And the Call Was Coming from the Basement
Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Full audio: http://tal.fm/319
Well, I hold in my hand a ghost story that comes from a publication that is not really known for its tales of the supernatural. I'm talking about the American Journal of Opthalmalogy, a medical journal. This is from a 1921 edition. And just in case your subscription lapsed during Word War I, I'm just going to read from one of these articles. This is a letter that a doctor sent in. It's from one of his patients, actually, this letter. She's identified as Mrs. H. And in the letter, she's describing a very strange series of events that happened to her and her family starting when they moved into a rambling old house on November 15, 1921.
This house was out of repair, had no electricity, it was lit by gas lights-- a very gloomy house. Albert Donnay is the person who unearthed this article. And he agreed to come into the studio and read from Mrs. H's account of what happened to them.
"Mr. H and I had not been in the house more than a couple of days when we felt very depressed. The house was overpoweringly quiet. The servants walked about on thickly carpeted floors so quietly that I could not even hear them at their work."
I love how no story of this era can be complete without servants padding about.
And they had many servants. "One morning, I heard footsteps in the room over my head. I hurried up the stairs. To my surprise, the room was empty. I passed into the next and then into all the rooms on that floor, and then to the floor above to find that I was the only person in that part of the house. Sometimes after I've gone to bed, the noises from the store room are tremendous, as if furniture was being piled against the door, as if china was being moved about, and occasionally a long and fearful sigh or wail.
"Sometimes as I walk along the hall, I feel as if someone was following me, going to touch me. You can not understand it if you've not experienced it. But it's real. As I was dressing for breakfast one morning, B, who is four years old, came to my room and asked me why I'd called him. I told him I'd not called him, that I'd not been in his room. With big and startled eyes he said, 'Who was it, then, that called me? Who made that pounding noise?'
"I told him it was undoubtedly the wind rattling his window. 'No,' he said, 'It was not that. It was somebody that called me. Who was it?' And so on he talked, insisting that he'd been called and for me to explain who it had been."
It gets worse. The adults and the children are held down in their beds by unseen figures. Beds shake. Their plants die. They and their children feel weak and they have no energy. They get severe headaches.
"Some nights, after I've been in bed for a while, I've felt as if the bed clothes were jerked off me. And I've also felt as if I'd been struck on the shoulder. One night I woke up and saw, sitting on the foot of my bed, a man and a woman. The woman was young, dark and slight and wore a large picture hat. I was paralyzed and could not move."
And so finally, her brother-in-law comes to them-- she writes-- with a thought about what might be happening.
Her husband's brother comes to them in January and says that perhaps they're being poisoned. He'd read a story about a family poisoned by gas who had similar curious delusions. And he advised them to see a professor about this at once.
A quick investigation shows that the furnace is actually sending carbon monoxide fumes into the house, instead of up the chimney. They fix that and the ghostly hauntings stop. They don't feel sick any more either, which makes a lot of sense, says Albert Donnay. When he's not poking around old medical archives, he's an environmental health engineer and a toxicologist who spends a lot of his time warning people about carbon monoxide seeping into homes. And he says, fumes like this wouldn't just come from the furnace of an old house. The kind of gas that they used in gas lights in that era had as much carbon monoxide as a car's exhaust. And he says carbon monoxide gas can account for everything that this family experienced.
No question about it. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause all manner of hallucinations-- audio, visual, feeling strange things on their skin when there was nothing there. People often report that they hear noises in their ears, bells ringing, rushing sounds.
What's amazing about this story is what a completely traditional ghost story it is. I feel like everything that happens to them, I've heard in some ghost story at some point or another. And then it turns out to be carbon monoxide poisoning. And I have got to say, I can't tell if I feel sort of relieved that there's a totally rational explanation or kind of disappointed.
I totally share that perspective. It's kind of disappointing to find that it's not some other-worldly explanation.
It is kind of like a kill-joy story for Halloween.
I'm not going to go there.
Well, it's Halloween. And this little example shows you what kind of boring, kill-joy trouble you can get into when you start applying rationality and facts to a perfectly good scary story, a story that never wanted to hurt anyone. From WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International, it's a special Halloween edition of our show which we're calling-- scary music cue, please-- And the Call Was Coming from the Basement. These stories are all absolutely true. And carbon monoxide, or let me just say any of your carbon-based gases, figure not at all into any of them.
Our show today in four scary acts, including the true scary stories that you and listeners like you called in to our scary story hotline, and a story in which David Sedaris walks among the dead. Stay with us.
Act One. The Hills Have Eyes.
