Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
|On October the 31st, in the year 1899, a small village quietly tucked away in the Maryland hillside was founded on murder. At the time, unbeknownst to the residents, the events which transpired would follow them like a plague into the next century and beyond, with little chance of being forgotten. It seems rather unsuitable that in light of the gruesome nature of the crime, the anniversary is now enthusiastically celebrated. Time heals all wounds, I suppose.
This year marks a special anniversary. Soon it will be one hundred years in the past. A hundred years of mystery, speculation and memorializing. One man holds the burden of responsibility for this, in addition to the killer that is.
John Harrington was a reporter at The Washington Post in the late 1940’s when he became interested in murders carried out in the name of the occult. When rumors of a small town family’s suspicious murder reached The Post, John was assigned to investigate.
It was in the days following the arrival of Mr. Harrington that an aura was cast upon the village, born by the blood of an innocent family. The questions he posed to the witnesses and survivors raised questions of their own among the villagers as to the nature of the killings and the evil therein. He quickly wore out his welcome. The village rejected his intrusive nature and interest in darker things. However well intentioned Mr. Harrington had been in regard to his investigation and reporting, the articles he authored opened a deep wound in the village which could not be closed by prayer alone. Instead, the gate to hell was opened by the curiosity of a single man.
There were only three witnesses to the crime scene. Sheriff James Anthony, Deputy Sheriff Arthur Grummond and a farmer who lived behind the house. The investigation wrapped up in two days. The case was quickly closed and the records sealed. When asked what happened, the Sheriff simply wouldn’t talk. His face had changed to wearing the countenance of a shell-shocked soldier. It was only after the village council threatened to remove him from office that he agreed to speak. Sheriff Anthony delivered his remarks and resigned his post, effective immediately.
The Strathaven family was deceased at the hands of the father and husband. Among them were three children. The details deemed too brutal for public consumption. The crime was confirmed to be inspired by the occult. It was understood as the act of a man who could not conquer his inner demons, besieged by his traumatic experiences serving during the Civil War. A tragedy of circumstance for the innocent family. The Sheriff called it a win for the Devil.
Shortly after the Sheriff’s resignation, Mr. Harrington’s article titled ‘The Devil celebrates on Halloween’ divulged the gruesome details to the villagers. The bodies of Mary Strathaven and her three children Jonah, Elizabeth and Peter were found severely burned and resting in curious positions. Their left hands covering their eyes and their right hands covering their mouths. A mask was worn over each of their faces, crafted from burlap and having holes where the eyes and mouth reside. The young mother and her three children arranged so that they formed the first four lines of a five point star. Joseph Strathaven, the last line of the pentagram, lay on top of his family. He also wore a burlap mask, though containing no holes to see or speak through.
Several symbols were burned into the ground which surrounded the departed. Later, Mr. Harrington would reveal that they represented the occult and were intended to summon dark forces including demons and perhaps the Devil himself. Though these circumstances were quite disturbing to the villagers upon learning, still there were further details of the crime which elicited the strongest impact. When Joseph’s mask was removed they discovered, carved into the skin across his face, the word “Halloween.” His mouth was sewn shut, as were his eyes. The words “I’M HERE” were carved across his chest. Mr. Harrington concluded that the Devil was here and he celebrated Halloween.
The village was on edge. In a once happy and quiet place of peace, they could find no rest. News of the Halloween murders spread beyond the village. Those who sought answers from the beyond were drawn to the village with the hope of bowing before their idols of demons and devils. Rituals were held. Seances were performed. Sacrifices were made. A shrine was dedicated at the site, all in the name of Halloween.
Before long, the villagers could no longer ignore what was happening. Faith and ideals began to crumble. The churches emptied and the steeple bells were silenced. Pastor Timothy refused to preach and abandoned his congregation, leading many of them to openly proclaim the death of God himself. A new truth was emerging, capturing the hearts of the people, one-by-one. Its acceptance almost universal.
Many began to embrace the regular visitors, their numbers increasing with each successive wave. Shops and restaurants were opened. Motels increased their capacities. Parties and parades were held. We ignored other occasions for celebration like Christmas and Easter in favor of Halloween. Evil became more palatable.
No sector of the village was immune. New candidates were elected to the local government and they were sympathetic to the revolution for change. Petitions were circulated and discussions were held. The village council held a vote and the tally was unanimous. They declared that from this day forward we would no longer be known as the Village of Rockbridge. We are the Village of Halloween.
All the better for me, you’ll see.
Perhaps I should have told you earlier of my own disposition. So please allow me to digress. Although I’m not one to interject myself into the midst of a tragic story, I’ve inevitably become a part of this village’s misfortune.
