The Haunting on Sunset Hill (a One-Shot Story)

By Dave Powell

This cute little building was the fraternity house on the college campus that made me whole. But it’s also where I survived my most terrifying “paranormal” experience ever. And I’ve had quite a few.

Granville, Ohio, 1966

When I arrived at Denison University, this was the American Commons Club (ACC) house. After that “non-Greek” organization debuted at Denison in 1916-17, a second chapter opened at Michigan’s Adrian College, and from there, the organization spread across the country. It offered fraternal experiences that were blind to race, religion, color, or (in my case) a severe lack of socialization. But by the time I appeared at this building’s front door during 1966 fraternity rush, the ACC network had withered back to just Denison’s founding chapter.

I’d already toured the broom closets and bathrooms of the other houses on Fraternity Circle, and understood their disinterest in me. It was also a cold, rainy evening, and my campus map had fallen into a puddle. I couldn’t handle even that challenge… and showed up at ACC’s door in tears. The most important thing I really needed to learn in college was how to live like (and among) normal human beings. And ACC was my last appointment of the evening.

The chapter president opened the door, invited me in, brought me downstairs to the fireplaced living room, and settled me in with the other members. We talked for nearly two hours, and at the end, he said:

“We think your grades can help our average… and we KNOW we can help you! So we won’t pledge you this semester. But feel free to come over any time, have meals with us, and attend our parties. And if we still like each other at the end of the semester, we’ll pledge you after Christmas.”

But mom was having none of it. Stories of fraternity hazing had filled radio and TV airwaves for months, and when I told her about ACC, she said:

“NO… you are NOT joining a fraternity. Period!”

But when she told dad about it, my life changed forever.

“Let Him Join”

Context would be helpful here. Dad’s extreme obsessive-compulsiveness about dirt and dust was the main reason I was in such sad shape. By the time I entered college, I’d never ridden a bike beyond our driveway, driven a car or been in a city bus. I’d never attended school parties or games, participated in extramural activities, set foot on dusty baseball fields, or even really dated. My brother, sisters and I were rarely allowed to walk out of the house– or play outside– when dad was home. And whenever we returned from school, church or doctors’ appointments, he thoroughly sanitized us before we could go inside.

He cleaned us still more after meals. The (for me) hours-long process involved soap, water, alcohol, petroleum-based “mineral spirits,” sticky-tape rolls, a whisk broom, and a vacuum cleaner that sucked dust off our clothes and the bottoms of our feet before we could carefully step across the threshold between the kitchen and living room. (As the eldest child, and after dinner on school nights, I’d often reach the living room at midnight or later.) And in houses without air conditioning– whose doors rarely opened and windows stayed always closed– Ohio’s sauna-hot summers made our childhood a searingly surreal experience. That’s only part of the picture; enough to give you the gist.

But when mom told dad about ACC, he pretty much made up for all of that. He said, “Let him join,” reached into a drawer, and handed her a tiny box. Inside, was his old pin from when he had belonged to ACC’s Adrian chapter in the 1930s! None of us knew he had even been in a fraternity… let alone ACC. And I’m sure he felt it might do me a world of good.

It did. Learning to live with fifty normal guys who freely tracked dust and dirt into the place at all hours– and where I could come and go as I pleased– was what I needed even more than Denison’s courses.

Exploring Higher Dimensions

That, and mathematics! I majored in math, and in my junior year, proposed a “pioneering,” for-credit, senior-research project. I would develop equations for a Fortran computer program that would “fly” like a space probe through higher-dimensional spaces and send back images of mathematical objects constructed there. My professors said it couldn’t be done, but when I showed them how it would, they gave me an instant “A”… contingent on their “getting that program.”

It also may have been the first-ever implementation of the algorithms that mathematicians still use to visualize higher-dimensional structures. For while Denison’s professors and I were viewing the shapes of black-hole singularities and exploring Einstein’s Space-Time-Continuum within the higher space in which it existed, Byte magazine profiled a different university’s “pioneering computer program” that could only draw pictures of 4-D cubes. For Denison’s happy little band of hyper-dimensional explorers, that was so last year!

A Memorable Blackout

And I stayed on campus over senior-year Christmas break to use the program for a personal project. It was a very snowy holiday on Denison’s beautiful hill, and I was literally the only person still there. My younger brother Byron had developed a formula for “self-reproducing curves in any number of mathematical dimensions,” and I was using the program to send back pictures of these curves from dimensions up to the 27th.