Act One, The Hills Have Eyes. Well, one kind of scary story is when something that usually is not dangerous becomes transformed. You know, when something fluffy or funny becomes murderous, like little dolls that come to life, or ventriloquist dummies, or clowns, or little woodland creatures. This American Life producer Alex Blumberg has one such absolutely true tale.
Michelle and her husband lived in the woods at the end of a long, half mile driveway off a little-used dirt road. They loved it there, surrounded by trees and mountains but still only an hour and a half by train from New York City. One weekend morning, as was their custom, they went out for a short walk. It was a beautiful winter day, almost a foot of snow on the ground. They got to the road and turned around to head back up the drive.
My husband tends to walk faster than I do. And he was wanting to sort of do a little jog. And I said, OK, then why don't you just go ahead? So he went on home. And I had just started on the driveway. And I looked down the straightaway, and I saw this animal that was pretty far down. And then I said, oh, it looks like a raccoon.
I would say it was at least 150 to 200 feet. It was pretty far away. And I'm looking at it, and I'm thinking, well, it's going to go up into the woods. But it started walking towards me. And then I realized, it hasn't seen me yet. And I sort of just wave my arm a little bit. And then all of a sudden it sees me. And the second it was aware of me, it just bolted towards me. There wasn't a second of a hesitation. It was like, oh my God. It's like, oh my God, it's coming right at me.
I turned, and I started to run. I was trying to outrun it. And I kept turning to see if the animal was bearing down on me. And it was getting closer. And it was now within 5 or 10 feet behind me. And the whole time-- from the moment the raccoon saw me, it hissed and snarled. It was, [HISSING]. The feeling was, all it cared about was attacking me.
So I don't even know what I was thinking. But I ran off the drive, thinking, well I'll get away from it. Well, as I run off the drive, it jumps onto my thigh and I fall into the snow, kind of down behind a rock. And then, the next thing I see is his mouth is around my right thigh.
The raccoon was about 30 pounds. Michelle, a slight woman, was about 115. She was wearing a big parka and snow pants. So the raccoon wasn't able to get a good grip. Using all her body weight and both hands, she was able to pull it off her leg and pin it in the snow away from her body.
I'm pushing its face into the snow so that it would keep putting its head up and snarling, and then it would keep trying with its claws to scratch at me. But I kept leaning on it and then pushing it into the snow. And I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, "Help." You know, "Somebody help me. I'm being attacked." And I'm thinking, the closest neighbor, it's a house that they're sort of weekenders. And often they're not there. And it seemed like no one was coming out of that house. And I'm a half a mile from my house. And I'm thinking, nobody is going to help me. And so it was after about five minutes, I stopped screaming. And I just started thinking, what am I going to do?
This raccoon was behaving in a way that normal raccoons never behave, like it was possessed. And that's because, in some sense, it was. It had rabies, a disease that even scientists who study it call diabolical. It's a virus that attacks the aggression centers of the brain. It switches off all an animal's natural inhibitions, including fear and pain. At the same time, it floods the animal's body with adrenaline, making it stronger and more relentless. Animals which are normally shy and easily scared away turn into tireless, ferocious, monsters. They become nothing but a vehicle for the virus, attacking anything that moves in order to spread the disease, which meant for Michelle, she couldn't just try and fling the raccoon away, because it would come after her again. She couldn't outrun it. Any trees she could climb, the raccoon could climb faster.
Then Michelle remembered that although she usually didn't bring her cellphone with her on walks, that day she actually had. The question was how to get it out of her pocket. She needed both hands to hold the raccoon down. She was wearing big mittens. But eventually, after many attempts, she was able to get the phone out and toss it in the snow. Using the speaker phone, she called her house. She got her grown son, Alex.
And I'm screaming, I'm screaming at the top of my lungs. And he acted like it was like a joke. And it was because the microphone on the phone was being pinned, where it had this sort of strange noise. And I thought to myself-- because it sounded like he was about to hang up, like it was someone doing a prank-- and in my head, I said, you have to calm down. I said, Alex, I've been attacked on the driveway by a raccoon.
Within five minutes, her husband, her son Alex, and his girlfriend were there. Her son grabbed a big, fallen branch and laid it across the raccoon's back. He stood on one end. Michelle stood on the other.
The two of us are now holding this raccoon which is still hissing, and snarling, and clawing. And my husband, he says, I'm going to get a tire iron out of the car and try hitting it to kill it. So he goes and gets this tire iron out of the car. And he starts to hit it. And he figures he'll hit it once or twice and he'll kill it. Well, he starts hitting it, and he probably hit it between 15 and 20 times. And it's still snarling and clawing.
So then I said to my son's girlfriend, Olga-- I said, Olga, go to the house and get a knife. And in the meantime, my son takes the tire iron. And my son starts beating on the raccoon. So for at least five minutes, they're taking turns beating this raccoon. And about at the point where Olga is coming back and gets out of the car with these two big knives, the raccoon had died.
