Last Sunday night, a University of Montana Public Safety officer met creative writing professor Debra Magpie Earling and 10 students from her upper division storytelling class outside one of campus' oldest buildings. The officer pulled out a ring of keys and climbed the granite steps to the front door. "This is totally normal," he said coyly as Earling and her students entered the 104-year-old foyer. "We always get requests to have Jeannette Rankin Hall unlocked at 9 p.m. on Sunday night."
Though it may seem strange to some, exploring the unlit building is nothing new to Earling. In spring 1996, she was teaching a night class in Jeannette Rankin Hall room 202, when her class was interrupted by a commotion in room 203.
"We could hear moving chairs, a professor's voice booming and people laughing," Earling remembers. "My whole class [68 students] heard it, and we stopped class."
She says the sound continued until one of her students went to open the door to 203. The room was empty and suddenly quiet.
Since that day Earling has returned to Jeannette Rankin Hall, which today houses the UM School of Social Work. Over the years, she has heard unexplained footsteps and knocking, and spoke with a custodian who also heard a lecture come from an empty room 203.
Sometimes Earling brings her students to help investigate. Last weekend, she asked her pupils to sit with their palms flat on the table, fingers outstretched, pinkies overlapping with their neighbors (so no one would play tricks). She lit a candle, plugged in a tape recorder and addressed the dark room. "Is anyone here with us?" she asked. Her students followed with more questions: "Were you a university employee? How did you die?"
After the questions conjured no audible response, Earling spoke louder. "If there are any spirits in this building, please come closer. Walk up the stairs to this room," she said. "Step-by-step, come up the stairs. You are almost here. Keep coming."
In the end, the night produced no definitive encounters with the dead, but given the nervous smiles, awkward laughter and one graduate student gasping and asking urgently, "Did anyone feel that?" it was clear how the experience might benefit a young writer.
"Ghost stories are the original stories," Earling said. "They are the spark. They make us want to tell stories."