Tag: halloween

The Corn Witch

The following story is found in The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts, Part II by J. Allen Randolph, published in London in 1973:

As the crisp scent of autumn permeated the chill evening air, I sat down with Mr. Martin Fleetwood on the porch of his North Carolina home. Mr. Fleetwood had been a resident of the region his entire life, over ninety years as he figured it. Here he had farmed his small plot and provided a satisfactory, if arduous, life for his family.

Mr. Fleetwood, having been privy to secrets and tall tales of the area for much of his long life, was a living archive of Americana, especially the kind that liked to lurk in dark corners and deserted country lanes. I traveled to Mr. Fleetwood’s modest home in order to hear a master storyteller “weave a yarn,” as the Americans like to say. I was not disappointed.

Of the many stories related to me, that of the Corn Witch was easily the most compelling, being a tale steeped in history and dripping with both tragedy and horror. The story of the Corn Witch begins in the early years of the century in the same part of North Carolina where Mr. Fleetwood’s family lived. I submit this story to you in Mr. Fleetwood’s own words:

“The Mathews family lived just up over the hill. Now, they were poor – we all were poor – but they were poorer than most. Mr. Mathews had been born into slavery and he took for his wife a Catawba Indian woman and some people didn’t think that was a proper way of doing things. What that meant was they didn’t get help when they needed some, so when Mr. Mathews died, why they were hard-pressed to keep the bank from taking what little land they had left.

“Now, two of the Mathews children, Zora and John, were twins and were always going about together, always getting into trouble of one kind or another. At the time they must’ve been about twelve or so; young enough to know everything. Their mother was worked up about the money trouble and some said she had turned to drink, and so, the twins were desperate to find any way they could to hold onto their daddy’s land.

“It was coming up on Hallowmas – Halloween – and there was an old story about a witch what used to live hereabouts. Folks called her the Corn Witch and it was said she could make the corn in the fields wither and die with nary but a sideways look.

“Some folks said she was up and hanged before the start of the War for the Union, and some others said she was an English woman married to a pirate what come across the sea before the Independence War, and some said she was an Indian maid cursed by the Devil, and still some others said she was older than all that, that she had been here before there was people here.

“Well, the part of the tale told ‘round these parts has it that the Corn Witch walked the fields by night, and she could bless ‘em or she could curse ‘em, depending on if she was feeling charity or spite. People back then liked to leave her little things like hard candy or rock salt or little dolls made with corn feathers, and folks said the Corn Witch would take them and make your corn grow.

“The other part of the legend said that if you caught the Corn Witch in the field, if you looked down her long nose and didn’t turn from her old warty face, why you could get her to give you a wish, just like a genie in old Araby. The thing was that you could only catch her in a field she had cursed and you could only do it on Hallowmas night, when all the ghosts and the goblins and Hell’s own went to trooping about.

“John and Zora, being kids, got it into their heads they were going to catch that there witch. Hallowmas night came and John led Zora up to the high fields, the ones that get left to themselves more oftener than not. There was a field there owned by a Mr. Freemer that did bad that year and that was where they were going to go to wait for the Corn Witch.

“It was an awful cold night and them twins had a long wait ahead of them. Now the corn field was picked clean except for a few ears here and there – food for crows – but the dead stalks were still standing row by row.

“John and Zora walked hand in hand down those rows and stepped across the dried-up husks, watching the moon get bigger and hearing the sounds of the night birds. It was sometime in the dead of the night, when it’s so cold it can’t get colder and it seems like the sun ain’t never coming back, that the Corn Witch came upon them.

“Now, this is the part of the story that folks want to hear and it’s the part of the story that can’t ever get told because no one except John and Zora can tell it and they for sure ain’t talking. This story’s got a big hole right in the spot where the heart ought to be, but it really ain’t like that at all.

“People like to get to talking about things they know, but they really love to talk about the things they don’t know. For every corn stalk in Freemer’s field, there’s a dozen stories about what happened to John and Zora Mathews that night.

“Some folks think it was the Devil himself come up and others that it was a crazed-up mountain man, but I imagine that sometime that night when the whole Earth was still and cold as a grave and you’d think it just couldn’t get any later, that John and Zora might’ve seen a ragged, black shape rise up out of the stalks and cross the night sky on an old corn broom, trailing a dirty tattered shawl behind it.

“It might’ve struck John and Zora as looking like one of Freemer’s old scarecrows before it lightly came to rest among the dead stalks. On her head she probably wore a tall, crooked hat like she was pointing one angry finger up at God, and she might’ve glared at the children with hellfire eyes from beneath that broad brim.