What Michelle didn't know at the time was that her encounter was not an isolated incident. There is a rabies epidemic in New York which started in the '90s. In 1989, there were only 55 rabid animal cases in the entire state. By 1993, the number had reached almost 3,000. In 2004, a rabid otter swam up and attacked a six-year-old at a public beach. The child came out of the water with the otter clinging by its teeth to his arm. And one woman I spoke to told me that a rabid raccoon latched itself onto her leg in the middle of the day on her suburban street when she was getting out of her car after a trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond. She said the police had to shoot the raccoon five times before it finally died.
Rabies is almost 100% fatal in humans if the vaccine isn't administered right after exposure. And the '90s brought the first human deaths from rabies in the state in half a century. There have been three to date, two of whom were children bitten by rabid bats in their sleep, which brings me to a quick public service announcement. A bat can bite you in your sleep without you even knowing it and without leaving a mark. So if you find one in a room with a sleeping person, you have to catch it and have it tested. And if you can't catch it, you should go to a doctor. I'm serious. I learned about this. It freaked me out. And now I want to tell people.
For Michelle, of course, there was no doubt of exposure. She had two fang marks on her leg, raccoon blood all over her clothes, and a battered raccoon carcass in a plastic bag. But getting treatment proved to be its own type of horror story. First she called the vet, who told her to call the Health Department. She called the Health Department, but they were closed on weekends. So she left a message, and called another Health Department in a different county. Same thing. Eventually, she just went to the emergency room on her own, where she was told that this wasn't an emergency. She had 10 to 14 days before she needed to get a shot, and she should just call the Health Department again after the weekend.
Early Monday morning, the guy from the Health Department-- where she had left her first message on Saturday-- called her back. She told him everything was fine. She had been to the hospital.
And I said, well, I was told I had 10 to 14 days. And he says, you don't have 10 to 14 days. You have 72 hours from the moment that you are bitten. He says, you must have a shot by the end of today.
The man on the phone wasn't in Michelle's county. So he told her to go to her own Health Department and they would give her the shot. But when she called there, they said they needed to test the carcass for rabies first, which meant sending it to the rabies laboratory, two hours away in Albany. Michelle begged them to just give her the shot first and worry about Albany later. So they made arrangements for her to go to the closest hospital in yet another county.
So my husband and I go. And of course, we have to wait time in the emergency room. And then we get in. And then, when we're inside, then someone comes and tells me that I live in Putnam County, and I'm in a hospital in Westchester, and that they can't give me the shots.
Oh my God.
So I am so distraught at this point. And I start crying.
The first time during this whole episode-- I should point out-- that you actually cried, right?
Yes this was. This was the first time that I cried. I was--
You survived the attack by the raccoon. You survived hitting it over the head with a tire iron 50 times. And then the thing that finally brought you to your knees was the US health care system.
Yes, that's exactly right. So I started to cry. And I just said, what's the problem? And then I'm starting to learn that rabies immune globulin is a very expensive shot. And the retail price of it was something like $3,200 or $3,500.
Finally they gave her the shot. But they gave it to her in the wrong place, the buttocks, and not in her arm like they were supposed to. And then she needed five follow-up shots, but she couldn't find a doctor to give her any. She called eight doctors. And none of them would even see her until she threatened to call the State Board of Health.
Eventually she got the shots. And today everything is fine, except Michelle doesn't see her home in the woods the way she once did, as a peaceful refuge.
I mean, I felt so betrayed by nature. That's actually how I felt. I felt that nature betrayed me, because I would take walks every day in the woods. And I had never felt threatened. And I remember waking up the next day and thinking that all of the hills around me, that there were raccoons standing on all these hills, waiting until I got out the door. And they were going to come running toward-- You know, it was like the army waiting for its victim to come. And I had this image that these raccoons were just all going to come down from the hills. And if I ever go to walk and I don't have the cell phone, I will always feel a little fear.
Years before her attack, Michelle went on safari in South Africa. She saw lions, and giraffes, and rhinos. Coming up her drive at night, after she got home from the trip, she peered into the woods around her house and imagined that there were wild animals out there like there had been on safari. Now, she says, she doesn't wonder about it anymore. She knows for a fact there are wild animals out there. And it's not a comforting thought.
[MUSIC - "EVIL" BY 45 GRAVE]
Act Two. The Hitcher.
Act Two, The Hitcher. OK, I believe that we have all learned an important lesson about rabies, and bats, and raccoons, not to mention a lesson about carbon monoxide. And so to introduce this next story, I don't think there's much more I need to say right now than hitchhiking is dangerous, or can be dangerous. It can be bad. And if you don't believe me, Bill Eville tells this true story of what happened to him and his brother.
