The Commonwealth's Spookiest College

Transylvania.  Is that a vampire college?


Ok, now we've got that out of the way.  Lexington's Transylvania University -- the two hundred thirty-one year-old private liberal arts college nestled in the oldest part of downtown -- is the alma mater of actor Ned Beatty , Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, and  author James Lane Allen.  It's also where Sarah and I both earned our undergraduate degrees. 

Transylvania University was founded in 1780.  Kentucky was still part of Virginia, and Bram Stoker's legendary vampire novel wouldn't be written for another one hundred seventeen years.  Transylvania Seminary, as its earliest Boyle County incarnation was known, took its name from the short-lived Transylvania Colony.  Both the colony and the Romanian region derived their names from the Latin for "across the woods."

When I was selecting a college, I chose Transy for its small class size and its remarkably high acceptance rates to professional schools.  As a Transy student, I was less than amused by all the vampire crap.  Puns and cheesy jokes have never really been my thing.  The only problem  is that the college itself has embraced its spooky ties.  Transylvania -- the one on North Broadway -- does Halloween remarkably well.

The Curse plays a big role in Transy's connection to the macabre. Professor Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who taught at Transy from 1819-26, was widely regarded as both a genius and a trouble-maker.  Teaching Italian and French as well as his field of expertise, Botany, Rafinesque was responsible for the discovery of thousands of genera of plants and hundreds of Native American sites.  He even briefly served as the University's librarian.  By all accounts, though, he was an erratic and arrogant lecturer.  He seldom showed up for class, and he argued with his colleagues constantly. And he may or may not have had a fling with the University President's wife.  When he was finally let go from the University faculty in 1826, the last words he uttered were "Damn thee and thy school as I place a curse upon you."

A professor is legit buried in here, y'all.
Now, my twenty year-old self may not have wanted to admit it, but that's some creepy stuff.  Even creepier is the fact that Rafinesque was originally buried in a pauper's grave, but a century later,  his remains were  moved to the basement of Old Morrison, Transylvania's administration building.  That's right.  You meet with the Dean and register for classes right over a tomb. As if meeting with the Dean and registering for classes aren't already scary enough.

Over the years, Transy has played up the Rafinesque stuff quite a bit.  Every year, a group of Freshmen are selected to spend the night in Raf's Tomb.  Even the campus grill is cleverly known as the Rafskeller. (Best hangover food ever, y'all. Or so I've been told...)

Fall 1999
Transy Kids take Halloween seriously.
When your college shares a name with the ancestral home of the vampires and just happens to be cursed , then I suppose it's only natural that you go ahead and turn Halloween into an event.  Sarah reminded me of the annual costume contest in the Transy cafeteria, as seen in the photo at right.  This year, Transylvania is taking it one step further, hosting a Pumpkin Mania event  this weekend in which an anticipated 1,000 Jack-o'-lanterns will illuminate the steps of Old Morrison.

I guess Transylvania's history is a little bit spooky, given the tombs and curses.  And, it'll certainly have the Halloween spirit going when Pumpkin Mania lights up Gratz Park.  Still, as an alumna whose interest in the school spans nearly two decades, I've never once seen a vampire there.