It starts in late September with the pricking of my skin and spirit; autumn creeps in. Resembling Tom Fury, the lightning rod salesman from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, bringing with it “a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth.”
A welcome change, mind you, marking the start of a high and holy season while signaling the end of those unbearable sweltering summer days. My senses rise like a 1960s Cadillac antenna, becoming attuned to more than the changing leaves, the permeating presence of pumpkin spice, and the scent of Yankee Candles Crisp Campfire Apple. Every year it seems I’m reminded that to be alive during the month of October presents the invitation to welcome the foreboding.
And like a well-worn jacket, I find myself sliding easily into all things spooky. For example, my streaming services, usually plagued by the abyss of children’s programming, with disturbing recommendations for shows like Coco Melon and Blippi, are now filled with all manners of the odd and macabre.
I find myself backing off my regular rotation of food-related podcasts. Instead, returning to Old Gods of Appalachia and Scared to Death for my ominous nightly fix. As a tortured soul under a full moon, my choice of reading selections goes through its own metamorphosis. I feel practically possessed by a need to devour the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy, but I can’t bring myself to stop there. I leave a trail of broken book spines in my wake. A growing body count of works by authors such as H.P Lovecraft, R.L. Stine and Billy Martin (formerly Poppy Z. Brite) find a new home beside my nightstand. Threatening to topple over like brittle and loose New England tombstones.
“There is a particular one I often think about when the temperature drops to pumpkin-carving weather.”
Horror films and books. Tales of terror and paranormal podcasts. All of it stirs and disturbs me, beckoning a response to recall and confront my own eerie encounters. Most of these bumps in the night I try to leave good and buried underneath loose floorboards in the recesses of my mind, but like any good “haint,” they manage to creep out. And while many are from my juvenescence years, there is a particular one I often think about when the temperature drops to pumpkin-carving weather. And it begins the way all good ghost stories do, with a “Hey, there’s something weird happening in my house.”
Now, I’ve been in places that looked haunted. The old homestead where my great aunts lived would give most folks nightmares. Large and looming. Set back off the road in between two large tobacco fields. An appearance suggesting my great-grandfather wanted nothing more than to make folks feel uneasy when he built it right after the Civil War.
I’ve wandered through old barns that looked to house something other than hay and feed. I’ve been in low and earthy basements filled with frightening feng shui. Where a stairwell, plunging down to the first circle of Dante’s Hell, wouldn’t have been totally out of place.
“If anything was unsettling about the place, it was how forgettable it was.”
Yet none of this was the case for the house I was asked to perform a “cleansing” on. A ranch-style home tucked away in what appeared to be an older neighborhood on the outskirts of North Carolina’s RDU area was nothing if not run of the mill. Brick, a low-pitched roof, and enough windows in need of blinds to warrant opening up a business account at the local Home Depot. If anything was unsettling about the place, it was how forgettable it was.
Walking up to the door, I wondered why I, of all people, a Baptist minister, was asked to do this. Well, invoking the spirit of New Orleans blues musician and psychedelic rocker, Dr. John, I’ll say “I was in the wrong place, but it might have been the right time.” I’d been ordained just the week before, and the person’s home I stood in front of knew this. With our paths crossing regularly, they felt comfortable approaching me about something bothering them. Something they understood as falling under my field of supposed expertise.
From our awkward first conversation about it, I wasn’t sure what they expected me to do. Maybe they thought churches passed out a standard exorcism playbook to newly appointed clergy? Maybe they thought my education and ministerial training covered this sort of thing? Did they want me to show up with a collar and stole in tow like in the movies? I silently hoped not as we continued to discuss the matter. They didn’t feel threatened by what they had seen or heard, but they were concerned. A few more discussions took place before I finally told them what I felt comfortable doing.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t believe this person’s story. It’s just that I’d never personally witnessed anything like the events they were describing. Unexplained shadows. Glimpses of people outside their windows who’d disappear after a second glance. Strange noises, unsettling whispers, heard by multiple people.
Nope, can’t say that I have. Those encounters were, and are still, above my priestly pay grade, and I wasn’t looking to change my clearance status, thank you very much.
“Those encounters were, and are still, above my priestly pay grade.”
Plus, it wasn’t as if I didn’t already know dark and malevolent forces existed. I have seen enough in the form of systemic oppression, levels of ingrained racism, capitalism run amuck, negligence in the care of creation, and the blatant hypocrisy of what passes as bipartisan politics to cause me to pull the covers over my head at night.
Forget a fear-induced “satanic panic.” What really scares the shit out of me isn’t an abandoned building with hooded figures gathering around a pentagram but a group of walking suits prowling Wall Street. Those are the powers and principalities I’m most worried about.
And so I gave this spiel, more or less, with a heavier dose of tact, before I went to the house. Making it as clear as I could. “This is how I view what you’re experiencing, and here’s what I think we can do. Does this sound like something you and your family would find helpful?” In the end, it was, and a house blessing was what we landed on.
Once inside, I read Scripture, blessed doorways and prayed over those there. The whole visit took less than an hour and was mostly uneventful.
Well, except for one part.
There was this storage room.
As I made my way through the house, I came across a small flight of stairs. There, peering down at me, was a door. When asked what lay behind it the family said it was a storage room. Filled with the clutter of a lifetime of living and old furniture.
As I bounded the steps, the air around me cooled ever so slightly. I reached out to touch the tarnished handle, only to discover it was locked. Strange, but not totally out of place, as there were small children in the home.
No one seemed to know where the key was. I laid a free hand upon the door’s surface, and there was a sensation. A responsive reaction to my contact. Not off putting, but did I feel an awareness present? With instinct and imagination blending together, I asked the family to join me at the top of the small landing. There I encouraged them to lay their collective hands on the door as I prayed.
“Was the look on their face suggesting they were feeling something too?”
Before closing my eyes, my gaze locked with another’s there. Was the look on their face suggesting they were feeling something too? I didn’t ask. Whatever mysteries lay waiting on the other side of the door, tucked away with random knick-knacks, weren’t going to get the chance to introduce themselves. Curiosity wasn’t going to kill this cat.
The prayer ended, the moment passed, and I left the family. Hopefully better off than when I found them. In the coming weeks, I touched base with them. They had nothing to report. The activity they were experiencing had ceased as best as they could tell. And as with any good ghost story, this one ends on a cliffhanger.
I don’t know what became of the family, losing touch with them a few months later. I’d like to think my role as a pastor in the situation was more offering comfort than dispelling evil à la Father Lankester Merrin. Yet, when those dreams of October come around, I think of them. I wonder how they are. I wonder if their house is still quiet and if they ever found the missing key to that peculiar door.
I wonder about all these things, but pray I never get an answer to them.
Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, spending time in the kitchen and amateur gardening, Justin spends time with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. He began his tenure as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Ct. in August. Find his ramblings at blacksheepbaptist.com.
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