07 Oct The Murphy Horror House
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"The Murphy Horror House"Written by Kelly Foster
Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Living in the town of Findlay, you hear a lot of urban legends. Scary stories and rumors, usually conjured up to convince the young kids to behave and not to stay out past their bedtimes. As I understand it, it wasn’t always this way. We moved to town two months ago in mid-August and immediately it became apparent that Findlay took this time of year really seriously. Apparently it’s coming up on two years almost to the day since a small string of seemingly random murders occurred here, all over the course of a week. All the flags in town are lowered to half-mast and candles and flowers have been piled in front of a memorial to the victims in the town square.
My mother and I haven’t paid this much mind. It’s sad, sure, but we have just been busy trying to acclimate to our new surroundings. Last Saturday afternoon we spent a few hours perusing the garage sales in our neighborhood, looking for antiques and interesting Halloween decorations.
We came upon a yard that was rather sparse in their offerings. They had some cardboard boxes of books, a rack of old clothes, and an interesting looking scarecrow sitting in a chair by the house. It had a sign tacked to its threadbare overalls: “$5”
Intrigued, I made my way over to it and was examining it with interest when a teenager approached me, also looking at the scarecrow. She seemed really nervous and wouldn’t take her eyes off the thing.
“Hi. Do you live here?” I asked, gesturing to the house. “This is a really cool scarecrow! Super vintage.”
She shook her head furiously. “No, I… I live down the street. I just wanted to… you’re new here, right? New to town?”
I nodded, a puzzled smile on my face. “Yeah, why?”
“Just… you shouldn’t buy that scarecrow. Okay? You should leave it be. Haven’t you heard the story?” she said in a hushed voice. I glanced back at my mother who was browsing through the boxes of books, sending her “Help Me” eyes in case this girl was a little unhinged.
“Uh, no. What story?”
She leaned in and proceeded to tell me the story that I have transcribed below to the best of my ability.
* * * * * *
The Murphy family prided themselves on a few important aspects of their modest, middle-class, Midwestern life: They rooted for their hometown football team even when they were playing awfully (which was most of the time), they insisted on eating dinner together as a family at least five nights per week with no cell phones allowed at the table, and every year they constructed the best Halloween yard display in the entire town.
It was something Jack’s grandparents had begun with him and his siblings when they were still small, and he grew up knowing that he would show his own kids the joy of spending a month setting up fake coffins filled with rubber mummies and half-decomposed zombies. After the family dinner but before it started to get dark, they would haul in the props and decorations from their storage shed and begin the painstaking process of arranging them in the expansive front yard. Gallons of fake blood would be spilled and countless bags of fluffy “spider webs” would be stretched across every tree and bush.
Over decades of improvements, the display had grown from a small cluster of foam headstones with a few green hands protruding from the ground into a massive fenced-off haunted experience, complete with fog machines and sound effects. The surrounding neighborhoods came to expect this wonderland of horror and looked forward to it, watching the Murphys begin to build it on October 1st and excitedly standing in line to tour it on Halloween night. Lana, the youngest Murphy child, had even made them a modest Facebook page to attract more attention.
The spooky tour itself took roughly five to ten minutes, depending on how quickly the groups moved across the yard. The display was arranged with only one entrance and one exit. It was barricaded on all other sides so the only way to escape was to finish walking through it – much like any traditional haunted house. The three kids took turns dressing up as voodoo dolls, murder victims or demonic clowns to jump out from behind the various props to terrify their visitors. At the end of the tour, everyone would receive their fair share of candy and orange pumpkin-shaped stickers that read, “I Survived the Murphy Horror House”, followed by the respective year. A great time was always had by all, and Jack felt pride in knowing he was making his late grandparents proud.
The display would vary slightly from year to year, depending on the latest and scariest props that Daisy, Jack’s wife, had either scavenged from the after-Halloween sales last season or created from scratch. A group of witches huddled over a cauldron might end the tour rather than the traditional chainsaw-wielding madman. A gravedigger might be on the left side rather than the right to accommodate creepier additions. As props were added, some were inevitably retired. Countless years of sitting out in the elements had begun to wear them down.
