By: Thomas M. Malafarina
© 2010 Thomas M. Malafarina
The dilapidated old house stood high atop the Market Street hill overlooking the lower half of the town of Ashton like some sort of hideous monument to a time long since forgotten in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Every kid in town believed the place was cursed or haunted or both though the presumption could never be verified. There were so many stories and legends surrounding the house it was hard to distinguish between what was real, what was imagined, and what was completely fabricated.
For example, one tale told of a pair of reclusive elderly sisters who lived in the house during the 1920s and who locals believed to be witches. Many neighbors during that time complained their dogs and cats had gone missing, certain the two strange siblings had taken them. Perhaps the witches used them in some bizarre satanic ritual then boiled them in a stew pot for dinner. The legend claimed because of the sisters’ satanic involvement, their souls were doomed to roam the halls of the house for as long as it existed.
Another story dating back to the 1930s told of a husband who had returned to the house early from work one day catching his wife in the act with a former friend of his. In a fit of jealous rage, the husband grabbed a machete from the nearby closet, killed them both, and then decapitated them. Next, having gone irrevocably insane, he skewered their heads on the ends of long wooden poles, which he hung out the third-floor window for all of the townspeople to see. The story said shortly thereafter, he used the same blade to slit his own throat just before jumping headfirst from the roof of the building and smashing to the pavement below in a heap of broken bones. Legend said the lovers’ decapitated ghosts still wandered from room to room trying to find their missing heads.
The last owner of the house was a seventy-five-year-old racketeer named Lamar “Bishop” Milner. He was a well-known local kingpin believed to be involved in most of the shady activities in the county; gambling, robbery, burglary, fencing stolen goods, whatever. One night while the old man slept two thugs broke into the house and beat Milner with clubs crushing his skull leaving him to die in a pool of bloody brain matter. They supposedly dragged a safe from the building and forced it open a few miles out of town. Rumor had it Milner may have hidden thousands of dollars inside the house and the money was still there just waiting to be discovered. There were also stories about missing local gangsters who, through the years, had run afoul of Bishop and were rumored to have been killed and buried in the basement of the house.
The stories surrounding the house on the hill were as numerous and varied as the people who told them. Whether actually haunted or not, the place had been abandoned since the late 1950s and now stood in ruins a hollow shell of what it once was. Most of the glass had been broken out of the windows by vandals; its shutters hung askew. The roof of the house had stopped doing its job many years ago so the snow and rain were free to leak inside rotting the supportive wood structure. For the past ten years signs reading, “condemned,” “danger – do not enter” and “no trespassing” hung on all of the doors and access areas in an attempt to keep young daring teens from entering the building. For the most part, these were unnecessary as most locals stayed as far away from the deteriorating structure as possible. The building would have been torn down years earlier but for some political or legal snafu which was holding up the demolition.
Down the hill from the house, a crowd of young boys was gathered apparently involved in a serious discussion.
“I’m gonna do it,” fourteen-year-old Neil Simpson said to the crowd of boys all of whom were staring at him with an assortment of looks ranging from awe to incredulous.
Several of them shook their heads in disbelief, knowing no one had ever considered doing such a thing.
Then Neil asked, “Who’s going to go in with me?” Each of the kids in the group looked at each other as if Neil had just asked them if they could sprout wings and fly. Not a single one of them would ever agree to an idea like that.
“You’re crazy, Neil,” one of the boys said pointing up to the top of the hill at the dismal structure. “There’s no way you would ever get any of us to go in there with you!”
“Come on, Carl. You don’t really believe the place is haunted, do you?” Neil asked. “It’s 1969 for Christ’s sake, not 1669. How can you believe that crap?” Neil was addressing his best friend and classmate, Carl Blaker.
Carl replied, “It doesn’t matter what I believe or don’t believe. I ain’t goin’ anywhere near the inside of that place. For starters, it’s not safe.”
