We were driving down a suburban street the other day on our way to an orchard and came across an older house that had been elaborately decorated for Halloween. Plywood boards had been "nailed" across glass windows as if to say the zombies are coming but they're not coming in without a fight. There was haphazard graveyard fencing set up, a few ragged styrofoam tombstones on the front lawn. I pointed and said to my kids, "Look at that spooky house!"
I slowed and pointed towards the phony spiderwebs on the porch, the mocked-up overgrowth and said, "Come on guys, don't you think that's scary?" The girl shrugged.
Of course it occurred to me then that raising these kids in a city that looks like the set of a horror film year round means the bar is raised at Halloween. Someone out on 32 Mile with a platinum card and unlimited access to those pop-up Halloween big boxes could never outdo what occurs naturally south of 8 Mile. We have a city with tens of thousands of haunted houses. During Halloween in Detroit it can be a challenge to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to spooky decorating, even if the Joneses left for West Bloomfield eight years ago.
I remember vividly being ten years old and watching Murder She Wrote on the 13-inch B&W Emerson that I worshiped in my bedroom. When the plot deviated from Jessica Fletcher's familiar meddling around Cable Cove to tell an honest-to-goodness ghost story, something about it terrified me so much I started screaming and my dad had to sprint up to my room to turn off the television, shaking his head, wondering (perhaps) what the hell's wrong with this kid? I'll tell you what was wrong: I believed in ghosts.
It is important for me to remember that moment. To remember how long I stared into the non-fiction books about ghosts I checked out from the public library. The phantom faces aboard the SS Watertown. The wall writing and other goings on at the Borley Rectory. The Brown Lady at Raynham Hall. All this was proof. [And I'm not going to lie: the EVPs of the Mount Washington hotel ghost and the ghoul haunting the Bay Area Bugaboo store still give me the creeps]. Sometimes I forget how amazing it is to believe in the illogical enough to actually fear it. There's enough real stuff in the world to fear that I rarely feel any urge to go beyond it. But if you're lucky as a kid, being sheltered from those things allows you to believe in something more.
When I was in high school, my friend’s next-door neighbor died alone without heirs, and a realtor rented a dumpster and hired a bunch of Mexican guys to haul everything out of her house. We spent the next few days dumpster diving through the detritus of her life. “Look!” my friend shouted, holding up a three-pronged claw that could be manipulated by a handle at the end of an aluminum pole. “It’s her reaching claw!” (the same one she used to shake at us when we made her dog bark). He held it aloft and cackled like a crazed old woman. I found a box of photo albums and her handwritten journals and set them aside. Over the next few nights I read through her journal entries and thumbed through the photos. All we’d known about her was that she died alone on a cul-de-sac with only a barking Welsh Corgi to witness her final days. It turned out she was among the few women of her day to graduate from Harvard Law School, and she’d had a small law practice in our hometown. The photos showed her life in a sorority back when she wasn't much older than me, and later grand buildings and statues of learned men in Cambridge. Her leather-clad journals were an autopsy of youthful hope and determination, a chronology of familial schisms and unrequited loves, dissipating in reports of loneliness. They freaked me out.
The last journal was empty, and I used it for a cruel joke, creating a parody of her venerable verbiage for an epistolary horror story of demonic possession and murder along the lines of the crap I enjoyed reading at that time. It wasn't my finest hour, but you see: I was seventeen and stupid. My friends and I planned to plant that journal in an abandoned hotel that sat in a nearby ghost town as part of an elaborate Halloween scheme to scare some girls. I hid the journal under a floorboard in the closet of Room Thirteen, along with some of her photos from the 1930s. Someone else long before painted a pentagram on the floor and there was wax from dozens of melted candles. My friend Andy drew dismembered corpses and hanging bodies on the walls. We made hand prints all over the hallway and drizzled red paint down the stairs. One of the guys stayed behind while we went back to town to get the girls; he would follow us around and make creepy noises. As a finishing touch, Andy squatted above an old upholstered chair in the corner of one of the rooms and left a tremendous turd on the cushion. “Why’d you do that?” we asked, and he shrugged. "Keep out of Room Ten if you know what's good for you," he warned the guy who was staying.
