Are You Scared By This?
By Marvin Payne
Last month’s column was “Writing about Your Town, Part 1.” Part 2, whatever the intensity of your feelings about your town, is going to have to wait, because we are faced right now with the two scariest events of the year – i.e., Halloween and The Election, and they must be addressed. If I were to ignore them, I would feel like a WOIM (Writer of Irrelevant Material), and I don’t think I could bear that.
The question most relevant to the first of these two events is, obviously, “Why don’t we celebrate Hallowday, with colorful costumes and commercially shrink-wrapped treats?” This is the kind of question that would never occur to a WOIM, perhaps because “All Hallows,” or “All Saints” would include the entire Meridian Readership and seem entirely too daunting. Nothing can daunt quite like 400 million Saints, which is what the Meridian editors persist in assuring me is the regular audience of Backstage Graffiti, which is why I should be so thrilled to be writing it for free, which I am – I mean “thrilled.” But also “daunted.” Not so daunted as might be a WOIM, but daunted enough to avert the aforementioned question and move right to the relevant terrors.
In a barn in Alpine, we recently held an event called “Mountainville Storyhaunt.” Its mission statement was, “in a culture of artistic stability amid a world of shifting paradigms, to terrify children.” I told the following tale. (You must imagine you are five years old and I am speaking slo-o-o-owly and spoo-oo-ookily, with wide eyes and a thin little Vincent Price mustache and Michael Jackson executing disquietingly meaningless movements in the background to horrifyingly insipid music.)
“The Creature In The Cabin”
Almost every time you hear a scary story, the storyteller starts off by telling you his story is absolutely true. This story isn’t like all those other stories. This story is absolutely true.
One summer when I was sixteen years old, I was working in the mountains at a day camp for children. I taught them songs and helped them learn how to swim. I had an old, beat-up Martin guitar and we’d huddle in the shadows under the trees and listen to the moaning of the wind and sing our heads off. (Now that’s kind of a scary thing to imagine, right there!) One of the songs was a scary song, and since this is a scary story, maybe we should sing it now.
Have you seen the ghost of John?
Long white bones and the rest is gone.
Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?
Then we’d go over to the swimming pool and slide down into the co-o-old, scary water … and swim our heads off! (It’s hard to swim with no head on. It’s impossible to swim with no skin on, like the ghost of John.)
After swimming, all the kids would climb in a bus (after they found their heads, of course) and chug on down that narrow, lonely mountain road to their homes in the valley. And when it was dark down there and the owls began to swoop over the rooftops, and the summer thunder boomed in the night, those kids would sleep their heads off!
But the guys who worked at the camp didn’t go home at night. We slept in the mountains. I slept in a tiny old cabin with a two or three other guys, and pretty soon it started to feel kind of crowded. We were so crammed in there that we could hear the noises in each others’ dreams. If somebody started dreaming about the circus, or fire engines, or rock bands, nobody else would get wink of sleep.
There was another cabin just up the hill that was deserted. And it was kind of crazy. It had doors all around, but not one door opened up into a room – each door led into a kind of closet, where a lot of old junk was stored. But on top of it all was an attic, with mostly just trash in it that nobody ever bothered to haul away. Since the bottom half of the cabin wasn’t really rooms, the stairs that led up to the attic were outside the cabin, from the ground right straight up to the attic door. I thought, “Hey, maybe I could sleep up there all by myself and it would be quiet and there’d be plenty of room!”
So for a couple of afternoons I hauled out all the trash and swept it as clean as I could. There was a lot to sweep out, because the door had been stuck open for a lot of years and birds had used this attic for a kind of a, well, bathroom. For a lot of years. So I swept and I swept and I swept. I nearly swept my head off.
Now this attic was built kind of like a tent. The roof started right at the floor on the sides and slanted up to a point at the top. There were some old wasp nests up there, but the wasps were dead and gone, so I knocked the nests out with my broom. I didn’t figure wasp ghosts could do me much damage.
For a bed, I had an old army cot (a cot is a narrow wooden frame with canvas stretched on it) and I put it right in the middle of the room. There was no electricity in there, so I hung a flashlight by a rope a few feet over my head. I knew I’d have to be a little careful if I stood up out of bed real quick, or the flashlight would knock my head off.
Finally I had the old attic pretty much cleaned out and ready to move into. The only job left was to get the window unstuck, so it would open. There was only one window, on the opposite end from the door. That turned out to be a harder job than I thought, so I decided to “move in today and unstick the window tomorrow.”
I hauled up all my stuff, but it was still early in the afternoon and I had my work to do out in the camp, and then dinner to eat down at the lodge, so I looked back in on my clean cabin attic and I pu-u-ushed the door closed and clattered down the stairs.
