In this Jungian analysis of college ghost stories, Elizabeth Tucker delineates reasons how and why stories of the supernatural spread across a campus, particularly the Bloody Mary myth of the murdered woman who appears in mirrors to those who chant her name.
According to Tucker, the dorm environment provides perfect spaces to foster these legends. Long corridors and boiler rooms are stereotypical settings for encounters with the supernatural, reminding us of the darker regions of the subconscious. Like slumber parties common during adolescence, students living away from home for the first time in residence halls are also in transitional phases during which limits and boundaries are tested. Ghost stories provide a safe outlet for that sort of exploration.
Legends about former students who have committed suicide and their lingering ghosts tend to be some of the most commonly told stories, and sightings of these ghosts occur frequently in freshman dorms. In Jungian psychology, coming of age requires a symbolic death and rebirth that modern society doesn’t always provide. Because college students a great deal of stress, especially around finals, fear of suicide attempts is high. By sighting ghosts and telling stories, students can have a vicarious near-death experience without actually attempting anything dangerous.
In addition to vicarious death and rebirth situations being crucial to identity formation of college students, darker aspects of the personality must also be addressed.
That’s where the Bloody Mary or ghost-in-the-mirror legends come into play. Often, the face in the mirror seen by students is a ghost of the opposite gender. In Jungian terms, this opposite-sex ghost could represent the anima (female attributes embedded in males) or animus (the male aspect of the female). Flirting with our forbidden selves and coming to terms with them through play-acting ghost stories is yet another way newly-liberated college students deal with hidden aspects of the personality.
Issues of race and aging might also dealt with should the apparition be of different race or significantly older than the viewer if the theory is extrapolated.
Because college provides an environment for young adults to come into their own, it makes perfect sense that students would revert back to the safe rituals of early adolescence to deal with emergent identity issues.
This article was originally published in The Journal of American Folklore 118.468 (2005).