Washington and Lee’s Very Own Payne Hall Ghost

A Haunting on the Campus of Washington and Lee: The Payne Hall Ghost

Molly Bush and Katey Smith

Overview of Project

Students of Professor Brock’s Spring Term class on the History of Ghosts paired up to conduct interviews with Lexington residents to record ghost legends in the local community. Our oral interview features two members of Washington and Lee’s faculty who speak of their personal experiences with the supposed ghost of Payne Hall. The final podcast featuring our interviews is uploaded above. The Payne Hall Ghost Presentation is included as well.

History of Payne Hall

Built in 1830, Payne Hall was first called the Lyceum and was added to create additional academic spaces (offices, classrooms, etc.) on campus. It was also referred to as the Athenaeum, specifying its initial purpose of a science building. Payne’s Hall collection of classrooms still features many large windows, evidence of past laboratory spaces. In 1936, the building was official given its name of Payne Hall after Judge Barton Payne, a major financial supporter of the Colonnade’s fireproofing and renovation efforts. Payne Hall was most recently renovated in 2011. This renovation is mentioned in our podcast above. Today it is home to the University’s English Department.

Dean Suzanne Keen

A member of Washington and Lee’s English Department for the last twenty-one years, Dean Keen is a skeptic of ghosts and the supernatural. Although she does not believe in ghosts, she enjoys hearing and telling ghost stories. Despite the surprising nature of her experience detailed above, she is still not sure she believes in the ghost of Payne Hall. Instead, she contributes the incident to mere coincidence.

Mrs. Sandra O’Connell

Born and raised in Lexington, Mrs. Sandra O’Connell has been the administrative assistant of the English Department for the last thirty-one years. Her husband, Coach “O”, volunteers as an assistant men’s lacrosse coach for the Generals. She has three children and four grandchildren. Mrs. O’Connell had a very unique personal encounter with the Payne Hall ghost. She is a believer in happy ghost spirits as she welcomes them into the “House of Payne.”


The several stories told in our podcast point to the possibility of a ghost, or several, roaming the hallways and classrooms of Payne Hall. Each of the recounts is unique to the teller. We speculate that Washington and Lee’s ghost of Payne Hall serves as a unifier between past and present community members under a common collegiate history. Perhaps, the ghost echoes memories of Washington and Lee’s southern identity and associations with the Civil War.

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A big thank-you to Dean Keen and Mrs. O’Connell for being so willing and open to speak with us about the ghost of Payne Hall—it was a pleasure to chat with you both and we appreciate your contributions to our podcast!

Works Cited 

University Chronology: https://www.wlu.edu/about-wandl/history-and-traditions/a-brief-history/university-chronology

Payne Hall Ghost: http://news.blogs.wlu.edu/2011/10/27/payne-hall-ghost-spooked-by-renovations/

Payne Hall Restoration: http://www2.wlu.edu/x55609.xml

Ghosts of Rockbridge- Buffalo Forge

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Mr. Tom Camden, Washington and Lee graduate of the class of 1976 and head of Special Collections in our very own Leyburn Library, grew up at Buffalo Forge right here in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Buffalo Forge is a large plantation, and was home to many slaves in its past. The book, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, shares the full history of the plantation. He brought this book along to show us when we met for an interview.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.03.00 PM

His family owns what used to be the general store for the plantation. He grew up there, and still owns the house. A massive 21-room house which belongs to the family of the builders also sits on the property, near the general store. At the store, slaves held accounts and were allowed to trade. The plantation still ran as a mill during his childhood, and his family owned the store but hired a storekeeper to operate it.

Camden had many stories to share about his experiences at the plantation- in both houses though this podcast only covers those which took place in his own house- and the energy associated with its history. He firmly believes that a place with that much history inevitably never loses its energy.

“Now there’s no way you can grow up in an environment like this… without coming to some realization that there’s this vibe going on, there’s stuff going on here all the time that’s sort of unexplainable.”

During the Civil War, a man named Major Rex lived in Mr. Camden’s home and ran the store. Camden’s mother told the boys at a young age that Major Rex still audibly walked around in the attic. Later, Camden found out that Major Rex did in fact hang himself in the attic, whether or not his mother knew that when she told this story.

Another interesting experience Camden talked about followed his grandmother’s death. His mother put his grandmother’s rocking chair in his room, and it rocked back and forth, unprovoked, bathed in eerie moonlight.

