Happy Halloween, readers. By now, I imagine you’re returning home from some careful, socially distant candy harvesting. To complement the sweets, today’s look back Saturday will feature some scary stories from my past. Although not all of these are strictly Halloween related, they’re all scary and suspenseful in their own rite, and hopefully they’ll send a shiver down your spine and make you clutch your loved ones a little closer.
One fall weekend my dad decided to take my sister Kelly and I to Woodfield mall. Even if you weren’t there for shopping, the mall was a great place for killing time, people watching, and wandering stores. As kids, we looked forward to the junk food, throwing pennies in the fountain, and if we had been holding down good behavior, our parents would let us share a smoothie from Surf City Squeeze - unequivocally the greatest smoothie shop to ever exist.
Nearing Halloween weekend, the mall sparkled with spooky decorations. The decorations in the seasonal Halloween costume store prominently spilled out into the walkway, making it hard to avoid their cobwebs, gravestones, and flowing white ghosts.
I gripped my dad’s hand tightly as we passed by. Kelly, sensing my fear, did what cruel big sisters do best.
“Dad,” she said snidely. “We should go in there.”
My dad stopped in his tracked. “Oh yeah?” he asked coyly winking.
“Yeah,” Kelly snickered. “I think Alex wants to go in there. BY HIMSELF.”
She and my dad laughed. I buried my face in my dad’s sweater and began to whimper. “Dad, I don’t want to go in there,” I said.
We wandered the mall a little longer, reaching the very end and doubling back just before the JC Penny outlet. Knowing the Halloween store was once again right around the corner, my heart began to race and my hands felt clammy. I let go of my dad’s hand to wipe the sweat off onto my jeans. The entrance of the Halloween store came into view. One of the employees, wearing a scream mask, locked eyes with me and slowly cocked his head.
“DAD, WE CAN’T GO IN THERE,” I pleaded. Nearly losing my dad and sister in the crowd, I spotted his sweater, running after him. He had veered directly toward the store, making his way to the entrance. Through smoke machines, strobe lights, and cackling witches, I ran after him, grabbing hold of his arm and leaning back with all my might.
“DAD, PLEASE,” I pleaded, falling to my knees with his sleeve in my hand. “DAD PLEASE, DON’T GO IN THERE. DON’T GO IN THERE.”
Crumpled on the floor, tears streaming down my face, I caught a glimpse of my dad and sister. But they weren’t at the entry way of the Halloween store. And the sweater sleeve that I was desperately clutching didn’t belong to my dad.
A confused, grey haired elderly man turned toward me, gently releasing his sweater sleeve from my grip. He furrowed his brow, then awkwardly smiled before excusing his way past me into the Halloween store. I scrambled back up to my feet, and through the ghastly decor I followed the sounds of my dad and sister laughing.
“Dad, dad,” sneered Kelly. “Who am I?” Kelly dropped to her knees with clenched fists. “DON’T GO IN THERE! DON’T GO IN THERE!” she wailed.
One thing that I never got used to about living in Rockford was how dark it was. When the sun went down, the side streets were dark. The parking lots were dark. The night sky, far from the light pollution of the big city, spread out like an oppressive heavy blanket of darkness. Even while making my driving home on the illuminated interstate highway, I shuttered looking into the corn field where the last bit of light casted from the streetlights was swallowed up in nothingness.
In my lonely apartment tucked between a shadowy side street and an open field, I used to hate crossing the big empty parking lot to throw my trash away. One cold winter night, I threw on a pair of flip-flops and stepped outside into the crisp chilly air, lugging a plastic garbage bag behind me at my feet. My heart quickened as I reached the end of the blacktop. The open dumpster was almost invisible against the backdrop of spidery, leafless trees scraping at a moonless sky.
I planted my feet and began to heave the bag over my shoulder. I saw a dark figure moving in the dumpster. I froze in place, the bag still dangling over my shoulder.
