I first heard of the "exorcism legend" late one night in a Carlin 3 dorm room, sometime in the autumn of 1977. Twenty-eight years later, the details of that night are a little hazy—but I've never forgotten the legend itself. I don't recall in whose room my new friends and I had gathered. And I can't remember what it was that determined the eerie bent of our conversation. But as the night progressed toward dawn, and the stories ricocheting around the tiny room grew more extravagant, that circle of first-year Carlinites was visited by our ever-patient and good-humored resident assistant, Dan Day '78.
A senior and a writer for The Crusader, Day was a font of authoritative knowledge about the College. I imagine that on this particular evening, he poked his head into our gathering to request that we lower the volume of our bull session. But, budding newsman that he was, Dan was quickly drawn into our discussion. And within minutes, he was initiating us, passing on some of the choice myths and legends of Holy Cross.
According to most folklorists—including Professor Jan Harold Brunvand, who coined and popularized the term "urban legend"—that's usually the way these kinds of stories are transmitted: orally and with just a hint of both menace and humor.
That night in Carlin, Dan Day saved the best story for last and told it beautifully, relaying, with just the right mix of earnestness and suspicion, the tale of a mysterious and frightening ritual that took place in one of the Fenwick spires—which loomed perfectly above the quad outside the dorm room window.
With regard to Holy Cross legends, the cream of the crop must be the exorcism story. Last year, when we asked out readers to send us their favorite College myth, we were not surprised to find that the exorcism legend was, by far, the most popular submission. Interestingly, it arrived in a number of iterations, its specific details and settings dependent, it seems, on when the tale was first heard.
Today, after a decade with the Associated Press, Dan Day is the managing editor of The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. In the early stages of research for this issue, I contacted him to see if he could shed any additional light on the exorcism story. While he recalls the College's most enduring myth, it turns out that Dan has no recollection of the night he initiated a pack of overtired freshmen into the world of Crusader mythology.
Somehow, that seems appropriate. Legends like this one thrive on the outer edges of memory, and nothing can kill a campus myth faster than cold documentation. This issue of HCM, in fact, may put to rest a few of the taller tales that have been circulating around Mount St. James for decades. But, as regards the most popular of all College legends, I doubt it. Because, for the last two years, the Halloween issues of The Crusader have featured articles by current students attempting to piece together the details behind a peculiar story about frightening rituals in the Fenwick spires that they had recently heard. Late at night, I'm sure. In a cramped dorm room. From an upper-class hallmate with a knack for telling a good tale.