Growing up, he maintained stubbornly that ghosts are a figment of the imagination and “major Rex in the attic” was simply a trick to get his brother and him to behave. However, as he grew up, mysterious happenings around the house and plantation led him to conclude that ghosts there are active, and the history of the plantation must leave energy, an aura, to haunt the property today.

“We’ve always known we were going to inherit this legacy. And now, we talk about the burden of history because it is extraordinarily a burden.”

Christina Gordon and Mary Helen Powell

A Haunting in Kalispell

Professor Alison Bell is a social scientist, anthropologist, archeologist and…. ghost believer? In our podcast, we sought out a ghost story from a local Lexington personality, hoping to shed some light on supernatural belief in our area.  Although Professor Bell’s story speaks for itself, some introduction to Professor Bell herself is necessary to fully grasp her story.

Alison Bell has spent most of her adult life in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.   She completed her Bachelors here at Washington and Lee University with a double major in Anthropology and English.  She was among the third class of women to attend W&L and that itself speaks to her incredible personality and drive. Professor Bell went on to earn her Doctorate of Philosophy in Anthropology from the University of Virginia.  She has spent several years teaching at various institutions through Virginia and the East Coast, including a position as a English professor at Armstrong State College.  Her research interests include material culture, consumption and production, and the 18th and 19th century eastern United States.

However impressive her CV is, as we met Professor Bell in her office, we immediately felt at ease.  Her warm personality and contagious laughter filled the room as she spun the tale of her ghostly interaction at the age of 18 in Kalispell, Montana.  She did not hold back recounting the details of her story, but shared with open ease and the comfort of a story told many times over.  As an educated women, her experience with the supernatural is surprising.  After hearing her story, it is near impossible to decide if this indeed a ghost or merely a lucky chance encounter with a helpful stranger.

As you listen to her tale, consider the full reality of her experience.  A young woman, alone, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere – the true fear that must have surrounded her as she was abandoned at a country gas station.  This alone makes a terrifying tale.  Add in a strange man and a nonexistent house and the tale progresses to something out of a horror movie.  Listen to it without judgment, accept the reality of her experience, and try to decide – do you believe in ghosts?

Ghosts of Rockbridge Podcast – Interview with Prof. Donald Gaylord

This podcast was created by Hannah Austin and Lily MacDonald for the History of Ghosts Spring Term class, 2016. Featured in this podcast is an interview with Professor Donald Gaylord, an archaeologist with 20 years of experience. A graduate from the University of Virginia, Professor Gaylord spent 12 years working at Monticello before accepting a position at W&L in 2012. In the interview, he tells us about a personal experience concerning the haunted archaeology building on campus, an experience that he shared with Archaeology Dog Murphy (the Jack Russell Terrier pictured below).


Murphy was Professor Gaylord’s assistant at Monticello and here at W&L, until he unfortunately passed away this March. The story told in the podcast features Murphy as a main character, as it was either his mischievous antics or a ghostly encounter, or perhaps a combination of both, that brought about this story.

Also in the podcast, Professor Gaylord answers a few of the following questions: Do you believe in ghosts? Would you enjoy meeting a ghost? And, what other strange experiences have you had that could be attributed to the supernatural? All these questions and more are addressed in the podcast, so please, take a listen!

Doug Harwood and the Ghosts of Rockbridge County

Ghosts of Rockbridge Powerpoint -This attached powerpoint provides an array of pictures you can look at while listening to the podcast. It is timed to move with the podcast as you listen.


Many who visit, live, or attend school in Lexington, Virginia would describe it as a sleepy, truly timeless college town that is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Doug Harwood, founder, editor, and publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate, is not one of these people. Harwood came to Rockbridge County from Massachusetts almost forty-five years ago to attend school at Washington and Lee University. A journalism major, he told us that he found his way to W&L because he had heard both the town and school were fifty years behind the times, almost like stepping back into the 1920s. Even though Rockbridge County has changed dramatically and he sees any kind of change as bad, Doug chose to settle in the area immediately following his graduation.

For the next eighteen years, Harwood worked many jobs including bartender, dishwasher, disc jockey, and editor of a small paper based in Buena Vista before he decided to start his own paper, The Rockbridge Advocate, in 1992. Harwood told us that he is not in the business to make money, but rather because he loves what he does. Since establishing the paper, Harwood has been inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame and won first place in editorial writing and second place in investigative journalism in the 1977 Virginia Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.

