kids’ festivity, adults dabble in it, too. Think theme parties, yard ornaments and other decorations.

Fake ghost photo
One UND Today reader shared a couple of fun side-by-side images from their personal archive, which appears to show a broomstick standing on end (presumably, a spoof of a common YouTube parlor trick), in UND’s Gillette Hall, on one side, and a friendly warning scrawled on a whiteboard on the other side. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Becker.

‘Haunted’ UND

Holiday spirit and spirits haunt UND too. The former can be seen on the doors of students’ residence halls, cleverly bedecked for a Student Life Weekly contest for best décor. Pick your favorite below.

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As for the latter, sometimes spooky doesn’t need any interior-design garnish. Ghost stories are just enough. The following is a collection of legends and scary tales from campus, submitted by UND Today readers and others, just in time for Halloween:

I was a freshman starting in 2015 and lived in McVey for my first two years.  Transitioning into college I developed some insomnia so I was often awake at all hours of the night and liked doing my laundry at 2 or 3 in the morning, since there were no lines. However, whenever I was in the laundry room by myself I’d always see something out of the corner of my eye that would vanish when I’d turn to look at it.  Furthermore, if I was walking around on the ground level near the tunnel entrance to Wilkerson, I would hear what sounded like a woman calling me to ‘Go into the tunnels.’ I never really thought much about it until Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year in 2016 when I brought it up to a few other people on my floor, who, like me, lived too far away to go home for the short break.  They all confessed to seeing the same thing ,too, when down around the laundry room, something that vanished right before you looked at it.  We did some “research” which mostly involved asking old friends and family who graduated UND before us.  We heard stories from graduates, ranging from 1971 to 2009, tell us that they had also seen our ‘ghost’ and heard voices in several of the residence halls in the Wilkerson complex.  One story we heard was that sometime during the 1960s a girl had left her room during a snowstorm to get food at a dining center and on her walk back got lost in the whiteout conditions and froze just a few feet from the building.  Of course, nobody could find a source on it …but both current students and alumni said that her ghost haunts the Wilkerson complex and tries to call students into the tunnels… to give her ghostly company.

— Michael Owens, UND alum

We were in the (UND Student Health Services) clinic and there were already a ton of stories about the place being haunted. One day, during a meeting, we watched as the clock spun at least an hour back in time. I wondered if it was one of those clocks that was programmed or connected to a system that programmed it but it was not, just a regular cheap clock. It was super creepy.

— Carrisa Ann, UND alumna

The top of the stairwell to the Facilities building basement is completely fine by day, but super creepy at night. Next to the stairwell, you have to wait for a door to unlock to get in at night, and while you are waiting, all you see is a pitch dark bottom of a stairwell, giving an eerie feeling. The door squeaks a little upon exiting, but one night, on my way out around midnight, the door closed behind me and I heard a clear ‘Hello’ with the door squeak. I was so relieved to see someone outside that I didn’t even think about the fact that they were walking in the direction of the same creepy space I just walked out of.

— Megan Wasylow, coordinator of event services & business operations, Memorial Union

Starcher Hall
One readers claims a specter named “Harold” wanders certain parts of Starcher Hall, on the southeast corner of campus. UND archival image.

There is a ghost whose name I believe is ‘Harold’ that haunts the Graphics/Photography Lab in Starcher (Room 235).  The room is divided in half with a computer lab on one side and seminar space on the other. I can remember being in the lab late at night and hearing what sounded like chairs slide across the floor on the seminar side, only no one would be over there. I had classmates that reported seeing a floating arm back in the photo-processing area, though I never saw that. I also believe there were times when the lights would turn on in the darkroom by themselves. One classmate shared that one of the little rooms you would go into to take film out of the camera felt more claustrophobic than all the rest. 

— Elizabeth Becker, instructional design coordinator, Teaching Transformation and Development Academy

Every old building has its creaks and groans. One of the oldest buildings on the UND campus may have something else — ghosts. Gustafson Hall, built in 1908, served as the University’s first fraternity house, accommodating the Varsity Bachelors’ Club and later Phi Delta Theta. Located on the banks of the English Coulee, Gustafson now houses the main office of the Continuing Education Program. UND bought the building in 1979 and dedicated it in honor of Continuing Education Dean Ben G. Gustafson in May 1980. As new students walk through its halls each year, it’s said, the ghosts of the past may be walking with them. ‘We always thought there was a ghost,’ said Peg O’Leary, coordinator for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. O’Leary worked in Gustafson Hall for two years as a program coordinator for the Division of Continuing Education. Staffers imagine a ghost called ‘Gus,’ for the hall, she said. They tell stories of hearing noises or feeling a ‘presence’ while working at night, she said.

Gustafson Hall was called on in 1918 to become an infirmary during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which infected millions worldwide. The flu struck UND in October of that year, and the campus was placed under quarantine for seven weeks. At the time, the University was heavily involved in the national Student Army Training Corps. Gustafson Hall was used as Army headquarters, according to Louis Geiger in his book, ‘University of the Northern Plains: A History of the University of North Dakota.’ Geiger notes that the Gustafson infirmary lacked “all the sickroom necessities, including even sheets and toilet articles.” The situation became grave as more people became sick. There were too few nurses and doctors in Grand Forks to care for the infected. In all, 320 of the 470 student trainees on campus became ill, according to Geiger. Tragically, 29 student-cadets died at UND as a result of the flu outbreak.

Gustafson’s tragic history did not end there. According to published reports, the body of Pvt. Dale A. Howes, 19, of Devils Lake, was found in the cloakroom of Gustafson, then the Phi Delta Theta house. Howes had flown into Grand Forks from Fort Ord, Calif., about 9:40 p.m. on April 28. He and some friends went to a private party that night. Howes said he was not feeling well, went out to a car and lost consciousness. At about 4:30 a.m. his friends stopped at the fraternity house and continued on to a cafe, leaving Howes in the car while they ate. They returned to the fraternity house about 5 a.m., and placed Howes in the cloakroom. He was alive, they said, when they turned in for the night. At 10 a.m., Donald Mikkelson of Devils Lake found the body when he went to retrieve his coat from the room. An article in the May 2, 1963, issue of the Grand Forks Herald reported that… ‘[Howes] died of acute alcohol poisoning compounded by a cramped position and cool temperatures while he lay ‘passed out’ in a car.’

–Compilation of reports from Forum Communication Newspapers

Gustafson Hall was empty except for a couple of staff, including my boss, Doreen. I had the day off but because it was Doreen’s last day, I brought my young son, Korbin, along with me to the office to wish her well. We were on the third floor of the building when Korbin asked about the door leading to the attic. He tried the door and it was locked. Following some discussion about what might be up there in the attic, Korbin proceeded to find an imaginary key hanging on a nearby coat hook and unlocked the door. He opened the door and yelled for ‘Gus,’ the Ghost (Korbin had had previous experiences with spirits and I had mentioned Gus to him). Gus didn’t answer, so Korbin closed the door seemingly satisfied Gus wasn’t in the attic. Doreen suggested to Korbin he should lock the door just as he’d found it a few minutes before. So Korbin used his imaginary key to lock the door. After a few more minutes of visiting, Doreen tried to open the door to attic and it was locked!

–Tanya Butler, college relations and events coordinator, College of Arts & Sciences