Ghosts are not just a seasonal diversion for New Hampshire-based writer Renee Mallett, who was fascinated with ghost tales as a young girl. She has published several books about ghosts and other strange phenomena in her home state. For her latest, she crossed the border to delve into the “Haunted Colleges & Universities of Massachusetts” (The History Press, $19.99).
Q. You’ve been called an “open-minded skeptic.” Have you drawn any conclusions about ghosts from your research?
A. When I got into this, I didn’t believe at all. I don’t want to say that I do believe now, but with each book that I write, I’m not quite as sure that the stories are not true.
Q. Why are people so fascinated with ghosts?
A. Until my first book (“Manchester Ghosts,” Schiffer Publishing, $14.95) came out, I had no idea how widespread the belief in ghosts was and how attached people are to these beliefs. When I do a book signing, people bring me photos and tell me their stories. For some people, it’s tied up with religious beliefs or their personal thoughts about life. Other people are more like me. I love the stories and the history even if I don’t necessarily think they are true. People feel ownership of these stories whether they experienced them or not, especially if it’s a story in their town and they grew up hearing it.
Q. Why did you focus on colleges and universities here in Massachusetts?
A. Everywhere I have gone, there is always a haunted library, a haunted theater, and a haunted college. The more I thought about it, what is better than a college? A college has a library and, usually, a theater. In Massachusetts, so many of the schools are old and the ghost stories are attached to the school’s history. They give an interesting look at how the schools got started. Also, college is almost like a second home town. People are very loyal and attached to the ghost stories associated with their school.
Q. Why are libraries and theaters such fertile territory for ghost stories?
A. I don’t think that such places are more haunted than other places. But they are more likely to draw people who are going to pick up on strange vibrations. I do believe that some people are more sensitive or intuitive to energies than others. Readers and theater people seem to be more in tune to these sorts of energies.
Q. How can travelers detect the presence of a ghost in a building or historic site?
A. Start by asking somebody who works there. No matter where you go, there is always at least one person on staff who is the unofficial collector of these stories. They can give you some amazing histories and stories that you might not find otherwise. If you want to experience a ghost yourself, being in New England in October is the best thing you could ever do. A lot of places really embrace their ghost stories and offer tours.
Q. Are there any tours that stand out for you?
A. The funniest one that I have ever personally seen is in Portsmouth, N.H. They do a haunted pub crawl. You go from bar to bar in Portsmouth, where there are many. You might start with 30 people and end up with five by the end of the evening.
Q. Of the 26 institutions covered in your book, you note that Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley is the “most ghost crazy.” Do educational institutions want to be associated with ghosts?
A. I expected a lot of resistance. Surprisingly, the older, more famous colleges were quickest to embrace ghost stories as part of their history. They are not necessarily saying that the ghosts are real. But students come to these schools for the sense of tradition and for the stories that students have told for hundreds of years.
Q. Does one school stand out in your mind?
A. My favorite isn’t even a college now. It’s Charlesgate Hall in Boston’s Back Bay. It’s luxury condos now, but it had been used as a dorm by two different schools and the stories remained the same even as the building changed hands. There are so many rumors and legends attached to it — that it was a bordello and that the Mafia used it as a headquarters. There have been a lot of suicides there and a lot of people have reported seeing ghosts.
Q. To change subjects, you’ve noted that there is increasing interest in ghost-related tourism. Are there notable lodgings with resident ghosts?
A. There are tons of haunted hotels in Portsmouth. But the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River got me started on this topic. They have a double whammy — an extremely famous unsolved murder and an extremely haunted inn. It is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of the Bordens. I walked around with a psychic and she told me that the house had also become an antenna and was drawing spirits around it. As beautiful old buildings in the neighborhood got torn down and replaced with new buildings, the ghosts moved out and moved into the Borden house because it looked familiar to them.
Q. Have you ever sensed a ghost?
A. I take all the photos for my books. Nine times out of 10, I go and take the photos and that is the extent of it. But there have been some places where I just don’t like being there and I leave before I am done. I didn’t like walking around Charlesgate. And UMass Lowell has several unused buildings on its West Campus in Chelmsford. If you were going to film a horror movie, this is where you would film it. I didn’t want to be scared, but it was creepy. I don’t know if it was because of how it looked or the stories I had heard about it — or if I was actually sensing some sort of presence. I think whether you believe in ghosts or not, everybody eventually stumbles across a place where they just don’t want to be and there’s not a really good reason for it. It’s my job to search out these places, so I have probably come across more than the average person.
Editor’s note: Mallett advises seeking permission before searching for ghosts on college and university campuses. For more information on tours and lodging at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum, go to
www.lizzie-borden.com, 508-675-7333. For the Haunted Pubs of Portsmouth Walk, go to
Interview was condensed and edited. Patricia Harris can be reached at email@example.com.