NOTE: A “self-reproducing curve” is a line any piece of which can slide along– and regenerate— the entire curve while always remaining within it. For example, in a 2-D plane, a circle’s circumference is self-reproducing– any segment of it can slide around the entire circumference while still remaining always part of it. In 3-D space, the curve is a helix that extends to infinity in two directions.

And on Christmas-Eve night, 1969, my IBM 1130 program was entering the 20th dimension when the computer suddenly died and the room went black. The hall outside was dark as well. And when I finally felt my way out of the basement of Fellows Hall, I saw that the entire campus… and all of Granville… was lit only by stars.

And Then IT Came

I literally had to feel my way across campus and into the ACC house. With no electricity, I decided to read Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” in my room by candlelight. It was pleasant, and I read until around 1 a.m., when power still hadn’t returned.

In the opening photo, my room was the one at the building’s front-right corner. The house also sat at the top of a steep hill, which plunged through the woods to intramural fields far below. So while my room’s front window was at ground level, the window on the side around the corner was on the second floor. That’s important.

Carrying a candle, I went to brush my teeth in the nearby bathroom. But as I returned, something that felt like fingertips pushed into my back. Turning around, the only thing I saw was a faint circular glow at the farthest end of the hall (at the far-left end of the building in the photo). The glow grew brighter until it became a blinding white sphere.

Then, it began floating down the hall toward me… intensely illuminating the ceiling, walls and floor around it as it advanced. But when it suddenly accelerated, I did NOT wait to see what it would look like when it reached me. I bolted to my room, locked the door, and propped a chair under its knob. (Yes… I know… but what else was one to do!)

In seconds, the light was outside my door and the knob turned. But after a few seconds, the light blinked out.

I’ll Sleep In

I made a snap decision to not use the communal sleeping porch that ran along the back of the house. Ohio’s 1969 fire laws required that the porch windows remain open even in winter (when we slept under electric blankets… and sometimes woke with snow on our faces). And I didn’t relish sleeping near windows potentially open to whatever I’d just seen.

No sooner had I decided to stay in my room, than all hell broke loose outside. Something started screaming and violently pounding on the exterior wall near my front window. The building shook as the pounding crept across the front wall… then the window… around the corner… across the side window… to the back of the building… and then retraced its path. And when the pounding crossed the windows, their curtains flicked inward, as if pushed by air pressure from impacted glass. Whatever was out there made several such passes back and forth before it too suddenly stopped.

But look again at the photo. Note how the attacker would have been at ground level in front of the house, but in the air at the second floor the instant it rounded the corner! And when I ventured outside in the calming light of morning, I found no prints or disturbances– from man or beast– in the snow. Whatever shook the building that night had never touched the ground.

Surrounded by woods, the house was isolated from the other fraternities. And the campus cemetery was across the road. Several weeks after my experience, I happened to be outside when our cook (“Mrs. W”) arrived with groceries. Her kitchen was below the end of the hall where my “light” had first appeared. And she asked if I’d help her get her bags in faster. That end of the house, she claimed, “always gave her the willies.”

A Pioneering Program

My program did actually receive professional recognition of sorts. After I finished plotting Byron’s formula up through 27 dimensions, we noticed a fascinating pattern. The “self-reproducing curves” in even-numbered dimensions were what mathematicians call “closed and bounded” (like baseball seams). But in odd-numbered dimensions, they shot to infinity in multiple directions. They were completely “unbounded.”

Only mathematicians would care about that, and ours was just a theoretical demonstration… not a proof. But we were still so surprised, that we sent our findings to Martin Gardner, author of Scientific American’s popular “Mathematical Games” section. And he mentioned our “pioneering work” in one of his columns!

But the program also once failed quite spectacularly! After I graduated, one of my professors wanted to “visually explore” a gigantic Group-Theory structure appropriately called “The Monster.” It would require much more data than Denison’s IBM 1130 could handle. So we brought the program’s punch-card deck and his enormous stack of data cards to The Ohio State University’s new and more powerful IBM 360 mainframe.

