This is the first of many musings discussing research and how such influences have shaped and driven my works. Perhaps some of this insight will inspire other writers the same way such insight has inspired me.

Also, I must maintain an unbiased perspective, to consider all alternatives, ideas and other possible notions regardless of my personal views or beliefs, in order to develop an intriguing, balanced, credible and realistic story. Ironically enough, opposing arguments contribute to the premise of my novel as much as supporting arguments do.

In the end, I try not to think to hard on these points, but to remain laidback about the whole thing. The well-developed and naturally flowing stories emerge easier that way.

Echoes from the Past

Recently, I found myself becoming absorbed in one intriguing find that serves as a major influence for a novel I am writing, not only because the site correlates in ambiance with a major setting in the story, but also because it speaks to me with distant voices reminiscent to the voices that speak to my story’s protagonist. These voices echo from the past, like those of some resonating entity penetrating me with such a force that pulls me to the site. Everything this place represents is covered in mystique that has captured my imagination.

‘What place is this?’ you may ask.

This is a place known as Lambertville. No, it’s not an abandoned military base or some obscure American Civil War battlefield—it is, of all places, an old high school.

Lambertville High School, in western New Jersey, has a long history filled with more than just a few inexplicable if not interesting stories. A once-lively place consisting of a small building and a bell tower, the school is now a decrepit hulk, resting under a veil of trees on a hill overlooking New Hope, Pennsylvania. The roof and third floor are gone, and the interior is a cold darkness screaming with a sense of foreboding.

This place has come to be what I consider the ‘Titanic’ of abandoned high schools, and for good reason—the mysteries behind this place are more than just imaginary.

A Legend Built on Mysteries . . .

According to a tribute stone erected at the site, the school was built in 1854—before the Civil War. That means Lambertville was open for classes during a time prior to that long-ago war serving as but a distant memory to us today. That’s how antiquated the school is. The stone rests in the ground near the center of the western wall, situated so that it may watch the sun set everyday. Painted graffiti scrawled across its face reflects the vandalism it has endured over the years, but the stone refuses to falter. Truly inspirational and extraordinary indeed!

This is but the first mystery. The tribute was erected by the class of 1927, after a fire gutted most of the school back in the early-1920s (the date carved into the brick over both doors—‘1924’—provides some indication as to the time period). The fury that consumed Lambertville came about as a result of unknown causes, though some enthusiasts believe the culprit to have been a boiler explosion (common in many stories regarding school fires). The tribute is reminiscent of a tombstone. Even more eerie, that representation was apparently intended.

The story goes that this fire took the lives of 150 students and some staff and that the stone is in memory of them. Other indications related to these deaths resonate here as well: the disturbing chalkboard drawings that depict praying and burning students, voices and laughter on the top level, steady footsteps, and messages scribbled along the walls here and there that allude to some horrible tragedy long ago . . .

Still, city officials, graduates of the high school (from the 1950s) and others who have studied the background of the place have attested that such an event never occurred, that the deaths are all hearsay and fiction created by someone’s imagination. Supposedly, the fire was at night when the school was empty, despite the inference through historical records that students used to live on the upper level during the school’s early years. When did this arrangement change? I don’t dispute any of this. These sources serve as greater authorities on the subject than I, but I am curious.

I have to ask, though: Who would conceive such stories and why? Every story has a basis of reality somewhere. Whatever that reality is, this mystery has grabbed the attention of so many people, many of whom have visited the school from all over the United States. They have taken pictures as if the place were some vacation spot, and then subsequently posted those images on their own respective websites. Hell, the school even has a page on Wikipedia. No other abandoned high school can make that claim.

So I ask again: Who would conceive such stories and why?

The chalkboard theory, which leads into another mystery, seems to have been true; as the website alluded to above actually features images of students drawn in elaborate detail.

Yet there are simple explanations behind this one. One woman who claimed to have graduated back in 1954 said in a personal account that she knew the art teacher who had drawn them on the boards before leaving the school. She never explained why the teacher would do this, and I find it problematic for that reason. Also, even if a teacher from the 1950s had drawn these images, it’s doubtful that said images would have lasted so long without fading, being erased, or marred in someway (though there are methods to freeze chalk on a blackboard). Vandals would have assured and even facilitated this. Another possibility is that, at some point, an artist thrill-seeker could have drawn the images on the boards to generate excitement. If is true, apparently, s/he succeeded.

Alas, all the chalkboards are gone now, likely stolen by souvenir-hunters who wished to hang them in their basements or sell them on eBay. Needless to say, the place is a smorgasbord; everyone goes there to snatch up something before the building finally collapses. It’s not like the owner is protective of such items; if he wanted anything in there, he would have had it removed and stored away long ago. Before long, nothing will be left except the shell itself—and maybe the ghosts, if there are any.

As for ghosts, or spirits, there are other stories as well. Take, for example, the case of Buckeye Bill, probably the most famous mystery associated with Lambertville. This entity and the story on which he is based have become a unified legend.

