Ghost Stories Abound at Mason

By Tara Laskowski

If you want a good ghost story, ask folklorist Margaret Yocom. For years, she’s been the “ghost keeper” at George Mason as associate professor of English. In the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, Yocom and her students have collected hundreds of supernatural tales sure to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Holding tales of Ouija boards and unexplained apparitions to haunted Fairfax buildings and houses, the archive is a rich resource of more than 1,400 stories collected in the span of 27 years celebrating the culture, traditions, and folklore of Northern Virginia. And it’s not all about the supernatural—Yocom collects folklore about local people, workers in regional industries, and families, as well as ethnic and regional recipes, traditional art, and folk medicine. Around Halloween, however, the ghost stories get the most attention.

“People have a lot of interest in the supernatural,” says Yocom. “Ghost stories are journeys into a world we haven’t even imagined. Many people believe that world is out there, but aren’t sure of the boundaries. Its pathways are only glimpsed at from time to time. When you hear a ghost story from someone, it can be a touchstone that says, ‘Oh, it could be. It’s possible.'”

The archive has been a popular research resource for Mason students—whether for a folklore course, a creative writing project, or a stage performance. Members of the Northern Virginia community, as well as folklorists throughout the United States, have also used the archive. In the future, Yocom hopes to display more stories on the Internet.

Every other academic year, Yocom teaches a folklore course, Narratives of the Spirit World: The Lore of Ghosts and Fairies—”always in the fall and always at night.” From this course, and others, spooky stories like the following have been researched and documented by students and are available in the archive by making an appointment with Yocom.

Some selected supernatural tales from George Mason University and the surrounding community follow.

The George Mason Crew Team Ghost, “Old Man Johnson”

Collected by Laura Craig, BA English, ’04, in 2003

This ghostly tale is well known to the women’s crew team at George Mason. According to legend, Old Man Johnson was a man who rowed in the area years ago, some say in the 1970s, who one night found his wife sleeping with another man in his bed. He was so upset that he went out on the water and rowed and rowed all night, and never came back. Some say he rowed right over the dam of the Occoquan River, others say he jumped off. Members of the crew team have reported seeing his ghost early in the morning near the docks or the dam. Whenever something strange happens that no one admits to doing, the team says it was the work of Old Man Johnson.

The Bunnyman Bridge

Collected by Hayden Zell in 2003

The Bunnyman Bridge in Clifton, Va., is perhaps the most famous haunted site in the Northern Virginia area. Featured on television and the Internet, it was named one of the Scariest Places on Earth by the Fox Family Channel in 2001. Zell relays several different versions of the Bunnyman tale—a legendthat has been told for years and researched by Mason alumnus and Fairfax County Library historian/archivist Brian Conley, BA Psychology, ’88. One version of the tale is that in 1904, a bus transporting inmates from an insane asylum to the Lorton Prison crashed right around the bridge. The inmates escaped; however, all were caught by authorities except for one man. In searching for him, the police found many carcasses of rabbits and assumed that the man was surviving on the meat. His spirit is said to haunt the bridge and can be seen at midnight on Halloween for anyone brave enough to wait.

The Restaurant Ghost

Collected by Susan Wiedemann, BA History, ’00, in 1999

The wait staff at Carlos O’Kelley’s restaurant on Main Street in Fairfax often tell of unusual happenings after hours. According to Wiedemann,, a dishwasher named Billy who worked at the restaurant some years ago (the time varies from 8-15 years) hanged himself in an upstairs dining room area of the restaurant one night after his girlfriend broke up with him. The manager closed the restaurant for two days and told everyone the dishwasher had gotten into a car accident. Ever since then, very early in the morning or very late at night, weird things happen. Many of the kitchen staff won’t come into the restaurant unless someone else is there. They think Billy haunts the restaurant. Glasses break and fall without anyone near them, and sometimes people hear a voice when they are in the upstairs room, although no one is there.

The Haunted Mill

Collected by Joy Fairman, BA English, ’98, in 1998

In Manassas, Va., people have reported strange happenings at an old abandoned mill. According to the story, many years ago, the man who owned the mill killed a woman and her young daughter who lived nearby. The daughter was found drowned in a stream behind the mill, and the woman was found tied to a tree with her throat slit. In the archive case file, the collector, Fairman, talked with a young woman who went to the mill site with a group of friends. The young woman was spooked by many things she couldn’t explain, including a tree that changed colors depending on where she was standing and the revving of her car engine without anyone touching the gas pedal. The complete story of the haunted mill can be found on the archive web site.

The Dorm Roommate

Collected by Debra Lindenburg in 1996

A popular legend that has been around for a long time and was featured in the 1998 movie, Urban Legend, this dorm story is more chilling then supernatural. A student getting ready to attend George Mason University was told a story about some freshman students living in a dorm at a college in Pennsylvania. One of the young women wanted to go out for awhile, and her roommate decided to stay in because she was tired. The first roommate went out, came back late, and rather than disturb her friend by turning on the lights, just climbed into bed. The next morning she woke up to find the message, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?” written on the wall in blood. Her roommate was lying dead in a pool of blood in her own bed.

In addition to these researched and archived stories, many Northern Virginia ghost stories can be found online. This tale found online at the Shadowlands Haunted Places Index tells of a ghost story right on the Fairfax Campus. “A small gazebo bordering the [George Mason University] campus [pond] is said to be frequented by the spirit of a young man. He apparently drowned in the lake one evening. His body was found sitting in the gazebo by two females the next morning. Since that time, the man’s figure has been seen standing at the edge of the [pond], or sitting in the gazebo. He has been known to beckon young women to come sit with him, and quickly disappears when accommodated.” However, according to University Police Sgt. Judy Meade and Lt. Willie Morton, who have worked at Mason for 13 and 17 years respectively, no one has ever drowned in Mason Pond. “We have had a car end up in the pond as the result of an accident,” says Meade. “But no one drowned. There may be some interesting fish and animals in and around the pond, but no ghosts that I’ve ever heard of.”

Want more spooky tales? Grab some candy corn and hot apple cider and make an appointment to read some of the hundreds of supernatural stories this Halloween season. For more information about the Folklife Archive, visit the web site or e-mail Margaret Yocom at myocom@gmu.edu.

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