An Eerie Education: 5 Paranormal Mysteries to Have Happened at Schools

Schools are a place of learning – a sanctuary of education. There are also, if the following accounts are to be believed, a hotbed of paranormal activity and mysteries.

5 – Black Magic at Eton

Founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, Eton College is an English independent boarding school for boys in Eton, Berkshire, near Windsor. Having educated nineteen British prime ministers, generations of the aristocracy, and other high-profile figures, the school has a prestigious reputation and is the most famous private boys’ school in Britain. 1

Weston’s Yard at Eton College. (Image credit: Martin Kraft / Wikimedia Commons)

As old as it is, one would expect the college to have tales of ghosts and ghouls in abundance. And, indeed, there are many reports that the establishment is haunted by several apparitions, including a grey lady. 2 However, the following story does not involve spirits of the dead, but instead the dark actions of the living.

In May 1917, a thirteen-year-old Eric Arthur Blair was offered a scholarship at Eton College. Blair, who stayed at the school until December 1921, is better known by his pen name, George Orwell, and was the renowned author of the celebrated works Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. During his time at the college, he was “interested and happy” and demonstrated great poetic ability. 3 As well as literary art, Orwell also dabbled in the occult art of black magic.

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When at the school, Orwell developed a strong friendship with Steven Runciman, who would later go on to become a distinguished medieval historian. Shortly before his death in the year 2000, Runciman wrote a letter in which he confessed that he and his friend, Orwell, had practised black magic whilst together at Eton. The result of their dabblings had meant that Orwell spent the rest of his life believing that they had ended the life a fellow pupil.

Orwell had become fascinated with the occult after reading several volumes of ghost stories, including one story which told of a maid making a wax doll of her mistress and skewering it with a pin – for it to have lethal consequences.

After moving to the boarding school, Orwell had caught the attention of an older boy called Philip Yorke, who proceeded to threaten and bully the younger boy. Determined to get his own back on his tormentor, Runciman offered Orwell a plan for revenge, suggesting that he should take inspiration from the ghost story he had read.

Together they practised black magic by means of a voodoo doll of the the bully. Their initial hunger for revenge, however, transformed into horror when Yorke first broke his leg and then, only a few months later, developed leukaemia and died. 4

Runciman’s deathbed confession described the series of awful events:

“Our making a wax effigy of an older boy whom we disliked for being unkind to his juniors was, I am ashamed to say, my idea . . . Blair found that interesting and willingly collaborated. It was he who moulded the melted candle into a very crude human body.

“He wanted to stick a pin into the heart of our image, but that frightened me, so we compromised by breaking off his right leg – and he did break his leg a few days later playing football – and he died young.” 5

Did Orwell and Runciman tap into the paranormal and powerful magic of voodoo? Or, was the injury and death of Philip Yorke simply a tragic coincidence?

4 – Dowhill Girls’ Boarding School and Victoria Boys’ High School

In 1879, Sir Ashley Eden, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, decided to establish a school for the wards of Government servants belonging to middle and low-income groups. (Image credit: Department of Tourism, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration)

Situated in the north of India is Dowhill. The hill is the site of two schools, Dowhill Girls’ Boarding School and Victoria Boys’ High School. Both the schools and the surrounding hillside are described as hotbeds of paranormal activity.

The schools are situated one kilometre apart, set within a pine forest in the Darjeeling District of the country. Although they appear to be separate institutions, the schools have a shared history. Originally, Dowhill school educated both girls and boys. However, as educational demands in the area grew, the boy’s school was shifted to a new building. This happened in the same year as the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, resulting in the school being renamed after the monarch. The following year, in 1898 the girls’ school was started again, keeping the original name, in the old building of the school. 6

Of the two schools, it is the boys’ high school which is most famous for ghost sightings. Since it was founded, the school has educated generations of students. Students who, it would seem, do not always want to leave the school… It is said that discarnate footsteps and voices can be heard in the school’s corridors. Such ghostly phenomena is said to be more acute during the holiday season, when the entire school is shut down. Despite the building being empty, local people speak of how they often hear boys running and laughing in the corridors. 7

