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Week of 29 October 1999

Vol. III, No. 12

Feature Article

The Iceman Stayeth

Eugene O'Neill's ghost a permanent resident of Shelton Hall?

By Brian Fitzgerald

Eugene O'Neill, arguably America's greatest playwright, has given new meaning to college spirit. His ghost reportedly has taken residence in Shelton Hall's Suite 401, where he died 46 years ago.

The ghost hasn't exactly tormented the occupants of 401 day and night. BU students who have lived in the two-bedroom suite over the years have peacefully shared their abode with O'Neill's spirit. The spectre has been seen at least twice, and has made its presence known with an occasional flicker of the room's lights, along with a persistent knocking on the door and walls, according to past and present inhabitants.

"Has Casper bothered you lately?" asks 401 resident Andrew Pastor (CAS'01), referring to the cartoon TV ghost. "Nope," answers Justin Hahn (CAS'00), his undaunted and unhaunted roommate. Still, both are familiar with O'Neill's calling card: a blink of the lights, or a knock at the door. "We call them 'phantom knocks.' They're quite faint. When I open the door, no one is there," says Pastor. "This happens a lot, often enough for us to ignore it." Pastor doesn't believe that his room has a poltergeist -- a German word meaning "knocking ghost" -- but admits that he has heard his share of strange sounds. On several occasions he has heard a voice calling his name, but no one was at the door. "Sometimes I hear a conversation out in the hallway, but when I open the door, nothing." Could the culprits be students on his floor? "Definitely not. They could not disappear that quickly. But I'm a cynic. Old buildings make odd noises. I don't give the ghost story a lot of credence, but I can see where someone could get the idea."

Mark Mooney (COM'96), now a second lieutenant in the Marines in San Diego, thought the ghost story "was a joke," until the night of December 23, 1994, when he and fellow R.A. Jennifer Singer (SMG'95) were making sure Shelton Hall's windows were shut during the holiday intersession. "Jennifer, who was about 30 feet ahead of me, thought that she saw someone run toward 401," says Mooney, who was the floor's R.A. "We checked the room, found the window open, and closed it." A few hours later, they checked the floor again, and this time it was Mooney who thought he saw a figure scamper toward the same room.

"The building was deserted -- no one should have been in there," he says. "But when we checked the room again, the window, which we had locked, was open. We locked it for the second time that night."

Nick Manove (CAS'94), who lived in Suite 401 that year, never saw an apparition, but remembers "the lights flickering." Now a program coordinator for the CAS mathematics department, Manove says that he wasn't scared. "I just thought it was really interesting that I was living in the same room that Eugene O'Neill lived in. But a couple of people on the floor were pretty spooked."

Defective shade
Sebastian Bach (CAS'98), who lived in the suite from 1995 to 1997, is also skeptical of the ghost theory, attributing the flickering lights to the fact the building is 76 years old. "I do remember, however, the lights going out at the exact same time I pulled his play The Iceman Cometh off my bookshelf," he says. "But that was during a week when there were a lot of power outages in the building." Bach also recalls his window shades "rolling up on their own accord" -- a startling event in a quiet room, but not necessarily a supernatural act.

"Born in a hotel room and, goddammit, died in a hotel room," were the words O'Neill uttered three days before he perished on November 27, 1953, in what was then the Hotel Shelton, at 91 Bay State Road. His birthplace was the Barrett House, on Broadway in New York. His final resting place is Forest Hills Cemetery, in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. According to the biography O'Neill, there was no funeral service and no attendees except his wife, a psychiatrist, a nurse, and a newspaper reporter who followed the hearse and the lone funeral car. His wife, Carlotta, had banned the press from the burial. In his final weeks, suffering from Parkinson's disease, he "wanted no priest or minister, or Salvation Army captain at his deathbed: he would confront God -- if there was a God -- man to man," said Carlotta in the biography.

O'Neill lived in the Hotel Shelton for two years, moving there because his wife's psychiatrist had an office on Bay State Road. Gravely ill, he never left there, except for an emergency trip to the hospital for an intestinal ailment. In 1952, he and Carlotta took his unfinished manuscripts and destroyed them. Just how -- and if -- they were disposed of remains a mystery. Carlotta claimed they tearfully tore them to pieces and threw them in the suite's fireplace. However, BU journalism student Nicholas Gage (COM'63, Hon.'85), now a New York Times reporter, discovered that there had never been any fireplaces in the building. She then amended her story, saying that they gave the shredded pages to the janitor, who burned them in the cellar furnace.

Carlotta, who reportedly suffered from hallucinations before she died in New York in 1970, was convinced O'Neill was in her room and that she had conversations with his spirit.

How did the Shelton Hall spectre legend come about? Perhaps the Suite 401 ghost rumors originate from Carlotta's rantings and the setting of the "haunting" was eventually transplanted to Boston. Possibly it began after the manuscript burning: ghosts are supposedly restless souls who stay in this world because they have unresolved business here. O'Neill, never a content man -- he was given to bouts of temper, depression, and drinking -- had destroyed unfinished plays he knew he would never be able to complete.

"The rumor was around when I lived in the building as the residence director from '83 to '89," says David Zamojski, who is now assistant director of residence life. "I remember some students tried to raise the spirit by chanting and holding hands -- they weren't allowed to burn candles."

Indeed, the story goes back to at least 1982, when Corey Dolgan (CAS'84) was the floor's resident assistant. "I don't believe the place is being haunted by a ghost," he says, "but I believe that the legacy of a great artist lives on."