Written by Shamira James
Dr. Tom Carter is a professor in the English and Communications Studies Department at RC. In addition to teaching Communications courses, he also teaches an INQ 110: “Ghosts and Human Perception”.
“One thing I show the class fairly early is the idea of pareidolia, in which the human brain sees an image and tries to make sense of it. I show them a picture from the Monterey House, where in one of the windows it appears to be a man in sitting in a chair and a woman with dark hair is behind him.
“Academically, what we’re really asking in the class is ‘What do we accept as evidence? How do we ask better questions?’ and that’s what I really enjoy about the class. Getting students to set aside beliefs and look at the cold, hard data out there about paranormal activity that isn’t Ghost Hunters. I also enjoy how interdisciplinary it is. We get to deal with elements of psychology, communications, physics and even geology.
“I structure the class like any research class, just instead of the end result being a big paper, we get to spend a night in the Monterey House. It’s an exciting class and fills up quickly every year and there are two sides to that. One side is that I have no idea what kind of crazy rumors are spreading about the class that make people want to sign up. The positive side of that is that there have been some incredible stories that people seem to really love. There was one night where two girls came running from a room because of some scary sounds they were hearing, which would have been fine, considering Monterey is old and it makes noises all the time. However, the sound of someone pouring something – and it came from directly between them. Another less paranormal story, but still really good, is the group of students who were recording in a room and thought they saw a closet door moving. They set up a system to test this, and a few seconds later they all sprinted out of the room. Not because the closet shook, but because a wood slate had fallen from under the bed.
“I sometimes wonder if a lot of it is just priming. Students get themselves into situations and they’re worked up already so any old thing is going to seem spooky. On this campus there have been two residential halls where people have died and so people tend to feel creeped out there. A few years back, I helped some girls in Blue Ridge do an investigation because one of the girls randomly woke up with scratches on her legs.
“What I think I’ve learned from the 10 years that I’ve taught this class is to get away from the idea that ghosts are these lingering spirits of the dead. Nor do I focus on that they stay the places where they died. I feel like haunts generally occur in places where people lived and even more so when there is a strong emotional connection – good or bad – to that place. So this ENTIRE campus has a reputation of being scary, but in reality, I think it’s maybe one or two places, and then students will let those places kind of speak for the entire campus.
“A lot of the windows around campus are made of an older glass which isn’t a solid but more of a liquid and so over time they are actually dripping. I think that can result in a lot of hazy figures. The window picture I show my class was one my daughter and I investigated closely. What we found is that it wasn’t anything spooky at all, just odd reflections due to dripping glass. That’s what I encourage students to do, with respect to the college, to go out and investigate and find the truth for themselves. You could come up on something incredible or it could all be smoke and mirrors – or in this case windows and reflections.”