And it refused to run my 1130 version of Fortran.  We spent an entire afternoon trying to make things work. And I eventually became so frustrated that I typed “Go to hell” on the 360’s keyboard. The computer beeped and blinked for a few seconds, and then– I kid you not– its teletype terminal printed:

“Have arrived at Hell One…
Proceeding to Hell Two…”

And then… it crashed.

Epilogue

To compete with “Greek” fraternities, in 1969, we moved ACC’s charter to Delta Chi. This hard decision was made easier because we could keep ACC’s Open-Door policy and our multi-racial, multi-religious membership. It was unique thinking at the time.

Today, the building (now called “Sunset House”) is a cosy dorm for single students. The views down that hill from its back are probably still spectacular. I doubt that anyone else has experienced anything spooky there (it always had such “good vibes” after all). But as mentioned earlier, things seem to happen around me all the time… and I don’t know why.

For people such as I, it helped that in the fall of 1966, I landed where friendship was valued over mystic rituals, and personal support over hazing. And after what dad did to get me where I needed to be, I think he too deserves credit for making me whole again– along with Denison, ACC and Delta Chi.

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.

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About The Author

By Dave Powell
Trained in mathematics, physics, cosmology, computer programming and science journalism. Retired mathematician, award-winning technical and journalistic writer. 1989 winner of the Bruce B. Howat Award-- an international business-journalism equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. (Only one Howat was awarded each year, IF the committee in Geneva found an article they really liked. But I don't think the prize is granted anymore.) Also a past author and editorial advisor for Sesame Street... where I regularly worked with Jim Henson and Kermit!
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Comments

Murray Kriner on The Haunting on Sunset Hill (a One-Shot Story)

Comment posted: 26/04/2023

When I started reading this account, there was little that could prepare me for your story, or the setting it all took place in. I was born not ten miles from Denison, had a Great Grandfather on my mother's side that had been a journalist at the Newark paper, finally having the distinction of being the Licking County Historian following The Great War (W.W. I). Been to graduations of friends at Denison, and probably strolled past your mentioned location on numerous occasions. The Welsh Hills which are adjacent to the University have often been recounted as having spiritual residues from its early days prior to the founding of Granville itself (being the frontier of a growing nation prior to President Jefferson's expansion Westward). If you manage to find a copy, Denison Press published a history of this region in the Mid 20th Century from many accounts given by Denison's founding members. I've lingered too long here, but thank you for the recollections you've shared, and am gracious for the recounting of that chilling tale you experienced long ago. Warmest Regards, Murray
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 26/04/2023

A most interesting comment, Murray! I think I may have the book you mention. Was it "Denison: The Story of an Ohio College" by G. Wallace Chessman? (I also have the "companion" volume: "Granville: The Story of an Ohio Village" by William T. Utter.) Must give them a read! Wow, I completely forgot about the "Welsh Hills." But one of my other 35mmc articles mentions a lunch I had with one of my former astronomy professors (on the trip where I took this article's photo). He thought he'd found a heretofore unknown mound-builder structure under a grassy field close to campus. Must check back to see if he did. I'm also VERY glad to hear of your connection with the area... and that you enjoyed "revisiting" it! Very Sincerely, Dave

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Mike Brooks on The Haunting on Sunset Hill (a One-Shot Story)

Comment posted: 26/04/2023

Wow, I'm glad things worked out because that was a really sad childhood story.
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Dave Powell replied:

Comment posted: 26/04/2023

Thank you so much Mike... That means a lot! I just tried to post a reply, but it disappeared into the ether. So here goes again... I decided to write the story (with uncomfortable supporting details) for a few reasons. One was to show that it IS possible to rise above difficult childhoods, and even to thrive. The world always needs to hear that! Another reason was to demonstrate that fraternal organizations can do so much good when they shift their focus away from meaningless (and sometimes harmful) rituals, and instead, prioritize personal growth and community projects. And a third reason was to illustrate that our lives often contain invisible "through lines," connecting seemingly unrelated events separated in space and time. In this case, when dad belonged to ACC in the 1930s, he could not have known how important that would eventually be to one of his future children. And when I told mom about joining ACC, I hadn't a clue that it would draw such a life-critical response from dad. Neither he nor I knew we were connected-- in a physical way (his ACC pin)-- over a span of decades that began before my birth. Looking at life in the rear-view mirror often shows us that the universe is a VERY connected place. And being able to share all this in a One-Shot story was icing on the cake!

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