Neil looked at the rest of the gathering of neighborhood kids most of them younger than he and Carl some as young as six years old. “Ain’t any of you got the guts to come with me? Or are all of you just a bunch of pussies?” None of the boys replied they all looked at the ground or at each other not willing to meet his gaze.
“No problemo, el pussios,” he said in his best pseudo-Spanish impression. “I’ll do it all by my lonesome. And after tonight, you can all line up to smooch my lily-white butt because I’ll be the king of the neighborhood.”
The boys all looked at each other with astonishment. Neil was really going to do the unthinkable; he was going to walk through the awful house on the hill at night.
Neil had gotten the wild idea from watching a rerun on TV of a 1959 Vincent Price movie called “House on Haunted Hill.” Price’s character was an eccentric old guy who invited five strangers to spend the night in his haunted house. It was, in his opinion, cheesy and not very scary, but it did give him the inspiration for doing something cool with Ashton’s own supposedly haunted house. He came up with the idea to get a few kids to walk through the place at night then find some type of keepsake and bring it out to show the rest of the neighborhood gang. He even figured if the item they found was cool enough they might display it in their tree shack.
However, not everyone thought the idea was quite as cool as Neil did and as a result, he found himself in an awkward situation. If he backed out now, it would look like he was a coward and afraid to act on his own idea. But if he went in that God-forsaken house, he might have to do so alone. Although the idea terrified him, he had to keep up his false-bravado and what was much worse he actually had to go through with it.
Dusk seemed to arrive much too quickly as the sunset like a glowing red fireball against the distant horizon. The group of young boys had met at eight o’clock as darkness approached and had all huddled together standing as far away from the house as was possible. They were there to verify Neil did what he said he was going to do, but they didn’t plan to get any closer to the foreboding structure than was necessary.
“Last chance,” Neil chided sounding much more confident than he actually was, “Last chance to step up to the plate and be a real man.”
The group looked among each other to see if anyone would take the challenge but none did. Neil said, “Fine. Suit yourselves. I’ll be back to see you losers in a few minutes.”
“Neil. Maybe you shouldn’t do it,” Carl said in an attempt to get his friend to back out of the potentially dangerous situation. “It just ain’t safe in there. The place is falling down. You could get hurt or killed. And if you changed your mind, we’d be cool about it. Nobody would call you a chicken or nothing. Would we, boys?”
All of the boys shook their heads. There was no way any of them would risk having Neil think they would call him a chicken; he would likely pound them senseless for sure. Besides, none of them really wanted him to go into the house and risk injury or death.
Neil offered a mock salute to the boys saying, “See you boys, I’ll be back with a trophy from the haunted house on the hill. That is unless I find some of Bishop Milner’s cashola. ‘Cause if I do then I’ll be too busy counting money to come out.” Then he laughed.
Looking uncertain, the boys seemed to be reconsidering their original reluctance to go along. They had all heard the stories about Milner and believed there might actually be a stash of money somewhere in the house. Then looking up at the hulking building in the eerie light from the rising moon, they decided they wouldn’t change their minds for all the money in the world.
Standing silently, the boys watched as Neil turned on his flashlight and adjusted his empty backpack. He figured it might be a good idea to have the pack in case he found several valuables or perhaps a stack of money.
Neil took several tentative steps up the front stairs of the house being careful to avoid areas where the boards had rotted away. He looked back every few steps as if he were contemplating changing his mind but reluctantly went on.
As he approached the front door, Neil hoped he might find it locked and wouldn’t be able to get inside giving him an easy out. After all, the place was condemned and trespassing was prohibited, so it seemed logical the door might be locked. But, to his unpleasant surprise, the door opened freely. He noticed the front window was also missing so he supposed there was little reason to lock the front door anyway.
With one last look back, Neil pushed open the door and entered the house. He planned to leave the front door open for an easy getaway, but as he passed into the front room, the door slammed shut behind him with a crash. Broken remnants of window glass flew onto the front porch.
Outside the sound of the slamming door caused the startled group of boys to jump as one. Two of the youngest boys turned and ran down the steep hill, heading home for the night already more frightened than they wanted to be.
