The strange, the bizarre, the unexplained -- all of these grip the mind strongly, but never so firmly, perhaps, as during the few weeks around All Hallows' Eve. Something in the autumn air nourishes thoughts off the normal track. It greases the rails of our imagination so that we speed ever more hastily toward seeing minions of the Boogeyman in our closets, rather than our winter coats. Why do such musings fascinate us? What delights us in tales of the macabre?
There's a house built on a prominence not so far from where I live. Since moving to the Lehigh Valley, I have heard several stories of goings-on rumored to have occurred there, and those involved are always friends of friends of friends, strangers passing by in the night, or people who have never been heard from again. All the tales begin with the family who originally inhabited the house and the horrific happenings of one fateful night [insert creepy music here]. Sometimes a stranger breaks into the house and murders the entire family, while other times the mother or the father spontaneously goes insane and does the dirty deeds. Either way, everyone dies.
Of course, the tales don't end there. To this day, the house is rumored to harbor beasties of all sorts who delight in torturing the occasional passerby. In any case, I somehow got suckered into going along on a small photographic expedition whose only goal was to capture on film some of the tainted atmosphere of this evil house on the hill. Dangerous, you say? Just in case, I armed myself with a set of rosaries. With the protection of a whole religion at my back, what could go wrong?
For a house that had supposedly provided a night of horror to so many passersby, it was surprisingly difficult to pass by. For our first few shots, our expedition decided to journey up the hill opposing the house to get the lay of the land, so to speak. The day was bright but cloudy, and as our climb progressed, the air grew chill. It was touch-and-go for a few moments as the slope grew steep, but we finally made it to a flat shelf of rock. The house loomed ominously across the valley. Its windows flashed red as the sun began to set, sending their malevolent glare into our eyes.
Well, maybe not. As I looked closer, I realized the house squatted more than loomed, and the windows flashed so brightly because they were clean. What could this mean? Do evil spirits like to keep a cleaner house than we thought? Or could someone actually have braved the malicious structure and taken it as their home? I peered cautiously through the scope of the camera, trying to pierce the ensuing gloom of the evening for any details that would shed some light on this unexpected development. All of a sudden, I heard a noise, coming quickly, and right toward us. As it grew closer, it seemed to envelop us and absorb us. Could it be that the spirits of the house had grown angry at our intrusion? "Oh my God," cried a member of my intrepid crew. "It's... it's... a helicopter!" And not just any helicopter at that; apparently the local police had become concerned with the course of our investigation and were doing a little checking up of their own.
So ended our expedition into the nature of the house on the hill. Later, as we drove home, we took a pass as close as we could to the sinister mansion. Two cars, a station wagon and some four-door, were parked in its driveway. Lights glowed cheerfully in the windows. With so many signs to the contrary, what caused so many people with whom I had spoken to weave such ghoulish yarns? I have found that through most folk tales runs some thread of truth, no matter how thin. I doubt that these story tellers were deliberately lying, although I am sure they themselves knew that at least a small bit of truth stretching was involved.
In the past, such tales made the inexplicable comprehensible. People felt far more secure when an explanation was available, no matter how bizarre, than when confronted with something new and unforeseen. Today, we are chock full of explanations. Science has cataloged and filed most of the experiences the average person will ever have. Perhaps, as in the past, people still have a flair for the melodramatic. Add a yearning for the fantastic, throw in a little suspense for flavor, and you have the recipe for a tradition that has survived even the blooming of the Industrial and Information Revolutions: the telling of ghost stories. Maybe the function of the ghost story has changed in modern times; perhaps instead of providing explanations, it creates exceptions to the explanations. It allows us to escape the confines of the day-to-day and to pierce the veneer of civilization.
So the next time someone says, "You know, I had this friend once whose cousin stayed in this house...," don't worry about why you like to hear such tales of terror. Just let those shivers take over.