Ghost Hunting with Public Safety: Are They Still Among Us?


Photo by Sydney Sinks

Jason Messina and Lane Caspar

Huddled around a monitor, several Public Safety officers point out the alleged ghost caught on surveillance footage. Their excitement is evident, as well as their wholehearted belief in the supernatural occurrence. 

The small orb on the screen was undeniably out of the ordinary, but the behavior and its sudden disappearance made it hard to disregard as just a fluke.

The city of Decatur is known for many things–soy, trains, and Millikin University, to name a few–but one of the most notorious aspects of the city is the haunted nature of it. 

Buildings like the historic Lincoln Theatre, which was built in 1916, add to the haunted allure of the city. The Lincoln Theatre suffered a fire in the early 1960s, and it is well-known for being the site of many hauntings. Legends like Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Harry Houdini have all performed in the Lincoln Theatre, but now the only legends who patronize the establishment are spirits.

Another creepy occurrence that has taken place throughout the city is the surprising unearthing of bones in unexpected places. Rumor has it that parts of Decatur–and, by extension, Millikin University–were built in on an ancient Native burial ground. 

There have been instances when businesses have come across bones while breaking ground for new buildings, such as when Ben Frazier discovered bones in the ground when constructing the Blu Phoenix in Decatur.

As for Millikin University specifically, the biggest area of tragedy would have to be when the James Millikin homestead was used as a quarantine house for flu and pneumonia patients in 1919. Many people lost their lives during this difficult time.

Considering this, it is easy to understand why Millikin’s Public Safety officers are so convinced that the campus they work at is haunted.

One officer in particular, “Janet,” is especially convinced that Millikin is haunted. When prompted, Janet gushed for several minutes about her various experiences on campus. She also said that while working nights, the strange occurrences caught on film always seem to happen to her.

“I was trying to look for a student that was going through the foyer, because September 18th was a low activity night and a student walking through Aston at 3 AM seemed suspicious,” Janet said. While looking for the student, she backed up the tape, and saw the strange orb appear and then disappear on screen. 

“It creeped me out so bad that I sent Tom an email about it,” Janet said.

 Janet has a habit of experiencing paranormal events on her late night shift. The “dancing ghost,” as the officers have started calling it, has been spotted by Janet and other officers many times while surveying the Aston foyer. To make matters even more unnerving, Aston and the “dancing ghost” are just steps away from the Public Safety office.

The timing of these occurrences is what is most interesting about this ghost. The orb first moved across the screen on September 18, 2018 at 3:04 AM, the night that Janet was on-duty. On March 18, 2019 at 3:04 AM the orb appeared again during Janet’s shift and moved across the screen… in exactly the same pattern as it did six months prior.

All of the officers as well as the investigators agreed that this coincidence in timing was almost impossible to deny as strange, and after seeing the footage firsthand, no one could offer any logical explanation. 

These events led to the offer of the investigators accompanying Janet on her late night rounds throughout Millikin’s campus on March 22, 2019. It clearly hadn’t been the first time that Millikin students had taken an interest in the Millikin happenings, nor the first time that curious students had crossed paths with Public Safety.

“I remember one night we came across these two boys who had an EMF detector, the thing that can measure paranormal activity,” Janet said, “I don’t know what they actually found though.”

This was the first tour provided by Public Safety to multiple haunted buildings during the peak hours of supernatural activity. Two investigators and two officers set out at 2:30 AM with the lofty goal of recording Millikin ghost activity with a voice recorder device.

The first building on the tour was Millikin’s notoriously haunted Old Gym. Students have claimed to hear and see ghostly encounters in the gym for years, including hearing phantom basketballs being dribbled on the court, as well as running on the decrepit track that is still hanging to this day.

Coming into the building, the eerie silence was broken only by the creaking of the floorboards underneath the feet of the investigators and the occasional sudden bangs of the metal pipes.

The gym, now being used as a dance studio and prop house for the School of Theatre and Dance, has seen better years. 

The crumpling floor in the back prop room added to the air of uneasiness felt by the investigators as they walked through the building, pausing occasionally to listen for any of the phantom dribbling or running that students described. Strange, dusty props dangled from the ceiling, and stacks of old furniture created a maze within the room.

Continuing on, the investigators journeyed up to the track, where students are not allowed access, but Public Safety officers are required to go.

“We have to come up here to check the fire extinguishers,” one officer said. “Somehow, I got stuck with this building three months in a row.”

The investigators also looked into the loud banging that causes Janet to be hesitant even to set foot in the building. However, they found the noise to just be from pipes underneath the building.

Although the investigators did not experience much in the building other than a sense of unease, the officers still stood by the assessment that Old Gym was haunted.

“You can hear a lot of strange noises in this building, and not just pipes,” one officer said.

Despite the belief of haunting, the only recorded death that has occurred in Old Gym was that of Clarence O. Foster, a 64-year-old caretaker who was found dead in the gym on the morning of March 28, 1942. Foster may be the one still haunting the practically abandoned gym, but it is impossible to know for sure.

Next, the team went to the Alumni and Development Office building, which most of the officers agreed is “extremely haunted.”

There is debate over what entity actually haunts the Alumni House. According to “Haunted Decatur” by Troy Taylor (2009), the Alumni House/former Zeta Tau Alpha house is haunted by Louise, the ghost of a maid of the Mueller family who used to own the house.

