By Gabby Hernandez

HSSC– Countless reports of students never returning from a study session in Grinnell College’s Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC) have been recorded by Campus Safety. Just this semester, 17 students have been lost, never to turn in their homework again. 

As a result of online classes during the pandemic, many first and second years have entered HSSC classrooms without prior warning from upperclassmen about that foreboding voice they know so well. Upperclassmen have not had enough time to share their survivor stories and nightmares about that one sentence: “This room will automatically shut down in 60 seconds.” 

Exactly what happens next is a matter of whispered debate among Grinnellians. First, all technology shuts down; projector screens retreat into the ceiling with a shuddering creak that sounds almost like the building itself is sighing, and the room’s computers blink off one by one, leaving a sea of gleaming blank screens. At this point, any knowledgeable third or fourth year student has stuffed their papers into their backpack and exited the room, hearing the lock itself behind them with a quiet, decisive, click. The lights flicker off, plunging the windows of the room into an inky void of spiraling blackness, even in the middle of the day. 

When the lights come back on, the classroom will be neat and empty. Victims of the void are never seen again. 

Arthur Ruhtra ‘22, a fourth-year religious studies major, shared with the B&S that the key to avoiding the void is to “never, never, wear headphones when studying alone in a HSSC classroom.” The voice of the void is notably quiet, so using headphones to listen to music or rewatch lectures is a sure way to seal your fate. Many students find that studying with a friend or group of people is a reliable way to ensure your survival. 

“Yeah, I remember studying with a friend of mine one time. We were in a team room on the third floor and were taking turns using headphones. One of us would get to listen to music or something and the other would listen closely for the voice of the void. It was a really good system until Donny, my friend, got a new set of noise-canceling headphones…” shared Ruhtra. 

Donny McKibble ‘22 was one of the 17 students to go missing this semester. Ruhtra was there at the time of McKibble’s disappearance, and describes the moment as both traumatizing and formative.

“I was on watch for the voice, and sure enough, it came. I packed up my stuff and screamed for Donny to do the same… I thought he was right behind me,” continued Ruhtra. “But the door slammed shut behind me, and the last I saw of him he was sitting there, scrolling through tiktok with his headphones on as a tide of squirming, squamous shadows rose up to swallow him whole.” 

McKibble is the only member of the class of ‘22 to disappear this semester so far; James Semaj ‘24 and Laura A’Rual ‘23 were among the other victims. Semaj worked in the Dining Hall, and was last seen clocking out of a dinner shift on February 10th that lasted 2 hours longer than planned. He still had homework to do, so he headed to the HSSC and found an empty classroom to study in. Semaj was never seen again, but his work was found half-completed on the chalkboard the next morning by students entering the room for class, accompanied by a set of chalk-dust handprints stamped onto the room’s ceiling.

The case of James Semaj is also being taken into consideration on a larger scale investigation, conducted by Campus Safety, to find the true cause of understaffing in the Dining Hall. 

 Laura A’Rual was a staff writer for the Scarlet and Black working on a breaking news piece covering Semaj’s disappearance. Since there were no witnesses of the void on the night Semaj was taken, A’Rual attempted to interview the void itself. 

On February 11th A’Rual entered the classroom and waited. Eventually the void spoke: “This room will shut down in 60 seconds.” Technology shut down. The doors locked. A’Rual was never seen again. A’Rual was not the first journalist to be lost to the void. 

“That’s just the way it goes, you know? No one will ever understand the void,” concluded Ruhtra. “Sometimes I hear it singing to me, late nights when I’m walking home alone now that Donny’s gone. That voice calls my name so sweetly from the empty rooms. I know one day I won’t be able to resist.”