I was very young when the story
I'm about to tell you happened. In fact, I can no longer recall
what it was that had frightened me so, though I know that something
had just happened, something I perhaps didn't want to remember
- something distinctly otherworldly in nature.
And now I was alone, in a dark
and altogether unfamiliar place.
And very scared.
Suddenly, a strong adult male
hand grabbed me by the shoulder. Waves of relief overcame me
- it had to be my father. Surely he would protect me.
Minutes passed, his hand still strongly grasping my shoulder,
yet he never said a word. It was, I believe, at this point that
I began to feel the most disconcerting chill crawl ever so delicately
up my young spine.
"Dad?" I called
out. "Dad? Dad?"
No response. I called to him
again in panic, as the hand on my shoulder tightened its grip.
And it was only then that my
invisible companion answered, from behind and above, with the
most extraordinarily evil laugh I had ever heard.
Happily, it was at this point
that I woke up, though the absolute terror of the experience
held me as tightly in its thrall as if I were still in the clutches
of that nightmare.
Naturally, I did what all children
do in such situations.
I screamed. And screamed.
And would not stop even after my parents were at my side.
And for many months after I
dreaded falling asleep.
As I said, this all happened
when I was but a child, and yet this dream remains as vivid today
as it was at the time. Interesting . . .
Now, Stephen King once summed
up the Art of creating Horror fiction very neatly: when one
is attempting to frighten people via literary means, one ultimately
wishes to attain that elusive echelon of Fear Fiction known as
Pure Terror, the rarified state when the reader's hairs begin
to stand on end, and their surroundings become quietly disturbing
- where one feels afraid, and is not altogether certain as to
why. If the aspiring author cannot quite get to that
level, one opts for Horror (i.e. things jumping out at you, etc.).
Finally, if all else fails, one goes for the gross-out.
But Terror, the most exquisitely
subtle of fright mechanisms, is the ultimate Holy Grail of Horror
Fiction. It is also the most unnerving thing to actually experience
in real life. And I think perhaps that one of the reasons the
particular nightmare I've just told you about haunts me to this
day is that, for me, it was indeed a moment of irrefutable Terror.
And Terror is what we all seem
to be looking for at this enchanted time of the year - the Halloween
Not the Gross Out, certainly,
as that is as common as a milk carton gone bad, overturning
the wrong rock in the backyard to see the Wrong Bugs go scurrying
off, seeing too much of a recent car accident while driving by,
etc. The Gross Out is such a part of everyday life that it
is for the most part simply distasteful, something to turn away
from, though perhaps something to joke about later.
It is not necessarily Horror,
either, that we seek out. After all, there are enough real horrors
in the world today. Every shocking act of violence is horrible
enough, one can certainly get one's fill of horror in any half
hour news broadcast.
No, the Gross Out and Horror
are both relatively everyday occurrences, both very much part
of the world we inhabit.
Terror, however, is different.
Terror is being alone in a
house, all the doors and windows locked, when suddenly the storm
outside knocks out the electricity, and you find yourself alone
in the dark, and you find a candle, and scramble around for a
match . . .
And something puts a
match into your hand.
Terror is being alone in a
room, and feeling something tap you on the shoulder. It is the
invisible knock on the door, sounds that should not be there,
switches that turn on and off by themselves. Terror is feeling
someone right behind you when you know you are quite alone, though
it can also be as simple as having a conversation with someone,
turning away for a second, and turning back to discover your
companion has disappeared. Without a trace.
It is everything that is not
an accepted part of the world we live in.
Terror is the experience of
the Other, the Unknown, the dreaded possibility that something
is out there, something not subject to any law of physics,
something not bound by the empirical rules of our observable
One imagines that our earliest
ancestors were terrified by fire, before they came to understand
and harness it. Certainly lightning would have been terrifying,
to say nothing of solar eclipses, strange diseases, and the like.
In fact, the Human History
is really about our coming to terms with that which terrifies
us, since as we discover how the thing works it loses its magical
ability to frighten us, and since with this increased knowledge
we are able to conquer it.
And so this seemingly bizarre
desire to be deliberately terrified each Halloween becomes easier
to understand. We delight in being put into a situation deliberately
created to scare us, whether it be a Haunted Theme Park or an
old Monster Movie. We go willingly into that unknown night,
knowing that the origins of this temporary excursion into the
dark are decidedly man-made, and knowing as well that we will
emerge safely at the end. So does our inherited link to our
primitive ancestors manifest itself, for it seems we still to
this day want to confront the Unexplained, the Unknowable, as
if in facing our fears and innermost terrors we gain some degree
of control over them, and hence over ourselves.