Carl stood at the head of the group of four remaining boys shaken but not ready to run just yet. Reaching into his front pocket his hand found his father’s old aluminum-cased cigarette lighter. He hadn’t known what prompted him to bring the lighter with him, but he had a feeling it might come in handy.
The evening had become very quiet the cool air barely moving. Carl wasn’t paying attention to the other boys who were murmuring nervously among themselves. He was too busy focusing on the front door of the house almost as if willing the door to open and for Neil to come walking out flashing his stupid grin.
Suddenly they all heard a horrifying scream coming from inside the house, a scream Carl immediately recognized as having come from Neil. Then from behind him, Carl heard a series of frightened cries followed by the slapping of PF Flyers against the asphalt as the silhouettes of the remaining boys could be seen running away down the hill.
With his heart thumping madly in his chest, Carl stood transfixed unable to move. His initial instinct was to turn and flee, but his best friend was in that horrible house and perhaps hurt. Then he heard another mournful cry coming from inside the house, and without hesitation, he found himself on the front porch with his hand turning the doorknob; stepping onto blackness. Pulling out his dad’s lighter and flicking it to life, he was amazed by the amount of light the small device provided.
The first thing Carl noticed about the place was the incredibly musty odor of decay the old house had; the stench was breathtaking. He took a few careful steps forward brushing spider webs out of his way and testing the floorboards for strength. He looked around the front room, which was for the most part empty except for a tattered oval area rug on the floor and a broken mirror hanging on the wall to his left. The wall led to a set of stairs obviously went to the second floor and next to them was an open doorway. As Carl passed the cracked mirror, he thought he caught of glimpse of someone in the mirror watching him. When he turned to look, he saw no one. Glancing back at the mirror he saw only his own wide terrified eyes gazing back at him.
The doorway led to a long narrow hall with another doorway branching off to the right just a few feet ahead. As he stepped into the hallway, a large rat ran from the darkness and skittered across his shoe. Carl held back a girlish squeal of fright but accidentally snapped back the lid of the lighter plunging him again into darkness. Before he could reignite the lighter, he was blinded by a flash of bright light from down the hallway coming from the adjacent room. He lifted his arms to shield his eyes and couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Carl. Man. Oh, man! I knew I could count on you,” Neil said as he stood holding his flashlight shining it into Carl’s now angry eyes.
In his fury, Carl shouted, “Simpson, you’re a dickhead! We thought you were hurt, man. It sounded like you were being murdered for God’s sake!”
“Oh, you mean this,” Neil said, letting out another mournful howl. Then he laughed loudly saying, “I’ll bet the other kids went running home.”
Carl said with a little less anger, “I’ll say. I’ll bet at least one of them pissed his pants over it.” Then both boys broke into a fit of roaring laughter at the thought.
Carl gave an uncomfortable sigh and asked, “So what did you find? You know, for a souvenir.”
“Nothing yet,” Neil replied with some disappointment. “I haven’t had any luck so far. This place seems to be picked clean.”
“Well, then. I think we should just grab something, anything, and get the heck out of this dump!” Carl said. “This place gives me the creeps. Hey, what’s in the room behind you?”
Carl pointed to an old chest of drawers with all the drawers pulled out and smashed to pieces. “Why not just take one of those drawer handles? That might be good enough.”
“You gotta be kidding!” Neil argued, “That’s just plain idiotic. I can’t walk out of here with a stupid drawer handle.”
Then something caught Neil’s eye. He noticed a glimmer of light reflecting off something across the room. Neil shone his flashlight onto a door on the far wall. “Wow! Now that’s really cool!”
The two boys approached the door to examine Neil’s discovery; a beautiful cut crystal doorknob.
“Man!” Neil said, “I haven’t seen one of these things in a long time. My old man used to have a few of them but sold them because they were worth some major money. Let’s snag this one; it will make a great souvenir!”
Before Carl had a chance to consider the idea, Neil reached out and grabbed the glass knob turning it to the right. The door slowly swung toward him, and the boys could see nothing but blackness beyond.