Having lived in Rockbridge County for so long and having spent so much time investigating the life and culture of the area, Harwood had many stories to tell of the ghost and supernatural history of the area. Harwood noted in his interview with us that there are many ghost stories based in Rockbridge County that everyone knows, either through word of mouth or because they have gone on the local ghost tour. He believes that the commodification of these stories trivializes the content, taking away from the mystery and suspense of the tale. He believes the best stories are the ones that no one knows about. Included in this podcast are two of these unknown ghost stories. One is a personal experience of Doug’s that followed his graduation from Washington and Lee and the other is the story of the McChessney Ghost, a tale that has fallen through the cracks of Rockbridge ghost lore.

Harwood’s personal experience took place in an old farm house near Buena Vista. He lived in the house while a student at Washington and Lee and during the summer following his graduation. While living there, he and his roommates experienced many strange noises – including the sound of footsteps walking in the attic, and up and down the stairs. Describing these noises as a friendly presence, Harwood thought nothing of it until one night in the summer following his graduation when the presence did a little more than just walk around the old farmhouse.

As described to us by Doug, the tale of the McChesney plantation and its malevolent spirit began in earnest sometime in the space between 1825 and 1835 in Brownsburg, Virginia. The October, 1995 edition of The Rockbridge Advocate is the main source of information on the McChesney ghost. It contains much more information on the McChesney ghost, than is available on this page, but for the sake of brevity, we will only cover important segments of this saga as described to us by Doug during our interview. We begin with the day that marked the McChesneys and their slaves’ descent into a life wracked by fear and chaos. It was on this day that young Ellen McChesney, Dr. McChesney’s daughter, and her slave friend Maria, were in the plantation yard enjoying a book together. It was at this time that the two girls, fast friends by this time in their youth, were suddenly and without warning rained upon by “a volley of stones… apparently from nowhere”.

A week following this incident, the stones, purportedly as large as a grown man’s fist, “began falling again, red-hot this time, scorching the grass, falling through windows, breaking the window panes, and burning the heavy window hangings”. These “rock showers”, outside of the control or explanation of the McChesneys, became a commonplace occurrence on the plantation, but that did not stop the phenomenon from gaining notoriety in the surrounding area. Spectators frequently came hoping to catch a glimpse of the rock showers or the spirit thought to be the source of the activity, but the vast majority if not all left disappointed by the lack of action.

In response to the popular interest in the strange phenomena occurring at the McChesney plantation, two faculty from Washington College, Professors Preston and Radford, came out to Brownsburg to have a look for themselves. The evening of their arrival, while sitting with Dr. McChesney at the house’s dinner table, “a pile of hot bricks fell upon the table, breaking the dishes and smashing everything.” Immediately after this, Maria, the slave girl who had been rained upon with stone while with Ellen McChesney, rushed through the house’s door, “Panicked. Screaming. Flailing her arms to protect herself. Begging her assailant to stop beating her”, “But there was no assailant that could be seen”. Dr. McChesney and Professors Preston and Radford were helpless against Maria’s unseen attacker. She eventually succumbed to the pain and lost consciousness. When she came around, and continuously afterward, she cited “de ole woman” as the source of her torment. Aside from routinely chasing Maria around the plantation, “de ole woman” pricked Maria with pins and beat her with a “big stick” – evidence of which was found by Mrs. McChesney in the form of pin pricks and bruises all over Maria’s body.

Realizing that Maria seemed to be at the center of this supernatural activity, Dr. McChesney decided to experiment by sending her to stay with his brother-in-law, Thomas Steele. McChesney hoped that Maria’s stay with Steele would help ascertain whether or not she was truly the source of their troubles. Unfortunately for both Steele and McChesney, not only did the activity continue at the plantation in Maria’s absence, but Maria’s brief sojourn to Steele’s Tavern caused the rock showers to occur there as well. Indeed, one day when the McChesney family and friends were at the house sitting around a fire, “a stone, seeming to come from a corner of the room… struck Mrs. Thomas Steele on the head… her scalp was cut to the bone, causing profuse bleeding'”. This event persuaded Dr. McChesney to send her away again – this time to “grandmother Steele’s house up near Midway, several miles up the road”. Upon Maria’s arrival at the Steele residence, “‘A terrible noise as of the stamping of many horses proceeded from the house. Then a wild scream came from Maria… They saw her standing perfectly still, her face ashen and her eyes rolled up until nothing except the whites could be seen'”. When those present went to the house to find the source of the commotion, “All the furniture on the lower floor had been swept onto the large veranda as if by a whirlwind”.

