A castle on a mountain wrapped in dense fog, dotted with students in sweeping black robes, surrounded by a dark forest.
Your mind probably goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when you hear this description (as it should), but there’s another place that fits the bill — one that exists in the real world.
In a tiny town in Tennessee, to be exact.
The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, located an hour and a half south of Nashville, is about as close to Hogwarts as you can get this side of the Shrieking Shack. The school was founded in 1857, and its campus is a sprawling maze of turrets, parapets, and spires. Its long stone buildings can really only be described as “hewn,” and its pointed towers, rising on opposite sides of the quad, look suspiciously well suited for late-night astronomy classes. Spencer Hall, the university’s science building, looks more like a medieval battlement than an academic building. There’s even a greenhouse (earmuffs not included).
But it isn’t just Sewanee’s Gothic architecture that conjures visions of cauldrons and brooms. The students' fashion choices would make Madam Malkin herself proud.
The Order of the Gown is a society for students with special academic distinction at Sewanee. Members of the order distinguish themselves by wearing black academic gowns to class and around campus, and professors often teach while wearing gowns. Because of this tradition, it’s not uncommon to see people bustling down an oak corridor or scurrying through a stone archway with long black robes billowing behind them.
Feeling magical yet?
Of course, no real-life Hogwarts would be complete without ghosts, and luckily, Sewanee has plenty of them. The most popular Sewanee ghost is the Headless Gownsman (no relation to Nearly Headless Nick, at least as far as we know), who can sometimes be seen wandering through the fog in his black academic gown. According to one account, the Headless Gownsman was a student whose late night study sessions frequently disturbed his roommates (clearly he was a Ravenclaw). One night, when the Headless Gownsman refused to put out his reading candle, his roommate threw a pillow at him and knocked his head clear off. The Headless Gownsman had been studying so long, legend says, that his brain had become dangerously heavy. Now he haunts the campus, an eerie cautionary tale against pillow fights and over-studying.
If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the University of the South, consider taking a detour and exploring this magical campus — and don't forget to wear your house colors, because photo opportunities abound.
Or if you’re an aspiring J. K. Rowling yourself, check out Sewanee’s summers-only MFA program, where you can join the ranks of literary greats who have walked these (allegedly) haunted hallways.
One more quick word of advice: if you need to get in touch with the outside world while you’re here, consider using an owl. Cell phones tend to stop working when you get to campus — almost as if the grounds were protected by charms to keep the muggles away.