Goofing off at the Spirit Halloween Store with James the other day I was a little disappointed to find such a fascination with gore. As someone who enjoys exploring his own boundaries of fear, I love horror stories and movies, including gore, when it serves the story. Picking up a little doll, however, one that could animatronically sew its own mouth shut, I was a little confused as to what exactly Halloween meant to people in this age, and what children were taking away from it. I felt sorry for them, for the Halloweens I knew were full of mystery, wonder and deep awe. I vividly remember those I celebrated in my youth, where I ran through the artificial "haunted houses" our local radio stations were sponsoring, laughing, screaming, finding my way in the dim lighting, looking for the source of a particular feeling that came every October without fail. As leaves began turning the colors of autumn, gently showering me as I walked the tree-lined streets of historical districts, I could feel the ages pass beneath my feet in the crisp air, knowing very well that I shared the same path with others who were still walking, unseen, in the dimension of spirit.
It made me think of, and question, the great resource of the esoteric and occult literature available to me during my years in elementary school. I find it amazing and humorous that an elementary school library would have featured such books when you think of the overabundance of the "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!" busybodies in our day and age flipping out over everything, so apt to censor, to omit, to burn, to sterilize in our modern anti-bacterial world.
When I was little, children could still go trick-or-treating, unsupervised and at night. There were no razor blades in apples or poisoned candy ( an urban legend which gained momentum in the 80's, only three cases of poisoned candy have ever been reported, all perpetrated by individuals within the same family ). The books I was reading during this time had been placed there for a reason, shaping me to question and investigate life and death, all of the psychospiritual which borders our human condition. I was learning all about the paranormal events which transpired somewhere on our planet every day. I gravitated toward these books instantly, voraciously, more curious than frightened, overstimulated with the exciting possibility that such unexplained phenomena could happen to me.
After all, the first house I'd ever lived in was an old Victorian home where a woman had hung herself in the closet of the room I slept in. My mother would hear her crying late at night, the feet of the woman visible under the doorway, blue and luminous. A heavy cellar door had slammed shut by itself on me there, catching one of my fingers, scarring and forever branding me with an awareness and interest in the great unknown. I looked forward to each of my school's book fairs with great anticipation, wondering what new book of ghost stories or tomes of the unexplained would be available. The tale of Bloody Mary was making the rounds at my school then, our version featuring the ghost of a desperate woman whose only child had drowned. Students were continually being dared the following:
1. Go into the school bathroom alone and stand before the mirror.
2. After the person keeping watch has turned off the lights, begin turning around counter-clockwise while repeating, "BLOODY MARY, I GOT YOUR BABY", a total of thirteen times.
3. Open your eyes.
The apparition of this woman was then supposed to materialize within the mirror, snatching out at you for the child you claimed to have. I always got a chuckle out of hearing the terrified screams and stomping feet down the hallways around Halloween, knowing someone had just invoked and allegedly seen Bloody Mary.
Even before then, I can remember visiting the mall with my mother, shopping for a witch costume and looking wide-eyed over the assortment of nightmare figures displayed in shop windows. From down a strobe-lit hallway, other disturbing figures invited me toward a haunted house that was being put on, one in which I saw people enter, but never come out. I could hear shrieks of terror and pain, sounds of thunder and howling wind, creaking trees and doors, ghostly moaning and the rattle of chains. I hid behind my mother, even after she explained to me that it was all fake. I couldn't comprehend how anyone could enjoy such a bizarre and clearly horrifying form of entertainment. The figures continued leering at me near a faux wooden castle door under which an occasional plume of sweet-smelling fog escaped. It looked like the doorway to hell, and I didn't understand how my mother thought I would find being scared to death any fun.
We exited the mall, stepping into the parking lot, kicking through mounds of dry leaves and marveling over the fall colors. Sitting in the backseat while my mother crossed items off her shopping list, I turned my head to investigate a sudden commotion I heard happening near one of the building's side entrances. A small group of people I recognized burst from the doorway, laughing, holding their chests, turning to look back at the ghouls who had just chased them out of the haunted house's exit. I understood then, smiling at the people excitedly giggling, animatedly recapping the frightening adventure they had just shared. They looked alright, quite exhilarated in fact, and I longed to go with them, to stand among the brave individuals who dared to tread the dark places that no one else would.
