It’s been my tradition to share ghost stories and spooky legends on my blog for the Halloween season. Now that October is officially upon us, I’m decided to look at stories which originated in my own back yard — on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, Oregon.
American universities are rife with ghost stories, many of them remarkably similar in their details. Usually these are tragic tales of aggrieved or grieving coeds who are either brutally slain, die in freak accidents, or take their own lives in particularly horrible ways. Some are thinly veiled morality tales about how sex, drugs, alcohol and even poor grades will lead to suffering and death.
The two OSU ghost stories which intrigued me centered around Sackett Hall, a sprawling dormitory located near the campus’s epicenter. Both of the ghosts in question were of murdered women. One was allegedly butchered by an infamous serial killer in the dorm basement; the other by a fellow student in her own bed. At first blush, both stories seemed to be simple retellings of common urban legends, but I wanted to know if there was any truth behind them.
I found much more than I expected
The Serial Killer
Of the Sackett Hall legends, the one about the basement was easier to research and document, although details have become skewed over the years. The legend claims that Ted Bundy, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac who stalked college campuses in the early 1970s, had lured a girl into the catacombs below the dorm. The story was partially true, as a Sackett Hall resident named Roberta “Kathy” Parks was abducted by Bundy outside the building on May 6, 1974.
Ann Rule's famous biography about Bundy, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, provides an intriguing account of Kathy's last day on Earth:
The next girl to walk away forever lived in Oregon. Nineteen days after Susan Rancourt vanished — on May 6th — Roberta Kathleen (Kathy) Parks had spent an unhappy and guilt-ridden day in her room in Sackett Hall on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, 250 miles south of Seattle. I knew Sackett Hall; I'd lived there myself when I attended one term at O.S.U. back in the 1950s, a huge, modern dormitory complex on a campus that was then considered a ‘cow college.’ Even then, when the world didn’t seem to be so fraught with danger, none of us would ever go to the snack machines in the cavernous basement corridors alone at night.
Kathy Parks wasn't very happy at Oregon State. She was homesick for Lafayette, California, and she’d broken up with her boyfriend who'd left for Louisiana. On May 4th, Kathy had argued in a phone call with her father, and, on May 6th, she learned that he'd suffered a massive heart attack. Her sister had called her from Spokane, Washington, with the news of their father's coronary, and then called back some hours later to say that it looked as though he would survive.
Kathy, whose major was world religions, felt a little better after the second call, and she agreed to join some of the other residents of Sackett Hall in an exercise session in the dorm lounge.
Shortly before eleven, the tall slender girl with long ash-blond hair left Sackett Hall to meet some friends for coffee in the Student Union Building. She promised her roommate she would be back within the hour. Wearing blue slacks, a navy blue top, a light green jacket, and platform sandals, she left Sackett for the last time.
Kathy never made the Student Union Building. Like the others, all of her possessions were left behind: her bike, clothing, cosmetics. [pp, 67-68]
So although Parks was abducted outside Sackett and probably killed at an entirely different location altogether, the history behind the haunting legend still had a firm basis in fact. But what about the girl murdered in her bed? Was this also based on a real incident?
Most of the accounts I read on this second haunting described a young woman (often referred to as “Brandy”) as being awakened in the middle of the night and stabbed by a male intruder. Some versions said the killing was accidental, others that the perpetrator was intoxicated and killed the girl during an attempted rape. A few suggested that the victim’s sexual appetites fed her own demise — echoing an old sexist theme on how murdered women must have done something to deserve their fate. Most versions place the killing during the 1950s.
Like the Bundy tale, this legend appears to have its basis in fact though details have been altered over time. The only OSU murder I could find perpetrated by a male intruder in a woman’s dorm room actually occurred in 1972 in Poling Hall, across the street from Sackett. The victim was 18-year-old Nancy Wyckoff, stabbed to death with a steak knife by Marlowe James Buchanan, 17, who lived one floor below her.
A Eugene Register-Guard article from May 1972 described the crime:
Buchanan said he had gone to the third floor with several smoke bombs, the flashlight and a knife about 3:30 a.m. He planned to "rat fink" the girls, his expression for pranks. (Earlier testimony had revealed that Buchanan was an instigator and frequent participant in dormitory practical jokes.)
Buchanan said he entered the room, crouched by the bed and put the knife on the floor. He balanced the flashlight on his right knee. As he was reaching for the smoke bomb in his shirt pocket, the dropped the flashlight and awakened [Wyckoff]. When she screamed and jumped from the bed, he grabbed the knife and stabbed her. As she continued screaming, he stabbed her twice more and fled down the hallway and through the fire escape door to reach his room one floor below.
Although Buchanan claimed the killing was a practical joke gone tragically wrong, he had been stalking Wyckoff for weeks and had invaded her room several times before the murder. He was also tied to two other assaults in which young women were struck in the head with chunks of concrete just days before the killing.
So here again, in typical urban legend fashion, some of the details are wrong but the story can still be traced back to an actual event.
Several generations have passed since Parks and Wyckoff met their fate at OSU, but in a curious way, the haunting legends keep their memories alive. To its credit, OSU doesn’t try to suppress these stories and has even enshrined other ghost stories on its website or in the local media (see links below).
Why these stories endure may be a reflection of the minds of the young adults who retell them. Going to college is often the first time young people are truly on their own… and that can be a scary thing. Perhaps the stories reflect the fears of those who tell them? Perhaps, as some social scientists suggest, they are cautionary tales intended to keep the kids safe outside the reach of their parents? Or perhaps it’s just because everyone loves a good ghost story?
If you’re looking for any tangible reminders of Parks or Wyckoff murders, you might be disappointed. Sackett and Poling Halls still exist of course, but there’s little else to see. The one exception is along the sidewalk outside the Valley Library. Hidden in the shade of a massive tree you can find a simple memorial to Wyckoff. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no such memorial to Parks, although she would certainly seem to warrant one.