For the rest of her time with the Steeles, Maria continued to claim that she was being beaten and pricked by forces unseen. As the seasons changed and Maria’s time with the Steeles came to a close, Dr. McChesney was faced with the prospect of Maria, and the terrifying phenomena that seemed to follow her, returning to the plantation. “Reports later say that he hated to do it”, but Dr. McChesney sold Maria to a slave-trader from Mississippi. “With Maria’s forced departure, the stones stopped falling from the sky, and the furniture no longer was piled high in the living room by some unknown force”.

Interestingly, shortly after selling Maria, Dr. McChesney ended up moving his family to Staunton. The article from the Advocate states that sometime in the 1970s, the “last heir” of the McChesneys came forward and told a Staunton newspaper that the reason the McChesneys moved was because “the ghost murdered one of his [Dr. McChesney’s] daughters”. Perhaps Maria was not the sole source of the horrifying activity at the plantation as Dr. McChesney had presumed.

Even though Rockbridge County has changed a lot since Doug was a student at Washington and Lee, please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge Podcast to hear more about the history and ghosts of which the area still holds on.

Mary-Frances Hall and Reid Gaede


Works Cited

Harwood, Douglas J. The Rockbridge Advocate. http://www.rockbridgeadvocate.com (accessed May 19, 2016).

Scott, Stuart. “The Ring-tum Phi: The man behind The Rockbridge Advocate.” The Ring-tum Phi, April 5, 2015. http://ringtumphi.com/1175/arts-life/the-man-behind-the-rockbridge-advocate/ (accessed May 19, 2016).

“The ghost that rocked the farm.” Rockbridge Advocate (Virginia), October, 1995, 41-46.


The Haunted- “504 S. Main”

Seth McCormick Goodhart is the Senior Special Collections Assistant at Washington and Lee University. He has worked in Special Collections for over five years. “We are the keepers of the university and institutional memory,” said Seth about the Special Collections department.House

Goodhart was born in 1973 and was raised in Lexington, Virginia. He traveled the world working various jobs before coming across the opportunity to work in Washington and Lee’s Special Collections. After returning to Lexington, Seth now lives with his wife and children.

Seth was raised a devout Catholic, but after the passing of his grandfather, the church handled the situation poorly. After this event, Seth and his family began to separate from the Catholic Church. Seth remains spiritual and believes in a higher power. He still takes his children to church services not wanting to deny them of the great sense of community the Church instills.Doors

The main story Seth shares focuses on a house located at 504 S Main St, Lexington, Virginia, just outside the center of town. The house was owned by family friends and Seth spent a lot of time there as a child. The original house was built in 1884, although it has been renovated multiple times since then, including during Seth’s teenage years and most recently in 2015. A house that old must have a deep history, but the only thing that has turned up was the possibility of a convalescent home during the Civil War time period. He tells us multiple stories of a spirit haunting this house over the years.

Listen to our Ghost of Rockbridge podcast, The Haunted, to learn more about the ghost of 504 S. Main St. and more Lexington ghosts.

Mrs. Ruscio and the Lee House

On the outskirts of Washington and Lee University’s intimate campus stands the Lee House, an impressive yet simple southern home. The house received its name from its first and most famous occupant, Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who led the university from 1865 to 1870.

The Lee House was built specifically for the Lee Family, who lived there for three decades. In 1868, it cost $15,000 to construct, which is about $240,000 with today’s inflation. General Lee lived in the house with his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, and their four grown children. Due to severe arthritis, Mrs. Lee was confined to a wheelchair and resided on the first floor. Therefore, General Lee commissioned the builders to create the wrap-around porch still present today. The servant call bells were also lowered so Mrs. Lee could reach them from her wheelchair. General Lee specifically designed a Gothic-style sun porch off his wife’s room so she could enjoy the sunshine.

Mrs. Lee’s sun room overlooked the stable adjoined to the house where General Lee kept his horses: Ajax, Lucy Long, and Traveller. Traveller was Lee’s favorite horse and was given free reign of Washington and Lee’s campus so he could roam and graze as he pleased. Traveller died a year after his master in 1871 from tetanus and was eventually buried beside Lee Chapel, the location of General Lee’s crypt. Today Traveller’s barn serves as the current university president’s garage. Tradition states the stable doors must be left open all the time so Traveller’s spirit may come and go as it pleases.