Apparitions have also been spotted at Victoria Boys’ High School. Some people have reported witnessing a boy standing at one of the windows, staring at them from the inside while the school was closed. Most chilling, however, are the stories of a headless boy spirit who wanders the corridors. As well as in the school, he has been seen outside on the premises, and in the forest that surrounds Dowhill. According to local people, the terrifying child has been known to follow lone walkers as they make their way through the forest. 8

Other paranormal phenomena reported in the forest includes disembodied red eyes, staring through the trees; a ghostly woman in white; and whispering voices. 9

The area is so notoriously haunted and associated with tragedy, that the road between the school and forest is somewhat appropriately named “Death Road.” 10

However, perhaps the most mysterious occurrence surrounding the schools took place in February 2016, when the girl’s school on Dowhill suffered a major fire. The fire was so extensive that it took six hours to extinguish the flames, which irreparably damaged the over-a-century-old building. Luckily, as the fire broke out during the winter holiday, no one was inside the school when it caught fire. 11Yet, this led to questions as to how the fire could have started, and why it began during the time of year which is most strongly connected to paranormal occurrences on Dowhill.

3 – New Hartford High School

New Hartford High School in New York is nationally recognised as an institute of academic excellence. 12 It has also been described as “one of the most reportedly haunted locations” in New York. 13

In 2016, New Hartford Senior High was honoured as a National Blue Ribbon School, making it one of nine high schools to be recognised in New York State. (Image credit: New Hartford Schools)

It is no secret that the school – the first building having been erected in the early 19th century – was built on an old burial ground for pioneers. There is even a plaque on the property which explains the school grounds’ history.   

“The memorial, a monument on the present Central School grounds over a vault containing bodies of pioneers, reads: “Site of the old burying ground, 1788-1953, in memory of those hardy pioneers who helped found a nation and who settled this village and valley.”” 14

The remains of 277 first settlers were moved from the site prior to the construction of the high school. However, far from being the entire burial ground, since that time skeletons have continued to be unearthed at the school.

In 2009, the local newspaper the Observer-Dispatch, reported that remains had been found on the school grounds during maintenance and construction. This wasn’t the first time such a grisly discovery was made at the school. 15

In August 2004, human bones, including a mostly intact skeleton, were dug up during another construction project. Remains were also found in 1990, as well as in the 1930s and 1950s when additions to the original school were being built. 16

Remains found at New Hartford High School in 2009 during building work.
Remains found at New Hartford High School in 2009 during building work. (Image credit: Angelica A. Morrison)

The site is so heavily populated with graves that, on some maps, the school is still referred to as the “Old Burial Ground”. 17

The old burial ground is said to be the reason why so much paranormal activity is reported at the high school.

It is said that shadowy apparitions roam the grounds, and that phantom laughter has been heard by students. Objects are claimed to move impossibly, seemingly of their own accord. There are even reports that the school is so haunted that some have quit working there because of their ghostly encounters. 18

One student reported that:

“Personal experiences have led many to believe that it is haunted […] many have seen the one [ghost] in the halls, including me. “She” is a short figure and is always by a window.” 19

Whilst many of the spirits at the school have been described as friendly, there are some reports of a “bad” entity which lurks in the auditorium. 20 After doing a show in the auditorium in 2014, psychic medium Maureen Hancock described how she felt there was a “higher energy” at the school.

“There is a guy that hangs around here – a spirit.” 21

The careless treatment of some of the pioneers’ remains is often cited as the reason for the spirits’ inability to move on. And, with bones constantly being unearthed at the school, it does not seem like they will find peace anytime soon.

