Here in northern Minnesota, the day after Halloween is anticlimactic. When the candles in the jack-o-lanterns burn out and the pumpkins wilt, and ghost sheets on clotheslines flap in the wind, the scary excitement gets put away for another year. We could even have a foot of snow on the ground by then.
Sometimes I wish I lived south of the border or somewhere along the Rio Grande. Those people party with their dear departed ancestors on the Day of the Dead and continue to revel in skulls, skeletons, sweet treats, and luminarias.
Oh, there’s All Saints Day on the liturgical church calendar, and I guess Catholics observe All Souls Day. But those are somber religious holidays. No fun at all. Up here, it would take a hearty and motivated Lutheran in long underwear to do the Reformation Polka in honor of old Martin the Crazy Monk and his 95 Thesis, come November 1.
This year, the tractor was safely put away in the shed after the yearly hay rides, and Halloween decorations taken down in the barn loft and packed up. Everywhere in town, seasonal decor was meeting the same fate, either back to the storeroom or thrown on a discount display. It’s hard enough as an adult to recapture the delicious terror of childhood Halloween, and the older you get, the faster the seasons come and go and the more melancholy the regret.
On the night after Halloween, my old farm house was warm and cozy, and fragrant with the scent of burning wood. My four cats were curled up napping, each on its own cushion. I could hear my dog barking in his pen. I still had reheatable cider in the refrigerator. Maybe a cup of the hot, spicy liquid would hit the spot. I could make popcorn. I loved the smell of popcorn! My brother had said he would stop by at 8 o’clock and would I have something ready to eat?
On the way to the kitchen I stumbled over a cat. She yelped. “Watch it, Kitty,” I warned. I opened the pantry door and took out the air popper. All of a sudden, I realized how tired I was. Popcorn was too much work. I put the popper back on the shelf. There was an almost fresh pot of coffee on the stove. I decided that a jolt of caffeine was what I needed, so I microwaved a mug and went back to the computer.
With an appetite for something spooky, I sat down and started to surf. We now have a helper in the quest for self-generated fright that we didn’t when I was a kid, and that’s the internet.
The first entry I found under Halloween stories was Samhain. The gaelic festival of the dead. We didn’t talk about the origins of holidays when I was a kid. I did remember my dad driving me and three other girls around trick or treating, and my brave wish to be let off at a cemetery, where I laid my hand on a tombstone then went dashing back to the car. So I once experienced an awareness of the notion that on All Hallows Eve, the boundary between the supernatural and the material is permeable. Ho hum. Dry, irrelevant, academic.
I offered myself a mental note. “Let’s face it, hon, this superstitious stuff isn’t scary anymore, is it?” So I surfed on to the true crime sites. The stalkers. The serial killers. The deranged and twisted side of the human psyche. Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer. What about the unsolved cases? The Zodiac Killer?
The caffeine had kicked in. My fingers moved nimbly across the keys. I stumbled upon the court transcripts from the trial of a man named Dennis. My fellow mainline Lutheran. The man who terrorized a midwest metropolis. The site had pictures. Drawings of women. Photos. Did Dennis take those or were they culled from an official autopsy report?
I glanced away from the computer screen, heartburn from the strong coffee boiling up in my chest. And nausea. But I couldn’t bring myself to shut down the browser.
All of a sudden, I realized I was scared, and alone.
Then I heard a noise. It came from somewhere in the house.
I sat stone still for a few minutes, and then concluded it was nothing. I went back to reading the transcripts.
Oh my god, this Dennis was creepy! In the trial he called his victims “projects,” he changed into his “hit” clothes, he had a kit assembled to carry out his deeds. He wrote poetry about murder. He transported the body of one victim to his Lutheran church, where he took photos of her. “That’s what got me in trouble,” he testified.
I heard another noise.
It was a small sound, like someone jiggling the handle on the wood furnace door. It must have come from the basement.
Now I was really scared.
A wood chunk fell from the pile. I was intimately acquainted with firing furnaces. I knew all the sounds. They weren’t loud, but they were distinctive.
I wasn’t alone in the house! Had someone opened the chute on the north side and entered that way? Unlikely. The dog would have barked. Could an intruder silence a dog as easily as the serial killer silenced women?
Cars drove by on the road. Maybe I could rise from my chair, tiptoe across the room and run outside. Could I make it to the end of the driveway fast enough to flag someone down? I’m such a slow runner. What about dialing 911? I could see the headlines. Hysterical woman calls for emergency help. Where oh where was my brother?
The hands of the clock inched forward. I sat as still as I could. Maybe if I didn’t make any noise, I’d survive.
At 8:45 the door opened and a familiar voice asked, “Has anything been happening here?”
“You’re late,” I accused. “I thought you were coming at 8 o’clock. And no, I don’t have anything ready for supper.” My voice was shaking.
I shut down the browser. My post Halloween fright evaporated like magic. I made a fresh pot of coffee. That night I slept soundly and I didn’t even have bad dreams.
The next day I was washing dishes and sweeping in the kitchen, and I heard a crash. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. I opened the door and a cat emerged, the one I hadn’t seen for hours, come to think of it. In fact, I hadn’t seen him since I put the popcorn popper back on the shelf 12 hours earlier.