Lee’s favorite spot in the house was the dining room because of its big bay windows overlooking the campus with the Blue Ridge Mountains towering in the distance. In the fall of 1870, the General suffered a stroke after attending church. Lee was too weak to retire upstairs and, in response, a makeshift bed was placed in front of the bay windows, and was the place of his final breath. It was perhaps fitting that Lee died in his favorite room of the house. Following his death, Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, took over as President of the university and changed the school’s name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University to honor his father.

Today, all university presidents and their families reside in the famous Lee House. The house’s current residents are the university’s 26th president, Kenneth Ruscio, and his wife, Kimberley Ruscio. They are the 12th family to live in the home. With such a long history, the Lee House has been rumored to contain many benevolent spirits, including the most famous ghost of Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller.

Please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge podcast to hear more about the Lee House and Mrs. Ruscio’s personal experiences living in the home.

Supernatural Survey Results

Lilly MacDonald ’17, Lyssa Test ’16, Emily Utter ’16

Click here to view our presentation of our survey’s results.


For our survey, we polled a total of 77 college-age students from Washington and Lee University and 10 other schools. The purpose of our survey was to compare beliefs of ghosts and the supernatural across religious affiliations, birth month, gender, and college universities. Our survey consisted of 11 questions: (1) Sex, (2) Date of Birth, (3) What college do/did you attend?, (4) Major(s) and Minor(s), (5) Religious Affiliation, (6) Do you believe in life after death?, (7) How do you define “supernatural”?, (8) Do you believe in the supernatural?, (9) Have you had a supernatural experience?, (10) Did you classify ghosts as supernatural?, and (11) Do you believe in ghosts?. We used Google Forms to send out our survey.


As stated above, our sample consisted of 77 college-ages students. Within our sample, there were 58 female and 19 male participants. The females and males of this survey represented a wide range of universities. In total there were 11 Universities in this survey; 55 of the students study at Washington and Lee University, while 22 attended other colleges: Middlebury College, Stony Brook University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Pittsburgh, Davidson College, United States Naval Academy, Boston University, Temple University, and Ursinus College. Additionally, there was a large variety in religious preferences among the respondents; in total there were 16 religions, with the two largest religious being Christian and Agnostic.


Overall, we found that a majority of our respondents believe in life after death and the supernatural and that these statistics are the same – 66.2% (33.8% saying no). The similarity between these statistics makes sense because both have to do with belief in something more than visible and understandable. When we asked participants whether or not they believed in ghosts, 36.4% responded “no” and 63.7% responded “yes” or “undecided”. This increase in people outright saying “no” could be caused by the Protestant claim that purgatory does not exist, but that any supernatural existence is due to angels or demons, not ghosts. We did have some Protestant respondents who probably account for this change. 24.7% of our respondents had a supernatural experience and these experiences range from ghostly encounters, to general senses of negative auras, to seeing or sensing deceased family members. Overall, our results showed that many people had personal supernatural experiences and many still believe in the existence and possibility of the supernatural and ghosts.

W&L v. other colleges
Comparing responses from other schools to those of Washington and Lee show us interesting things about our student’s beliefs. 72% of Washington and Lee students believe in life after death, while only 50% of those at other schools do. This large gap also appears in the responses to our question on the existence of the supernatural – 71% of Washington and Lee students responding yes and 55% of other students doing so. As shown before these questions are linked because they have to do with unexplainable phenomenon. The slight difference in numbers then is strange but could have to do with religion, many answering that they are agnostic or atheist and therefore have different beliefs in the afterlife than other religions. This could be one of the causes for the change. When asked if participants had a supernatural experience similar numbers of people responded yes, 25% of Washington and Lee Students and 23% of students from other schools. This is important to note because even though they have similar percentages of personal encounters many more Washington and Lee students believe in the supernatural. When asked about the existence of ghosts, Washington and Lee and other students had similar “yes” responses, 38% and 41% respectively. More students from other schools also responded “no” to the questions roughly 45% versus 33%. The most interesting statistic from this questions is the relatively high percentage of undecided responses from Washington and Lee Students. Though it is the lowest of the three percentage wise, it is significant because compared to other schools many more students from Washington and Lee are undecided on their opinions on ghosts – 29% vs. 14%. This shows that when given the option Washington and Lee students are not as strong in their opinions as their peers at other schools. Though it is important to note that the number of students from school was a smaller pool so could skew the data.