This was a time of perceptible magic, an energy tangible and intoxicating. There were the Halloween parties thrown for neighborhood children, at school and in the homes of friends, school projects which left the smells of construction paper and Elmer's glue, the black and orange, the archaic symbols, the death masks and jack o' lanterns grinning from beyond. There were giant harvest moons, deep orange as they climbed the twilight sky, prompting a storytelling which ran late and vivid into the night, the passing of legends spoken in tones hushed and intent. This was an ideal time when I could find out about my own family's history with the paranormal, when busy adults could be persuaded to speak about the ghosts they had seen or heard. Menacing shadows would play about the walls while candles flickered in autumn drafts, and the slightest noise from another room was most definitely caused by the spirit who was being discussed and votes would be taken on who would have to go into the room and investigate.
Children ran through the streets during a night in which the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. I ran with them, hollering, laughing, tearing through front lawns recreated as graveyards in cheap vinyl costumes and plastic masks cool on my face. Returning home, pawing through our sugary loot while Linus was still waiting for the Great Pumpkin on television, I would think of the possibility of such a being, presiding over dark nightmare landscapes, a pumpkin king who could be invoked and reward the brave with secrets. So much of our perception was tainted, clouded by fear. Was it possible one could learn to walk in darkness with detachment, adapting a night vision not manipulated by emotion? And what of these ghosts? What were they? What did they want? Were they really stuck in some limbo? Were they really trying to communicate with the living? I thought of the legend of the Jack 'O Lantern, a man who at one time walked the earth just as I did. He met the devil one night and was able to trick him up into a tree. When he died, he was refused admission into heaven due to his many sins. At the gates of hell, the devil recognized him and did not allow him to enter either, but threw two fiery coals at him which stuck to his eyes, forever banished to roam a netherworld between light and dark, laughing with madness.
As I matured, I was taken by the same odd pull every Halloween. I would have dreams of attempting to scramble up a wet hill I could never entirely climb, only catching quick glimpses of a luminous and festive Halloween carnival in process at the top of the mound. There was an old castle not far from my house, upon whose cemetery grounds grew a tree a man had been unjustly hung in long ago. The shadow of the hanged man was supposed to be visible every Halloween, never appearing for me as I waited like Linus all through the night, listening to Saint Saens Danse Macabe on the radio, peering through skeleton trees at the harvest moon, projecting my consciousness out into the night and all its mysterious places, hoping true magic could still be found on this earth. On November 1st, I'd always wake up depressed, feeling the energy had dissipated, the great carnival had left town and I had missed my one yearly chance to catch up with it.
Down the hill from my house was a daycare above a small lake. During the month of October the lake sat black and still in the night, the moon but a small luminous coin resting on its surface. The daycare was reportedly haunted by one or more children who had attended it, revisiting its rooms and playground even in death. My cousin was a teacher there, and would frequently fill me in on all the latest ghostly gossip. A child had been heard laughing when none were there, toys would roll out of the gymnasium of their own accord, kids would claim to see other children invisible to everyone else and footsteps could be heard upstairs when none were present. By that time, my ghoshunting skills had been refined over the years by the books I continued reading, gleaming techniques from Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband-and-wife ghosthunting team who had visited haunts all over the world. My cousin used to live, as had all of our family, in a house infested with spirits. Most of the activity took place in the back of the home, in the kitchen, dining room and utility room. There was a particular closet in a back room I had hidden myself in during a game of hide-and-seek once. As I parted the coats and made my way inside, it seemed like the closet was larger than I remembered, and I felt my way through to the back as if it were a Narnian wardrobe. Reaching out with my right hand, my fingers closed around something cold and soft. I moved my hand down its length, suddenly realizing it was an arm, and felt an old wrinkled elbow. Exploding from the closet, screaming in fear, I vowed never to enter that room alone again, and yet whenever I spent the night, I always slept on the couch near the dining room, listening and watching for any signs of activity.
The dining table chairs were always being moved about, as was anything left on the tabletop. Lights went on and off by themselves, lawn chairs were arranged in a circle, and invisible pebbles were thrown at the windows in the back of the house, their indentations in the soft ground below the only evidence that something strange was occurring. One night I sprinkled a fine coat of flour about the dining room and kitchen, and left a sound-activated voice recorder under the dining table. The next morning, I awoke to find that the chairs and the items on the table had been moved without any trace of footprints. Playing the tape back, I could hear the objects moving, the sounds of breathing, and the chiming of a grandfather clock my cousin did not own. One afternoon at the house, well before the age of cellphones, as my mother spoke with an aunt over the phone in the kitchen, she was shocked to find that same aunt walking up the sidewalk to the front door. She never entered, as she was still miles away in her own house, talking with my mother on her phone.