The year was 1935: Lambertville and New Hope high schools engaged in their famous football game. During the game, one of the New Hope Buckeye quarterbacks caught the ball. A pile-up ended his attempt to make a touchdown. When the players rose, everyone stood horrified to see that the quarterback lay dead with a broken neck, his head twisted 180 degrees (his face was over his back). The parents of the New Hope student body subsequently insisted that the school no longer sponsor football. To this day, New Hope High School does not have a football team. This entire story is supposedly documented and true, although it doesn’t serve as evidence to substantiate the paranormal stories that were to follow.

As the legend goes, if one stands on the front landing to the main floor of the west wing and challenges Billy with “Billy, I challenge you to a game of football!” a football is said to fly from within the darkness and slam into the challenger’s face, breaking her/his neck. Another variation of this legend assumes that if one stands on the old football field (which lies up the hill, assuming anyone can ever find it) and cries “Billy, I challenge you to a race!” a breeze sweeps overhead and/or a pair of red eyes appears and a deep voice growls “run to the other end of the field or die!” If the challenger doesn’t run or runs and doesn’t make it to the other side, s/he dies.

This second variation derives from a questionable event that also occurred back in 1935 immediately following the game that had claimed the life of Buckeye Billy. Allegedly, five boys were on the football field. One jokingly challenged Billy. A pair of eyes appeared and said “run or die!” The boys jumped, startled, and four ran while the fifth didn’t. Three made it across the field, but the fourth stumbled and could not be found. The next day, the authorities found the last two boys at the field. They were dead and their heads were turned 180 degrees. The story is supposedly true, yet it was passed along as hearsay, perhaps by someone who might have wanted simply to scare his friends. Teenagers can be and frequently are this way. Personally, this story sounds too fantastic to be true, so I am inclined to adhere to a great deal of skepticism.

By the way, this is the story around which the movie Only Go There at Night revolves. Five friends go on a thrill adventure to a supposedly haunted high school in New Jersey where two get killed and, upon investigation, the police come to realize that the killer might not be a living human being (i.e. a spirit, presumably based on Buckeye Billy). The simple difference here, however, is that the five boys live in present-day, not seventy-five years ago. I haven’t yet seen the movie, but the fact that these boys are going to a supposedly ‘haunted’ high school suggests that a significant amount of time has past since the school was in use for classes. The premise here seems to consider, among other things: What if the legends WERE true?

Let’s also keep in mind that several thrill-seekers have gone to the school at night and have challenged Buckeye Billy according to version #1 (the stair landing scenario) and nothing happened. Does Billy choose when to come out? Could something else explain why nothing happened? I don’t mean to mock this, because I do believe in spirits and a spirit realm, but if nothing happened, the story would be difficult to believe and/or accept. That’s not saying that there isn’t some aspect of reality on which the legend is based. After all, as said, every story has its origins in some basis of reality.

Still, how could a story like this be true? What could have possibly caused this? Why would Billy have red eyes and threaten the lives of those who ‘challenge’ him? And at a high school he didn’t even attend? The story seems farfetched, but that’s only because we don’t know the account on which it’s based, the story that inspired it, and there likely was one. What was it? Was it the experience the five boys had in 1935?

If these stories and legends are not true, where did they originate?

Yet, another fire broke out soon afterward, but the exact year is not known. This event resulted in no deaths or injuries, but significant damage still incurred and repairs initiated. Apparently, Lambertville was developing a pattern of attracting fire.

The school finally closed its doors somewhere between 1954 and 1959 (sources conflict on the date). The closing had nothing to do with the fire as commonly believed, but to zoning issues and the need for city expansion. The Lambertville community had outgrown it and the area consolidated all students into the larger South Hunterdon High School, which is still in operation today. Not only does this new structure easily house all the students in one place, but a single school cuts down on city expenses and minimizes taxes involved. The old high school was disregarded at that point, but it was not razed.

Also of special note is the strange fact that the school closed one century, perhaps to the year, from the time it was constructed and opened. The second fire occurred around this time, but, as said, the specific year is not known.

After sitting empty in excess of ten years, Lambertville High School reopened for business—literally. During the 1970s, a private machine press company occupied the basement and changed the area into workspace (the equipment is still there, though not operational) while families rented the upper level and had the total run of the building. It’s admirable that the high school, instead of being destroyed, took on the role of a shelter for homeless families who might have even worked downstairs. How convenient and surreal, considering the structure’s earlier past.

When the last fire broke out around 1992, the city decided not to rebuild. The families disappeared and the business apparently moved on without taking its machinery. That’s odd, isn’t it? I say that because the last fire supposedly destroyed only the upper floors, not the main floor or the basement (had the fire consumed those lower levels as well, nothing would have remained there; they would now be in the same condition as that of the upper floor), so there was no reason to leave this equipment.

