Happy Halloween! I’ve been wracking my brain for the last couple of weeks trying to remember a scary story from my real life. The trouble is, I don’t really “get scared” in the traditional sense. Yes, I am de pahty-poopuh. Haunted houses don’t do it for me. Horror flicks are just gratuitous grossness as far as I’m concerned always leaving me wanting a shower. (Although I do like a good cerebral thriller as few and far between as those may be.)
Growing up, it was popular for a group of teens to go out in the dead of night to the woods or a cemetery to see who would be the first to freak out and lose all reason. I always volunteered to take up the rear – the most dangerous position because that’s where the monsters get you. “Let ‘em at me,” I thought. I know all about monsters.
In truth, I dealt with many monsters growing up. They haunted my nightmares, mostly: residue from real life terrors that no one knew. But I also dealt with ghosts in my waking hours as well to the degree that I can altogether relate with the kid in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Sixth Sense.” Except, I can tell you fer-sure and fer-reals that the dead don’t walk around displaying their method of passage from this world to the next. That’s all Hollywood hype and sensationalism.
And did your school teachers always have the class either draw a scary picture or write a scary story around Halloween? Mine did, almost without fail, and my drawings and stories terrified the holy bejeebers out of most of them. They told me so! I look back on it now and lamely wonder why no one thought it strange that the quiet brain in the back o’ the class also knew so much about true horror.
So, when you live with fear like that day-in-and-day-out, haunted houses are a kiddie pool and walks in the woods in the dark of night are an invigorating stroll in a sunlit park. Now, I should also say here that being “startled” and being truly “scared” are two very different things. As I have a healthy sympathetic nervous system, my fight-or-flight response is well-tuned and highly susceptible to external stimuli. I hate balloons, for example; or people that get a kick outta sneaking up on you from behind.
There was one time though when I was about sevenish, I’d say, when I was truly frightened – scared out of every wit I possessed – by a witch. At least, that’s what I thought she was at the time. Listen on and you can be the judge.
It was early fall. School had started again and for some reason, I had to go home one evening with a friend of the family because my mother was otherwise occupied somewhere. Knowing my mother, she was probably out doing some kind of service for someone who needed it: visiting someone who was sick, or taking dinner to a family, or cleaning someone’s house. My mother did not drive and was always at home, except when she was out doing something like this to make the world a better place. That’s my mom.
Apparently, the friend of the family with whom I was supposed to stay for the afternoon also was missing a parent. She had received permission to play at a neighbor’s house while waiting for her mother to get home. I, having no other place to go, went also to the neighbor’s house.
This is getting confusing even for me. So let me don a few names. The friend who was my age – the one I went home with for the afternoon – her name is Judith. Her friend – the one I did not know, but with whom I now felt a little forced to spend time – her name was Cindy. Cindy lived with her grandmother in a really big old rickety house… in the woods. I kid you not. We literally had to walk through the woods for several minutes to get to Cindy’s grandmother’s house. And I totally forgot to drop my breadcrumbs.
As we approached, my Spidey-sense-alarm went OFF, big-time! Unfortunately, I was still very young and had not yet learned how to recognize my Spidey-sense like I do now. The hairs on the back of my neck rose uncomfortably and my arms horripilated (goose bumps). I kept walking right up to the front porch with Judith. She seemed fine. I didn’t see any raised hairs on her neck or arms. So, why shouldn’t I also be fine?
Judith called through the screen door and walked right on in. I stood there not knowing what to do. It’s rude to walk into someone’s house unannounced, and no one had announced me. I didn’t know if Cindy knew I was there and it’s her house (her grandmother’s house). I didn’t want to just walk on in. So I stood there on the porch, weighing my options. I turned around and looked back the way we came. There was no path that I could see: Nothing but trees and sandy brush.
I was just considering braving it back through the woods to civilization when I heard the cackle behind me. I jumped and spun. There she stood – Cindy’s grandmother – all four feet, three of her. In her youth, she might have actually made it to four ten or eleven, but was now bent over with age and leaning on her broom. Her long grey hair streamed loosely to the left in the slight breeze, one strand floating across the wart on her chin. And yes, there was not only one, but two black hairs growing out of it. Her eyes were a dull grey and as she was laughing at me, her smile did not touch her eyes.
“Come in,” she crowed, “Come in and have some cookies!” As she spoke, I counted five visible teeth and a purple tongue, longer than it should have been on any human. Every instinct told me to RUN! But what about Judith? She’s in there with this hag’s granddaughter eating poison cookies! I’ve gotta save her! I swallowed hard, past the baseball in my throat, and made my way carefully inside as Witch Hazel held the door.
Oh! The odor! Freshly baked shortbread cookies could only mask the pervasive mephitis of old house, old dust, old people, old furniture: a rotting corpse of a dwelling surrounded us. Its musty fetor seemed to sink into my very pores and cloud my mind with insolent glares from the cracks and crevices. Every step produced a shrill creak under my feet; but even worse were the scurrying pitter-patter of little feet if you stepped ju-u-u-ust right.
The biggest, hairiest, unkemptest, evil-eyed cat lounged on the back of a shredded velour chair, kneading the wood below the now tattered velour with its yellow claws. Occasionally a thread would pop loose and the cat would bat at it lazily. He knew that nothing escapes this house, so what would be the hurry? He followed me in with his eyes: one ice-blue, the other the color of squash-soup.