“So, I’d imagine it might’ve been. All I know is that, in the morning, John came down from the high fields alone. Zora was nowhere to be found from that day to this. Folks said she run off with a peddler and others in their whispering said that John had killed her and buried her up in the field.

“Now, I don’t believe hardly none of it, but I don’t know exactly what to believe if you take my meaning. December was coming up when the bank agent come to town and went up to visit the Mathews farm. John met him at the door and paid off the family debts with a fistful of old Spanish doubloons.

“The bank agent almost fainted dead away but he took it for the debt ‘cause he knew that John was overpaying. John didn’t care about that; he worked hard to help his mama and get that farm working again.

“No one in these parts had seen crops grow so fast and so well as they did on the Mathews farm the next season. Why, in a few years, John was able to buy out some of his neighbors, and by the time his mama was put in the ground, John Mathews was one of the richest men in the county.

“That sure gave people something to talk about, no doubt. They were jealous and they were petty and mean and most of all they wondered what really happened to Zora Mathews on that Hallowmas night so many years before.

‘Well, if, like me, you like to take your evening constitutions on the old country backroads, and if, like me, you don’t mind walking after the sun is down and everything is dark, and if, like me, you sometimes stop to watch the moon and listen to the music them lonesome night birds make, then you might, on nights when the air is getting chilly and the leaves are starting to fall, spy a figure behind the dried-up stalks, a small figure, ‘bout the size of a girl, wearing a big old pointed hat and torn black shawl, sweeping the rows with an old corn broom.

“They say the corn grows well in this part of the country, but I say we just know how to treat our friends. What happened to little Zora Mathews? Well, the corn needs to be planted again every year, and I’d imagine that maybe something like a Corn Witch needs to be planted again from time to time.”

 

Read more terrifying true stories of the unexplained in Scary True Stories Vol. 1 and Scary True Stories Vol. 2!

The Midnighters: All Hallows

For over thirty years, Jerry worked as a police officer in Pittsburgh. In his time on the force, Jerry had seen some bad things, some worse things, and some downright evil things. Cleaning up when people got mad or got crazy was part of the job, but there were other things that Jerry saw, things that most people never see, things that prowl the night, things that refuse to die.

I interviewed Jerry several times in 2002. The following incident is just one of the many stories Jerry shared in hours of audio recordings. I have transcribed them just as they were told to me by Jerry.

“This must’ve been about 1970 or thereabouts, right around Halloween, when Frank and me – that’s my partner, Frank – we were investigating this homicide, well, it was more like a missing persons case at that point, but we had a hunch – Frank had a hunch – that there was more to it.

“The story behind it all was that in October this girl disappeared and she used to be real friendly with Mayor Flaherty which is a big problem, right? Well, that ain’t the half of it, ‘cause the real problem was she also used to go with Johnny LaRocca who ran the gambling and girls and the whole mob there in Pittsburgh.

“So, the girl goes missing and it’s kind of a mess for all the muckety-mucks, but of course this poor girl’s family are wondering are they ever going to see her again. Well, the girl – her name was Rosie – she was last seen downtown near the Liberty Bridge with a couple of shady guys, then she just up and disappeared.

“Frank and me, we were helping out on the case on account of all the heat from the mayor’s office. I was thinking the girl skipped town or was hiding out but Frank, he was pretty sure she came to a bad end. The problem was, nobody knew where she was and the blame was going around and people were getting antsy.

“Now it’s the night before Halloween, right, and we’re all working overtime and Frank, he pulls me aside and says let’s go for a drive. I’m like, sure, I could use a coffee or something but Frank takes me up the Boulevard of the Allies there and at Grant he pulls over and he shuts off the engine.

“Now, I’m like, this is all fine, Frank, but we got work, right? But Frank, he’s just staring off and I can tell he’s got something on his mind. Frank points up at the street signs and he says, where are we, Jerry? And I say, on the Boulevard at Grant, so what? And Frank says, right, Jerry, we’re at a crossroads.

“I’m like, big whoop, so it’s an intersection, who cares? But Frank, he says, no it’s a crossroads and he tells me how a crossroads is a place where ghosts and stuff hang out or something ‘cause it’s a place between two places…I’m not really saying it right, but intersections are spooky places is all I mean.

“Then Frank says, what day is it? And I say it’s the 30th and Frank says, no, it’s after midnight, it’s Halloween. And then he tells me how on Halloween, the wall between us and them ghosts is thin, as thin as it gets all year, and sometimes you can see the ghosts.