Religious Differences
To compare beliefs across different religions, we classified our respondents into three categories: Christians, Non-religious, and Other religions. Christians were the biggest believers in life after death, the supernatural, and ghost. Non-religious and Other religion responders were almost tied for their beliefs in life after death (70% and 72%, respectively, believed in the dead). Respondents practicing religions other than Christianity were next in line to believe in the supernatural, with 70% convinced in its existence. Non-religious people were the least likely to believe in the supernatural, as only 43% believed in these other worldly forces. Lastly, in terms of ghost beliefs, 33% of non-religious respondents believed in ghosts, 43% of Christian respondents, and 40% of respondents practicing other religions. Curiously, Christians has the highest percentage of undecided responses, with 32% voting they were unsure about the existence of ghosts.

Gender differences
In addition to comparing the different viewpoints of Washington and Lee students to students from outside schools, we also looked into the differences of female and male supernatural beliefs. What we found was that in general, females were more likely to believe in all supernatural occurrences than men. Firstly, 72% of women believe there is life after death, while only 53% of men hold this same belief. Furthermore, 72% of women believe in the supernatural, compared to only 47% of men. This gender gap is also present when asked if the participants have ever had a supernatural occurrence; 35% of females believe that they had, but only 5% of men believe the same. Consequently, when the participants were asked if they believe in ghosts, more females said yes (50%), then males (5%), and more males said no (58%), than females (29%). Interestingly though, the percentage for males who were “undecided” (37%) was higher than that of females (21%), which showcases that females are more resolute in their beliefs or disbeliefs than males. The only question were there was not a huge gender gap was when participants were asked if they would classify ghosts as a supernatural occurrence; 95% of women said yes, and 90% of males said yes. Therefore, we can see that overall there is a large gender gap in the belief in supernatural occurrences, this outcome, though, could be swayed by the fact that our sample had a higher percentage of females than males. This may have skewed the information to show a more drastic difference.

Birth Month
Another comparison we looked was to see if the month in which one was born has any effect on one’s beliefs in ghosts. The hypothesis was that people born in months with more Christian holidays, such as Easter, or supernatural based holidays, like Halloween, would be more likely to have belief in the supernatural/ghosts. What was found was that December babies had the highest percentage of believers within this sample. This may be due to the spiritual connection during this time of year, and the high percentage of Christians we had in this survey. Tied for second place with 50% were 5 months: January, April, May, June and October. Originally, we expected participants who were born in October to have a high percentage of ghost believers due to Halloween, therefore this result was not surprising. Additionally, with Easter sometimes taking place in April, and Christmas in December, we assumed these holidays might rub off on the beliefs of people born during these months.The other 3 months were very surprising though. Finally, we saw that the month with the lowest percentage of ghost believers was August, where no one believed ghost to be real.

Are Ghosts Real?

Sidney, Riley, and Mary Helen

“Are Ghosts Real?” Full Survey Results

In our survey, Are Ghosts Real?, we wanted to see if age, gender, home region, and religious practices had an impact on ghost beliefs. We surveyed a total of 35 individuals. Out of the 35 subjects, 23 were female and 12 were male. Also, we compiled answers from 14 adult respondents and 21 young adult respondents. The majority of our subjects were from the Northeastern (13) and Southeastern (12) regions of the United States. However, we managed to interview individuals from the Midwest and West as well. We also asked our subjects how often they attended religious services. Our options varied from weekly, monthly/yearly, only on religious holidays, and never. Not only did we want to evaluate ghosts beliefs, but we wanted to observe each individual’s beliefs on the supernatural such as angels and demons. We hoped to obtain diverse results by surveying a variety of individuals.

Although we interviewed more females than males, and more young adults than adults, which resulted in slightly skewed data, we observed all of the results as a whole before evaluating the subcategories of age and gender. We asked our respondents six questions regarding ghosts and the supernatural: “Do you believe in ghosts?”, “Do you believe you have ever encountered a ghost?”, “Do you know someone who has encountered a ghost?”, “Do you believe all ghosts are inherently evil?”, “Do you believe in angels and/or demons?”, and “Do you believe in the supernatural/are you superstitious?”.