When I got back from dinner it was dark. So I climbed up the outside stairs to my new attic home and pu-u-ulled the door open, squee-ee-eezed inside, and pu-u-ulled it shut behind me. I felt my way in the dark to the hanging flashlight. (It didn’t knock my head off.) I turned it on and got undressed and turned it off and stretched out under a blanket on my cot.
Now “cot” rhymes with “hot,” and with that door closed all afternoon, closed for the first time in years, that old attic heated up like the inside of a toaster, only darker. I was just about sweating my head off. I think maybe that very night some of my head did sweat off, right off the top … my hair!
Then I thought, “Hey, I could open the door and let in some cool night air!” So I rolled off my cot, stood up, the flashlight didn’t knock my head off, so I switched it on and let it shine on the floor to remind me how to get to the door. I walked over there and I p-u-u-ushed the door open, and there, right in my face, swarming and shrieking and diving were about fifty bats – and they were mad bats, too, because I’d locked them out of their favorite place in all the world. I didn’t know! I pulled the door shut quick with a bang!
I was shaking a little, it nearly scared my head off, but I turned the hanging flashlight off and lay down on the cot again. This time I lay on top of the blanket, just hot as a tamale and nearly as naked as a jaybird.
I guess I just lay there for an hour or so. I was pretty tired, but I couldn’t get to sleep – it was too hot! I was as wide awake as if I was riding down the freeway on roller skates! It was just quiet and hot, quiet and hot, dark and quiet and…
“Kchyowhmp!” It was the biggest, loudest, scariest sound I’d ever heard! It only happened once, and then it was just quiet and hot, quiet and hot. My eyes were about as big as pizzas, and my heart was pounding away like cannibal war drums. What was it? Did I even really hear that sound? I knew I had heard that sound! But I sure wished I hadn’t.
The scariest thing about the sound was that I could tell it was right in the room with me, real close. And my imagination was spinning like a fan with no blades, trying to figure, “What kind of a thing would make that kind of a noise?” Something big, that’s for sure. But when I went out that afternoon I’d jammed the door shut on an empty room, and the window was still just as stuck as it was ten years ago. There was no other way for anything to get in there!
I lay perfectly still for a good long time, no, a bad long time, thinking maybe I was crazy – wishing I was crazy – just sweating my head off and not even a T-shirt between me and whatever had made that sound so long ago, now. It was quiet and hot, quiet and hot, dark and quiet and…
“Kchyowhmp!” I thought I was gonna die! Please, please, what the heck is over there in the dark?! I can’t stand up for the flashlight, the monster might pounce while I’m reaching. And I don’t know if I want to see it, anyway! See it? See what? It can’t even be there! This is impossible!
“Kchyowhmp!” By now I was hoping it would scare my head off, because my ears are attached to my head, and if my head was off, then maybe I wouldn’t hear it anymore!
This may seem a little cuckoo, but I had to see what it was! I couldn’t let myself get eaten by some monster I never even saw! So as qu-u-i-i-etly as I could I eased my bare feet around and onto the wood floor. As qu-u-i-i-etly as I could I unbended my knees and reached up for the flashlight. (I knew right where the beast was from the horrible sound – it hadn’t moved an inch in the three times I’d heard it.) I wrapped my sweaty fingers around the flashlight and held my breath and pointed it at the sound! Then I clicked it on!
And there, squatting on a little pile of boards, was the tee-eensiest mouse with the hu-ugest round ears I ever saw, and in his little paws he held a big wide graham cracker. And right while I was watching, he took a bite.
End of Terrifying Story Number One.
Terrifying Story Number Two
For Terrifying Story Number Two, I must share with you an entry in my journal (and thereby justify my Meridian raison d’etre as a journal-writing haranguer).
9 October 2004
On this dark and windy night we ventured out with Benches and Randy and Teri Beck and plunged bravely into the Corn Maze over in Pleasant Grove. (This annual phenomenon is now pretty widely seen. There are corn mazes all over the country. But if not actually invented in Utah Valley, it was at least here that the standard was set and the craze truly begun.)
This year’s maze was in the form of two elaborate line drawings of the faces of the presidential candidates spread over several acres of corn field. In “Phase One” we disappeared into John Kerry’s head and it took us nearly an hour and a half to work ourselves out of the maze. “Phase Two” was George Bush, and we were through his head in fifteen minutes. I’m voting for Bush. Think what you will.
End of Journal Entry, with its Eerie Election Portent (or EEP!)
Okay, some of you are casting me as a WOIM after all, because you haven’t been faithfully taking your daily dose of Meridian Magazine and maybe both Halloween and the Election are over by the time you’re reading this. But hey, aren’t we still waiting for Florida? (I don’t have television – somebody help me out here.)
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)