Thus, this fascination with
Terror is mostly explained, as we realize we are responding to
ancient primeval instincts. But that's not quite the whole story.
For, as we all know, being scared is fun.
And, as we also know, Halloween
has now evolved into a nearly month-long celebration of seeking
out this particular type of fun.
To try to explain this would
be as impossible as to be able to adequately define exactly what
Fun is. Who can really say why we laugh when we do, why certain
things bring such pleasure to us? In truth, much of what drives
us as human beings is itself Unknown and Unknowable, a strange
mixture of primitive memory, genetic coding, societal rituals
and forgotten experiences that, in fact, is probably responsible
for the reason we do quite a bit of what it is we do.
Without tackling the whole
subject, however, I can offer a bit of insight into our preoccupation
with Fear Fiction in one word:
After all, what is better than
watching all sorts of terrible, horrible frightening things unfold
on the big screen while sitting comfortably in a theatre chair,
munching on popcorn? And what better way to appreciate a truly
frightening ghost story than curled up in one's own bed, warm
and safe against the cold and the dark? And what more perfect
scenario for the telling of terrifying tales than to be huddled
with a group of friends and family around a roaring fire, while
some wise member of the group spins a bit of terrifying lore?
Yes, Terror is in fact
quite a bit of fun, isn't it?
Especially in October, heh,
heh, heh . . .
With all that in mind, let
us return to our stories.
The preceding story which began
this column was, of course, a dream I had as a child.
The ones that follow are all
real . . .
This being a Book Again column,
we should, of course, begin with my brother Mike.
In previous Halloween columns we have explored the ancient and
modern history of Halloween ('97), as well as the possibly supernatural
origins of the greatest modern haunted house novel, The Haunting
of Hill House ('98). In 1999, however, along with some appropriately
ghoulish Top Ten lists, I'm afraid I manufactured a little hoax,
in the form of a little tale purporting to be the last communications
from Mike, who had at the time just moved to Oregon.
As you will recall, we were
bombarded with well-meaning inquiries as to whether poor Mike
had ever turned up, and I finally took it upon myself to admit
the hoax, explaining that the whole thing was a thinly disguised
satirical look at some then-current horror films, and that in
fact my brother had been the first to read and delight in the
reports of his ghostly disappearance.
At this writing my brother
Mike is preparing to return to Los Angeles, as he has now experienced
all the glories of southern Oregon, from white water rafting
to many sightings of deer and other wildlife. It seems, however,
that he has experienced a bit more, a bit of decidedly
strange activity, if you will. Specifically, there is
a door to the laundry room in the house he inhabits that continues
to open all by itself. This has happened on several occasions,
and on one of the recent occasions Mike had been alone in the
house, and felt compelled to call me.
Perhaps it's just that he was
all alone, but for whatever reason he was in the laundry room
itself when he realized, with absolute certainty, that there
was someone standing right behind him.
Naturally, when he turned around,
there was no one there.
You may perhaps be asking why
the door that opened by itself should be such a cause for concern.
After all, even in the absence of a breeze (which, in that part
of the house, was nonexistent), houses do settle, don't they?
Well, you see - this door is
always kept locked . . .
Now, funnily enough, even as
I write these very words, I have just gotten off the phone with
Mike. He has been packing for his imminent return to Los Angeles,
and is, as I write, alone in that house. He decided to give
me a final phone call from Oregon, and it was fortuitous as I
was able to tell him I was writing about his experiences, and
thus was able to obtain his permission to use his name in the
tale. And so we continued talking, and suddenly he stopped in
"Uh oh," he said.
"What?" I asked.
"The door just
"What, the haunted door?"
"Yeah - I heard it open,
and now the cat's fur is standing on end."
"Mike, I have chills."
"You have chills?
I have the chills right now!"
And now I have rung off, leaving
my poor brother alone in that house. With a door that simply
won't stay closed . . .
A door that is always kept
Now, this is not an isolated
incident. I have many friends and family members who have had
similar uncomfortably close encounters with the supernatural.
I shall from here on out be substituting names, as I cannot
guarantee that any of them would be particularly happy to have
these relatively unusual pieces of their lives flung sporadically
onto the World Wide Web for all and sundry to peruse.
I do however guarantee that
all the tales are true, as related to me.
And I must admit to a bit of
jealousy. After all, I have never had such an encounter of my
own. Certainly I have felt things, as in the haunted
antique shop in Lake Elsinore I once told you about. However,
even when we stayed at the haunted Connecticut mansion I later
wrote of, I was one of the only people there who did not have
a direct encounter with the Uncanny.