When I was 12 and my older brother Jim 14, our parents dropped us off at one of those agricultural fairs, the kind with the big Ferris wheel, blue ribbon pigs, and hot dog eating contests. This was on Martha's Vineyard, and usually our parents went with us. But Jim and I were getting older. He was a teenager now. And we wanted to do it alone. There were girls to impress.
We were told to call home for a ride when we were ready. But at the end of the night, we decided it would be cooler to hitchhike. We weren't scared. This was 1977, and Martha's Vineyard still a relatively sleepy island. Everyone hitchhiked there. It didn't take us long to get a ride, some guy heading to Edgartown to meet his friends. We lived in Oak Bluffs-- out of his way--- but he said he could take us halfway home. Jim and I didn't even think about saying no. We were too excited for the adventure to begin.
True to his word, the guy dropped us off halfway home. This was out by the big bridge along the beach road. During the day, this spot is filled with people jumping off the railing into the water. But at night, no one goes there. No swimmers, or fishermen, or even kids looking to get high. Jim and I stood by the side of the road listening to the ocean pound the sand and the wind blow through the dunes. We peered into the darkness, hoping to see headlights. But there was nothing, just the moon and some stars and a gnawing feeling we had made a big mistake.
After about 20 minutes of standing around, we finally saw a car approaching. "Get in front," Jim said "and try to look small and pathetic." This wasn't hard to do. The car flew by us, kicking up sand which stung my legs.
"Crap," I yelled. But then the tires locked up and the car fishtailed. It skidded to a stop about 100 yards away. We ran to the car. It was a big, white cruiser with four doors. I yanked open the back door, jumped in, and slid on my butt to the far window. There were three people up front. The driver was hunched over the wheel and wore his hair in a thick afro. A woman sat in the middle. She had straight, blond hair with a crooked part running down the center. Another guy, so tall his head almost touched the roof of the car, rode shotgun.
"Thanks for stopping," I said. "We're headed to Oak Bluffs." No one said a word. I turned to the open door where Jim still stood. "Come on," I said, "get in." Jim hesitated. He looked into the car and shook his head back and forth. Then the driver began revving the engine. I saw my brother take a deep breath. Then he climbed in and joined me. His door had barely closed when the car took off.
We moved fast, swerving in and out of our lane. No one talked the entire ride. By the time we reached Oak Bluffs, I had decided I didn't want these people to know where we lived.
"Right here will be fine," I said, just past Waban Park, down near where the Sea View Hotel used to be. The car didn't slow down. Thinking the driver didn't hear me, I tried again. "We'd like to be let out now," I said. We drove by Ocean Park and the Flying Horses Carousel and then the harbor with all the boats tucked in for the night in their berths. The whole time I kept asking to be let out, trying to make it sound like each spot I pointed to was the one we really preferred. But there was no reaction. We just kept moving.
Eventually we passed the last house along the Methodist campground, where the Sunday before I had climbed the stage at the old tabernacle and sang with my cousins, before a crowd of hundreds, "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head."
We began to climb the hill that led out of town, and I grew silent. Jim took up where I left off. Recently his voice had changed and he had a new, deep baritone. When his voice cracked, making him sound like a little kid again, he stopped talking too.
I tried to convince myself it was just a joke-- scare the crap out of some kids on a boring Saturday night. And I almost believed this. But then, about 15 minutes outside of town, we took a left turn into a graveyard. Jim and I knew this graveyard. We had relatives buried there, old whaling captains who helped settle the island back in the 1600s. We came up here sometimes with our grandfather to pay our respects. It was a heavily wooded place with trails that twisted deep into the forest.
During the day, it was fun to run along these trails, jumping out from behind a rock or bush to scare each other. We had never been up here at night though. I grabbed my brother's hand and pulled myself into his lap. Jim hugged me tight and rested his cheek against mine. He had recently started shaving. And I could feel a hint of razor stubble. This helped calm me down. Jim was the older brother. He would know what to do.
The car swerved and began circling a large Jesus statue near the front of the graveyard. I was thrown from Jim's lap and landed in the opposite foot well. I scrambled back up as fast as I could. But before I could reach my brother's lap again, Jim opened his door and jumped out of the car.
We were still moving fast, and the open door flapped in the wind. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. It was the tall man. His fingers were strong and dug into my collar bone. I ducked back into the seat-well and crawled to the door. The man still held me by the shoulder, but I pushed as hard as I could with my legs. When I leapt from the car, he lost his grip. For a moment I floated in the air. When I hit the ground, I rolled for a long time.
