TTLG: A Haunted House

Lily Johnson recounts how traces of the old Dartmouth haunt her in her final days as a student at the College.

by Lily Johnson | 6/2/21 2:05am

Source: Courtesy of Lily Johnson

My life as a college student was dead, to begin with, to paraphrase one of my favorite opening lines from Charles Dickens. While the time of death of the last time I felt like a college student is a little more vague than Marley’s in “A Christmas Carol,” the fact is just as certain. 

Ever since the pandemic cancelled school as we knew it, college has felt more like a checklist than a way of life. But that sentiment isn’t the point of this reflection; instead, I’m going back to fall 2019 and one of my favorite classes. 

For me, fall term 2019 represented the stereotypically American college experience. I joined the cheer team, Friday night lights became a part of my weekly routine, my friends and I planned costumes for every Halloween party and life seemed to proceed as normal. That fall, I took a class called ENGL 53.39: “Haunted Houses of American Literature,” which was especially fitting as the leaves began to change and the mornings in Hanover grew unnaturally foggy. We explored what it meant to be a house — a body, a relationship, a literal home — and what it meant to be haunted — with memories, past events or real ghosts. 

“Now, as I walk down familiar streets, all I see are ghosts.”

I left campus that fall thinking this class would just give me some fun facts to bring up around Halloween, but as I returned to campus over a year later in winter 2021, the term “haunted houses” began to define my life. Walking around campus gave me the feeling that something just wasn’t quite right. It was the feeling of unease you might have at the beginning of a scary movie — maybe campus was a little too quiet, or maybe it was the shroud of isolation that had descended upon a once-deeply interconnected campus. Before the pandemic, I couldn’t walk more than a few yards without seeing a face that I recognized. Now, as I walk down familiar streets, all I see are ghosts. I remember people filling every chair in Blobby and the line for KAF snaking around the corner. I used to yell to my friends across FFB, but now, the uncomfortable silence of the library forces me to just wave from afar. My memories haunt the buildings around me — the dorm where my floor had a ritual of watching the final season of “Game of Thrones” together, sweating on the top floor of Wilson Hall during Shebalite and the round tables in Foco where my friends recounted the previous night out every Sunday morning.

Talking with members of the Class of 2024 makes me realize that not all students experience the same hauntings I do. While the empty academic buildings seem like structures in a ghost town to me, many ’24s don’t even know their names. While neither freshmen nor I recognize many faces on campus, I think I see traces of people I know under strangers’ masks. They see possibilities where I see remnants of things that happened long ago. Now that gathering is limited by College policy, new opportunities to make memories like before are almost nonexistent. While there are glimmers of normal life in meals with friends in town and through events I host with the Programming Board, day-to-day life at Dartmouth feels more akin to purgatory. Living in a hotel for the last five months only intensifies this feeling, as I walk down a hallway too reminiscent of “The Shining” with its dark red decorations every day.

As I sat down to write this reflection and tried to describe how Dartmouth haunts me, I’ve realized that maybe I’m the real ghost in this story. At the end of “The Shining,” the audience sees Jack in a photo from the 1920s, even though the movie takes place decades later. While living in a hotel hasn’t driven me insane, I believe that Jack and I reached the same resolution at the end of our journeys. Jack had been a ghost of the hotel long before he’d returned to watch over it, and I have been the one haunting Dartmouth, not the other way around. 

“I have been the one haunting Dartmouth, not the other way around. ”

Just as people say ghosts walk through walls because once there were doors in that spot, I wander through campus trying to access spaces and experiences that are now closed off. As I tried to take a nostalgic walk around campus, I couldn’t access many parts of the library, enter my old dorms or eat my favorite dishes from DDS. I’m stuck between the past and the present, trying to find semblances of the Dartmouth I knew in a fundamentally changed landscape.

Every good haunted house story ends with one of the main characters joining the ghosts of the house. In my final weeks at Dartmouth, I understand this concept better than I ever could have in class. As I pass between being a student and an alumna of the College, I’ve come to terms with the fact that every graduating student will join me as a ghost haunting the halls of Dartmouth in just a few days. While I came to this realization earlier than most due to the pandemic, after graduation, Dartmouth will always feel uncanny. 

As it continues to grow and change, Dartmouth will collect more ghosts as new students pass through its halls. Together, we all haunt the College with the memories we make, but maybe that’s what makes Dartmouth feel so much like a home.

Lily Johnson ’21 is a former social media editor of The Dartmouth