By James Dempsey
Over the last 160 years, Holy Cross has accumulated its share of folklore, tall tales and curious rumors. Most of these stories lay outside the domain of official College history. They are transmitted down the years by way of loose oral tradition—usually from authoritative upper-class students to green freshmen during the ubiquitous post-midnight bull sessions that have been taking place in residence halls since the beginning. Or at least since the "lights out" rule was abolished. HCM spent the last year investigating some of the more well-known myths of Mount St. James. And while we doubt that our report can match the atmosphere of those legend-swapping sessions, we hope it will spark a memory or two of the first time you heard that particular story and wondered if, just maybe, it might actually be true.
"The Fenwick Exorcism"
You'll find the entrance to the "Holy Cross Exorcism Room" on the fourth floor of Fenwick, where that adamant edifice of brick and stone connects with O'Kane, forming a looming L-shape on the northern slopes of Mount St. James. Twenty well-worn steps, generally known as the Stairway to Nowhere, lead up to a locked door. The stairway apparently jogs to the right and continues its ascension, but a wall has been erected to hide the staircase; one can see only the disembodied banisters and handrail disappearing into the ceiling above. Holes have been dug out of the plaster at the foot of this wall, giving the impression of someone or something trying to burrow in or out.
Above the lock on the door someone has scribbled "666." At the foot of the door is a tiny sticker that reads:
The story of the "Holy Cross Exorcism" has been told on campus since time immemorial. There are many versions of the legend, which variously takes place in the Fenwick clock tower, in secret underground passages beneath campus or in the famed Exorcism Room itself. A 1990 version of the story in The Crusader spoke of two priests who were locked in the Fenwick tower for three days to perform an exorcism on a possessed woman. When the door was opened on the third day, the priests were dead, and there was no sign of the woman. In 1988, several students reported seeing a sign reading "HELP" in the windows of the Fenwick tower. Nobody investigated, apparently, and the next day the sign had disappeared.
Stacy Waters '94 recalls being told as a first-year student of rooms in the towers that were boarded up and to which entry was forbidden.
"The tower room had once been the site of an exorcism in the 1800s," Waters says. "I remember looking up at those tower windows and thinking that they did seem uninhabited, so perhaps there was some truth to the legend."
"You'll notice that the stairway for the corner tower in Fenwick leads literally to nowhere," points out Chad Clifford '01. "The stairs simply run into a wall on the top floor, leading up to what presumably used to be the tower's entrance."
According to the version of the story Clifford heard, the priests unsuccessfully tried to exorcise one of the patients from the old Worcester Lunatic Hospital.
Stephanie Baker '04 reports hearing that, because of the immense demonic forces released as the priests tried to drive out the evil spirit, the tower clock broke and didn't work properly for years after. Mark Umphrey '05 heard a version of the young woman's exorcism that contained even more Gothic elements.
"There was a thunder and lightning storm going on outside," he says. "As she was being exorcised, lightning struck the top of the tower and caused the overhead light to short out and all of the room's occupants to disappear—never to be heard of or seen again."
Simon J. Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at the Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg and current holder of the Walt Whitman Distinguished Chair in American Culture at Leiden Leyden University in The Netherlands, has published widely on such matters of folklore—and has heard many of the elements of the Holy Cross legend at other schools.
"The detail of secret underground passages is common," he says. "These days, the passages are remembered on other campuses as a leftover from the 1960s campus unrest, supposedly to allow for escape by administrators. Earlier, they were remembered as being
built for nuclear disaster. On older campuses, they are imagined to be evidence of secret societies or innovative students."
Bronner finds another relatively common aspect in the Holy Cross myth.
"What is familiar about the Jesuit story," he says, "is the role of the woman as victim, since such stories seemed to have arisen on other campuses at the time of the coeducational movement. The stories served as cautionary tales to women about the hostile environment on many campuses and, in this case, seem to warn of possession, rather than of ‘going insane' or ‘having a nervous breakdown'—which appeared on other campuses, often coupled with a suicide climax and a return as a dormitory ghost."
And yet, Bronner admits that there is one "motif" of the Holy Cross tale he finds in no other legend of exorcism: that of two Jesuits taking a possessed woman into a tower.
A popular sub-genre of the exorcism story is that of the "Exorcism Library."
"I worked in Dinand Library for three summers as a student," remembers Dave Beauvais '68, "and came back after graduate school (at Yale) for another five years on staff. I know very well what's being referenced here. It was a ‘locked' steel-mesh cage in the basement of Dinand, to which the librarian held the key. I had several opportunities to examine the contents myself when the cage was opened for inventory purposes. There was nothing remotely salacious or satanic about it. The ‘trove' was actually rather boring and disappointing. It contained basically books by 18th- and 19th-century authors whose works the Vatican had placed on the "Roman index" of condemned books—they seemed to be mostly French Romantic novelists and poets, with the occasional Enlightenment Deist thrown in for good measure!"
"I suppose," Beauvias continues, "there was a (probably unfounded) fear at the time that exposure to scholarly criticism of Catholicism would ‘destroy the faith' of vulnerable young students. Hence the locked cage."
Tom Healey '76 recalls an attempt by a group of students in 1972 to find the library. Supposedly the students found a set of "chain-locked" doors.
"Unable or unwilling to break the lock, or maybe just plain scared," he remembers, "this intrepid group attempted to tunnel their way in through the steam system and actually made it to Fenwick."
Healey was told that the location of the secret library could be found by noting the first patch of snow to melt on the grassy knoll in front of Dinand. "Sure enough," he says, right after the first snow a small plot of green grass appeared."