I got up and ran towards the woods. I could see a light in the distance and headed for it. The woods opened up into a small clearing, and there was a house and a party in full swing. Lots of people stood outside drinking around a keg. As soon as I reached the lawn, I turned around to look for my brother. He was still back in the graveyard, running down one of the dirt roads with the car right behind him.
"Jim," I screamed. "Jim, over here." A crowd had formed around me. But I didn't look at them. I just kept screaming my brother's name. And then he was there, bursting through the woods and running across the lawn until a clothesline flattened him. I ran to him, kneeled down, and put my hand on his chest. "You OK?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "You?"
Before I could answer, a tall kid with thick glasses squatted down next to us.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked. Jim and I stood up, began telling everyone what had happened. While we were talking, four guys from the party ran off to the graveyard. The car's headlights were still visible, moving through the woods, looking for us. There was shouting, and then the headlights disappeared. When the guys returned, they said the car took off before they could get the license plate.
The tall kid with the glasses walked to the keg, poured two beers into blue plastic cups, and offered them to us. Jim and I chugged them down and asked for more. Later, two women gave us a ride home. I refused to sit in the back seat, rode up front with the driver. Her name was Betsy, and she had long brown hair and tanned skin. Her father owned the Flying Horses, and I had seen her around town. On the drive home, she rubbed my hair and put her arm around my shoulder.
When we reached our house, Betsy walked with us to the front door and stood on the porch while we told our parents what had happened. Mom bent down so her face was level with mine. Dad stood next to Jim. My parents were very young. Mom even got carded sometimes at R-rated movies. Dad wore a thick mustache and looked good in a tight white T-shirt. While we were talking, my grandparents-- who had already gone to bed-- came down the stairs in their bathrobes.
"Close the door," Gram said. "You're letting in the mosquitoes." Betsy patted me on the cheek and then walked back to her car. The rest of us went into the living room, where Jim and I told our story once more.
"What do you think?" Grandpa asked. "Should we call the police?" For a moment no one spoke. "It's late," Dad finally said. "I think the boys have had enough for one night."
Gram patted my head. "It's over and everyone's safe," she said. "No need to drag it out." I looked at Mom. She nodded, and so I did the same, not because I agreed, but I didn't disagree either. I was just glad to be home.
"Let's go to bed," Dad said. "There's tennis in the morning."
Mom walked me to my bedroom, an old store room I had cleaned out at the beginning of the summer so I could finally have a room of my own. After she tucked me in, I lay there and tried to think about tennis and Labor Day weekend, just three days away. In a little over a week, I would officially be a seventh grader.
But I couldn't concentrate. I kept seeing the people in the front seat of that car. Maybe they had followed Betsy's car home from the graveyard and were waiting outside to get me. I rubbed my shoulder where the tall man had grabbed me and got out of bed.
I changed out of my pajamas into jeans and my favorite green basketball T-shirt. Then I lay down on the floor and slid underneath my bed. For a moment, I felt safe and hidden. But it didn't last. I got up and walked to Jim's room. But when I got there, I realized I didn't want to go in. I continued down the hall and stood outside my parents' bedroom. I could hear them talking quietly together. I almost knocked on their door. Instead, I turned away and moved on to the front room, where my youngest brother Ted slept.
Ted was six years old. He had been asleep when we came home and so didn't know what had happened. I crawled into bed with him and started crying, really crying, so that I had to stuff a pillow in my mouth to keep the noise in. Ted woke up but didn't say anything at first. He just patted me on the back. Then he asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't speak. I could only cry and hope he kept patting me. And he did until I finally fell asleep.
Bill Eville in New York. Well, coming up, David Sedaris sees dead people and other scary stories that are absolutely true. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Three. And The Call Was Coming From...the Listeners!
Well, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. This week, And the Call Was Coming from the Basement. We are leaving aside the news of the day. We are leaving aside current events and the election to bring you scary stories for Halloween. We've arrived at act three of our program. Act Three, And the Call Was Coming from the Listeners.
In this act, we invited you-- yes, you-- to call a special 800 number that we set up here at our radio show to tell us your true scary stories. Hundreds of people called with all kinds of stories. Here's a selection.
My name is Erica Parks. This is from when I was, I guess, 18. I worked at a dollhouse supply store. So I was already sort of in a creepy environment. There were little doll heads, and hair, and eyeballs. I'd come home after closing up the shop at about 10:00 at night. And I didn't have my own car at the time. So I would either get a ride from my parents, or my dad would let me use his Tracker and I would drive myself home.
So I was driving myself home this night. And since I was driving my Dad's Tracker, I would have expected him to be home. And I pulled into the house, and all the lights were out. And I don't know if you've ever had the feeling where you know someone's watching you, I guess, or-- even though all the signs are that no one's home, you can feel that there is someone present.
