Hallowe’en has crept early upon the Uncanny City. I’m going to kick the season off with an unsettling personal experience that is absolutely true. So pause in your pumpkin-carving, shut down the cobweb-making machine just for a moment, and pull up a rickety chair. And you may want to toss another log on the fire, because the air is about to get noticeably chillier, and shadows will encroach . . .
These photos were actually taken a year ago, in very early November, as I recall.
We have some amazing cemeteries here in Pittsburgh. Chief among the ones I’ve seen is the nearly endless Allegheny Cemetery, which seems to go on forever in all directions. Yes, Stephen Foster is buried there.
The true experience I am about to relate takes place in Allegheny Cemetery. It happened just a couple weeks ago, in mid-September.
Some friends who are photographers were in the cemetery one afternoon to take pictures of the beautiful, somber, and intriguing work of many a stone-crafter, both mason and sculptor. And I was there, too.
Now, one of my friends has a two-year-old daughter, who also came along that day, playing and wandering among the headstones, rolling in the grass, enjoying the slanting light and crisp air of fall.
This little girl, whom I’ll call “Abbie” (not her real name), is a precocious two-year-old, who knows the names of many people, animals, numbers, and letters. She likes other babies and loves to point them out. When she sees a baby nearby, or in a picture, or on TV, she’ll announce, “Baby! Baby!” In some cases, when something looks like a baby, she’ll identify it as such. For example, when we watched Princess Mononoke and she saw the little forest-spirits with the hairless, rattly heads, she said, “Baby! Baby!”
Well, as we wandered through the cemetery that afternoon, every so often, Abbie would glance toward our right or left and say, “Baby! Baby!” But we could see no one there. We saw only grassy expanses, trees, and the unending rows of gravestones marching away over the hillsides. “Baby!” Abbie would say, never quite pointing. She seemed neither happy nor alarmed; she was just making an observation.
After a few minutes, she would look around quizzically and ask, “Where baby? Where baby?” She wasn’t seeing the baby any more. Then, another five or ten minutes later, she’d look to one side of the path and say “Baby!” We tried hard but couldn’t see anything she might be identifying as a “baby.” There were no cherubic statues, no baby photos on grave markers. Once, Abbie’s mother pointed at a seraph, a distinctly adult-looking angel statue, and asked, “Is that a baby?” Abbie displayed no reaction or interest.
It gets even more bizarre. This is probably the most photogenic and intriguing mausoleum in the cemetery. When we got near it — and only near it — Abbie did something I’ve never seen her do before, and not since. She raised both hands and grasped the hair above her ears/at her temples and began to stagger, moving in an aimless, disoriented path back and forth, almost in circles. Her face wore a dazed, puzzled expression . . . as if her head were filled with a sound she’d never heard before — a continuous, pervasive sound that confused her.
One of the other adults remarked that it looked as though Abbie were “being drawn by some force.” (Those were the exact words she used.) When we moved away from the mausoleum, this odd behavior ceased, and Abbie went right on playing and exploring.
Afterward, we theorized that children may be receptive to sights, sounds, and impressions that we adults are not. Does the passing of years place in us a “filter” that screens out the unseen world? What presence, visible only to Abbie, may have tagged along with us across the stone-lined lawns that afternoon, perhaps curious, perhaps glad for some company — perhaps, a carefree juvenile like Abbie herself, exploring the strangeness and wonder of an afternoon outdoors in autumn? And what hum or whispering filled the air around that crumbling house of the dead?
So there it is: the beginning of the Hallowe’en season here in Pittsburgh, and there, wherever you are. It’s time for the telling of tales. Does anyone care to contribute an unsettling account of your own? Every family has its share of weird tales — the thing that happened to Great-Uncle Bob that night out behind the horse barn, or that face Aunt Bonnie saw at the window of her house on Coal Street. You can change names freely and pretend it’s the experience of some other family; the important thing is the story! It needn’t even be something that happened to anyone you know. It could be a rumor handed down at your junior high school . . . something you read or heard or saw on TV . . . or perhaps just an impression you had. Remember that one house in the town you lived in as a kid? — that one house out by the railroad tracks where the woods began, that you were always sure wasn’t quite right. Describe a creepy place to us!
Let us tell tales, all you who delight in a good Hallowe’en yarn. I’ll jump in with a few more myself! If you’re absolutely stuck, you can throw out a “What if you . . .?” scenario — my anonymous friend Chris and I used to have hours of fun with that as kids! We’d try to come up with the eeriest, scariest scenarios we could, always putting the other person into them as the main character, always trying to top the one before. “What if you were out at night in the woods behind the pond, because you realized you’d left your mom’s jeweled brooch down there when you were playing earlier, and you had to get it back by all means, and then you saw . . .” [Never mind that we never played in those woods even in the daytime; or that neither of our moms had a "jeweled brooch"; or that either of us would have had any interest in playing with such -- but THE POINT IS, you're in the woods at night, and . . .]
So (almost) anything goes! What tales are there? Who will tell us a story for the long-shadow season?