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FIELD NOTES: A haunting in Castalia

My father loved ice cream. Some of my fondest memories involve piling into the car on a Sunday afternoon and driving to one of the nearby ice cream shops for a frozen treat. Most of the soft-serve places had only two flavors in those days, vanilla and chocolate, but there was a shop in the town of Castalia, 30 minutes from our house, that offered a rotating third flavor, usually strawberry, but occasionally peach or blueberry. That was sufficiently novel to justify making the trip three or four times each summer.

The drive to Castalia took us across the Sandusky Bay bridge and through a low-lying area of fields and marshy woods, where the trees came to within a few feet of the road. On a lonely stretch of that highway, an abandoned house sat in the middle of one of those thickets. It was two-story Victorian-style, set back 50 feet from the berm, with a rounded tower at one end. The exterior was the gray-white of peeling paint and exposed wood, and wild grapevines grew up the rotting railings of the wrap-around porch.

While the true story behind that house was likely something as mundane as a failed bank loan or a legal dispute, a more complex and significantly darker story took shape in my fertile imagination.

Every time we passed that house on the way to soft-serve, I would add a new detail, and over the course of the summer, I became convinced a malevolent force inhabited that woods: A family – mom, dad and three kids – had lived in the house until one day, the father snapped and killed everyone with a butcher knife before taking his own life with a shotgun. Everyone, that is, except for the youngest of the siblings who managed to escape into the woods and … (cue creepy music) was never heard from again.

I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, which means I was A) a pretty good storyteller for my age and B) pretty darn twisted for my age.

If I were writing this as a fiction piece, the story I conjured in my head would turn out to be accurate, and the long-missing youngest sibling would wave out to me in spectral form from the dark depths of the forest as we passed. The actual fate of the “haunted house,” however, was a bit less supernatural, if nearly as mysterious. The first trip of the following summer – ice cream places tend to close for winter in Ohio – I noticed that the lawn around the house was mowed, and the brush cut down from the porch. The next trip, the porch sported some bright new wood where the rotting timbers had been, and the windows had been replaced. Since we tended to make our ice cream runs on Sunday afternoons, I never got to see the work being done. It appeared as if the house was magically healing itself. The next time we passed, the house was painted a cheery baby blue, and the time after that, a new roof was in place. The haunted house had gone from a dark and sinister place to a cozy family home in less than a year.

I’m guessing that right about now, you are asking whether any of this has a point?

Well, it turns out that the family who did those renovations was a MOM, a DAD, and THREE CHILDREN, and what I had seen wasn’t a glimpse into a tragic past but a terrifying peek into the FUTURE … just kidding. No, if this story has a point, it’s that we tend to create narratives to explain things we don’t understand or we fear, and those narratives often follow a set of loosely defined rules we call folklore. Unfortunately, the tale of the man who goes berserk and kills his family is as old as the written word and too often not fictional.


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