When asked if people believed in ghosts, 57% of people said they were unsure, 20% said yes, and Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.41.44 AM23% said no. Although disappointed in the number of people who were unsure, we understood their unwillingness to commit to a definite answer. Males were split 25% believing in ghosts, 25% not believing in ghosts, and 50% unsure. 17.39% of females believed in ghosts, 21.74% of females did not believe, and 60.87% of females were unsure. Our results were slightly different than the rest of the class’s in that they found that more females believed in ghosts than males. However, as we discussed in class, women tend to be insecure more often so the fact that more women were unsure than men seemed reasonable.

We found that no one over the age of thirty admitted confident belief in ghosts. Very few stated explicit disbelief, and most adults answered that they were unsure, even though some reported personal ghost encounters.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.42.05 AMScreen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.41.59 AM

In terms of the supernatural and superstitious, 63% of people overall said yes, they are superstitious. Males and females were similar in that 66.67% of men and 61% of females were superstitious. When asked if ghosts are inherently evil, most people, 83%, answered with a resounding no. Not a single person answered that they believed ghosts were inherently evil. However, only 17% of people said that they did not believe in ghosts in response to this question. This is interesting because when asked explicitly if they believed in ghosts Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.41.34 AM20% of people overall said no. This 3% difference should not have occurred. We attribute the difference to a lack of attention when answering the
question, or answering it in hypothetical terms saying that if ghosts actually were real they would not all be evil. Also, no participant in our survey solely believed in demons. When faced with the question “do you believe in angels/ demons?”, the answers fell between yes, both angels and demons, yes, but only angels, and no

Survey on the Belief in Ghosts



The survey above was created by Hannah Austin and Christina Gordon to gather information about belief in ghosts among students on W&L’s campus. It was sent out to the fraternity and sorority houses on campus and to the members of the Washington and Lee University Singers via email, and was completed online. The survey consists of the following ten questions.


  1. What is your gender?
  2. What is your class year?
  3. What is your major/field of study?
  4. If you are doing a double major, what is your second major?
  5. What is your religious affiliation?
  6. Do you believe there is enough evidence to support the existence of ghosts, demons, or angels?
  7. Do you think it’s possible that ghosts, demons, or angels exist?
  8. Have you ever been in a situation or had an experience which you could not explain?
  9. Has a friend or family member ever attributed an unexplainable event to ghosts, demons, or angels?
  10. Do you believe in ghosts?
    • And, a fill in the blank question attached to the one above, “Please define ‘ghost’ in your own words.”

The survey had a total of 77 responses. The breakdown for each question is as follows.

69.74% of people who took the survey were female, and 30.26% were male.

Most people who took the survey were from the class of 2019, with 35.53%. In descending order, the rest of the classes are as follows: 2017 with 25%, 2016 with 22.37%, and 2018 with 17.11%.

The following majors were selected from the list by people who took the survey: Accounting (5.33%), Anthropology (1.33%), Art and Art History (2.67%), Biochemistry (5.33%), Biology (8%), Business Administration (20%), Chemistry (2.67%), Computer Science (1.33%), Economics (5.33%), Education (1.33%), Engineering (2.67%), English (2.67%), Geology (4%), History (4%), Journalism and Mass Communications (6.67%), Mass Communications (2.67%), Mathematics (2.67%), Music (5.33%), Neuroscience (4%), Psychology (9.33%), and Spanish (2.67%).

The following second majors were selected from the list: Art and Art History (2.94%), Biology (1.47%), Business Administration (1.47%), Classics (1.47%), Economics (2.94%), Engineering (1.47%), English (4.41%),  Environmental Studies (1.47%), French (1.47%), Geology (1.47%), History (2.94), Journalism and Mass Communications (4.41%), Mathematics (1.47%), Music (1.47%), Philosophy (1.47%), Psychology (1.47%), Sociology (1.47%), Spanish (4.41%), and Studio Arts (1.47%). 58.82% of people who took this survey answered N/A to this question.

In terms of religious belief, the breakdown was as follows: 21.05% of people who took the survey identify as Catholic, with 47.37% identifying as Protestant. 7.89% identify as Jewish. 14.47% of people answered None, and 9.21% answered Other. Of these, however, 0.57% of people who answered Other filled in a form of Christian belief.

The next two questions were answered on a scale of “Strong Agreement” to “Strong Disagreement.” Overall, people answered that there was both more evidence for the existence of angels and demons than of ghosts, and more people believed in the possible existence of demons and angels than ghosts, accordingly. For the specific breakdown, please consult the following two tables.