Healey then realized the spot was directly above the steam pipes, which explained the melting snow. "But still," he says, "at night, when I return to Mount St. James and climb the steps, I wonder. …"
Mark Hedberg '87 also heard of the Exorcism Library, which was variously located in Fenwick, in Loyola or in the underground tunnels.
"The constant theme was that each Jesuit institution had one," he recalls. "A favorite location was the topmost floor of Fenwick, in the corner where it meets O'Kane. The room was odd because it was all by itself, sort of stuck on top of the building. I remember one day in my junior or senior year the outer door was open, and I went up there with a partner in crime. Nothing interesting, but we peered under the inner door and from what little we could see it was just a bunch of junk."
"Or," he adds, "a well-disguised Exorcism Library."
Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J., quite literally wrote the book on Holy Cross. Thy Honored Name is a 516-page tome telling the history of the school from its founding in 1843 to the modern day. In his research, Fr. Kuzniewski delved deeply into The Daily Diary, a journal of events both large and small that was kept (in Latin, for the first 20 years) from the College's beginnings until the mid-1960s. He found nothing in the diary that referred to anything like an exorcism.
And yet, knowing that students often spoke of dark doings in the Exorcism Room—and one day, finding the door unlocked— Fr. Kuzniewski decided to indulge his curiosity. He saw nothing but old textbooks.
As for the curious configuration of that part of the building, Holy Cross president emeritus, Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49, maintains that the need for additional storage was the only reason for the realignment of rooms.
Yet the legend marches on. Jim Riley '91 wrote an unproduced X-Files script based on the legend, in which three students are murdered in Fenwick, and three priests die while trying to perform an exorcism there. The souls of all six are trapped in what the writer calls "The Well of Souls," until they are freed by kindly Fr. Pawl who dies in the attempt. Riley, who wrote the script during the summer of 1995, says he never sent the script to the producers of the X-Files.
"I understood at the time that they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts," he says. "I did it purely as a way to tell a good story regarding the legend of the Exorcism Room."
"The modern university, rather than displacing legend formation, has increased it, because of the need for cultural passage in a situation where people are strangers to one another," says Bronner. "As a result, residents of this new community tell legends which invite commentary about subjects that may be difficult to broach in everyday conversation. With the new model of the university as a reflection of mass society, students often look to such legendry, too, for a formation of subcultural identity—and it does not surprise me, therefore, that you can identify stories that relate students to their Holy Cross identity. They want to know what the unofficial heritage of their new community is."
Unlocking the door at the top of the "Stairs to Nowhere" reveals a flight of six steps leading to yet another door. A sign, in red, reads: Only Authorized Maintenance Personnel Allowed Beyond This Point. One thinks of Dante and Virgil at a similar portal.
The "Exorcism Room" is tall and surprisingly bright and airy, about 35 feet long and 25 feet wide—with windows on two sides, through which one sees a sweeping view of Worcester. In one corner is a small storage loft. The varnish on the hardwood floor has been worn down to the bare wood in places, and the walls are cracked with age. On one side, an electrical conduit, torn from its moorings, hangs limply.
These days the Exorcism Room falls under the aegis of the alumni and development offices, and most of its contents reflect the work of that department. There are Holy Cross T-shirts, Holy Cross banners and Holy Cross hats. There are pamphlets and brochures extolling the benefits of giving to the College. There are boxes upon boxes of fancily packaged tchotchkes bearing the Holy Cross colors and insignia to be handed out to generous alumni: tie-tacks, name-tag holders, Christmas tree ornaments, silver bowls and knights' helmets.
With the opening of every box of knickknacks, the color purple glows warmly from within. But there are two items—a bag of balloons marked "purple" and a Holy Cross tie—that stand out from everything else. They have both turned inexplicably and profoundly black.
Just off the Exorcism Room, beneath the storage loft, is a smaller room filled with the mustiness and genteel friability of an antiquarian's den. There are disposed-of filing cabinets containing lesson plans, worksheets, class records and even student recommendations dating back to the 1960s. The walls are lined with books, mostly by classical authors. The giants of the classical pantheon are well represented, including Homer, Euripides and Aristophanes in the original Greek, and Virgil, Horace and Juvenal in the original Latin. There are countless copies of Harkness' First Greek Book, a hugely popular introduction to the language that was first published in 1850. The only artifact in the room even suggesting modernity is a hefty Webcor tape recorder that was in use during the late 1950s.
But in this room, this sanctum sanctorum (or rather, this impium impiorum) of Holy Cross' most enduring legend of the Dark Side, one may indeed find the handiwork of Old Nick.
On the floor, among the yellowing grammars and readers and lesson plans generations old, is a book with a bright scarlet cover. No, it is not a text on demonology, nor a record of the horrific exorcism that took place within those walls. Worse, it is a vocabulary to aid in the reading of Demosthenes' Orations. Worse still, its publisher—cue shrieking Hitchcockian violins, the cackling of devils and the groans of the damned—is Boston College.
James Dempsey was a columnist for The Evening Gazette and The Telegram & Gazette for 18 years. The winner of awards from the Associated Press and United Press International, he now teaches writing, journalism and literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and ClarkUniversity.
Read more Myths & Legends:
"The Fenwick Exorcism"
The Jeane Dixon Axe Murder Rumor
"Letters to Tomorrow"
The Cow That Came in From the Cold
The Plot Against the Greenhouse
The Naked Bunch
The Immurement of Father Crowley
The Lord of the Rings on Mount St. James?
More myths and legends...revealed!