“Cool!” Neil shouted. “I’ll bet this leads down to the cellar. These old places always had dirt cellars, and I’ll bet that old fart Milner buried his money in the cellar.”
Carl replied, “I don’t know, Neil. I think we should just get out of here before something bad happens. I don’t have a good feeling about this place.”
Neil ignored his concern and started walking down the stairs. Carl put his lighter back into his pocket and followed Neil’s flashlight beam down the rickety wooden stairway into the basement. When they were about halfway down the stairs unknown to them, what they had seen as a beautiful crystal doorknob had reverted to its true form; a rusted, pitted hideous metal knob as the cellar door slammed shut behind them.
“Neil. This is a really bad idea. Let’s get out of here,” Carl pleaded. But Neil would have no part of it. He was determined to find something of value and his instincts told him the cellar was the place to find it.
“Don’t be such a pussy,” Neil said. “Just a few minutes longer and if we don’t find anything we will go back take the glass doorknob and leave. Alright?”
“Alright,” Carl said with a disapproving tone, “but just a few more minutes.”
“Look. Over there!” Neil said as he pointed his flashlight at the dirt floor about ten feet away from where they stood. Something shiny and metallic was jutting up out of the soil. “It looks like some kind of box.”
Neil raced over to the object and started digging the loose dirt with one hand from around the box trying to free it further. He said with excitement, “Here, Carl. Take the flashlight at shine it over here. It looks like some kind of metal lockbox or something. I’ll bet it’s full of dough!”
Carl held the light on the area where Neil was now digging furiously with both hands. He was surprised to see the box was in such good condition. He would have assumed it would have been rusted to some degree after being buried in the ground for so many years but it looked like it was made of shiny brand-new metal.
Neil managed to unearth the box and laid it down to see if he could open it. To both boys’ surprise and disappointment, there was no lock on the box whatsoever, just a simple flip latch. “Crap!” Neil said. “It ain’t locked. That means there probably ain’t anything of any value in here or if there was it is probably long gone. Well, let’s look anyway.”
Neil flipped the latch on the lockbox and lifted the lid. The boys stood in shock as they stared at a severed human hand. “Jesus!” Neil screamed dropping the box and falling backward onto his butt in front of it. Carl stood staring at the dismembered appendage the flashlight trembling in his hand.
Then the flesh on the hand began to turn from a normal shade of pink to a mottled gray then to a blackish greenish color as the skin bubbled then burst open revealing the white bone below. Maggots crawled about the hand as the foul stench of decomposition began to fill the air. The shiny metallic box transformed before their eyes into a brown, rusted container riddled with holes out of which more maggots crawled.
As Neil stared in astonishment, several long, bony fingers began to rise up from the ground on both sides of his legs. Neither boy saw them as the two were focusing on the horrible appendage in the rusted box. The skeletal hands with only fragments of rotting flesh remaining quickly wrapped around Neil’s ankles pulling him down into the sandy soil. Before he realized what was happening, his legs were in the ground up to his knees resembling someone sinking in quicksand.
“Help! Oh my God! No! Help me! Help me, Carl!” he cried in terror.
Carl was bending over shining the flashlight into the box when he heard Neil screaming. He immediately dropped the flashlight to the ground and hooked his forearms under Neil’s armpits trying to pull him out. Neil’s backpack jammed against his chest hindering his rescue efforts. He was unaware of what was causing Neil to sink into the ground, but he knew he had to help his friend. Tugging with all of his might, Carl managed to pull Neil a few inches backward when he saw reflected in the light of the dropped flashlight a skull-like face rising along with Neil from the earth. Covered with grime, bits of its decomposing flesh dropped from the skull thing onto Neil’s legs. One of its eye sockets was empty while from the other a filmy dead eye dangled from a few remaining muscles. Its mouth opened and closed as if trying to say something but no words were spoken. The boys could hear the clacking of its teeth together like a bizarre version of the clattering teeth gag Carl had seen in a joke store, but this was no joke.
