Haunted Oakland: Searching for the ghosts of Mills College

Mills College alumnus Alex Wright doesn’t remember exactly how old he was the first time he heard the strange footsteps from above the scenery shop at Lisser Hall. He was only a child, but he recalls thinking that it was different from the creaks and groans he had become accustomed to hearing in the old theater.

“My dad taught drama at Mills, so I practically grew up in that theater,” Wright said. “We used to build stuff there and paint scenery from a room located directly underneath the old wooden stage. I was down there, when I heard the sound of a heavy footstep, like a heel, and it went from one side of the stage to the other. I went up to the stage to see who was walking, but no one was there. That was when I knew for sure that I believed in ghosts.”

Oakland has accumulated many paranormal tales: A ghost at the-now-defunct Holmes Book Company on 14th Street reportedly liked to throw books around, and customers reported feeling uneasy while browsing shelves alone. Ghostly orbs have been said to appear in photographs taken at Preservation Park downtown, particularly at the historic Pardee Home, the house of former California governor George Pardee. One man told Oakland North that he felt an overwhelming sense of “pure evil” while visiting the master bedroom during open house on Mall Court in Oakland.

But Mills College, a predominantly women’s college located in East Oakland that traces its history back to 1852, seems to have a disproportionate number of Oakland’s ghost stories, with at least five of the buildings on campus associated with one or more paranormal experiences. Well-known stories include a vanishing horse-drawn carriage that crashes down the edge of a hill alongside campus before disappearing; a well-dressed woman who waits on the steps of Orchard-Meadow Hall only to vanish when passersbys take a second glance; a benevolent spirit that does students’ math homework when they fall asleep in one of the dorm libraries; and, like Wright’s experience, mysterious footsteps that pace the stage at Lisser Hall’s theater despite the fact that no one is on stage.

In Wright’s mind, the fact that the same stories persist over time, despite staff and student turnover, is evidence that the stories might be true. This prompted him to start his own website in order to document people’s ghostly experiences at the school. “There are those stories that I think every college campus has, like the one about a dorm room that the school won’t rent out because students have committed suicide there,” Wright said. “There’s nothing unique about those urban legends. But I put up the ones that were unique about Mills and had stuck around over the years. I felt like those had some degree of credibility.”

It’s possible for sites like Mills to be haunted, even if the surrounding area is not, said parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach, also known as “Professor Paranormal.” Auerbach, who has run the Bay Area-based Office of Paranormal Investigations since 1989, is a teacher and researcher in the field of parapsychology, which he describes as the study of phenomena of the mind, like extrasensory perception (ESP). According to Auerbach, environmental factors such as localized magnetic fields could make some places more paranormally active than others.

Emotional experiences and habitual actions can also cause places or objects to be imprinted with memories, Auerbach said, which distinguishes a “haunting” from an “apparition.” “Apparitions are sentient ghosts, but hauntings are repetitive and are not associated with personality,” he said. Most “ghosts” are hauntings rather than apparitions, and hauntings can range from mundane tasks like washing dishes to more emotionally scarring events like murder. “Hauntings can be disturbing, but they can’t actually hurt you,” Auerbach said. “We are bothered by anything that interrupts our normal perception of reality, but it’s just about as threatening as watching a scary movie at home.”

Wright said that he wasn’t afraid whenever he heard the footsteps in the Lisser Theater, which happened several times over the 27 years that he spent growing up and then attending school on the Mills campus. “I think ghosts make people uncomfortable, but I certainly never feared for my safety” he said. “There’s this presence that isn’t really a fear. It’s more of a ‘Gee, it would be really nice to be somewhere else right now’ feeling. It’s kind of a strange sensation. It’s a little bit of the unknown.”

Auerbach, who has worked extensively investigating paranormal activity in the Bay Area, said that Wright’s experience at Lisser Hall sounded like a classic case of a haunting, but that he would have to have more information to be sure. “The first step is to find primary witnesses like Alex [Wright], who can tell you about your experiences,” he said. “The next step is to look at alternative explanations and rule those out one by one. And finally, of course, you have to go into the field and see the place for yourself.”