Holding completely still, my heart was throbbing so quickly that it nearly drowned out the sound of quiet, methodical scraping. Without making a sound, I leaned forward, and the black void inside the dumpster slowly began to take shape. I saw thin arms, and fingers as black as leather gloves.
Somebody… is eating out of the trash, I thought. But who? Was it a drifter? A junkie? A deranged scavenger? A thief lying in wait to jump an unsuspecting apartment dweller?
The shuffling stopped, and the figure craned its neck up to meet my vision. I saw a pale glimmer in a pair of glassy eyes.
“GET OUT OF THE TRASH,” I yelled hoarsely. “What are you doing! GET OUT OF THERE.” The fog from my breath fell at my feet as the figure continued to stare at me. No response. No movement. Not a sound.
My eyes continued to adjust. Staring at the figure, I was able to make out a pointy nose, whiskers, and bushy fur.
I broke out into laughter. “You’re a raccoon,” I laughed in relief. The animal disappeared into a pile of garbage. I laughed alone in the parking lot.
My high school convened in an old building. Dim lighting, milky white windows, rust colored brick, chipped lead paint, and yellow stained concrete walls. The carpet smelled like a different decade. A rusty barbed wire fence wrapped around the playground.
My school had only used the building since the eighties, but before that the building belonged to the much larger Arlington Heights Public high school, which dated back to the sixties. With three full floors and three different gymnasiums, our tiny private Christian school could barely fill the space, and the easiest way to visualize that was just in how many extra lockers we had.
Our student to locker ratio was probably 1 to 30. We had so many extra lockers that even the kindergarteners got their own. Every hallway, whether we used it or not, was lined with burnt orange and red lockers. Some were locked from the inside. Some were welded shut. Some were sealed off completely with a metal cable running through the row of silver handles.
With so many derelict lockers lining the hallways, we fueled their eerie presence with tall tales and urban legends. Some students claimed to have found caches of weapons, hard drugs, and satanic relics. Some students believed that in an unkown locker was stashed Al Capone’s hidden fortune. Some students believed that one of the lockers kept a dead body, and that you could smell it on the really humid days in September.
Walking through the long, dark hallways, absent-mindedly tracing the neat orderly metal row of locker numbers, every once in a while a locker would catch your eye and stand-out. Some lockers hung crooked on broken hinges. Some lockers looked slighty too big, slightly too small, or painted with a slightly different color. Some lockers were partly pried open from the corner. Some lockers had their numbers scratched off, or bore some other faded knife point scrawl. It was hard not to think about the possibility that one of these sealed metal boxes entombed an evil secret.
On the third floor, only the band room, around the corner from the top of the stairs, students frequented. The rest of the entire third floor remained locked away, illuminated only by slivers of light that slipped through the highest windows. In the dark corners of the third floor, you could find secret corridors, bullet holes in the walls, and doors without handles that led nowhere.
Our security guard told us about a hidden fourth floor. Above our chapel was a long, high corridor. In the days of Arlington Heights high school, students used to sneak into the hidden room and add their own tag to what became a sanctuary of graffiti. He told us that every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered in spray paint.
My sister Kelly told me that she and her friends ventured deep into the third floor in search of the hidden graffiti room. They never found it, but Kelly stumbled into another mystery.
Kelly told me that they found a door that led to the balcony underneath the gymnasium scoreboard. Following it around the hallway, they were led to a narrow cat walk that led behind the highest bleachers.
“And then there was a yellow door,” said Kelly. “We opened it, and all of the sudden we were in a yellow room. The walls and the floor were yellow. The ceiling was yellow. And there was nothing in the room except for a yellow couch.”
In spite of all my own exploring, I never found the yellow room. I’d like to think it’s impossible to find. Maybe there was no yellow room. Maybe the moment after Kelly and her high school friends shut the door behind them, it disappeared from existence. Maybe another student would later stumble into an all green room, a red room, or a black room. Maybe Kelly and her friends caught a glimpse into another world or another dimension.
The yellow room is just another secret, another untold story, another haunting reverberation in the high ceilings and cracking concrete of our haunted school building.