So I parked in front of the house, walked up the front steps, and let myself in. It was completely black. I remember whispering, "Hello? Is there anybody home?" And all of a sudden, in the stairwell, the shape of a man and what I saw later was a baseball bat-- but could have been anything to me at the time-- reared up out of the dark stairwell. And that's when I knew I was dead, murdered, mutilated, something horrible. And I dropped to the ground-- apparently without even a yelp of protest, pretty much just a whimper-- into fetal position. I heard laughing. And the light turned on.
It was my dad. This was his idea of a joke. And then later he claimed that it was a character-building test, and that now I knew myself better. I knew that I needed to be prepared for being mugged or attacked in the dark because I didn't even try to defend myself. But that moment when my dad reared up on the stairs-- and it could have been just about anybody-- was one of the scariest moments of my life.
Hi, my name is Amy MacKinnon. I was about two and a half, and it was told around my little neighborhood that a monster had escaped from the local insane asylum. That's what my parents told my brothers and me. And our friends' parents told them. And the monster was tall, and green, and really quiet, and ferocious. So they had to cancel Halloween. And we were, of course, devastated. But my parents said, well, because Halloween's cancelled, we'll have a party in the basement, in our basement. We'll have all of the friends over from the neighborhood, because it would just be too dangerous to be out in the dark with a monster on the loose.
So my mother decorated our basement. She did a fantastic job. The best part I remember were the doughnuts that were hanging from a clothesline. So the party's going really well. All of the kids are there. There are a few mothers there. The music's playing. And all of a sudden, we heard a boom from upstairs. And my mother said, shh. And the music stopped. And my mother was near me. And then we heard boom, boom. And it was dead silence in the basement.
And a mother said, "What was that?"
And another mother said, "I think it's the monster."
And all of a sudden, we heard the basement door creaking open. And then I saw this enormous black boot on the first step. Boom. And then the next. Boom. And very slowly, I could see the boots, the legs, the enormous chest, and sticking straight out, two arms. And the monster came down the stairs so slowly with this green face. Its black suit was too short for it. It had bolts coming out of either side of its neck.
Once the arms were visible, chaos in the basement. Kids screaming, running everywhere. My mother was next to me. I, not quite three, grabbed hold of her thigh. And I can remember digging my fingers into her leg, trying desperately to claw onto something, screaming. And I wet my pants. And I can remember seeing my older brother Scott race for a toy chest that was under the stairs. And I can see his eyes, meeting his eyes as he slowly lowered the lid. And I was so angry that I wasn't with him. I can remember my other brothers, Rob and Michael, leaping for the basement window, and that there must have been something under it that helped them, propelled them out the window. They jumped out the window with their friend. They ran down the street to a phone booth, somehow had a quarter, and called the police.
Meanwhile, the kids are screaming, and screaming, and screaming everywhere. And the monster is bewildered. He's looking around. His arms are still outstretched. He's not saying anything. He's not grabbing for anyone. And I'm still screaming. My ears hurt because I'm screaming so loudly. And then the monster looked at me. And he said, "It's OK, Amy. It's OK. It's OK." But I couldn't hear him anymore.
The next thing I remember is being in a little makeshift bed in my parents' kitchen. And my mother was there. And later, after my father had showered, I can remember him walking to the kitchen. I turned my head and could see his feet. And then he crouched down to talk to me. And he said, "Amy--" But before he could get another word out, I threw up on his shoes.
?] Hi, this is Jesse [? Vorhees ?]. I don't know if this is the kind of scary story you're looking for. But it's the scariest thing that has probably ever happened in my life. My mom had surgery for bladder cancer and got her bladder removed. And I spent the night in the hospital with her the night after her surgery. And I guess when you're ventilated for long enough artificially, your body sort of forgets to breathe for itself.
And so after she got out of her surgery, it took a number of hours. She was sort of breathing in these ragged gasps. And sometimes it would take her a long time before she took her next breath. So my job was sort of to make sure that-- or at least the job I gave myself was to make sure there wasn't too long between her breaths. And so I would nudge her or wake her up a little bit if it took too long.
And so I was beside her in her hospital room while she was sleeping. And I was trying to stay awake. And I think she went in around midnight. And around 2:00 in the morning or so, I think I fell asleep. So around 4:00 in the morning, I heard the nurse start to open up the door. And I suddenly realized I had fallen asleep. And so I listened in the dark for her next breath. And I didn't hear it. And I became convinced that she wasn't going to breathe again and that, just because I had fallen asleep, she was gone.