But one part of the display would never change, not if Jack had anything to say about it. In the very center of the tour, illuminated by green and orange spotlights and hung askew on a rugged cross-like post, was The Scarecrow. Jack made that scarecrow himself when he was eleven years old. Together with his father, he gathered the hay and bits of old fabric necessary to bring it to life, and it had appeared in their display ever since. The burlap sack that comprised the scarecrow’s face was tattered and full of moth holes but it still bore its signature crooked smile, stitched in black yarn and curling up a bit too far on either side. It wore an old straw hat, a denim work shirt that once belonged to his father, patched overalls, and a pair of dusty boots. Its hair was an unruly black wig that Jack’s mother had found at a garage sale, sticking out from under its hat in all directions. And its eyes were painted on – dark red triangles sunken into its face.
The scarecrow was always the first to go up when the display construction began and the last to come down, in an almost ceremonial fashion. It was the centerpiece of the whole production, even if most of the trick-or-treaters didn’t find it scary anymore. Not compared to the more modern, detailed props. Jack didn’t care. The scarecrow ruled over the yard like a king, reminding everyone of where the tradition began.
That year, it was a week before Halloween and the display was almost complete. Lana, Ryan, and Trevor had long since given up on decorating and were inside, busy arguing over who would get to dress up as Jason from Friday the 13th. Jack was doing what he always did as the big night drew closer – walking the whole display over and over, checking to see that everything worked and nothing should be tweaked. The sun had sunk below the horizon and Daisy was calling him to come in, but Jack insisted on one last stroll with his flashlight in hand. Rolling her eyes at her obsessive husband, Daisy relented and retreated inside to stop her children from killing each other over a costume.
Jack entered through the stone “gate” at the entrance to the tour and followed the path as it wound back and forth through the yard. Occasionally he would stop to scoot a rubber rat out of the walkway with his shoe or arrange a bloody vampire so its eyes caught the light a bit better. In general, all seemed to be in order. The excitement of knowing it was almost showtime put a skip in Jack’s step.
He came around the corner to where the scarecrow was set up, and at first, he thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him in the dim light. The spotlights that usually illuminated the scarecrow were turned off. That in itself was odd, as all the lights were on the same circuit and the other lights were still blazing around him. Even in the shadowy darkness, it quickly became apparent that the wooden cross that held his old friend… was empty.
“DAISY!” Jack bellowed, spinning in circles and shining his flashlight every which way as if to catch the thief. Daisy poked her head out of the front door.
“You rang?” she replied, with more exasperation than concern.
“The scarecrow… it’s gone! Someone took it!” Jack shouted. He was now sprinting toward the end of the maze, checking behind every grave and looking in the front and back of an old hearse. He was sure someone was still lurking inside the display, snickering at his distress.
“I’m sure nobody took it, dear. You probably just left it somewhere,” Daisy sighed. Jack ran up to her, panting from exertion.
“You know it’s the first thing I put up! I saw it less than twenty minutes ago, it was there the last time I walked the maze!” he protested, still shining the flashlight around and behind the porch and into the dark stillness of the yard. Nothing else seemed amiss.
“It’s just some neighborhood kids playing tricks on us. I’m sure they’ll bring it back. We’ll arm the alarm system tonight before bed,” Daisy replied, taking her husband by the elbow and gingerly guiding him inside. She didn’t completely understand his fixation with the scarecrow but she hadn’t seen him this upset in quite some time.
“Okay,” he said with a huff, clearly not placated. And that was what they did. The alarm system covered the entire yard from the end of the driveway and back to the house. It was a simple motion-activated number, anything larger than a squirrel would set it off with blaring sirens and flashing lights. Because of this, they only ever armed it during the month of October and only for the two weeks leading up to Halloween when most of the expensive props were put out. They had been woken abruptly more than once in past years because someone’s dog got loose and triggered it accidentally.
That night, however, the alarm did not go off, and in the morning Jack awoke bright and early from a restless sleep. He ran to their bedroom window and peered down – their room was on the second floor and overlooked the front yard. Stunned, he could plainly see even from a distance that the scarecrow was back on its post! Its head was even drooping slightly to the right, just as he had left it the night before.
“How is this possible?” Jack asked anxiously as they made breakfast later that morning and prepared to usher the kids off to school. Daisy shrugged, more focused on packing lunches than their conversation.
“Maybe you were mistaken? You said yourself the spotlights were off.”
“No, I know what I saw! How did they get that scarecrow back on its post in the middle of the night without triggering the alarms?” he demanded. It was baffling to him. The scarecrow was as big as a full-grown man and unwieldy to carry. He always needed his eldest son Ryan’s help hanging it from the post, and he considered himself fairly fit. It must have taken at least two people to remove it and put it back, maybe three if they were young teens. Yet none of them had heard a thing. Daisy stuffed a bagel in his mouth and handed him his coffee.