“So, Frank had a double whammy here with it being Halloween and us being at that crossroads and I’m wondering what Frank has up his sleeve but he just tells me to wait and I say, wait for what? And Frank says, for Rosie.

“It must’ve been two hours we were on spook stakeout there and I was falling asleep and Frank gives me a nudge and points down the Boulevard and I look and there’s this mist come rolling down the street, right?

“Now, I’ve seen some heavy fog before but this was something else and it just came like a flood down the Boulevard and up over the car. Frank and me, we’re just quiet, watching and waiting, and then after a minute or so, the mist starts to thin out and then I see that, yeah, there’s people in there.

“They was moving down the street, the Boulevard, in a big group – a parade, I guess – and I say they was moving, not walking, ‘cause I didn’t really see any walking going on. They were whitish like they were covered in chalk dust or something and they were kind of see-through. I mean, they were ghosts, right?

“There must’ve been hundreds of ‘em and every kind of person, right? There were guys and ladies, adults and kids, some looked like they died yesterday and there was some looked like cavemen and must’ve died a thousand years ago.

“I saw a guy, he looked like he might be a Revolutionary War soldier, and there were lots and lots of Indians all marching together. There were men in suits and top hats and others in rags and all bloody. They just stared right ahead and kept moving down the street.”

“But there were these other ones, right? I don’t know what to call them exactly, but some were big, bigger than people ought to be, and they were black and shadowy – hard to make out – with what looked like big bat wings, and there were some were smaller, but they had these big claws and teeth and they looked more like animals than people.

“I said to Frank, what are those things? And Frank says, I got no idea, Jerry, but let’s hope they don’t notice us sitting here. And none of them did, in fact, I don’t think any of them moving down the street even looked our way once.

“I said to Frank, what are we doing here Frank? And Frank says, we’re waiting for Rosie, and I’m thinking if she ain’t dead, she ain’t here, but I know Frank thinks she is.

“Well, we watched all this go on for a good twenty minutes – longer than anybody ought to – and then Frank says, look, and he points and there in the crowd is a little figure, and I can see it’s Rosie, I recognize her from her picture, and, I mean, you know, jeez, she’s just a girl, and she’s as white as the rest of them and soaking wet from head to toe.

“Well, we watch her pass on by up the Boulevard and the whole crowd starts to thin out and then that’s it, they’re all gone with the fog. Frank and me, we’re both a little shell shocked here. I don’t think Frank even expected all that to happen, but now we know, right, now we know that Rosie’s dead and she’s in the drink somewhere, in the river.

“We can’t exactly go back to headquarters and tell ‘em what happened, but Frank fudges a bit about a tip we got and he gets them to search the Mon River there around the bridge and after a couple of days, they find her down there with a chunk of concrete tied to her legs.

“Things cooled down between the mayor and the mobster after they buried the poor girl and that makes me think they were all in on it and that girl must have known some bad stuff about everybody’s business.

“Frank and me, we never been back to that intersection – the crossroads, right – but I guess if someone wanted to, they could go down there on Halloween, wait for Rosie to walk by, and ask her what happened. Couldn’t hurt, I guess.”

 

Read more terrifying true stories of the unexplained in Scary True Stories Vol. 1 and Scary True Stories Vol. 2!

The Impostor

If there’s one thing that epitomizes the celebration of Halloween, it’s dressing up in a scary costume. The practice of trick-or-treating has a long history as a means of imitating evil spirits and placating the restless dead. Sometimes, however, traditions become unmoored from their origins and people forget their own customs; sometimes, even the evil spirits forget.

Don writes to tell me the bizarre story of one Halloween night in 1993 when something strange – stranger than usual for Halloween – came to the door. Don and his wife Kathy were home with their son Brian handing out candy to the children who came to the door.

“Brian was just thirteen then,” Don tells me, “but he thought he was too old to go trick-or-treating.” Don and Kathy took turns answering the doorbell. It was getting late and Don was about to turn out the porch light and call it a night.

“There hadn’t been a trick-or-treater for a good half hour,” Don recalls, “but near nine-thirty, there goes the bell again.”

It was Kathy’s turn to answer the door and she rose from the family room sofa. Don heard his wife grab the bowl of candy from the chair in the hallway and open the door. It was quiet for a moment and then Don heard his wife’s low fearful gasp.

“I thought it must be a doozie of a costume to give her a scare,” Don tells me.