I think it's actually probably the most scared I've ever been in my life. And I think what was so scary about it was that there was just no way of getting it back, that something stupid like falling asleep, and there was nothing I was ever going to be able to do to change it. And then a couple seconds later, I heard her breathe again. And then it was all over. And it was strange because nobody knew what had gone on but me. Nobody really knew that anything scary had happened but me. Whew. That's my story.
Thanks to everybody who called our special scary stories hotline. If you're keeping track, the scary things that we have learned so far today that we must avoid, at all costs, are these. Number one, carbon monoxide. Number two, rabid animals. Number three, hitchhiking. Number four, your own parents.
Act Four. Graveyard Shift.
This actually brings us to act four, where we're going to learn a few more things to avoid. Act Four, Graveyard Shift. You know, the ghosts, and skeletons, and monsters who rise from the grave on Halloween are a kind of fake, children's story version of death. But one Halloween a couple years ago, David Sedaris decided that he was going to go for the real thing on Halloween. He was going for the real thing, the medical examiner's office-- the morgue, basically, the morgue, a place filled with actual dead people. He read his account of what happened there in front of a live audience at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.
The thing about dead people is that they look really dead, fake almost, like models made of wax. This I learned at a medical examiner's office I visited in the fall of 1997. While the bodies seemed unreal, the tools used to pick them apart were disturbingly familiar. It might be different in places with better funding. But here they used hedge clippers to snip through rib cages. Chest cavities were emptied of blood with cheap metal soup ladles, the kind they use in cafeterias. And the autopsy tables were lubricated with whatever dish detergent happened to be on sale. Also familiar were the songs-- oldies mainly-- that issued from the blood-spattered clock radio and formed a kind of soundtrack.
When I was young, I associated Three Dog Night with my seventh grade shop teacher, who proudly identified himself as the group's biggest fan. Now, though, whenever I hear "Joy to the World," I think of a fibroid tumor positioned upon a Styrofoam plate. Funny how that happens. While at the medical examiner's office, I dressed in a protective suit, complete with a bonnet and a pair of Tyvek booties. Citizens were disemboweled, one right after another. And on the surface, I'm sure I seemed fine with it. Then at night, I'd return to my hotel, double lock the door, and stand under the shower until all the soap and shampoo was used up.
The people in the next room must have wondered what was going on. An hour of running water and then this blubbery voice, "I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do. I do. I do. I do. I do."
It's not like I'd walked into this completely unprepared. Even as a child I was fascinated by death, not in a spiritual sense but in an aesthetic one. A hamster or guinea pig would pass away. And after burying the body, I'd dig it back up, over and over, until all that remained was a shoddy pelt. That earned me a certain reputation, especially when I moved on to other people's pets.
Igor, they called me. Wicked. Spooky. But I think my interest was actually fairly common, at least amongst adolescent boys. At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents. And studying it is like a science project, the good kind that doesn't involve homework. Most kids grow out of it. But the passing of time only heightened my curiosity.
As a teenager, I saved up my babysitting money and bought a $75 copy of Medicolegal Investigations of Death, a sort of bible for forensic pathologists. It shows what you might look like if you bit an extension cord while standing in a shallow pool of water, if you were crushed by a tractor, struck by lightning, strangled with a spiral or non-spiral telephone cord, hit with a claw hammer, burned, shot, drowned, stabbed, or feasted upon by wild or domestic animals.
The captions read like really great poem titles, my favorite being, "Extensive Mildew on the Face of a Recluse." I stared at that picture for hours on end, hoping it might inspire me. But I know nothing about poetry. And the best I came up with was pretty lame.
Behold the recluse, looking pensive. Mildew, though, is quite extensive. On his head-- both aft and fore-- he maybe should have got out more.
I know nothing about biology either. The pathologist tried to educate me. But I was too distracted by the grotesque. My discovery, for instance, that if you jump from a tall building and land on your back, your eyes will pop out of your head and hang by bloody cables. "Like those joke glasses," I said to the chief medical examiner.
The man was nothing if not professional. And his response to my observations was always the same. "Well," he'd sigh, "not really."
After a week in the autopsy suite, I still couldn't open a Denny's menu without wanting to throw up. At night, I'd close my eyes and see the buckets of withered hands stored in the morgue's secondary cooler. They had brains too, a whole wall of them shelved like preserves in a general store. Then there were the bits and pieces, a forsaken torso, a pretty blond scalp, a pair of eyes floating in a baby food jar. Put them all together and you had an incredibly bright secretary who could type like the wind but never answer the telephone.
I'd lie awake thinking of things like this. But then my mind would return to the freshly dead who were most often whole or at least whole-ish. Most of them were delivered naked, zipped up in identical body bags. Family members were not allowed inside the building. And so the corpses had no context. Unconnected to the living, they were like these strange creatures, related only to one another.
