A Halloween guide to the ghosts of Rhodes College.
by Michael Finger
Late one evening some 20 years ago, a young woman crept out of her dorm room and walked slowly across the college campus. She paused at the entrance to the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house, then stepped into the empty lodge, gloomy with its massive beams and stone fireplace. Pulling a rope from her coat pocket, she tossed one end over a beam, climbed up on a wooden chair, and fastened the other end tightly around her throat. She glanced around the darkened room one last time, tears blurring her vision, then kicked the chair out from under her.
The first person who came into the Zeta house the next morning screamed at the limp body swinging from the rafters. Campus security guards arrived, and as they cut the dead girl down, the sorority members recognized with a shock that it was Annie, the poor girl who had wanted to join Zeta Tau Alpha so badly, but who never got a bid.
Scandalized by this shocking suicide, the sorority shut down. Years later, when Rhodes converted the empty house into its performing-arts theatre, students and faculty claimed to see visions of Annie late on certain evenings a beautiful ghost who continued to haunt the building she wasn't allowed to enter in life.
It's a spooky tale, all right, and a perfect way to begin any exploration of the ghosts of Rhodes College. What a shame that not a bit of it is true.
College officials insist there was no suicide at Zeta Tau Alpha. The sorority, like many others in the early 1970s, had trouble getting members, and in 1973 even "recolonized" as a desperate attempt to start the chapter over. It didn't work, and a few years later the sorority died. The last photo of the Zeta sisters appears in the 1975 Lynx, the school yearbook, and it's weirdly prophetic. All the other sorority girls on campus pose happily in front of their handsome buildings for the yearbook: Delta Delta Delta with 57 members, Kappa Delta with 43, and Chi Omega also with 43. Zeta has only 17 girls, and instead of smiling for the camera in front of their stone lodge, they are gathered around a black hearse.
The absence of a suicide hasn't stopped the legend of Annie from growing. Theatre students practicing in McCoy Theatre have reported seeing fleeting images in mirrors, and heard unaccountable noises when the building was supposed to be empty. One student says that she and a friend were walking across campus on a quiet, windless night when a wooden swing outside the theatre starting moving back and forth. When she joked to her companion that Annie herself must be swinging there, the chair stopped moving.
Over the years, it's become a Rhodes tradition to "invite" Annie to theatre performances. "At the end of rehearsals, we gather in a circle on stage, link hands, and say, 'Annie, the spirit of McCoy Theatre, please be kind to us. There is a seat for you here, and we ask you to bless this performance,'" says theatre major Jenny Hall. The troupe always sets aside a seat for the ghost, either in the audience or up front by the light-control board. "One time we forgot to invite Annie to our production of Sight Unseen, and it brought bad luck," says Hall. "We had to cancel the show because of the ice storm."
Annie apparently has a ghostly companion across campus, in Bellingrath Hall. "The rooms on the fourth floor of that dorm are haunted," claims one student. "Some guy shot himself up there, and even though they've shut off that part of the building, you can sometimes see a weird light on up there in those windows." Another student, who once lived in the dorm, says she heard that a boy hanged himself up there, and somehow cut off his head in the process, and they never, ever found his head! Yet another student claims that answering machines in Bellingrath sometimes start playing by themselves, and residents on the third floor have heard footsteps and odd noises above their rooms late at night.
Unlike Annie, the Bellingrath tales are loosely based on a real death the unfortunate suicide in 1969 of a student named Thomas Bayley, who quietly took his life in Bellingrath Hall one evening by drinking some type of poison. But Bayley's room was on the third floor. "The fourth floor has always been used for storage and heating equipment," says Bill Short, coordinator of public services at Rhodes. "The 'mysterious' lights students have seen up there have usually been left on by security or the physical-plant people." That hasn't keep the rumors at bay, though, and last year around Halloween certain enterprising students opened up the "haunted" fourth floor for tours for a small fee.
Two ghosts, real or not, would be more than enough for most colleges. But Rhodes has plenty more, or so the legends go. There's the poor soul who leapt from Halliburton Tower, for example, and sometimes late at night guards have reportedly seen a ghostly figure, clad in white, plummet from the bell tower, but when they rush to the scene they never find a body below. There's the fellow who hanged himself in the Pi Kappa Alpha House in the 1940s for reasons that have been lost to history. There's the lost soul, supposedly killed by police years ago in Overton Park, who occasionally wanders through the campus near North Parkway. Then there's the distraught student who jumped to his death from the top floor of Glassell Hall, after scrawling a hasty suicide note in a closet there. And don't forget about all those restless spirits who prowl the campus early in the morning because oh, didn't you know? Rhodes is actually built on top of a long-lost Confederate burial ground.
It's hard to say how such tales began, but with all these ghosts and goblins wandering around campus, it's a wonder students can make it to class without bumping into a spirit. But when Rhodes opens its production of Pippin tonight (it runs through November 24th) at McCoy Theatre, be careful when you take your seat. If the beautiful woman sitting next to you says her name is Annie, you might want to move. Just to be on the safe side, you understand.
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