Kids in the Hall

Kids in the Hall

In his 1977 horror classic The Shining, novelist Stephen King explored the notion that the history of a building and its occupants—sometimes innocuous, other times unsettling or even malevolent—can become so ingrained in its brick and mortar that secrets hidden for generations will suddenly reveal themselves to individuals with enough psychic sensitivity to receive them. Yet, to most outward appearances, the building is perfectly normal, functional—a showplace, even.

This idea recalls, for me, the University of New Haven’s Maxcy Hall. Named for Ellis C. Maxcy, one of the university’s former presidents, the hall, built in 1909, became the home base of a new campus in 1960 after the nascent college acquired the West Haven site of a former county orphanage called the New Haven County Temporary Home for Dependent and Neglected Children. The Connecticut-based Northeast Paranormal Investigations Society claims that in its 46 years of operation (1909-1955), this institution accommodated up to 300 children, “providing them with a good home, classrooms, recreational facilities, a chapel and an infirmary. The children were so well taken care of that an elderly man who visited the orphanage shortly after it opened declared that these ‘poor’ children were ‘richer than thousands in the city.’”

Despite this endorsement, speculation has abounded for decades that all may not have been well at the orphanage—and that Maxcy is still trying, in the Stephen King sense, to tell us about it. When I was a graduate student at UNH in the 1970s, I would routinely visit a friend of my family who worked in one of the building’s administrative offices. It was she who first regaled me with stories of paranormal occurrences: lights flickering and doors slamming for no apparent reason; random sounds of children laughing, crying, even screaming; and the fear experienced by the building’s mailman each day when he reported to the basement sorting room only to hear the persistent bouncing of phantom balls in the hallway. Ultimately, he refused to use the room anymore. Others have reported seeing apparitions of young children and hearing footsteps and conversations.

Rumors as to the cause of all this unrest include a devastating fire, a boy who was beaten to death or even the presence of the spirits of adult caretakers of the New Haven County Temporary Home, one of whom was spotted hanging out by a basement vending machine. However, an article published in the Winter 2013 University of New Haven Alumni Magazine revealed little evidence of any specific traumatic events having taken place. Ted Wolfe—the son of the orphanage’s only caretakers on record, Esther and Harold Wolfe—was quoted as saying that his family’s tenure there from 1936 to 1944 “were some of the happiest years of my mother’s life.”

I can’t prove that I ever experienced anything paranormal in Maxcy, though there was that one afternoon I came out a side exit onto a set of stone steps I’d used a million times and suddenly found myself on my rear end. Did I slip, somehow, or was I pushed by a spectral waif? A recent closer look—vulnerable, admittedly, to the power of suggestion—has convinced me there’s something weird about the place. Gaze at it in the sunlight and the building not only shines, it gleams (as does its endlessly long second-floor main hallway, studded with administrative offices and classrooms). Wander the basement and the attic, and you may feel like you’re in a land that time forgot—one that needs a serious coat of paint. Classrooms and offices exist on those floors too, but so do illogically placed doors and atmospheric stairwells, rooms stuffed into corners as though they’re trying to hide and odd grates, screens and barriers obscuring… who knows what?

Throughout UNH’s increasingly illustrious history—during which multiple accreditations, program expansions, construction projects and financial campaigns have turned the campus from the open landscape I knew as a student to its current mini-metropolis—Maxcy has remained resolutely old-fashioned. Because of its brick Colonial Revival edifice, perfect for university brochures and course catalog covers, it stands out as historic and esteemed among more modern structures.

But that underlying unease remains. For the last 20 years, one of the most active student organizations on campus has been the Paranormal Investigation and Research Organization (PIRO), which actively trains participating undergrads in the proper scientific methodology of paranormal investigation, as well offering members lectures, movie and game nights and Halloween costume parties. PIRO has conducted regular investigations in Maxcy and elsewhere, at times under the tutelage of professional ghost hunters like Brian Cano, star of Syfy’s Haunted Collector and the Travel Channel’s Paranormal Caught on Camera. Promoted during the university’s new student campus tours, the club welcomed more than 100 new members this semester and boasts 40 current investigators.

PIRO president Christina Failla, class of ’25, says that most of the ghostly activity at Maxcy these days seems to be centered around its bustling second floor, usually late at night when the university cleaning staff is at work. “At one point people were doing construction in the building, and they found a lot of kids’ toys cemented into the walls,” she says. “They also discovered some old classrooms with green blackboards. There are plenty of places where the building has been realigned and refurbished. I feel that that can cause a lot of unrest. It’s like the spirits don’t like the idea of someone touching their stuff.”

Investigators suspect such spirits have found other campus housing. PIRO executive assistant Valeria Quiñones, class of ’24, says that what interested her in joining the organization was her belief that she shared dorm rooms with ghosts in her freshman and sophomore years. One, she recalls, was fond of spontaneously turning on the room’s TV and gaming console, as well as playing with a roommate’s computer keyboard. She ultimately became quite sanguine about the unseen tenant. “We just said, ‘Do what you gotta do, man—as long as it’s not anything that will really freak us out.”

Ellis C. Maxcy Hall
University of New Haven – 300 Boston Post Rd, West Haven (map)

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, featuring Maxcy Hall at dusk, photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2, featuring a peculiar door inside Maxcy, and 3, featuring Christina Failla and Valeria Quiñones, photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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