“Maybe the alarm system is faulty, we haven’t used it in a year. I can have someone out to look at it tomorrow. Don’t worry so much Jack, you got what you wanted – it’s back, isn’t it?” she reminded him.
He was about to argue with her further when the sound of the morning news distracted them both. Lana turned up the volume on the TV in the living room and the rest of the family slowly congregated around it.
“Tragedy struck in Findlay last night when 12-year-old Marla Greenberg was found murdered in her bed. We are still receiving details but it appears she was-” At this point, there was a pause as the newscaster swallowed thickly, his expression deeply uncomfortable, “disemboweled. Several of her internal organs are missing. There was no sign of forced entry and the police are investigating the entire Greenberg family. Findlay PD has declined to offer any interviews and the family asks for privacy during this difficult time.”
In shock and horror, Jack reached for the remote, taking it from Lana and changing the channel before the news story could continue.
“Oh my god!” Daisy cried, her hands flying to her lips and her eyes welling with tears. “I know Marla, she’s in Trevor’s class. Oh, her poor parents!”
“For all you know, her ‘poor parents’ are the ones who killed her,” Ryan said with no small amount of snark. Trevor nodded his agreement, forever mimicking his older brother, and Lana just rolled her eyes. Daisy shushed them, still fighting back tears. Jack was also thoroughly shaken by this news although he tried not to show it. Nothing like this ever happened in their city. There were mostly happy, pleasant people here. The strange events from the previous night combined with this latest development to add to the heavy sense of unease that was building in his gut. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very, very wrong.
They hurried the kids off to school with multiple reminders to “Be Careful!” and “Hurry Home!” As soon as the bus drove off down the street, Jack called the alarm company and scheduled maintenance for the following afternoon. Whatever was going on, nobody was setting foot in their yard again without them knowing it.
That night it took Jack hours to fall asleep. The kids had all come home from school raving about Marla Greenberg’s murder and spouting several theories their friends had told them. Try as he might to change the subject at dinner, it was all any of them wanted to talk about. Jack supposed he understood; Marla had been their age, they must be frightened that something might happen to them too. The creepy time of year did nothing to help the situation, it all fed right into their mounting Halloween hysteria. After spending hours tossing and turning in bed, mulling it all over in his mind, he decided to give up and go get a glass of water from the kitchen.
As he rose from bed and passed by the bedroom window, something outside caught his eye. He hurried over and looked down into the yard, rubbing his eyes to make sure he was actually seeing what he thought he was seeing.
The scarecrow was gone again!
His hands gripped the windowsill tightly, his knuckles turning white. It was everything he could do not to wake Daisy. He knew she would write it off as another neighborhood prank, cite the broken alarm system as the culprit, and assure him it would be fixed the next day. The straps that held the scarecrow to its post were loose and waving gently in the nighttime breeze and he could barely make out little bits of hay leading off in the direction of the exit.
Part of him wanted to sit on the front porch with a baseball bat and wait for the intruders to return, in case they decided to steal other props from them. But something about the whole situation gave him pause… why would they bring the scarecrow back only to steal it again? Were they just messing with him? What were they doing with it? It didn’t feel right. Reluctantly he retrieved his glass of water and tried to go back to sleep, but this time he cracked the window open a few inches to better hear what was going on in the yard. He slept facing it.
Jack woke hours later to the sun streaming in and Daisy shaking him roughly by the shoulder. Bewildered, he blinked his sleepy eyes open and stared up at her face – she looked extremely pale and she had clearly been crying.
“Jack, it’s happened again,” she said quietly, her throat tight. “Come downstairs.”
Not fully awake and barely understanding what she meant, he got up and reached for his bathrobe. In his haste, he forgot to glance out the window.
The TV was blaring when they entered the living room. The kids were poised in a semi-circle around it, frozen in place like statues as they watched the news story unfold.
“In a shocking turn of events, a second murder has taken place in Findlay roughly 24 hours after the first. The scene at 13-year-old Daniel LeBeau’s bedside was equally grisly according to Findlay PD. This time the boy’s heart and lungs were missing.”
Jack’s own heart sunk into his stomach at these words. The image on the screen showed crime scene tape crisscrossing the LeBeau’s front door as paramedics loaded a covered body into the back of an ambulance. Possibly most horrifying of all, they lived only two streets over from the Murphys. The Greenbergs at least lived on the other side of town. This was getting too close for comfort.