When Andy got home his father decided to ground him for something (and he probably deserved it), so he couldn’t come back with us after dark. This was fine with us. It bettered our odds (and at seventeen, friendship is easily sold out for the mere possibility of touching a warm, lace-covered boob). These were girls well out of my league willing to hang out with us for the promise of adventure. I found myself in the backseat next to a cute half-Cherokee girl who clutched my arm as I led everyone into the old hotel. We followed the trail of paint up to Room Thirteen and set up a Ouija board and manipulated it so "demons" were speaking to us. We went through the whole pantomime: the story of a woman used to live there and how she died, a tale that would be supported with actual evidence in the journal. I pretended to suddenly notice it tucked under one of the floorboards, saying, “Look guys, a diary!”
The girls all burst out laughing.
Andy, bitter in his punishment, had called one of the girls to warn her about the spectacle waiting for them out at the old hotel. When I realized they’d known it was bullshit all along I felt so deflated. I summoned the decency to call out to the guy lying in wait, but he didn’t answer. I called again, and we waited a few seconds in candlelit silence but he did not appear. Calling his name over and over, we wandered in and out of the musty old rooms but we couldn’t find him in any of them. We thought he might just be messing with us, but it went on too long for that. We searched the place with flashlights down to the wine cellar that still smelled of ancient vintages, and tensions rose again. This time it was real. It was the plot of a horror movie: the seduction plan gone awry. The laughter in Room Thirteen had lanced the suspense, only to set us up for the true horror awaiting us that night. A man with hookhand? An ivy-league spirit with a reaching claw? Who among us would be the next victim?
We never found him, so we walked back the car debating about calling the cops. Half a mile down the road, we saw a hooded figure in the headlights walking back to town. He’d been spooked by something while waiting for us, he said, so he took off running and never looked back. We were reckless, and stupid, and still young enough to believe our own ghost stories. As the half-Cherokee girl inched closer to make room for him in the back seat, I thought I might still have a chance. But one look at her face and I knew Andy had lied and told her I was the one who’d taken the dump in Room Ten.
I tell my children the story of a gargoyle who came to life and lives in the penthouse apartment of the David Broderick Tower. We have been spending a lot of time together walking around downtown lately, telling each other spooky stories about all the abandoned buildings as Halloween approaches. Yesterday, the boy said he saw this gargoyle and seconds later a news helicopter sped across the same sky and he was unfazed. Which seems less probable: a statue coming to life or a massive mechanical insect that hovers over actual doom? The abandoned Metropolitan building, with its massive radio antenna on top becomes Dr. Frankenstein's castle. The collapsing Wurlitzer building next door belongs to Dracula (according to my son, that's him next to the grasshopper):
Every abandoned skyscraper is occupied by hosts of ghouls and monsters. My daughter tells me there are no ghosts in buildings where people live, but they wait until all the people are gone to move in. The Book caryatids talk if you get close to them; a ghost named Priscilla lives on the 37th Floor of the tower. There are werewolves in the David Stott building. One building houses a ballroom where every night spirits come to dance and if you listen close enough, you can almost hear the strains of their spectral orchestra. The train station is haunted by a ghost waiting for her children to arrive on a train that will never come.
They know that their father has been alone inside almost all these buildings, in their minds a brave adventurer who's survived to tell them stories of what's within. Although the things I am actually afraid of would hardly interest them---the IRS, global economic collapse, muggers, tea partiers, car accidents, Cancer---with all this Gothic ambiance I am able to dredge up enough memories of staring at paranormal photographs and Angela Lansbury to tell a good scary story or two. I can almost remember what it must feel like to be them, to look up at those dark towers on a balmy October afternoon and believe just about anything could be inside. This is their city now, more than it will ever be mine. In their imaginations it can still be more than what it actually is: all cold and dead. I do not want to impair any of this with the more terrifying truth: that there is nothing inside those buildings, not even ghosts. Or the worst truth of all: there is no such thing.
More October Stories:
The shocking, true story of Cam's big shaft
Night of the Living Bed
A recent outing of the Detroit Area Preschool Paranormal Society (DAPPS)