In the years following the death of the Strathaven family, through a somewhat twisted line of kinship, I became the rightful owner of the property. I was satisfied to let this cursed piece of land decay upon itself undisturbed until it rotted into nonexistence. However, I felt an incessant desire to preserve its remains for what I determined at the time to be historic value.
I began to visit the house regularly, which had deteriorated significantly by the mid 1940’s. I spent my days patching holes, fixing windows, cutting down vegetation and painting walls. I worked through the rain and snow until the restoration was complete. Finally, I arranged the decor to match precisely how it sat on Halloween day, 1899. I then wrote Mr. Harrington a letter, and waited.
When he arrived, I invited him inside. He examined the interior with a journalistic fascination, jotting down its details in the small notebook he carried. Most of the questions he posed were innocent in nature, having to do with the history of the house or the craftsmanship of the furniture. We went from room to room until the tour reached the back of the house where we came upon the only closed door. He politely asks me if he may see inside. I hesitate.
At first I deny his request. I explain that I wasn’t finished. It needs more work. I’m embarrassed for it to be seen by a reporter taking detailed notes. I’m a proud man and I need more time to bring it up to the same condition as the rest of the house. Anything to divert his interest. All lies. I know exactly what’s behind the door and it’s been meticulously prepared to be as accurate as possible. I’ve invited him for this very reason.
The room, though true to the house, doesn’t belong inside its walls. It doesn’t belong in this realm. Contrary to what you may believe, I didn’t create it. It was always here. I just prepared it for the next one to join and Mr. Harrington has been chosen. I agree to let him see the room. He grabs the handle but it won’t budge. I reach out and it opens easily. We walk inside and the door closes behind us.
Mr. Harrington took a deep breath and surveyed the room. A shrine stood at the back, adorned with a golden pentagram and a crystal goats head. The faint sound of a breathing beast whispered in our ears. I could see the fear on his face turn slowly into a smile. He tilted his head forward and looked at me from the top of his eyes.
“I’m here,” he said.
“You are,” I responded.
I opened the door and we walked together to the foyer. I expressed to him my gratitude for his visit and send him on his way. He knows what to do.
In the following weeks, Mr. Harrington would write his series of articles and people would begin to visit the house, which I had converted into a museum. As the curator, I led groups through the Halloween murder tour which started in the foyer and concluded in the yard where the family is buried. I tell the people what they want to hear. How a man lost his mind for the last time, gave his soul away to evil and took his family with him. I spare them none of the grotesque details. For nearly fifty years I’ve led these tours. Not once have we toured the room. The beating heart of the house.
The centennial Halloween is minutes away and I’m relieved though apprehensive and tired. My time is at hand and I’m ready for my rest. Before I can sleep, however, there is a matter which must be resolved. He wants out. He wants out and I can no longer confine him. The walls will not hold any longer and they breath with the anticipation of a caged animal. I hear the voices of lost souls calling through the walls. Screams of agony and torture–gnashing of teeth. The Devil is here and ready to celebrate this Halloween.
As midnight strikes and the clock bells toll, the clawing on the door falls silent. The time has come. I approach the door and grip the handle. It’s hot. Almost too hot to hold though I manage to turn it and the door creeps open. I look in and see only darkness. A darkness where light never goes. A trinity of eyes appears in the back of the room, large and red with slits that open horizontally. Steam comes from the nostrils as he breathes with the lungs of an oxen. Blood drips from his teeth as he takes a deep, guttural breath.
“Joseph, my lost soul. You are disposed,” he growls.
As I turn and make my way somberly to the door, I hear hooves stomping rhythmically across the old wood floor as he stepped into the hallway behind me. The back door swings open and I turn around. Standing as tall as the pillars of hell, he reaches to the sky and lets out a primal howl which thrusts me through the doorway. The windows in the house explode. The ground begins to shake.
I watch as the house starts to collapse. Room by room, it folds into itself. A fire bursts eagerly from the ground beneath and quickly consumes what remains. The whole structure begins to rotate and levitate as it’s reduced to the size of a boulder by the progressive folding. A singularity forms from the spinning mass and takes a familiar order.
The five points of the golden pentagram is all that remains, burning in fire, hovering above the ground. The earth opens beneath, and I can see the dungeons of hell, filled to the brim with lost and tortured souls. Human organs line the walls and they ooze with blood and teeth. I feel a strong wind develop and pull me toward the gate to hell. I resist the force by holding onto a gravestone of concrete protruding from the ground. The golden pentagram is swallowed by the earth and hell is satisfied as the gate closes and the ground steadies under my feet.
My sentence is complete.
I slip below the earth and crawl into my coffin, folding my arms across my chest. I close my eyes and sleep. The grave marker above my head tells the world of my shame though I am an innocent man.
Joseph L. Strathaven
CREDIT : Jesse Picker
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