The 6 Spookiest Things You Should Know About Columbia University

With Halloween around the corner, Columbia News is taking a look at some of the ghoulish lore surrounding this 267-year-old university.

Kelly Moffitt
October 20, 2021

With a 267-year-old university such as Columbia, you may expect to find a few ghouls and ghosts in the archives. 

With Halloween right around the corner, Columbia News is looking back at some of the spookiest parts of Columbia’s legacy — some a little more bone-tingling than others. 

Below, find our list of the six spookiest things you should know about Columbia.

1. The Ghost in Philosophy Hall

Philosophy Hall in the 1800s.

It was the night of May 22, 1936, and East European Languages Professor John D. Prince was walking the dark and deserted corridors of Philosophy Hall when he felt a “smart pat on the kidneys.” This greeting Prince associated with Professor Richard Gottheil, who occupied the office next to Prince’s, but when he turned around he found no one there. Continuing on to his meeting with President Nicholas Murray Butler, a secretary burst into the office to inform them of some disturbing news: Professor Gottheil had just died at his home on the Upper West Side.

But wait, there’s more! That same night, another student had an encounter with the apparition, but you’ll have to read about that at the Columbia University Archives

2. Vampires in the Classroom

Bela Lugozi as a vampire.

At Columbia, you can sink your teeth into, you guessed it, a class entirely devoted to vampires. Gil Anidjar, a professor of religion and comparative literature, uses pop culture and wide-ranging texts to plumb such topics as immortality, death, belief, fear, and rituals and introduce undergraduates to the field of religion. In what other class would students read Freud, discuss the Gospel of St. Matthew, and then watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Learn more about the class here.

3. Jaw-Dropping Jack-O’-Lanterns

A pumpkin in Van Amringe quad.

Every year, Columbia University Facilities crafts a beautiful and extravagant Lions-themed pumpkin for display in Faculty House. Stop by and see if you spot one this year!

4. Who You Gonna Call?

Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd near Low Steps.

Would it even qualify as a Halloween-at-Columbia list if we did not include the G.O.A.T. of ghost movies? Naturally, we’re talking about 1984's Ghostbusters, which was filmed extensively on Columbia’s campus because the characters Dr. Stantz, Dr. Venkman, and Dr. Spengler worked at the university before being fired and going into business for themselves as Ghostbusters, Inc. If only the “parapsychology” department really existed. 

5. One More Thing About Vampires…

Vampire Weekend performs at Red Rocks in 2013.

That would have to be indie band juggernaut Vampire Weekend, which got its start while the founding members were undergrads at Columbia in 2006. While not exactly spooky, per se, they do have vampire in the name and an absolute ton of Columbia references in their lyrics. 

6. A Founding Father of Psychical Research

Professor James Hyslop and his text "Contact With The Other World."

While Ghostbusters may not be real, this professor, who was one of the founding fathers of paranormal research, was. Meet James Hervey Hyslop, psychical researcher, psychologist, and professor of ethics and logic. While at Columbia, he wrote textbooks, including The Elements of Logic, Elements of Ethics, and Problems of Philosophy. It was after this that he became involved in paranormal research and was one of the first researchers to connect psychology with psychic phenomena. After retiring due to ill health, Hyslop founded the American Institute for Scientific Research (later absorbing the flailing American Society for Psychical Research), which has a mission “to explore extraordinary or as yet unexplained phenomena that have been called psychic or paranormal, and their implications for our understanding of consciousness, the universe and the nature of existence.”

In the early 1900s, Hyslop delved further into the paranormal, writing Science and a Future Life, Enigmas of Psychic Research, Borderland of Psychical Research, Psychical Research and the Resurrection, Psychical Research and Survival, Life After Death, and Contact with the Other World

As he wrote in Life After Death in 1918: “I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved and I no longer refer to the skeptic as having any right to speak on the subject. Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward. I give him short shrift, and do not propose any longer to argue with him on the supposition that he knows anything about the subject.”

You can read more about Hyslop here.