Monday, October 20, 2008

The Haunted Hills of Halloween

In the autumn of my 10th year, my family got the idea to have a big old-timey Halloween Party. We planned for weeks to make this a night that everyone would remember. Each of us kids had something to do, whether it was cutting wood for the huge bonfire, getting hay bales for the hay wagon, or right down to the smallest detail of picking apples for the apple-bobbing tub. My job was decorations and invitations. I had hand wrote several invitations and cut out decorations. Luckily, my brother helped me out, for he was far better at such things than I. Otherwise, we’d have had decorations of mutilated paper pumpkins and perhaps a paper chain, which remains to this day pretty much my extent of decoration making.

Home in Pendleton County.

When Halloween finally arrived, the whole family was abuzz, so much that you could feel the excitement in the air. On the day of Halloween my uncle Fudgy went squirrel hunting and killed several squirrels, which he also brought back home to skin out. Well, this gave me some added inspiration for decorating, so I tied the squirrel tails to some sticks and stuck the sticks into the top of some pumpkins. I created Pumpkins with lovely little squirrel tail hats. I’m sure it looked better to me than anyone else since the squirrel tails were inevitably matted with blood, but to me they were a masterpiece.

At about 4 o’clock, the older family members lit the bonfire. It was a huge fire with flames licking up above the tops of the trees, and as it started getting darker it illuminated the whole yard. At about the same time that the bonfire was lit, we loaded up on an old hay wagon that my mother had borrowed from a neighbor, and commenced on an old-fashioned hay ride. My cousin Buck pulled the wagon with his tractor. We had all of the family and many friends and relatives piled onto the wagon. We went down the holler a-whoopin and a-hollerin like a pack of banshees. It was Halloween, and we were all going to have a great time.

Scene's like this just breed "spookiness".

The wagon went out on the main road for a couple of miles and then down Roots Run, a narrow little dirt road that went almost all the way into Riverton. Upon getting to the end of Roots Run, we turned up Horse Ridge that would take us through the Bland Hills and then home. The excitement heightened as the hayride proceeded on the winding and narrow roads of Bland Hills. With the old oak trees hanging over the road and passing the old abandoned houses, it really added a spookiness to that Halloween. Someone started telling ghost stories. There was one about a headless horseman who frequented these parts and whom you could still hear some nights as he followed people going from one house to the other. They said you could hear the horses hooves on the road when he followed you. They told of the time that Oren Bent was coming out of the Lane and was chased by the headless horseman, he said it started chasing him just after passing the old Bennett cemetery and chased him all the way home. He said the rider was carrying his head in his left hand and that sparks was flying off the horses hooves as the horseshoes hit rocks in the road. Just then we passed a couple of horses along the road, which added to it. I was getting scared.

A farm nestled along the route of the hayride.

As we passed one house, a black dog came out and chased the haywagon for a few hundred feet, which gave the inspiration for yet another ghost story about a black dog. This dog would brush up against your leg as you were walking in the dark, but when you would shoo him away, there’d be nothing there. My granddad then told us of his experience with the black ghost dog one night after returning home from work. He was walking up our holler and felt a dog brush against his leg and heard a dog panting, thinking it was one of our dogs he hollered at it to get, but when it didn’t, he dropped down his dinner bucket to hit the dog. His dinner bucket clanged against the rocks of the holler road and my granddad knew immediately what he was dealing with. In all the stories about the ghost dog, it always started following you at the old stone cow barn in the holler and would leave you at the apple tree near the top of the hill.

As we were nearing the end of Bland Hills, my grandfather pointed out a nearby hill and said that was where a Civil War battle was fought, he said that when he was a kid, he and his siblings sat on a nearby hill and seen the whole battle being fought before their eyes…and this was 70 years after the War. Many strange happenings still occur on this hill. Many local people tell of seeing wounded soldiers wandering around and my brother even saw a man carrying his head under his arm…and the man was wearing Confederate butternut-gray. With all these scary tales, coupled with the surrounding landscape that just breeds a sense of mystery, I was getting thoroughly scared by the time we got back home.

An old family cemetery, a common site throughout Germany Valley.

At the end of Bland Hills, we got off the hay wagon and parked it where our neighbor instructed us. We walked the little piece up the main road and then up our holler. It was fairly well dark by this time, and we could see the glow from the bonfire by the time we made it halfway up the holler. My great-grandmaw Mary met us at the little footbridge and had some apple cider which she handed to me to carry for her as she continued on up the hill to the party with the rest of us.