 But the rumor at Millikin and Public Safety is that the house is haunted by the ghost of the “wicked” housemother of Zeta Tau Alpha, who died in her attic bedroom.

“Apparently, she was a terrible lady,” the officer said. “She would run up and down the halls and scream at the girls when she was angry. Total witch of a woman.”

At the strike of 3 A.M., the investigators stood in the attic bedroom of the Alumni House in silence, listening. Soon, the hairs on the back of their necks stood on end and breathing became more difficult. Nothing was spotted, but it took several minutes for the team to shake the feeling after leaving the bedroom.

There is no recorded evidence that anyone has died in the Alumni House. However, the feeling of dread and unease that overcomes a person who stands in the attic cannot be without some reason.

At 3:15 A.M., the team moved on to Kirkland Fine Arts Center, where Public Safety officers are convinced ghosts reside in the orchestra pit.

“One of our guys refuses to come here anymore,” an officer said. “Not since the one night…”

He proceeded to tell the story of when said officer took a new recruit on the night rounds with him. The officer was checking out the orchestra pit when he felt a hand try to push him into the huge, dark chasm. When he got away from the pit, he noticed a white handprint on his shoulder where he felt the pressure coming from.

“Now whenever he’s supposed to come to KFAC, he makes someone else go instead,” the officer said.

The story did not line up with the investigators’ experience, as they saw nothing out of the ordinary during their time–besides the shock of seeing a big, empty theatre with a single light emanating from the stage. 

The booming noises heard beneath the stage by the pit were deduced to be just pipes expanding in the green room area. None of the investigators felt the sense of unease that they experienced in the Alumni House.

Perhaps this lack of activity was due to the protection from the “ghost light” that is left out every evening on the edge of the large KFAC stage.

“They always leave the ghost light out,” Janet said. “It’s so the edge of the stage is clearly marked, so no one falls into the pit, but it’s also supposed to keep spirits away.”

After debunking the rumors at KFAC, the investigators headed to another notoriously haunted location on Millikin’s campus: Albert Taylor Theatre in Shilling Hall.

Upon arrival at 3:44 AM, the team immediately noticed how hot the theatre was.

“Is it normally this hot in here?” an investigator asked.

“No, it’s not,” Janet said, shedding her coat while leading the team up the stairs in the theatre to the lighting stage.

It is on this lighting stage where the infamous Rail Girl is thought to reside. Among all of the lighting equipment, one can usually find a small pile of candy that is offered up as a tribute to the mischievous Rail Girl ghost, who has been blamed for malfunctions during productions in Albert Taylor.

However, despite there being a performance the very next night in the theatre, there was no candy on the railing for the poltergeist, nor was the ghost light set out on the edge of the stage. 

Janet and the other officer were both stumped; neither of them had ever come into Albert Taylor without the ghost light illuminating the edge of the stage because most of the theatre department at Millikin is paranoid and just as superstitious about spirits as the Public Safety officers. 

The team split up to investigate different areas of the theatre. Janet refused to go in certain places, but she guided the investigators to different locations.

One investigator was intrigued after feeling an area of the stage that was several degrees cooler than the rest of the theatre, and decided to follow the draft. Splitting off from everyone else, the investigator ventured up a back staircase, following the cool air.

Climbing higher and higher into the theatre, an ominous presence seemed to be nearby. Hair stood on end as the investigator stood in silence, debating between continuing down a dark hallway alone or heading back to the rest of the team.

Unable to shake the feeling of not being alone, the investigator went back downstairs, all but running down the rickety staircase.

“I told you I don’t like being in this place,” Janet said after hearing about the strange encounter upstairs.

At the same time, another investigator sat on the very edge of the stage, listening and watching for anything out of the ordinary. He found nothing at the time. But the audio recording had muffled, shifting, static and many other weird audio occurrences that could be heard for over a minute on the playback, despite sitting completely still during the duration of the recording.

Still shaken from the strange encounters in the theatre, the team headed to the Public Safety office to wrap up. The officers showed the investigators the foyer from the “dancing ghost” footage, and the team spent a few minutes sitting in the area.

One student, Bailey Hope, suggested that the Aston foyer was haunted by the woman who killed herself in the building many years ago.

“This one girl committed suicide because she didn’t get into the sorority she wanted,” Hope said. “She lived and died in Aston.”

The investigators discovered through archived “Decaturian” articles that a student died violently by her own hand in Aston Hall. Bernice Richardson committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid on February 1, 1927. 

Richardson had been joking about considering suicide to her roommate for days leading up to her death. 

Richardson was hoping to rush a sorority on campus, and she was invited to two recruitment parties. However, she discovered that she was failing out of Millikin, due to her failing grades in multiple classes. Because of the GPA requirements that all sororities maintain, Richardson knew she would not be able to accept the membership invitations.

Distraught, Richardson drank carbolic acid and killed herself in her Aston Hall dorm room. Her friends found her a few hours later.

Today, students at Millikin are convinced that Richardson continues to haunt the halls of Aston. Considering the violent and tragic nature of her death, this does not seem unfounded.

After sitting in Aston for a few minutes, the investigators headed home in an attempt to get a few hours of sleep before classes in the morning.

Decatur and Millikin University are both hot spots of paranormal activity. From discovered bones to rumors of ancient Indian burial grounds, the area clearly has a lot of history. Students will surely be unpacking rumors for years to come.