***

It’s a crisp October day in Oakland, and from my vantage point on the back of a moving campus golf cart, Mills College rushes by in a blur of gold and orange. Flecks of light rain splatter against the plastic tarp covering the outside of the vehicle, which is being driven by one of the school’s office staff as part of our tour of campus, which has already included several of the dorms and a small cemetery. I am seated next to history professor Bertram Gordon, who regales me with the history of the campus as we approach our destination—Lisser Hall.

“The story is that Susan Mills, one of the school’s founders, wanted to keep Mills College as a liberal arts school, but Louis Lisser, one of the early stakeholders for whom the main building was named, disagreed,” says Gordon, a history teacher at Mills College. “Lisser was an artist and wanted to turn the school into a conservatory. They say that both of them would come to Lisser Hall in the middle of the night and pace back and forth, arguing.”

When asked how much of the story was fact and how much was fiction, Gordon merely shrugs and smiles. “It’s an oral tradition,” he says. “The stories are about embellishment, but it’s part of the charm of a small school like this.”

As we enter Lisser Hall, we are immediately struck by a musty smell that hangs thickly in the air, which is heated to be several degrees warmer than the outside of the building. The entrance of the building is carpeted blood-red, matching the velvet curtains and well-worn seat cushions in the theater that lies directly ahead of the entryway. A black-and-white portrait flanks one side of the main doors of the theater. A small sign below it reads:

Louis Lisser.
Professor of music, 1880-1910.
Died, California, 1919.

“There’s a debate among some of the believers about whether the ghost is Louis Lisser or Susan Mills,” Gordon informs me. “All of the supposed ghosts on this campus are female, with the possible exception of Lisser. Maybe it’s because it’s an all-female school.”

The floor of the theater itself is black, uncarpeted, and announces our entrance with a loud series of creaks. Five arches line either side of the theater, and an industrial-looking catwalk crisscrosses the ceiling between the house lights. A large two-tiered stage occupies the back of the theater, where a group of students are finishing a dance rehearsal.

As I say goodbye to Professor Gordon and my tour guide, they invite me to spend a few minutes in the theater to finish my note-taking. I settle into a chair at the back of the theater, and watch the dancers start to pack up. Closing my eyes, I become aware of the sounds of the room.

“If you had spent as much time in Lisser Hall as I had, you would know the sounds of the building,” Alex Wright had told me during our interview earlier that week. “You know the sound of the heat as it turns on, which used to make this large clunking noise like someone banging on the wall. That’s the kind of thing that people might mistake for a ghost, but I knew better. What I heard was different. Those footsteps were deliberate.”

I hear a small creaks at first, but nothing out of the ordinary for a building constructed at the turn of the century. A soft whirring noise, like the purr of a cat, emanates from the direction of one of the radiators alongside the wall of curtains. The voices of the dancers, loud at first, grow fainter until the ambient hum of the room is the only noise around me.

Opening my eyes, I am surprised to find that that dancers have left the building – I am alone in the theater. Sincerely hoping I am not breaking any rules, I cautiously climb the four stairs leading to the stage floor. As my first creaking footstep breaks the silence, the hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle. I imagine the sound’s effect on a person who didn’t know whether or not the footsteps were being made by an earthly or unearthly presence.

I pace slowly across the stage, walking the path of Mills College’s legend with deliberate care. Glancing in the stage wings, I can see nothing unusual – just a shelf with a few empty water bottles and a roll of toilet paper – yet my heart beats a little faster with every squeaking step I take. “There’s no one here,” I say out loud, descending the stage steps a little more quickly than is probably necessary. I’m no parapsychologist, and suddenly I have the impression that I’ve done just enough ghost-exploring for one day.

“When you head out to Mills, try to keep an open mind,” Auerbach had told me in preparation for my trip to Mills. “It’s fine to be skeptical,” he said. “The true meaning of skepticism is ‘doubt,’ not ‘disbelief.’ Disbelief can block a person from seeing something, and that doesn’t just apply to ghosts or apparitions.”

He estimates that about 50 percent of people have had a paranormal experience but are hesitant to talk about out of fear of being ridiculed. “If people talked about it openly, it wouldn’t be called ‘paranormal,’” Auerbach said. “It would just be normal.”

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