Photo by Mark Leffingwell
Mattgew Baxter (middle right), talks about camera placement in Macky Auditorium with Laura Peters, Bryan Bonner, Jack Hanley and Raiza Rangl for the filming of "Colorado X: Case Files of the Paranormal."
Parents sending freshman to the University of Colorado expect them to learn about environmental science, astrophysics or perhaps Russian literature.
But chances are one thing that will stick with all students in their first year and after graduation is the story of the tragic murder of Elaura Jaquette in Macky tower in 1966 and the ghost purported to haunt the tower to this day.
"It's campus folklore," says Jack Hanley, a folklorist and European historian working on his doctorate at CU. "It's part of the traditionary process, the initiation into new folklore. If (new students) haven't heard it yet, they will shortly."
But what if the ghost is more than folklore?
Hanley decided to find out.
After watching television shows about the paranormal, which he considered maddening for the lack of real investigatory techniques, Hanley had an idea.
What about a television show that was a mashup of SyFy's "Ghost Hunters" and Discovery Channel's "Myth Busters?"
Hanley assembled a team of skeptics composed of himself, a psychologist and an investigative journalist. He then approached the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society, a local group that uses various types of sophisticated equipment to investigate paranormal phenomena.
The result of the collaboration is "Colorado X: Case Files of the Paranormal," five hour-long television episodes that take a look at five cases of paranormal activity in Colorado. They started with Macky.
"It's the first one that came to mind," Hanley says.
But it was also the most sensitive. With a real victim, the situation was much less abstract than, say, the Lafayette vampire, which the group will investigate in a future episode. Yet CU and the Boulder police both cooperated, and researchers went about their work.
The team's reporting showed that the first reports of a ghost in the tower dated to roughly five years after the murder, around 1970.
The story was picked up by newspapers nationally, but the reports were different from local accounts and sensationalized.
"Some stories made an effort to point out that she was a 'pretty coed' or a 'tanned coed,' Hanley says. One account said she was murdered while other students were practicing music, drowning out her screams. No one was practicing, and the room was soundproof."
Finding a ghost -- or not
To investigate a haunting or other paranormal event -- monsters in lakes and UFO sightings also count -- the teams use their areas of expertise.
In the case of Rocky Mountain Paranormal, that involves several types of equipment. Investigator Bryan Bonner says the group has audio recording, seismographs, electro-magnetic field sensors and video among other types of investigatory devices. They take their work seriously, with members getting training and certification on each piece of equipment.
"We work hard on keeping a credible reputation, which in this field is hard to do," Bonner says.
He adds that the group has been ostracized a bit among paranormal groups, because Rocky Mountain Paranormal will not draw conclusions not supported by data.
He says in most cases, they find a natural explanation for the phenomenon they're investigating, But "very, very rarely" they find something they can't explain.
The paranormal research group spent five nights at Macky. Bonner says that hasn't been done before.
"Previously, teams who have been at the Macky have spent 45 minutes or a couple of hours," he says.
With an incident being reported only once a month of so, the statistical likelihood of encountering a ghost -- or an unexplained event with a natural explanation -- is very small if investigators are only there for a short time, Bonner says.
When the team arrived at Macky, they secured the space to make sure no outsiders came in and took baseline readings. That's to get the sounds of the building settling, to see car lights that might shine on the wall and to discover other occurrences that are normal to the building.
Bonner finds the investigations shown on television irritating for their lack of precision.
"They walk around with their equipment, talking," he says. "That's fun, but you won't get results. You're contaminating your data."
His team members stay still for hours.
"It's a terribly boring thing to do most of the time," he says. "(But) when we do find something, it's amazing."
Understanding a legend
Hanley's team began their investigation in a completely different way. They went about tracing the story of the Macky tower ghost and how it was and is spread.
An obvious transmission point was Banjo Billy and his tours, which stop at Macky.
"He's out there four times a week, taking tourists from Colorado and all parts of the country and telling them ghost stories," Hanley says.
The team worked back, finding the primary sources of information.
"It's funny how badly transformed and mutated (the story is)," Hanley says. "In one of the first scenes (of 'Case Files of the Paranormal,' we have) 10 or 12 different students telling us the story. All they can agree on is that there is a student and a tower."
The story is also omnipresent in Boulder. During the team's investigation, they caught two separate groups of teenagers trying to sneak into the tower, Hanley says, adding that the ghost story is so full of cultural archetypes that it was bound to persist even if a ghost was never there.
Jaquette was a girl in a tower, in peril, a cultural meme dating to the 14th century. It's also a plot familiar to horror movie fans -- a campus coed, alone and unable to get help. Sadly, the crime was also very bloody.
The story is fed by new initiants, as Hanley calls them, coming to CU every year and hearing about the murder and the ghost.
The episode is in the final editing stages. The format includes an introduction to the story of Macky tower, with action intercut between the two groups' investigations. Each group then presents their conclusions and either agree or disagree on the results.
So, is there a ghost at Macky?
Hanley will say only that both groups agreed on their conclusion.
Students learning about the Macky ghost along with their Tolstoy, will have to wait until December when the episode is played on the Colorado X Web site or picked up by television to find out if there actually is a ghost on campus -- or at least if two teams of investigators think there is a ghost.
Those who have a personal sighting can draw their own conclusions.