The overwhelming response to question eight was No, with 55.26% of the answers. 19.74% of people who answered the survey said Yes, but I would NOT attribute the phenomenon to ghosts, angels, or demons. This leaves 25% of the answers voting in the positive to the question, and in filling in the requested explanation of the experience, turned up some interesting answers. Some of the more interesting ones are noted here:

“I’ve seen people healed instantly of broken bones, cancer, and spinal misalignments. These all happened in front of me. I’ve also felt a demonic presence in my room before, or at least what I thought was one.”

“After my friends’ father passed away, there were multiple times that after I was having a tough day I would feel this unexplainable warm feeling come over me. The only thing I could attribute it to is his spirit/ angel in me.”

“When I was younger, I used to have brief, unexpected flashes of scenery completely different from where I was at the time–never for long, only for the briefest half a second, just long enough to absorb roughly what was seen and for the vision itself to disorient me. I used to remember them vividly, and a number of years later (maybe 5 or 6; I’m not really sure), I began to run across the scenes themselves in my real life. There are two I can remember distinctly now, so many years later: one I found when I was on a cruise ship in middle school, coming down some very ornate red-carpeted stairs; the other was my freshman high school English class. That vision was the last one I found, and with that, all the visions I’d had when I was younger were completed.”

Of the three responses given above, all three stories were taken from female respondents – a trend which will be explained in the final analysis of the survey. The first respondent strongly disagreed with the possibility of the existence of ghosts, while the second two agreed that it might be possible. These three stories are all very different phenomena that have been attributed to supernatural causes, and while they may not seem ghostly, especially not in the case of the first, whose respondent does not attribute it to ghosts, they are still experiences which surpass the understanding of the witness, which makes them applicable to supernatural phenomena.

Question nine was a simple yes/no question, and 45.45% of respondents answered in the positive while 54.55% answered in the negative. Respondents were also asked to briefly explain the experience if they answered yes, and here are some of the stories:

“My family is Christian and believes in the concept of spiritual warfare. They believe that angels, demons, and the devil influence everyday actions and choices.”

“The lights in my home will flicker on and off only while preparing food for major holidays or events. My mother attributes this to her grandmother who has passed away.”

“They were on the highway and about to go over a bridge across the river and he saw an angel that told him to not go this way. So he turned around and little later part of the bridge collapsed.”

Again, these strange appearances/stories all hold their root in supernatural belief, and while only one is specifically attributed to a ghost, these three are just a sampling of the responses.

The final question had four options for participants to select from. The breakdown for these answers are as follows: Yes (20.78%), No, (20.78%), No, but I believe in angels and demons (16.88%), and I’m skeptical or would need to see a ghost to believe it (41.56%). Attached to this question, participants were given the opportunity to define “ghost” in their own words. Of the 35 comments, nearly all gave a response including the word “spirit” or “soul” in relation to a deceased person. Only half of the responses insinuated that this spirit or soul had returned for some purpose: in the words of one respondent, for “unfinished business.” Only one respondent included the possibility of animals as ghosts in their definition.

The final analysis concludes that there is no correlation between major/field of study and ghost belief. However, there does seem to be a correlation between gender and ghost belief. Females answered Yes (22.64%) or I’m skeptical… (43.40%) more than answering No (16.98%) or No, but I believe in angels and demons (16.98%), and on the whole they answered in the positive more often than males did. For males, the breakdown was as follows: Yes (17.39%), I’m skeptical… (34.78%), No (30.43%), and No, but I believe in angels and demons (17.39%).

There is also a correlation between religious belief and belief in ghosts. Between the Christian religions, reported belief in ghosts was stronger for Catholics, but overall positive or questioning for both the Christian religions, with most respondents answering Yes or I’m skeptical or would need to see a ghost to believe it. These two answers combined for Catholic participants constituted 75%, while they constituted 55.55% for Protestants. Between the two Christian religious affiliations, Protestants were overwhelmingly more likely to answer that they believed in angels and demons, but not ghosts (30.56%) than Catholics (12.50%). Those who selected Jewish as their identification were more likely to answer No (33.33%) or I’m Skeptical… (50%) than Yes (16.67%). 45.45% of people with no religious affiliation answered that they do not believe in ghosts, while 36.36% answered that they were skeptical. And those who selected Other for their religious affiliation were tied for Yes and No, with 28.57% each, and 42.86% saying they were skeptical.