On October 13, 2007 the Kent, Ohio Record-Courier reported that Kent State University was rife with rumors alleging that famous psychic Sylvia Browne had appeared on the Montel Williams Show and predicted a mass murder would take place on the campus Halloween night. University administrators investigated, the report continued, and concluded the story was an "urban legend."
Rewind to October 28, 1998....
THERE WAS no mistaking the urgency of the message that appeared in my inbox on the 21st of October. The subject header read: "Mass Murder at MSU." The message said:
Have you heard of this one? I am a student at Michigan State University and there is this rumor all over campus about a mass murder that is predicted to take place on Halloween (next weekend). This prediction was supposedly made on the Oprah show a couple of weeks ago by the same lady that predicted the OK bombing a couple of years ago. Have you heard anything about this? Everyone here is talking about it. It's in the paper, it's on the radio, and students here are frankly scared s***less. Please let me know whether you know if this is an urban legend or if I should get out of town next weekend. Please reply ASAP. This is extremely important!
As a matter of fact I had heard the same rumor not a week before. Pat Grauer, an About.com colleague who also happened to be the public relations director for the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State, had written to apprise me of the urban-legendish rumor because her office was receiving quite a few inquiries about it "besieged" was actually the word she used and could I shed any light on the situation?
"It is reported," she wrote, "that last Monday or Tuesday on Oprah there was a guest who predicted (items in parentheses vary with teller):
Before the end of October there is going to be a mass murder (bombing) in a large H-shaped (name begins with H) building on a (Big Ten) university campus (in Michigan) (that has a morgue in it) (near some railroad tracks).
"I called university administration," Pat went on to say. "They've gotten a number of worried calls, from parents no less! I called Oprah's staff, and they said they've been "swamped" with queries all week, and that NOTHING like that was said on the show.
"The building in which I'm sitting at the moment fits the rumor to a 'T,'" she said. "People are scared."
'Wow, you've got a problem'
Neither I nor Pat knew it at the time, but the same rumor was spreading simultaneously at the University of Dayton and would soon erupt at the University of Michigan and other campuses, as well.
"Wow, you've got a problem," I wrote back to Pat. "I hadn't heard a word about this rumor until you contacted me. I've looked around to see if there's a buzz on the Internet and couldn't find anything there, either."
In my ignorance, I was treating the rumor as an isolated phenomenon. True, it had a familiar ring, but I failed to recognize it as a known urban legend a gap in my education soon to be filled with Pat Grauer's help. She wrote the next day:
"There was great reassurance at http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/campus.asp, which basically detailed the whole rumor as early as April 1997."
As early as 1997? So it was an urban legend! The URL pointed to the Urban Legends Reference Pages (Snopes.com), where every bogus story meets its match in David and Barbara Mikkelson, the Nick and Nora Charles of urban legendry. Unsurprisingly, they'd already sniffed out the goods on this one. From their article, "Campus Halloween Murders":
Origins: This story's first known appearance was in the Midwest in 1968, perhaps inspired by Richard Speck's murder of nine nurses in a Chicago rooming house earlier that year. It has seen numerous outbreaks since then, most notably in 1979 (Midwest), 1983 (nationwide), 1986 (Central Pennsylvania), and 1991 (New England). After the release of the film "Urban Legend" in 1998, another outbreak of this rumor occurred in Michigan, where it was said that the the killer would strike "on a Big Ten campus in Michigan."
It was back to the library for me.
Meanwhile, back at Michigan State
"URBAN LEGEND STRIKES ‘U'," blared the front page of the State News of MSU on October 16. "STUDENTS NEED NOT FEAR A HALLOWEEN MASSACRE THIS YEAR." (Or any year, one would hope. )
The article was full of reassuring words from University officials. A publicist for Oprah Winfrey stated that no such prediction had been made on her show. This was enough to soothe the frayed nerves of some students, but not all.
"I'm scared," freshman Adam Panter told the News. "I’m going to the fraternity house for the weekend. I don’t care if it is true or not. I’m not waiting around to find out."
Panter resides in Holden Hall, an H-shaped building which also happens to be near some railroad tracks — a triple-whammy, if the rampant rumors are to be believed. State News staff writer Jennifer Meese summarized them thus:
There are several different versions of the story. One of the most widely heard at MSU goes like this: a serial killer dressed as Little Bo Peep will appear on a Big Ten campus in Michigan on Halloween. The killer will murder about 20 people in a dorm located near railroad tracks with a name beginning with an "H." Variations of the story have the serial killer dressed in regular clothes or the crimes being committed in a dorm shaped like an "H" or near a cemetery.
Little Bo Peep???