Carl pulled with every ounce of strength he could muster but wasn’t able to free Neil any further. Neil was crying and screaming at the top of his lungs, and Carl realized he too was screaming just as loudly. Then he felt it. Something took hold of his ankles.
Looking down he saw two more skeletal hands had worked their way out of the ground wrapping themselves around his ankles trying to pull him downward. Letting go of Neil, he fell to the ground on his backside and tried to kick himself free but to no avail; the boney fingers just grabbed him tighter. Then he saw a white curved object arising from the soil in front of eventually becoming another skull with only its empty eye sockets showing at ground level.
Carl suddenly remembered his Dad’s cigarette lighter. He reached down into this pocket to retrieve it. He had no idea if it would help or not, but after a few attempts, the flame came to life. Carl pressed the flame against his ankle and the skeletal fingers immediately disintegrated into a cloud of dust settling back down onto the soil. The other griping hand and the skull rising from the dirt were also gone; having returned to dust as well.
Turning quickly Carl brought the lighter around to free Neil only to see the boy was in the dirt over his nose, with only his horrified tear-filled eyes exposed. Before Carl could do anything, his friend went completely under the ground.
“Neil!” the boy screamed in anguish, but his friend was gone.
Where Neil had once been, Carl saw several new boney fingers beginning to emerge from the soil. He quickly got to his feet and grabbing the flashlight ran up the basement steps taking them two at a time, dropping his father’s lighter along the way. The lighter landed in a pile of old rags under the steps and immediately caught fire, but Carl didn’t realize this as he broke through the door into the side room then ran out into the hall. As he turned left to head for the front door, he heard a high-pitched raspy voice.
“Boy!” the voice called, “Come here, boy. We want to speak with you.”
Without thinking, Carl turned and looked down the hall to his right and saw gray glowing images of two very old women, which seemed to float through the air toward him. They were hideous old crones with long boney fingers beckoning him. Immediately he recalled the story of the two witch sisters and turned heading for the front door.
“Come back, boy!” the witch sisters cackled in unison, their laughter hideous.
Carl pulled on the handle of the front door, but it wouldn’t open. He could smell smoke and realized the building was on fire. Behind him, he heard a thumping sound and looked up the stairs to see two headless naked beings one man and one woman clumsily staggering down the steps toward him with their arms outstretched. He turned and started to climb out of the broken window when he felt cold hands grabbing him by his arms and pulling him backward throwing him down on the floor. Carl looked up and saw a stocky old man looking down at him. The old man’s skull appeared crushed, as was half of his face. His brain was exposed and bits of a grayish ooze dripped from his skull to the floor. The old man bent over toward Carl and the boy could smell his foul and rancid breath. Then he saw maggots, crawling from the old man’s exposed brain.
“Welcome to my house, boy. Or should I say welcome to our house?” the old specter moaned.
Carl was unable to break free of the thing’s grip. He looked up and saw a bright glow from across the room coming from the broken mirror. Neil’s face appeared in the glass looking down at Carl. His hands pressed tightly against the inside of the mirror as if he were trying to get free, but his eyes looked dead and expressionless with dark black circles beneath them. The last thing the boy saw as the room around him burst into flames and the floor began to collapse was the old man, the two headless beings and the floating witches swarming around him.
It took just moments for the four-story structure to turn into an enormous flaming pyre visible all over town from its perch high atop the hill. By the time the volunteer fire companies arrived, there was nothing to be done except to keep the flames from spreading to other nearby structures.
Later that evening, the parents of the two boys reported them missing. The neighborhood kids each were questioned and tearfully told the police about Neil going inside the building. Several days later when the smoldering heap had cooled down police conducted an investigation; they found the two boys’ charred bodies in the basement of the ruins near a blackened cigarette lighter. The official report cited “death by misadventure” stating the two boys must have gone into the house and had been fooling around with the lighter, accidentally set the building on fire, and died in the blaze. However, for the rest of the neighborhood boys, such a story would never suffice. They believed the house on the hill was responsible and always would.