The origin of the name “The Gates of Hell” is as anticlimactic as it is amusing. Officially, the two pillars on Middle Path are called the “College Gates,” but it would be hard to find a student who knows that. The unofficial fire-and-brimstone-esque name may sound ominous, but in fact, the Gates of Hell have more to do with a daytime talk show than any fiery pits of eternal suffering.
In the early 1980s, Phil Donahue, the host of the eponymous talk show that ran on national television from 1970 to 1996, brought in a psychic who claimed to know the location of the entrance to hell. Pretty soon after, according to Tom Stamp ’73, historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, the College started receiving calls from all over the country asking why the Gates of Hell were located on its campus, and the name stuck.
But the odd thing is, the psychic didn’t even say that the entrance to hell was located in Gambier. Although Stamp wasn’t able to view the actual episode, he was able to get a copy of its transcript. In it, he said, the psychic claims that the entrance to hell is in Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus and not Gambier.
As to how she came to this conclusion, he can only guess. “The word Gahanna is close to Gehenna, which is the Hebrew word for hell,” he said.
Perhaps because of their name, the Gates of Hell are the subject of several other legends as well. The most prominent of these is the warning that if two friends walk on opposite sides of the pole in the center, their friendship will end. Stamp said that this tradition is relatively recent and links it to the rise of the gates’ ominous name.
Rumors also circulate about the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of the gates. In 2003, Robert A. Oden, Jr. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski had a group of students turn in a project entitled “Bacterial Analysis of the Gates of Hell” for her Experimental Microbiology class. During the project, the group isolated forms of the bacteria Neisseria and Bacillus. The former can cause gonorrhea and the latter is a group of species that includes the cause of anthrax.
In an email to the Collegian, Slonczewski wrote, “P.S. The project earned a grade of A.”