“Again, no sign of forced entry was found and the police are now convinced that this is the work of an organized, highly stealthy and sadistic killer. Findlay has decided to enforce a mandatory curfew of 9:00 PM for all children under 18 until the perpetrator has been brought into custody.”
Daisy switched the TV off. This time, none of the kids cracked jokes or even moved a muscle. Lana was quietly crying and trying to hide it.
“Dad, is someone going to kill us too?” Trevor asked with wide eyes, craning his head up to look at his father. Jack put a firm hand on the boy’s head.
“No, Trev. I would never let anything happen to you guys.”
“Jack, maybe we should keep them home from school today…” Daisy said weakly. She looked like she might pass out. Jack shook his head.
“No, we don’t put our lives on hold because some psycho is trying to scare everyone. That’s just letting him win. The police are doing their jobs, we need to do ours. Guys, do you want to stay home?”
Three heads shook slowly from side to side. Most likely they would feel safer in a school surrounded by plenty of adults and security supervision, not to mention all of their friends.
“Okay, then let’s get ready.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than he thought he caught movement in his peripheral vision. Something was outside. He approached the picture window that faced the front yard and pushed the curtains further apart, expecting to see a bird or someone walking their dog. Everything was perfectly still in the Halloween display. Everything was as it should be.
The scarecrow, he was no longer surprised to see, was once again back on its post, smiling merrily in the morning mist.
Later that day as the alarm system repairmen wandered around their property checking on all the motion sensors and wiring, Jack took another stroll through the display and came to a stop in front of the scarecrow. He stared up at it, hands on his hips, brow furrowed deeply in thought. He had taken a day off work to be there when the maintenance guys came and was spending the time trying to logically work through what could be happening on his property. He hadn’t yet told Daisy about the scarecrow’s latest disappearing act. He wanted to solve the puzzle on his own, and he knew her answer would be “it was just a dream”.
If the alarm system had been broken for the last two days, he supposed it was possible that a few older kids had snuck into the yard and moved the scarecrow. They must have moved quickly, especially last night – it disappeared and reappeared again within the span of at most three hours, by his estimation. Odd that even with the window open he didn’t hear them working. The straps that held its arms and waist to the post were literally nailed into the wood, so they would’ve needed to pull out the nails and then replace them afterward. How could they have not heard the sound of someone hammering?
He walked a bit closer to the scarecrow, examining it. Something was off about it, he could see it now that he was up close. It seemed… fuller than it usually was. Over many years, straw and stuffing had fallen out of its torso and limbs and the kids had diligently packed it back in every other season or so. But even with occasional fixes, it was always rather slim. Now its chest and stomach seemed robust as if it had been generously re-stuffed.
He almost chuckled to himself. What was he really suggesting here? That some kids were stealing his scarecrow just to, what… refill it? Make it look nicer? It was a ridiculous notion. Daisy or someone had obviously come out and stuffed it a bit more last night before they went to bed.
Sighing, Jack gave the old scarecrow a pat on the leg and went to meet the alarm company guys at the other end of the yard. They were finishing up their assessment.
“Ah, Mr. Murphy,” the lead worker said. He was scratching his head as he handed Jack a clipboard with some data and forms to sign. “Strangest thing. As far as we can tell, your alarm system is in perfect working order.”
Jack froze, pen in hand. “…What do you mean?”
“I mean, it works just fine and always has. We can test it and show y-”
“Yes, please do. I need to know that it works,” Jack interrupted, becoming somewhat hysterical now.
So they did. They took turns walking through various parts of the yard with the system armed, and sure enough, it was quickly set off each time. They disarmed it immediately after every test so as not to cause an uproar with the neighbors. Jack insisted they try walking through the display itself and up to the scarecrow, just to be sure. They didn’t even make it halfway there before the sirens blared and the lights flashed.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Jack said under his breath after a solid half-hour of testing the alarm. “Could the intruders possibly be disarming it and then arming it again when they leave?” he asked the workers. He was now desperate to find an answer, any kind of answer. Their leader shook his head.
“They’d need the passcode and access to the remote. There’s no evidence that the system has been tampered with.” He paused. “Mr. Murphy, nothing is officially missing from your property, correct?” He was looking at Jack with that suspicious side-eye that clearly indicated he was concerned about the man’s mental health.
