Scary stories

How scary is this? When he was still a teenager, my friend Jon was driving to Arkansas by himself. He was late getting started and his lateness was compounded when, in the more irregular geography of the Ozarks, he missed a turn. Not being one to backtrack, Jon forged ahead, eventually finding himself genuinely lost in a rapidly darkening and increasingly remote area.

Maybe what happened next would be just as scary a mile or two outside of one's own hometown, but then we wouldn't have the foreignness of the surroundings and the wisps of Ozarks fog. Finding that he needed a men's room with no buildings of any kind in sight, Jon pulled to the side of the sparsely-traveled, two-lane roadway he was on and, leaving the car door open and the engine turning, got out to pee behind the car. That's what he was doing when he saw the man approaching, and it's important to the story, I think, to understand that this man wasn't coming toward Jon from somewhere on the road but rather from the field beyond the narrow ditch Jon was facing.

What would you do? Jon called out to the guy, something like, "Hey, how're you doing?" but the guy, instead of responding, just kept walking straight toward him. He was still far enough away that Jon couldn't make out anything much about him or read his expression, but he seemed determined and he was closing in fast. Jon called out a second time but there was still no response, and now there was no question that he could hear what Jon was saying; he was choosing not to respond.

And when Jon yelled hello a third time to this man who was marching toward him through the secluded Arkansas darkness, the man did the scariest thing he could have done: he kept coming straight for Jon, and he began running.

"If I hadn't been peeing already, I probably would've started right then," Jon reported later. What he did in addition to peeing, in the actual event, was turn and make like hell for the car door, the silent man now not far behind. Jon put the car in gear and sped off with the door still partway open, and the stranger's malevolent intent is illustrated by the fact that he never spoke and that he kept running after Jon's speeding car.

That Thing

If you read my column last week, you'll know that Halloween is thrilling for me, and to help prepare all of us for the holiday I asked around among my friends and acquaintances about the things that scare us. I heard a lot of great stories, but the conclusions I've drawn are ones that maybe I already knew: that the scariest stories are those we can believe and that what's scariest about them, hands down, is that which remains unknown.

The concept is easy enough to grasp and yet somehow those who would frighten us miss it most of the time. To Stephen King I long to explain that finding out the physical shape and dimension of horror reduces it: we cannot, at the end, find out that it's a big spider and remain perplexed and terrified. To the makers of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 I long to ask, "Didn't you get it? We were scared at The Blair Witch Project because we never found out how Mike was made to face the wall." And as to the man who came running after Jon, the last thing I want to ask — because Jon is safe now and, as such, his story is a thing that can always continue to frighten me — is, "What was your motive? If you had caught Jon, what would you have done?"

Late at night when we were both boys, my cousin Bill would explain to me that he was hearing "that thing" again. "That thing" was the sound of someone — who? — tapping quietly at the walls of the house from the outside, beginning far away and coming closer, growing loudest as he reached the wall outside the room where we slept (still it was barely audible to Bill; I couldn't even hear it); then the sound would recede until it reached the farthest point and begin all over again. There's nothing inherently scary about someone knocking quietly at the walls of a house; what turned us both ashen with fear is that fact that we couldn't imagine why anyone would.

Or even if it was really happening, and if it wasn't, what was. For a time I lived in an apartment in Lawrence where things took place that weren't scary so much as inexplicable. In this apartment books would be left out that no one was reading, notes appeared that none of those of us who lived there had left, and, worst, we would see our roommates — or at least we'd see our roommates' shapes, asleep in their beds or leaving the bathroom — only to find out later that our roommates hadn't been home. Then who was? Years later a friend of mine referred to "the haunted Lynch place" in Lawrence and my blood ran cold as I asked for the address. He didn't know the exact address, he told me, but he knew that it was above Lynch Real Estate. And of course that's where I lived: in the only apartment above Lynch Real Estate.