Witchiepoo offered me the plate of cookies. “If this old hag thinks I’m eating this apple, she’s got another thing coming,” I thought. I politely refused. But as is the custom in these Southern United States, she pressed me.
“Oh, come on,” she gibbered, “Just one! It’s my special shortbread recipe! …and they’re awfully good, aren’t they, girls?” She swung her head toward Judith and Cindy who were both sitting at the table, downing their cookies and red Kool-Aid – not milk.
“They’re dead,” I thought. “I’m too late!” The plate was now right under my nose as Baba Yaga pressed closer, her eyes boring into me, her foul breath steaming into my face. Just to get her to go away, I took one and palmed it. I’d figure out somewhere to stash it in a minute.
She grinned her five-toothed grimace and walked back over to the stove. A black pot percolated atop a blue flame. Reaching for a dirty ladle, Dame Double-Double dipped into the pot and stirred… muttering under her vile breath. “That’s it,” I reasoned, “I don’t even need to ask what’s in there.” I knew. I absolutely knew this was the stew she was preparing for my bones.
I tried to get Judith to come away, but she was intent on her shortbread cookies and playing with her friend. Cindy was annoyed that I wanted to leave so soon. “I know a game you’ll like,” Cindy chirped at me! “Grandmama plays it with us all the time. Don’t you, Grandmama?” Oh… my… gosh! She’s got Cindy brainwashed too. Cindy’s her accomplice! Cindy is her accomplice and the cat is her familiar. We are SO toast.
The ol’ Bat bobbed her head in agreement, planting the lid on the pot and swinging around like a marionette on strings. “Hide-and-seek,” she responded gleefully!
You don’t have to tell me twice. While I will not enter a house without an invitation, I have absolutely no qualms about leaving it on my own terms. My Converse hit the floor once and I sprang out through the front door – or was it the front window? – like a wet frog escaping a pot of boiling water. Adrenaline gave me wings and I was half-way to nowhere when I realized that I was… lost.
Have you ever noticed how everything looks the same in an unfamiliar wood? I slowed and walked a bit to get my bearings. No sound. No lights. No distinguishing landmarks anywhere to tell me where I had been or where I should be going. I do remember several honeysuckle bushes near Judith’s home, so I began looking for those.
Half an hour passed as I wandered aimlessly. The worst part was the guilt-ridden cavalcade of thoughts that kept pounding at me. “I should’ve made Judith come with me. But how? I could have picked her up and carried her on my shoulder… Maybe. Probably not. But I am pretty strong, so maybe I could’ve. Dad says I’m as strong as a bull.” This thought makes me smile a little on the inside and relax just a bit.
I’m not worried about never making it home. The thought does cross my mind, but I figure if I walk long enough in one direction, I’ll eventually come out somewhere near civilization as I know it. No, the burning enigma that plagues my every thought is, “Judith. Where is she now and is she still OK?”
In the distance, I hear my name. It’s Judith! She IS OK! And then I hear Cindy and The Bell Witch calling as well.
I put on a burst of speed. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe I can rescue Judith and still get away!” I cut through the woods in an arc toward the voices, hoping to be able to nab Judith and escape before Cindy and Grandmommy-dearest know we’ve gone. There’s the house! I saw it and sprinted toward the back.
As I rounded the corner, a most frightening vision assaulted me. There she stood again, holding her broom like a hockey stick in one hand, feet splayed wide with her other arm outstretched toward me. She let out a terrifying banshee screech, “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” …as my sneakers dug into the gravel, sending me backward on all fours. My heart dropped into my stomach, my head hit the ground, and I could not find my feet again. As blackness gathered around the edges of my vision, the last thing I remember seeing is that old crone leaning over me.
“Dear God, receive my soul,” I prayed. And all was blackness.
My first conscious thought was how soft the velour felt under my hand. I rubbed it back and forth, watching the light play across the texture, changing it from dark wine to light pink and back again. It took a moment to register the thought, “Velour!” I snapped awake and sat up, adrenaline spiking again.
No. It was Judith’s house. Her mother also had velour chairs and a sofa, but they smelled a lot better. I could hear my mother’s voice in the other room and stood up. Whoa! A wave of nausea and relief simultaneously flooded over me.
How I got from the Amityville Horror house in the woods to Judith’s is still a mystery to me. I’ve not spoken of this experience to anyone until now, as I’ve been too freaked-out by it to effect an utterance! The optimist in me likes to believe that a Boo Radley sort must have come out of the woods from his hermited-shanty, bashed the witch, and carried Judith and I safely to home. Then of course, he disappeared, and no one ever saw him again.
Slowly… I stood up and walked into the next room. There stood my mother with Judith’s mother, talking. “Hey Sweetheart,” said my mother, wiping the sweat from my brow, “I was about to come wake you. Judith’s mother will drive us home.” I nodded, too sore and too exhausted to say anything. As we approached the door, I turned and asked, “Where’s Judith?”
“She’s laying down,” her mother said. “Doesn’t feel well. I guess ya’ll had a few too many sweets over there at Cindy’s place, y’reckon?”
“Yeah,” I breathed tremulously, “I reckon.”
I fervently hoped with all my heart that the next time I saw Judith, she wouldn’t be a half-rotted walking dead corpse wanting to eat my face.
P.S. — I hate Kool-Aid… and shortbread cookies.