The old cemetery where the Civil War battle was fought, it is on this hill that people still see visions of the past.

When we got back the most memorable thing was the huge, blazing bonfire. The older kids were roasting hotdogs, and hamburgers in foil were cooked in the hot coals. My mother told everyone to tear into the multitude of cakes and pies that she had been baking throughout the day. On the front porch there were hay bales to sit on and a huge metal tub full of water with apples floating in it. Bobbing for apples was but one of the games that evening, as well as taffy pulling. However, those two activities were cut short due to our ne’er-do-well cousin, Dank, showing up. Dank buried his head down into the tub of apples and came up with a big red apple in his snaggled teeth. My uncle Wood said that it was no wonder that Dank could get an apple every time he dunked his head in the tub for one, since Dank could practically stab them with his “snags”. So bucked were Dank’s teeth that it had long been said that he could eat corn off the cob through a woven wire fence. Nobody else would take a turn bobbing for apples after Dank because he was not the cleanest person in the world and nobody wanted to stick their head in a tub of water after Dank’s head had been in there “slarshing” around. The same thing happened at the taffy pull. Nobody would eat the taffy after Dank handled it, and we couldn’t very well tell Dank that he couldn't join in the fun. Luckily, Dank left early on in the evening, so we all dumped out the water and washed the washtub. We then filled it back up with water from the spring, and placed more apples in’s that didn’t have Dank’s “fang” marks in them. We all had a great time after that because everyone joined in the festivities.

A foreboding feeling sits upon the mountain.

After we all had eaten our fill of various autumn themed delights, we all sat around the huge warm fire and listened to more ghost stories. There is nothing like listening to local ghost stories on Halloween night while sitting outdoors. We all thought that the various shadows and sounds outside of the illuminated circle was, of course, spirits coming to get us. Someone told a story of Alice Veach, who was known to be a local witch. They told of how she could make pins stand up in the middle of a frying pan just by saying some words over them, and how she could make people sick, or kill livestock, just by looking at them a certain way.

After the ghost stories, stories were told about wild animals that roamed these woods, often killing unwary persons. They told of large mountain lions that chased people and of unearthly creatures such as Old Fon, the goat man, who was said to live up on North Mountain Rocks. It was said that Old Fon could lure children up to the rocks by humming a song of enchantment. When the children got up to the steepest cliffs, he shove them off. My grandmaw Mary said the only way to get away from Old Fon was to call him by his name and tell him to his face, “Leave me alone, Old Fon.” Upon hearing that, he would run into a cave in the rocks and leave you alone. There were also tales of the snallygaster, who walked these hills and hollers looking for mischief, killing dogs, burning barns, and sucking the life out of livestock.

"The Snallygaster",based on handed-down descriptions, drawn by my brother, Jason Burns.

Also, tales of the wampus cat were told. It was said that the wampus cat could make you paralyzed with fear, and he preyed especially on women who were going through the change or on girls who were just coming into womanhood. It was said that once the wampus cat mesmerized you, he would thereafter continue to appear in your dreams, until it would eventually drive you insane.

My childhood home in Germany Valley.

As the ghost stories were told and the tales of the supernatural were winding down, so was I and I fell asleep on my Daddy’s arm. When I woke the next morning, there were the remnants of a party and the memories of a Halloween Party on the mountain that would last me a lifetime.


Janet, said...

Wow, you have a good memory and an interesting past. The only Halloween memories I have as a child was the trick or treating we did. We lived up a holler and we would go the entire length, we would come back with tons of candy. Back in those days, a lot of people gave regular sized candy bars and some people who didn't want to be home would sit bushel baskets of apples out on the porch for the treat. And of course, some kids would get into mischief that night, but not me.

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

What a great Halloween story! I agree with, is so vivid! I enjoy your tales of childhood.

tipper said...

Matthew-you spooked me and I wasn't even there!! Loved all the various scary characters-especially Old Fon. I'm glad you have such wonderful memories-so you can share them with us!

The Tile Lady said...

What a fascinating Halloween party! So much fun! Scary, scary for all the kids! Wow! I can see why all the stories and events have stayed with you always!

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

I should also mention that I just LOVE this title! GREAT!