Perhaps I should count my blessings.
Anyway, I hereby offer for
your macabre merriment a few short tales, remarkable only because
they all actually happened, and happened directly to people I
One such person, let's call
her "Mary", was looking at houses for sale in the South
Bay, quite close to Book Again as I recall. She and a friend
entered one particular house, and had not been inside for more
than a minute before she turned to her friend and said "Something
feels wrong about this house - let's get out of here!"
Later that night, a murder
took place inside that very house.
Another acquaintance, let's
call him "Tim", was staying at the house of some relatives.
It was an old and rather large house, and his cousins (Tim was
fairly young at the time) were excitedly regaling him with stories
of Strange Happenings inside the house.
The room Tim was staying in
opened out onto a long hallway, and on the first night, as he
made ready for bed, he heard footsteps.
He opened the door (I wouldn't
have - would you?) and stepped out into the hall.
And no one was there - only the sound of footsteps, coming down
the hall, coming toward him.
And as he stood there, unable
to move, the footsteps reached him - and continued on down the
hall, passing right through him!
Another friend, let's call
him "Larry", had stopped by to visit a friend of his.
As he waited in the living room, he noticed his friend's grandmother
sitting opposite him. As she had been ill of late, he was gratified
to see that she was again up and about. They nodded and smiled
at each other, his friend appeared, and Larry thought nothing
more about it.
Until, later that day, he mentioned
to his friend in passing that he was happy the grandmother had
recovered, and how well she looked.
His friend looked long and
hard at Larry, finally informing him that the grandmother had
died a week before . . .
Then there's . . . well, we'll
call this one "Dave". Dave, his wife, and two kids
recently moved into a house in the San Fernando Valley, quite
close to me, in fact. The house sits on a corner lot on a larger
property that includes a large apartment complex. They live
there to this day, and seem happy.
Of course, there have been
the strange noises at night, but if you have a house with two
kids and two cats you tend to ignore such things.
One thing that they couldn't
quite ignore, however, was the power switches. Specifically,
there is a sort of master power switch that is always kept on,
which has mysteriously fallen into the habit lately of turning
itself off each night. All by itself.
A trivial thing, perhaps -
that is, until a friendly neighbor some two weeks ago informed
them of the history of the house they live in.
As it happens, the original
caretaker of the entire property, including the apartment complex,
once lived in their house - and died there. Evidently, he never
As a matter of fact, the last three tenants of the house were
actually driven out by the caretaker's ghost . . .
While we're on the subject
of recent moves, some friends of mine recently moved into an
old Victorian mansion near downtown Los Angeles. The house is,
of course, beautiful, as all Victorians are, and would be the
perfect setting for any Halloween adventure one could imagine.
This particular house had the additional attraction of having
been previously inhabited by three elderly sisters, who rarely
if ever went out. They were by all accounts rather eccentric,
if not positively creepy, and the house was shunned for years
by the neighbors - even on Halloween.
The sisters, who we assume
owned the place, eventually died, and the place has been a rental
property ever since.
Now, the odd strange noise
in a house of this age is easily discounted. Old houses do settle
quite a bit, and again this household brought a veritable menagerie
of dogs and cats with them, so the sounds they began to hear
soon after moving in were brushed off.
It wasn't until one of my friends
began waking up with strange scratches on his arm that anyone
began to wonder if something was perhaps a tiny bit amiss
. . .
A month or so after the scratching
incidents began, this same friend jolted upright out of bed one
night, around three in the morning. And opened his eyes.
And found himself staring at
a woman in a very out-of-date Maid's uniform. She made no sound,
but simply looked back at him - and then was no longer there.
Certain psychic acquaintances
began to visit the place. Many came simply for the odd social
event, and had no idea any of this had been going on. Almost
all of them immediately sensed that this house still had a few
of its previous tenants within its walls . . .
By most accounts, the two principal
ghosts are that of a maid and a young child. There is a feeling
of sadness, and of violence, associated with them. I may return
to this tale as we learn more, for my friends still live there,
and as a matter of fact I spent the night there myself two days
ago. As usual, I saw nothing.
Oh, I neglected to mention
the most interesting thing of all . . .
It seems that there is a section
of the house near the basement, a part of the place not rented
by my friends but retained by the current owners for storage,
that sported what seemed to be an unnecessarily thick expanse
of wall. All measurements pointed to a walled up space, which
became the subject of some conjecture. Recently, a month or
so ago, the owners were doing some remodeling around this area,
and began to hammer a hole into the wall.
