The neighborhood I grew up in may as well have been a postcard for Halloween. Big, lofty, hundred year old houses, tree lined streets, backdropped by the train tracks. As an adult, I still look back on growing up there as a cinematic experience. It was as if the age of the houses encouraged us all to be living in a time that pre-dated the present. We rode hand-me-down bicycles with banana seats and pompoms on the handlebars. Pre-teen boys would take off sprinting home when the dinner whistle blew. Regardless of the season, we spent far more time outdoors than we did inside staring at a television screen.
Every season in our picturesque neighborhood was beautiful, but autumn brought a special magic. Skies painted pale gray, aged oak trees vibrant with color, but balding, leaving heaping piles of foliage up and down our wide streets. Vintage ghosts and skeletons hung upon doors, windows, and branches. Carved pumpkins glowing at every doorstep. People would spend hundreds of dollars on candy in preparation for the big night. Halloween was a sport, and it set the stage for some witchy tomfoolery in my twelfth year of life.
I shared a backyard with one of my best friends, Molly, who shared a street with the other, Brooke. We all went to different schools, but were thick as thieves in our free time. We leaned hard into the rich and spooky history of our slice of the city. It wasn’t uncommon to find us huddled up watching a horror movie on a Friday night, playing light as a feather stiff as a board, or conducting a seance out in the woods (okay, okay, we saw Now and Then one too many times). Molly had a collection of her mother’s childhood dolls in her room. She hated them all, but she was particularly fearful of a thin rag doll named Scooby Doo. Scooby Doo was not allowed to face forward like the rest of the dolls, but instead faced the back of the cupboard. I did not ask questions. All this to say, we were the creepy kids you see in movies.
This particular fall season, equipped with information that the former owner of my house had died there, we were hellbent on finding out how she died and if she was still around. We set our sights on procuring a ouija board and were dismayed that our parents would not oblige for various reasons, all of which unsettle me even more as an adult. So, what are three pre-teen girls to do when denied the means to solving a mystery? Well, we made our own ouija board with a broken brick and chalk.
Careful to avoid our parents, we took our homemade ouija kit to an otherwise forgotten terrace of Molly’s house and began to draw out ouija letters and responses on the stone pavers. We did this experiment in broad daylight as a recent viewing of It had us too scared to even take showers, much less try to contact the dead by light of moon. This was unspoken, but I think all of us were a little uneasy about blatantly disobeying our parents, so we asked the makeshift ouija only two questions before we dumped a glass of water over the chalk and made like were were never there.
What was the name of the woman who died in my house? E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H
How did she die? G-U-I-L-L-O-T-I-N-E
What was this? Salem? Who knows, but everything makes sense to twelve year olds, so we went with it. We had our answers, had thoroughly spooked ourselves and broken our parents rules, and some combination of those things persuaded us to drop the shenanigans and move on to our next project, which likely included Boy Meets World and pizza.
Months later, as the world was warming up and getting greener, the three of us sat with my elderly neighbor on her porch, eating popsicles and watching hummingbirds zoom around us. It was the first warm evening of the year and the summer’s possibilities seemed endless. My revelry was interrupted by a dawning question from Halloween past. Looking to my neighbor, I asked, “Gracie, what was the name of the woman who lived in my house before we did?”
My mind reeled. “What was her last name?”
Gracie was met with wide-eyed silence from three little girls. A small piece of Brooke’s popsicle melted off the stick and plopped loudly onto the concrete porch step, snapping us back to reality.
“Gracie, how did she die?”
“She was old, and smoked a lot. Her heart just stopped working the way it was supposed to.”
“Oh.” So, we weren’t quite right, but we were right enough to be shaken.
That night, we all stayed together in Molly’s room, promising to let ourselves be scared for one more evening and then drop it and move on. For the first time, I felt like I understood why Scooby Doo faced the back of the cupboard, and why some mysteries are best left unsolved.