Don set down the magazine he was reading and leaned back on the sofa to listen better. He could hear his wife nervously clearing her throat and the night sounds coming through the open door – crickets and far away traffic – but the trick-or-treater remained quiet.

Kathy broke the silence and said, “That’s quite a costume you’ve got there, young man…or young woman?” She nervously tapped the candy bowl with her fingers for a moment, seemingly waiting for a reply.

Suddenly Don heard a strangely amplified voice scream “Trick-or-treat!” It sounded like a recording played on poor quality speakers, and Don jumped up off the sofa when he heard the crash of the candy bowl as it hit the floor and shattered.

Don called to his wife and she reassured him that everything was fine, she had just dropped the bowl. Don walked to the door and he could see his wife’s back but not the trick-or-treater standing outside. As Kathy bent down to pick up the shards of porcelain, Don got his first glimpse of the costumed figure.

“Well, it was real odd,” Don remembers. “It was a mixed-up sort of costume, I guess.”

A small figure, not five feet tall, stood in a ragged brown robe, a dirty plastic bag held out in one mittened hand and a small orange box with a jack-o’-lantern face in the other. On its head, it wore a yellow-stained pillowcase with two frayed holes for eyes.

When it saw Don approach, it held up the orange box and punched a button. “Trick-or treat!” the box screeched.

Don stopped and stared for a moment, not sure if what he was seeing was a threat to his family or just a harmless kid. “I mean, not every kid gets a new costume and you make due with what you got sometimes,” Don tells me. “But this kid gave off a really weird feeling.”

Don continued to the door and got down on his knees to help his wife gather up the candy. He glanced up at the trick-or-treater. The porch light was behind and above the figure, so when Don was standing, he couldn’t see much of the face. But now, as he knelt on the floor, he could see into the ragged eye holes.

“There were the eyes and they were black, like completely black, no irises or pupils,” Don recalls. “And the skin around the eyes, I’m pretty sure it was covered in black fur, real fur.”

Don recoiled in surprise and put his hand on Kathy’s arm. She looked at Don and then slowly rose with a fistful of candy in her hand. “Trick-or-treat!” the plastic toy screamed again.

The costumed figure cocked its head slightly and Don could hear a low gurgle. Kathy held the candy in an out-stretched arm. The figure held out the plastic bag in a mirror image of Kathy.

The two stood frozen facing each other, Kathy waiting for figure to close the gap between them and the figure apparently mimicking her posture. At last Kathy stepped forward and quickly dropped the candy into the bag.

As she stepped back, the figure stepped forward, and Don, still on his knees, could see that the feet under the cloak were shoeless, but covered with the same black fur. “And they had claws, big claws,” Don tells me.

Kathy nodded at the plastic bag but the figure continued to stare at her. Suddenly Brian walked up behind his parents and said, “What’s going on? Somebody break the…”

Brian stopped when he saw the trick-or-treater at the door. The figure looked at Brian, studying him, and then grunted sharply. Rising to his feet, Don could see the black eyes widen in reaction to his son and Don began to feel very afraid.

“Well, I guess my wife has things more together than I do most of the time,” Don says. “She knew just what to do.”

Kathy took another step backwards and slowly closed the door on the strange little figure. The trick-or-treater simply stood there with the plastic bag still extended, still staring at Brian.

“Damn it if he didn’t stay there for another fifteen minutes,” Don remembers. “Every so often we’d hear that gizmo go off.”

Finally, it walked away and Don and Brian peeked through the curtains as it did. “It walked funny, kinda exaggerated,” Don recalls, “like it didn’t know how to do it right, but it was trying to imitate a person walking.”

Sharing their thoughts afterwards, Don and his family agreed that the last trick-or-treater to visit their house that Halloween night was not human. “Maybe it was a really, really good costume,” Don tells me, “but you can’t fake the feeling we all got that whatever was under that pillowcase was a monster.”

Halloween costumes represent a kind of meeting of the dead and the living, the human and the monstrous, a halfway point where recognition is exchanged. Could it be that the other side – the monstrous side – has changed the terms of the agreement and more visitors like the one that came to Don’s house are already on their way?

Or have the ghosts and goblins that come out to play on Halloween night forgotten their role in the show and are they now merely imitating what they see around them? Maybe the ancient practice of dressing-up as evil in order to conquer it has now been obscured, becoming merely the performance of a performance.

“I think my wife said it best after I kept pestering her,” Don tells me. “She said, when a monster comes to the door, you give him some damn candy and then send him home.”

 

Read more stories of the bizarre and unexplained in Scary True Stories Vol. 1 and Scary True Stories Vol. 2.

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