At which point they discovered
a hidden room, one which had been there undisturbed and walled
up for over fifty years!
And inside this room was a
very large collection of very old knives . . .
I've saved my favorite for
This happened some time ago, in the late seventies as I recall.
It happened to a friend who I shall call "Debbie".
At the time she had just moved out to Los Angeles, and rented
a house in the San Fernando Valley with a couple of friends.
And, naturally, strange things soon began to happen.
The manifestations that began
occurring at this place were a bit odd - this particular poltergeist
seemed to prefer sand as its Medium of choice (no pun intended
- we'll get to the seance soon enough). They would wake up in
their respective rooms and discover large quantities of sand
piled all over the floor, particularly in the room of one of
Debbie's male roommates, who seemed to bear the brunt of this
The sand continued, the usual
assortment of strange noises and other unexplained occurrences
became commonplace, and at length they decided it was time to
At which point one of them
thought for some reason that it would be a good thing to hold
a seance on their last night in the house.
The final night came, several
friends were in attendance, and they had procured an actual medium
for the festivities. All were in high spirits, and awaited the
coming ritual with happy anticipation. It had, after all, become
quite the mystery - who was this ghost, and why was he (all felt
it was male) haunting them?
Besides, what could happen
on this, their final night, with so many friends there with them?
Anyway, the ceremony got underway,
the medium went into that sort of catatonic state mediums tend
to, and indeed it wasn't long before the now entranced medium
seemed to be speaking in a different voice.
Somewhat to the disconcertment
of all attending, this new voice sounded rather angry. They
learned a little about their otherworldly nemesis, mostly that
he had once owned the house, and had lived and died there (not
altogether a surprising discovery). They then watched in increasing
horror as the entity now possessing the medium, this old, guttural,
rasping embittered spirit, began to speak louder and louder,
growing increasingly angry until he turned to my friend Debbie
and began to shriek at her, calling her "Deborah" and
hurling bitter invectives her way.
He then turned to the aforementioned
fellow who'd borne the brunt of the previous manifestations,
and began to scream at him, "Get out of my house! Get out
of my house!"
Everyone was beginning to wonder
if this was not getting a little out of control. Debbie was
understandably shaken, as was a male friend of hers sitting on
her right. They were, of course, all holding hands, as that
is what one does at seances, and Debbie was holding her friend's
hand as tightly as possible. At this point people began to speak
up, someone got up and turned on a light, though the medium,
silent now, did not awaken from his trance.
Debbie, still terrified, continued
to hold her companion's hand. She noticed he was evidently pretty
shaken up as well, since he was gripping her hand as tightly
as she was gripping his. As a matter of fact, he was gripping
her hand really tight. Too tight, in fact, as he was
actually hurting her. She tried to pull her hand away, asking
her friend to stop -
At which point her friend turned
to her, a demonic gleam in his eyes, and, in the exact
guttural rasping voice of the spirit, he grinned and said,
"What's the matter, Deborah?"
You can imagine the chaos that ensued.
She herself cannot quite remember
the exact details of the next few moments. She screamed, people
were everywhere, chairs overturned, etc., and it wasn't long
before the entire party was outside on the front lawn.
Her friend, once outside, recovered,
as did the medium, and that was the last time they heard from
their angry visitor from beyond the grave.
For none of them ever entered
that house again.
As I said before, the preceding
stories were all true. At least, they were all told to me by
people I have known and trusted for many years, people to whom
this stuff actually happened.
Could they be lying? It's
possible, I suppose. It's entirely possible that some were stretching
the truth a bit to have a bit of ghostly fun. Yes, perhaps one
or two tales are at least partly fictitious.
But not all of them!
Pleasant nightmares . . .
heh heh heh . . .
Now the sun has set. Just
down the road, in the old churchyard, the ground begins to quake,
an old owl hoots its mournful cry, in the far off distance an
unearthly howling begins. Leaves bronzed by an ancient summer
blow through deserted streets, dancing as if on strings, as if
tossed about by unseen hands.
A chill passes through you as you wait as silently as possible
in the trees, afraid to move forward, more afraid to keep still.
What was that? Someone's pet, perhaps? A fallen leaf?
No, it sounded more like .
. . a footstep.
And then there are more and
more of them, as silent figures, covered in shrouds or decked
in black begin to appear, waiting, waiting . . .
And one by one small lights
begin to appear in front of house after house, an earthbound
constellation of fiery orange.
And the silence gives way to
joyous laughter, as you and your fellow young ghouls emerge onto
the street and begin your own haunting parade, sacks in hand.