“Well no, I mean not right now, but-“
“Then I wouldn’t worry. If you have any other concerns don’t hesitate to call us again.”
That evening as Jack was helping Daisy prepare dinner and trying to figure out a way to discuss everything he had learned that day with her, he overheard the children gossiping amongst themselves in the living room.
“I heard that they didn’t just take Danny’s heart and lungs, they took some of his skin too!” Trevor was saying to Ryan and Lana.
“Shut up, that’s gross and it’s not true,” Lana retorted matter-of-factly.
“Well my friend Christina lives a few houses down from them, and her sister Tasha said that the police found pieces of what looked like hay in and around the bodies,” Ryan chimed in.
“So… they were killed by horses?” Trevor asked with a frown.
“Or cows!” Ryan replied. This made Lana giggle.
“Guys, enough!” Daisy snapped. She left the kitchen to gather them for dinner. Jack hadn’t moved an inch the entire time he’d been listening to his kids’ conversation. He had seen bits of hay recently himself, hadn’t he? Hay and straw. Small piles of it leading off out of their yard when the scarecrow was taken. Could their disappearing prop and the two grisly murders be connected somehow? Was the person committing these heinous crimes also sneaking into their yard each night? It had to be a coincidence.
Still, his blood ran cold at the thought.
That night, after the security system was armed and Daisy and the kids were fast asleep, Jack sat up on the front porch with a flashlight in one hand and his metal baseball bat in the other. Bundled up against the chilly October air, he made sure to sit back in the shadows where he wouldn’t be noticed and he kept his flashlight switched off. This time he was going to see who or what was moving the scarecrow, and he was going to call the police. He just had to catch them in the act to prove he wasn’t going crazy.
Hours passed in stillness and silence. It was getting even colder, and Jack grabbed the blanket he had brought outside with him, wrapping it around his shoulders. Nothing in the yard was stirring. The props were all as they had left them, casting haunting silhouettes on the grass in the moonlight. From where he sat he could make out most of the scarecrow’s hat poking up out of the center of the display, and a few tufts of its frizzy black wig. He kept his eyes trained on it, the minutes ticking away. …
The bloodcurdling scream split the night and snapped Jack out of his slumber – he had dozed off in the chair! At first, he thought he had dreamt his wife’s cry for help but then it came again, from inside the house. Jack fumbled to turn on his flashlight and pointed it at the scarecrow with shaking hands – it was gone.
He leapt up and off the porch, triggering the alarm with an ear-splitting peal that drowned out Daisy’s screams. He sprinted closer to the display, shining his light up and over into the center of it but now he was certain, the scarecrow was definitely missing and piles of straw led away from its post. Away to the left and… past where he stood. Past him, across the porch… and through their open front door.
The screams mixed with the deafening siren of the alarm created total chaos as Jack flew through the door and up the stairs, his feet barely touching the floor, following Daisy’s voice. He pounded down the hallway and toward their bedrooms. He tried to hold his hands to his ears to block out the alarm but they still had a death grip on the baseball bat and flashlight. He wasn’t sure but he thought her cries were coming from Trevor’s room.
He arrived at the open bedroom door just after Daisy’s strangled yells were silenced, and were quickly replaced by his own. There, crouched over Trevor’s pale and mangled body, was the scarecrow. Daisy was slumped over on the floor behind it, a kitchen knife still in her limp hand as if she had tried and failed to defend her son.
The scarecrow ever so slowly paused and turned to look at Jack, who was still standing in the doorway with his mouth agape and his whole body shaking.
Its head was illuminated by the beam of Jack’s flashlight. The straw hat and black hair were all too familiar. But now instead of burlap and string, it was wearing Trevor’s distorted and bloodied face. His skin. It smiled far too wide and with Trevor’s mouth it said, “Trick or treat!”
* * * * * *
By the time the girl was done telling me this tale in magnificent detail, the sun was starting to dip toward the horizon and the garage sale was closing up shop for the night. I grinned at her and thanked her for the entertainment. I guess it’s true what they say about small towns being full of colorful characters.
I promptly bought the scarecrow from the lady who was selling it. Who could resist with a crazy story like that? Totally perfect for the season! It’s in the garage at the moment but I’m going to set it up next to our porch tomorrow night, alongside our freshly picked pumpkins. I really feel like it’ll pull the whole Halloween vibe together!
Credit: Kelly Foster