2 – Sidney Sussex College

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in the history of the British Isles. A military and political leader, he is remembered for his role in the English Civil War, the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of King Charles I. From 1653 until his death, Cromwell replaced the king as head of state, serving under the title of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

His new republic, however, was not to last long. Soon after his death, the old king’s son was able to return to power, as King Charles II. The monarchy was restored, and Oliver Cromwell was to receive punishment for his treason – albeit posthumously.

Cromwell’s body was disinterred from Westminster Abbey in the January of 1661, and taken to Tyburn – historically the principal place for execution of London criminals and convicted traitors. There, his body was hanged in chains, thrown into a pit and ceremoniously beheaded.

Tyburn tree
An illustration, said to be from about 1680, of the permanent gallows at Tyburn. They gallows were used for London offenders from the 16th century until 1759. (Image source: Public Domain)

The posthumous executions of the Lord Protector, and other traitors, were described by a local merchant, Samuel Sainthill.

“they were hanged by the neck from morning. Cromwell in a green seare cloth, very fresh embalmed; Ireton….hung like a dried rat” 22

Afterwards, Cromwell’s severed head was displayed on a spike at Westminster.

In the centuries that followed, the grisly object passed through a number of keepers, until eventually finding its way to Sidney Sussex College, a college of the University of Cambridge. In 1960, Oliver Cromwell’s well-travelled head was finally reburied in secret in the college’s chapel. 23 However, even after so many centuries, its story was far from over.

Oliver Cromwell's head
Oliver Cromwell’s head. Image taken from the text, Narrative relating to the real embalmed head of Oliver Cromwell, now exhibiting in Mead-Court, in Old Bond-Street. (Image source: Public Domain)

Seven years after the reburial, the University of Cambridge’s student newspaper reported that several students had bizarre experiences near H staircase of Sidney Sussex College. Just after Halloween, in the early hours of 1st of November 1967, Linda Neild Siddal was terrified by what she described as a purple eye, staring out at her from the blackness of the night. Another student, John Emslie, reported seeing a floating, disembodied head. A third student, Peter Know Shaw, sensed a presence in his room and was overwhelmed by the smell of rotting meat. 24

After the event was reported, other students came forward, claiming that they too had experienced inexplicable odours in the college, which were widely likened to spoiled meat. 25

Sceptics have ridiculed the reports as Halloween hysteria. However, others have announced suspicions that the strange occurrences were in fact the result of Oliver Cromwell’s ghost haunting the college.

Indeed, these are not the only reports of ghostly activity associated with the college.

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Sidney Sussex College was founded in 1596 under the terms of the will of Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. (Image source: Public Domain)

Asides from Oliver Cromwell, the college is said to be haunted by other spirits, including an elderly man dressed in grey. 26 The most terrifying account, however, dates back to the nineteenth century.

On 12th August 1841, The Morning Post reported a peculiar incident at the college lodge. According to the report, inhabitants were “alarmed by a supernatural visitation of a very awful description”.

“On Friday night last, about the dread hour of midnight, the nurserymaids, who were about retiring to rest, were terrified by hearing several strange and mysterious noises; the sounds appeared to proceed from the staircase; presently they ceased, and the door of the nursery was slowly opened, and a figure of tall and unnatural proportions presented itself before the horror struck maids. The appearance had a head white and ghastly, long legs, also white, but the body was distinguished only by a dim outline. The body was a shadow – it was a thing of head and legs. The affrighted maids rushed shrieking from the room – the lodge was aroused – the police were called in, but no trace of the apparition was visible, unless a curious odour which perfumed the apartment might be considered so. […] The affair remains shrouded in mystery.” 27

What the maids witnessed was a terrifying vision indeed, and one of many paranormal mysteries reported from Sidney Sussex College.

