feature image via shutterstock
The story goes that late one night in 1908 at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, a college student named Condie Cunningham knocked over a bunsen burner she was using to make hot chocolate in her dorm room and started a fire. Whether it was the linens she sat on that exacerbated the fire, the alcohol that fueled the burner, or a combination of both, it quickly spread to her nightgown.
If she tried to remove the garment or stamp out the flames, it didn’t work. She ran screaming down the hallway looking for a water source, each stride fanning the flames that crept up her body. What others saw when they opened their doors was Condie’s burning body falling down a staircase.
Or at least that’s how the story went on my first visit to the University of Montevallo.
I was there for a week-long soccer camp, and if there is any group of people that will happily indulge a story like the one described above, it’s teenage girls. We were insatiable. Condie, the “Girl on Fire” – arguably the University of Montevallo’s most famous ghost due in part to the horrific way she died and because of the activity she’s inspired since her death – dominated our conversations.
By the end of our first day I’d heard about the footsteps that can be heard running down Condie’s old hallway, the horrifying screams that echo through the fourth floor, the premonitions of a woman on fire, and, of course, what happened to Condie’s wooden door after her death.
When we heard the actual door existed on school grounds in a storage closet, it was over. We would see the door. We absolutely, without a doubt would be face to face with the door, and we would see the legend housed in its wood paneling: the image of a face surrounded by flames.
Connie’s face surrounded by flames, to be more exact. In fact, the likeness of her last moments unveiling themselves in the wood’s paneling after her death was so disturbing that the door had to be taken down. And then the next door had to be taken down. And then the next. Because no matter what they did, the same image would appear near the door’s handle.
At this point we were inconsolable. And was this why any of us were here? Absolutely not. It was a training camp that if taken advantage of had the potential to shape entire collegiate and professional careers – in a way, entire lives. But what was a future without closure to Condie’s story?
We became so persistent with the school’s staff that they agreed to show us the door. Meet in the atrium of Condie’s hall after dinner they said, and then please leave us in peace.
That night we packed ourselves onto the fourth floor, hundreds of girls spilling out from every hallway onto the very staircase where Connie took her last steps. The door was being kept mere feet from us, but of course we hadn’t just come for the door. We came for the theater, too.
Before the reveal, one of the counselors was meant to tell us Condie’s story the way it should be told – anchored in drama and unnecessary detail.
She took her mark at the top of the stairs and loomed over us like a great orator. It was clear from her opening line that she knew her audience. “Late one night almost 100 years ago…” She was selling it. We hadn’t even gotten to the part where Condie caught on fire and girls were already screaming. For what? At what? It didn’t matter.
Our counselor’s words grew more intense as the story went on. “THE FLAMES GREW HIGHER AND HIGHER, HER SCREAMS–”
Suddenly, a fire alarm.
What followed was absolute chaos. Pure, unadulterated terror. Those haunted house reaction pictures at the moment of surprise come to life. Girls were shoving each other out of the way but where we were running was unclear. Off the earth? Possibly.
And, of course, screaming. Screams reaching frequencies that easily drowned out the alarm itself. We were our own alarm, and at this point, a mob.
Counselors and staff attempted to stop the hemorrhaging of bodies but it was far, far beyond their control. Keep in mind this wasn’t about the real threat of an actual fire, which there very well could have been. This was about Condie’s return, the shrieking of the fire alarm doubling as her screams.
Although, too, this was the beginning of a Carrie-style showdown and surely we were all going to be burned alive. Friends were leaving other friends behind. Girl, I’ve known you for three days, you’re on your own. Repent!
Incredibly, no one was harmed. The alarm was stopped and campers made their way back to their own dorms. That’s right – we never even saw the door that night. That was our punishment for being given the option to react to this with order or chaos and going instead with option C, acid trip.
Who or what set off the fire alarm that day is still unknown. Maybe it was someone with perfect timing, or maybe there was someone burning their dinner in an adjacent dorm room. Or maybe Condie just knows how to make an entrance.