Child's Play

Kids are scary, because they don't always know enough to be afraid when they ought to. My friend Gae listened once in a mounting panic as her five-year-old daughter Katie described a sleepover she and her sister and two cousins had had the night before at their grandmother's: Katie had been awakened some time before dawn by the shadow of a man pacing back and forth in a hallway adjoining the room — an entryway really, on the ground floor at the foot of the stairs — in which the children slept on pallets. Katie tried to wake her cousin Josh by grabbing his hand, but he wouldn't stir, and so Katie had lain listening to this man's footfalls and watching his shadow move back and forth.

Hearing about this the next day — Katie hadn't even told her grandmother — Gae asked her daughter if she could describe this man. No; she hadn't seen him, only his shadow. Maybe it was only her grandfather, Gae offered. No again; he didn't sound like Katie's grandpa.

Here is where Gae grew frightened. "You mean his voice? " Gae asked. "He spoke to you?"

"Yes," Katie reported matter-of-factly.

"What did he want?" Gae asked.

"He wanted me to put my head down."

Chills spread over the back of Gae's neck. "Why?"

"Because he wanted to go upstairs," Katie said, as though her mother were slightly backward for not knowing that already. Upstairs is where the bedrooms were. Her mother never found out anything more.

My older siblings Steve and Valerie still aren't really frightened by the appearance one night of the sparkle men, although their story scares me. They remember it pretty nearly the same even though they were very young when it happened.

"Sparkle men" is the name that the two had given to headlights on approaching cars when, on humid or wet nights, the lights became star-shaped and danced on the windshield of the car they rode in. One night, past twilight, the two were sitting on the front porch when an entire group of sparkle men appeared around a house across the park — roughly half a block — from ours.

It was either early or mid-summer, depending on which of them you ask. "Yeah, I remember it," Steve told me on the phone tonight. "I remember that a guy came out of the house and started the hose, and I thought he was going to water them or something. But he didn't even see them."

"We both saw them," Valerie confirmed in a separate call. "It wasn't something where you talked the other into it. I just said, 'Steve, look. Sparkle men.' And he saw them too. They circled this house — went completely around it, like they were holding hands dancing. You couldn't miss it."

Wasn't it frightening to them? "Val was older," Steve answered. "It didn't scare her, so I guess it didn't scare me, either."

Remaining enigmatic in their story is the fact that neither remembers how the episode ended. And maybe it's scarier for me because a similar thing happened when I was a boy: once, asleep under the dining room table (I didn't have a bedroom and tended to follow the window unit air conditioner around the house, and it was often in the dining room), I awakened in the night and watched a light on the dining room wall. It was stationary and about as big around as a flashlight beam, and as I lay watching it, wondering what it could be, it went out.

I awakened Dad — a risky strategy under any circumstances — and he walked through the house in his BVDs, investigating. (And I must have given a really credible account of this mysterious light business to have gotten Dad up out of bed.) I stayed right with him. As we walked through the living room, the room was suddenly flooded with light — flooded with it — and this light came through the picture window that looked out on that same park. For a few seconds the room was supernaturally bright — I remember looking up for Dad's reaction and being able to see everything as clearly as if it were broad daylight — and then, just as suddenly, it was dark again.

I couldn't see, but I heard Dad run for the front door and leave through it. It was a quandary, because I wasn't about to go outside and yet I didn't want to remain alone in the living room. When my vision returned I crept to the picture window and saw the white of Dad's underwear bouncing around near the end of the front yard, where the street and then the park began. He was back minutes later; he was flummoxed, I remember. Although he speculated about where that light might have come from over the course of the next several days, that night he found nothing.

"I used to think that if we had all been abducted by aliens, it would explain a lot ," Valerie told me on the phone earlier when I asked her about that night. Aliens aren't nearly scary enough, I wanted to tell her. The thought had never occurred to me. But instead what I ended up remembering — and it no longer seems like a non sequitur as I type it — is that it seems to me as though there are fewer tornadoes in my life since we left that house than there were before.