1 – The Westall UFO encounter

On the morning of the 6th of April, 1966, in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, students at the Westall High School were outside playing sports. Little did they know that they were about to witness what is said to be one “most famous UFO incidents in history”. 28

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According to witnesses standing on the sports field, an unidentified flying object flew over the high school’s south-west corner. It then descended behind trees, which lined an open wild paddock. After approximately twenty minutes of being out of sight, the mysterious object reappeared – with the group of witnesses on the sports field having now swelled in size. They reported the object as having gained altitude at considerable speed. Flying towards the north-west, five additional unidentified aircraft appeared as if to pursue the original object. This chase, described as a “cat and mouse” game by a teacher from the school, lasted a while before the original, mysterious object and the five aircraft flew away from Westall High School and over the suburb of Clayton South. 29

At the time, a science teacher at the high school, Andrew Greenwood, gave a detailed description of the craft to local media.

He stated that the flying object was, “Like a thin beam of light, about half the length of a light aircraft. It was silvery-grey and seemed to ‘thicken’ at times. The thickening was similar to when a disc is turned to show the underside.” 30

Segment of The Dandenong Journal in which Greenwood describes what he saw.

Testimonies from students seem to confirm Greenwood’s description, with it being described as saucer-shaped and silver-grey in colour.

Forty-four years after the event, in 2010, Terry Peck, who had been a student at the school at the time of the incident, stated that she still remembered what happened that day. She described how she and her classmates chased after the object when it started to descend behind the trees into the paddock.

“I was about 6m away from it. It was bigger than a car and circular. I think I saw some lights underneath it.

“Two girls were there before me. One was terribly upset and they were pale, really white, ghostly white. They just said they had passed out, fainted. One was taken to hospital in an ambulance.’’ 31

As extraordinary as it sounds, Peck’s testimony and description of the object is one of many. Media reports from the time estimated that “hundreds of children and a number of teachers” witnessed the mysterious silver object that morning. 32

Afterwards, students claim that they were told to “keep quiet” about what they had seen. This has led many to speculate that the government attempted to cover up the event. 33

In 2010, Jacqueline Argent, who witnessed the UFO as a student at Westall High School, came forward claiming to have been interrogated by three men in the headmaster’s office.

“They had good-quality suits and were well spoken. They said, ‘I suppose you saw little green men’?” 34

Of course, it is easy to discredit some of the later testimonies and allegations of conspiracy as a consequence of the bandwagon effect. Yet, sceptics who have studied the case in the decades that have followed have been unable to explain conclusively the strange, school-yard incident. Despite suggestions of the object being an experimental aircraft, there is no evidence to support this theory.

“Nobody [both Australian and foreign air forces] had anything that hovered silently, darted about playing cat and mouse, or flattened grass when it landed. The closest thing I can find would be the flying saucer shaped Avrocar, which was desperately unsuccessful and had been cancelled five years before Westall. If we introduced the suggestion that maybe an improved version lived on in secret and was tested in the middle of Melbourne in broad daylight, we’d be on very thin ice. There’s no evidence for that, and it would remain unknown to every aviation historian and author.” 35

According to Terry Peck, two girls arrived at the mysterious object first, and fainted because of what they saw. (Image source: Public Domain)

Not only that, no explanation has been provided to explain the five other aircraft which were described as pursuing the object.

“They [the witnesses] said a number of small aeroplanes circled around it. However, a check later showed that no commercial, private or RAAF pilots had reported anything unusual in the area. 36

The closest explanation that has been provided to explain the Westall incident is a weather balloon, which was known to have been released in the area that day.

“The Weather Bureau released a balloon at Laverton at 8.30am, and the westerly wind blowing at the time could have moved it into the area where the sighting was reported.” 37

However, witnesses affirm that the object they saw was very different from a weather balloon, and that it had both descended and ascended at speed, before being chased by other aircraft. If this is the case, the students and teachers of Westall High School may very well have been part of one of the biggest – and most impressive – mass UFO sightings in history.

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About Laura 28 Articles
Falling more strongly on the side of scepticism, Laura's passion is for the details. She is fascinated by the culture implications and psychology of strange phenomena. Some of Laura's main interests are parapsychological experiments; the paranormal in history and folklore; and, haunted locations.