The chaotic state which resulted from this final conflagration is the same in which the building is today, except that over the years the second floor collapsed in on the main floor in some areas, especially the east wing, which is essentially nothing more than four walls enclosing a great heap of rubble. Some classrooms and offices on the main floor there are still accessible. The upper-floor corridor in the central hub has caved in, exposing the hallway beneath to open air. Trees have sprouted in a rough terrain of dirt and grown throughout these upper levels, creating the appearance of some ancient ruins. Cracked doors are suspended or lie askew. Window panes are shattered and their frames wrenched or obliterated. The west wing windows are blown out and nothing more than a row of six large square holes. Rusted pipes twist around like weird sculptures. Sections of walls still stand amidst piles of scrap consisting of timber and bricks. Plaster, which was at one time shiny white and pristine, is now chipped or completely stripped away. Sooty tiles are among what little remains of the showers for a non-existent gymnasium. A few scorched girders dangle precariously around a chimney that, once stately, shoots up in the air like some aged sentinel attempting to continue standing guard over its charge.

When one realizes that this is a century-and-a-half-old high school with a unique and legendary background, not something typical of the inner-city ghetto, the feeling becomes quite surreal and sobering, indigenous to a history struggling to maintain itself, but in some morphed, dreamlike manner. The sight is unbelievable, but it’s real, though many people question whether or not some deeper aspects of it are a part of the physical world or something else only sensed.

This is possibly the ultimate mystery. We know how the devastation occurred, yet we have no evidence that the fire had a particular source, like a flame out of thin air, just as the previous fires. The effect on the mind when one views the chaos reflects on the mystique of deeper meaning resonating there, whatever that meaning may be. Amidst all of this incredible destruction, Lambertville High School continues to live on.

Final Thoughts . . .

Lambertville High School is indeed a spell attraction. Even I have found myself pondering about this place, although I wonder from time to time why. After all, it is only an abandoned building, dilapidated and crumbling; an empty shell that people who have attended it have claimed is or was nothing more than a regular high school.

Or, again, is it something more?

This place has not become a legend for nothing. Several high schools in the United States have ghost stories connected to them, yet THIS one inspired a movie, a plethora of websites and a wiki page. As said, droves of people from all over the United States have traveled to see and explore the site. In fact, some have scheduled vacations to the place, as if this abandoned building were an attraction that cannot be missed, like the haunted house at Disney World.

This, I guess, is the final mystery, the great irony.

The reason: THIS high school is real, actual, not fabricated or imaginary. That fact alone is more than enough to create a spell on the human mind. The paranormal legends associated with it make it even more magical, regardless of whether or not such phenomena are true or real. Visiting the school allows one to become a part of that legend, a part of the reality.

The mysteries of Lambertville are likely never to be resolved, and that’s fine because the longer the mysteries last, so will the legends, and as long as these legends persist, Lambertville will never die.

Lambertville High School, as said, serves as one of the main inspirations for my novel Hallowed Halls, which is another story reflecting the possibilities of spiritual haunting and what it would be like if such haunts were real. Again, I believe in a spiritual realm, as I have had encountered some profound experiences. There is something to it, and I am thoroughly compelled to explore that conceptualization in light of human nature and how we’re driven to learn about the forces within and around us through life and death, just as the case is with Lambertville.

In the follow-up, I will discuss more about how Lambertville and another growing legend of death, based on truth—Columbine in Littleton, Colorado—relate to the novel with regard to similarities, differences, parallels and background development.

Those who are curious to know more please stay tuned . . . .

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I wish to thank Lostdestinations.com, Surrealnewjersey.com, WeirdNJ.com, The Goop blog and Randy Kline (a.k.a. StangGT), whose Lambertville High School photostream can be found at Flickr.com, for providing their photos. Great pictures, guys! Anyone interested in reading up on or seeing more images of Lambertville High School please feel free to visit their sites as well as those listed below . . .

Lambertville High School:

Buckstore

Experience Project: Get the Paranormal Report

Forgotten USA

Hub Pages: Haunted Places – Lambertville, New Jersey

Lost in New Jersey

Spectral Review: Lambertville High School

STU of Doom

The Lambertville High School Story

Other [Haunted] High School Stories:

Forgotten Ohio

Forgetten Ohio – Stivers Middle School

Ghost Village

Newsweek.com – Ghosts of Columbine High Schools

OMA Haunted.com – Columbine High School

Snopes.com – Discussion on Columbine

StrangUSA – Discussion on Columbine

Unexplainable.net – Article on Columbine

Unexplainable.net – Haunted High Schools in the United States – Columbine

Your Ghost Stories – Real Ghost Story – Columbine

Reminder: I do believe in spirits, but that doesn’t mean that I automatically believe these stories; I am fair and skeptical about everything without evidence, which is why I ask questions. I included ghost and haunt sites to show how prevalent in number these sources are with regard to Stivers Middle/High School, Lambertville High School, Columbine High School and others. That’s how one conducts ongoing research—by asking questions and following through with leads to form her/his own conclusions. I encourage everyone to do the same

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