The Connecting Wall

I'm not saying that our house was haunted or preyed upon or anything like it. What I'm saying is that if such a thing can happen, Michael and Wayne's house was.

"All kinds of crazy shit happened there," Wayne told me at a party the other night. He was referring to the duplex up by WSU that he and Michael lived in when they first moved to Wichita as teenagers, back in 1991. The two then told me about a pair of mannequin heads that sat on their mantle that would turn unnoticed so that they appeared to be staring at them ("Do you remember we marked them?" Michael asked Wayne. "And they turned, like, two inches?" Wayne did), and about a door leading to attic storage that exploded open one afternoon sending empty boxes cascading down the stairs into the room in which Wayne sat playing guitar. ("I blamed Otis," Wayne told me, referring to the late Otis the cat. "I went up there and dug around yelling for him and then I heard this meooow and turned around and Otis was sitting down in the living room staring at me.")

What stayed with me, though, is the story about Ginger, the evil neighbor. (And yes, Ginger is a name I just made up.) Ginger and her cool husband "Clint" lived on the other side of this duplex. One afternoon, Clint showed up at Wayne and Michael's door and apologetically asked that the two of them keep it down; their noise was teeing off Ginger. Wayne and Michael took a look at the tiny jambox on which they played cassettes — it wasn't capable of much and they didn't it have it "cranked" — and told Clint sure, sorry, but they hadn't been making much noise as it was. Clint returned to Ginger, but before long she showed up herself and she wasn't happy. What the fuck were Wayne and Michael doing? The noise was unbelievable. A huge, framed picture had come off of Ginger's wall.

Michael and Wayne didn't believe Ginger for a second, but they trailed her back to her place and Clint confirmed it: the noise on their side, as Michael and Wayne sat a few feet apart talking and playing their pathetic little jambox, had been substantial, as though they had been tearing their half of the duplex to the ground. On the floor lay the heavy picture that had crashed down, its fall caused by whatever it was that Michael and Wayne had been slamming against the connecting wall.

Not All There

Finally there's the story of a guy I know — we'll call him "Clint," too, to make it seem like an eerie coincidence — who knew a guy who wasn't all there — and we'll call him "Fred," because of Ginger. Fred believed, for instance, that mail he sent to President Clinton was received and read by President Clinton and it dismayed him if the president failed to mention any received correspondence from Fred on the news.

Clint, on the other hand, is all there. He's not prone to visions or willing to let the uncanny slide without providing an explanation. And yet Clint can't explain this.

One night he was riding in a car with Fred and Fred mentioned off-handedly a really extraordinary thing: he could make streetlights go out.

"OK," Clint said, "do that one." He pointed at a streetlight.

Fred shook his head. That wasn't right, exactly, he couldn't make streetlights go out; rather, he knew when they were going to.

Of course you do, Clint thought, writing the comment off as another example of the ways in which Fred wasn't all there.

Hours passed. Clint and Fred went to dinner and then to a bar. Clint had forgotten all about Fred's comment earlier in the evening when, driving home, Fred suddenly said, "That one," and pointed to a specific spot ahead.

Clint looked where Fred was pointing. He was about to ask Fred what he was talking about when a streetlight — a streetlight just where Fred had been pointing — flared and went out.

Happy Halloween

Me personally, I'm out a lot at night — I just drove past Michael and Wayne's old place, for instance, and one side appears to be boarded up — and I can't figure out how Fred might know. Maybe some of us are just tuned differently: maybe that's why Katie knew that something needed access to the bedrooms, why Bill heard the tapping noise that I couldn't hear, why Steve and Valerie saw the sparkle men, and why Fred knows that a streetlight's about to go. Maybe they're all tuned to something in distress, trying its very hardest to get heard.

The scary thing, for me, is that I don't figure I'll ever know.