A police report would explain that Mrs. Daniels had been killed when a truck lost control and drove through the front window of a hamburger stand. She had been a customer waiting in line. In cases like hers, I needed more than a standard report. There had to be a reason this woman was run down. As without one, the same thing might happen to me.
Three men are shot to death while attending a child's christening. And you tell yourself, sure, they were hanging out with the wrong crowd. But buying a hamburger-- I buy hamburgers. Or I used to anyway.
This medical examiner's office was in the western United States in a city where guns are readily available and drivers are known to shoot each other over parking spaces. The building was low-slung and mean looking, set on the far edge of the downtown area, between the railroad tracks and a rubber stamp manufacturer. In the lobby was a potted plant and a receptionist who kept a can of Mountain Glen air freshener in her desk drawer. "For decomps," she explained, meaning those who had died alone and rotted a while before being found.
We had such a case on Halloween, an elderly man who had tumbled from a ladder while replacing a light bulb. Four and 1/2 days on the floor of his un-air-conditioned home. And as the bag was unzipped, the room filled with what the attending pathologist termed, "the smell of job security."
The autopsy took place in the morning and was the best argument for the buddy system I had ever seen. Never live alone, I told myself. Before you change a light bulb, call someone from the other room and have them watch until you're finished.
By this point in my stay, my list of don'ts covered three pages and included such reminders as never fall asleep in a dumpster, never drive a convertible behind a flatbed truck, never get drunk near a train, never get old.
I hadn't timed my visit to coincide with Halloween, but that's the way it worked out. You'd think that most of the casualties would involve trick-or-treaters hit by cars or done in by tainted candy. But actually, the day was just like any other. In the morning, we had our decomposed senior. And after lunch I accompanied a female pathologist to a murder trial. She had performed the victim's autopsy and was testifying on behalf of the prosecution.
There were plenty of things that should have concerned me-- the blood-spatter evidence, the trajectory of the bullets. But all I could concentrate on was the defendant's mother, who had come to court wearing cutoff jeans and a Ghostbusters T-shirt. It couldn't have been easy for her. But still you had to wonder, what would she consider a dress-up occasion?
After the trial, I watched as another female pathologist collected maggots from a spinal column found in the desert. There was a decomposed head too. And before leaving work, she planned to simmer it and study the exposed cranium for contusions. I was asked to pass this information along to the chief medical examiner. And looking back, I perhaps should have chosen my words more carefully. "Fire up the kettle," I told him. "Old-fashioned skull boil at 5:00 PM."
It was, of course, the fear talking, that and a pathetic desire to appear casual, one of the gang. That evening, instead of returning to my hotel, I sat around with the transporters, one of whom had recently been ticketed for using the carpool lane and had argued, unsuccessfully, that the dead body he was carrying in the back constituted a second passenger.
It was just the four of us until around midnight, when a tipsy man in a Daytona Beach sweatshirt came to the front gate and asked for a tour. When told no, he gestured toward an idling car and got his girlfriend to ask. The young woman was lovely and flirtatious. And as she pressed herself against the bars, I imagined her lying upon an autopsy table, her organs piled in a glistening heap beside her. I now looked at everyone this way. And it worried me that I'd never be able to stop. This was the consequence of seeing too much and understanding the horrible truth. No one is safe. The world is not manageable. The trick-or-treater may not be struck down on Halloween, but sooner or later he is going to get it, as am I, and everyone I have ever cared about.
It goes without saying that for the next few weeks I was not much fun to live with. In early November, I returned home and repelled every single person I came into contact with. Gradually though, my gloominess wore off. By Thanksgiving, I was imagining people naked rather than dead and naked. And this was an improvement.
A week later, I was back to smoking in bed. And just as I thought that I had put it all behind me, I went to my neighborhood grocery store and saw an elderly woman slip on a grape. She fell hard. And after running to her side, I took her by the arm. "You really have to watch yourself in this produce aisle."
"I know it," she said. "I could have broken my leg."
"Actually," I told her, "you could have been killed."
The woman attempted to stand but I wouldn't let her. "I'm serious," I told her. "People die this way. I've seen it."
Her expression changed then and became fearful rather than merely pained. It was the look you get when facing some sudden and insurmountable danger-- the errant truck, the shaky ladder, the crazy person who holds you too tight and insists with ever-increasing urgency that everything you know and love can be undone by a grape.
David Sedaris. He's the author of several books. Most recently, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, Cathy Hoang and P. J. Vogt. Music help today from Jessica Hopper. Original scoring from Matt Clark.
Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia who-- he's coming up behind me.
No. Hopefully, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.