As Native Americans, all of us in our family were from a very early age instilled with a belief in a spirit domain, knowing full well that contact to and from our worlds was possible. Still, I needed to know more. What were they trying to say to us? Where do we go afterward? And so I joined my cousin one evening after the daycare had closed. I poked around the rooms, my intuition set at ten, asking the spirits of the place to reveal themselves to us. Nothing was happening, and we decided to take a break in the galley. We were just about to leave when I thought that perhaps it needed to be dark, so we turned off all the lights. Instantly, heavy footsteps were heard from upstairs, footsteps and a heavy scraping that followed us wherever we walked on the lower floor.
This same cousin joined me on opening night when the Blair Witch Project premiered at a Denver theatre, as a new resurgence and love affair with the unknown took hold. We'd been to many fake but fun haunted houses together, including the haunted mansion rides that were always featured at those carnivals they set up in parking lots in the summer. We traded books on ghost stories back and forth, rented horror movies we only ended up laughing at, and went to the same Halloween parties thrown by other family members every year. A year ago we took one of our best stories and were flown to California to film an episode for a Biography Channel paranormal television program. As adults we continue to share the real-life ghost stories we have lived through and sometimes have new ones to tell. We can thank my mother for our appreciation of this holiday, who always threw the best parties and always told the scariest stories. She’d have little boxes set up with holes in them for us to put our hands through. Inside she’d have things like cold spaghetti, or peeled grapes serving as intestines or eyeballs, while a haunted house record was playing in the background. It was an innocent, spooky sort of fun I don’t see much in our world today.
Do we look forward to this time of year as it marks the "season of rest" after a busy, mind-numbing year? Do we look forward to the thinning of the veil, hoping it can bring us closer to those dear to us who have crossed over? Are we simply satisfied that, for one time in the year, we can dress however we like, appear as whomever we wish, in a society so full of regulations and labels?
I attended a spiritual weekend retreat in the Colorado mountains a few years back. At night, we would sit around the campfire, drumming, passing around my didgeridoo, talking long into the night. Eventually, as the moon turned the shadows of trees into ominous figures, we got around to sharing ghost stories. One guy spoke about growing up in a mountainous area without electricity or running water. Sometimes at night, when fetching water, there was a certain presence, an evil in the woods that would send the hairs on the back of his neck up like the tail of a frightened cat. I'd read about these places before, author John Keel wrote of a place which lied in a "zone of fear", a frightening area where an almost tangible aura of dread could be felt. Even in the year 2007, there are still many shadowy places in our world that are rich with energies dark and foreboding. At the retreat, I was also told about a nearby city in the four-corners area where skinwalkers had been reported, evil shapeshifters from Native American lore as well as many other cultures. In the same urban legend as the homicidal man with the hook lurking at a make-out spot, a couple's car breaks down at night in an area known as Blue Hill. The male goes off to find assistance while his girlfriend waits in the car. He never returns, and in the morning when a policeman arrives, he escorts the young lady into his car, instructing her not to look back. When she does, she is horrified to find the skin of her boyfriend hanging from a nearby tree. The man who shared this story with me swears it to be true, saying that documentation of this incident can be found in the city's records.
In the same "I swear to God it's true!" vein, I'll share one final story with you, just as it was related to me. The sister of a fellow acquaintance of mine is in Colorado applying for a job with our wildlife division. The position she is applying for requires her to spend three months living alone in a cabin deep in the forest, monitoring tagged animals, checking lightning strikes for possible fires, and so on. During her three-month probationary period, she finds that she enjoys the isolation and the freedom she feels living with and as one with all of nature. In her spare time, she begins taking scenic photographs of the area and its animals. Before she knows it, her time is up and she returns to civilization while her performance is under review. One of the first things she does upon returning is to take her film to be developed. Later, as she walks through the parking lot going through her photographs, she has a complete mental breakdown.
Paramedics are called and she is taken to a nearby hospital. An ER technician collects her purse and the photos from the scene, which are then delivered to the woman’s brother, the very same man who recounted this story to me, as he sits in the hospital’s waiting area. He goes through the photographs, looking for anything that might have brought on his sister's attack. There are pictures of mountain sunsets, of full moons, grazing animals, flowers and insects. When he comes to the thirteenth photograph, however, it becomes apparent to him why his sister suffered the emotional trauma she did. The thirteenth photo is one of his sister, asleep on the bed of her cabin.
Hoping you find the answers you seek this season, Happy Haunting!
- Christopher Allen Brewer, October 2013