Columbia's Spooky Past

Columbia is probably haunted.

Considering how old it is, I wasn’t too shocked to hear that. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that the university was built on what used to be an asylum. Naturally, being the horror movie fanatic that I am, I went on a research hunt for Columbia’s spooky, paranormal past.

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum ran from 1821 to 1889 as one of the earliest mental institutions in America. During those years, over 9,000 patients were admitted for treatment. In 1872, journalist Julius Chambers went undercover and admitted himself to the institution (very American Horror Story). After just 10 days, he came out and released a series of articles in the New York Tribune exposing how the staff would gruesomely mistreat and abuse the inmates. They say, to this day, when there is a full moon outside, you can hear the faint echoes of the patients screaming. 

After dismissing and reorganizing the administration following Chambers’ piece, in 1889, the asylum relocated to White Plains, New York.

In 1892, the trustees of Columbia College bought a big portion of the land and started to build their new campus around it. The last building still standing from the asylum, originally called Macy Villa and known as Buell Hall today, stands quietly next to the university’s famous Low Library. In fact, Low Library itself sits on top of the original hospital building, which was used to accommodate over 200 patients. 

Decades after Columbia had integrated itself into Morningside Heights is when the Ghost of Philosophy Hall — one of Columbia’s only documented ghosts — is said to have first been spotted. On the night of May 22, 1936, John D. Prince, a professor of East European languages, was walking down the corridors of Philosophy Hall when he experienced a strange but familiar feeling — “a smart pat on his kidneys.” His colleague, professor Richard Gottheil, would deliver friendly nudges like this all the time, so Prince whirled around in search of his friend only to find an empty staircase. 

Minutes later, during Prince’s meeting with the University President, they received news that Gottheil had just died at his home. Spooked, Prince headed back to Philosophy Hall where he ran into a graduate student who was in hysterics, describing an encounter she just had with the dead professor. She had been working late that evening when she looked up and saw Gottheil in the hallway. She followed him to open the office door for him, only to see him glide past her in silence, “pass through the closed door, and disappear.” 

Years later, during World War II, the United States launched the Manhattan Project to secretly develop a nuclear weapon. The project mainly took place at Columbia, where researchers, students, and physicists worked on creating these atomic bombs. 

Legend has it that one of the students working on the project was exposed to radioactive material and fatally poisoned. Students say that he haunts the tunnels below campus, which are remnants from the asylum. Supposedly, desperate physics students go looking for him, hoping he can help them with their exams. 

I found that pretty funny, but it was even cooler to discover that the famous horror comedy Ghostbusters (1984) prominently featured many spots on campus. The film is about the work of fictional parapsychologists Dr. Peter Venkman, Dr. Raymond Stantz, and Dr. Egon Spengler, faculty members of Columbia. It opens with Weaver Hall (the actual building is Havemeyer Hall), which in the movie houses the department of psychology, where the Ghostbusters researched paranormal activity. 

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), this is all I could find about the haunted past of the university. Sad to say, I was slightly disappointed with the lack of ghost stories. You’d think that on land where more than 1,000 insane patients died, there’d be more paranormal activity being reported. 

I spooked myself the other day when I strolled past Buell Hall. I had absentmindedly stared up at the third-floor window and I swear I saw a figure. Turns out, it was just a bust, but still. Something about that little orange building doesn’t sit right with me. I absolutely love it.