In the woods next to our pink split level house on the cul-de-sac of Comfort Court was an abandoned house known to the neighborhood kids as The Spook House. Most of the children in the neighborhood were forbidden to go there. But many did. It was rumored someone had fallen through the second floor and legend was that more terrible things lurked there. The boys and girls from the closely set homes in our small sub-division had grown up together, playing kickball until our parents called us in for dinner, climbing the apple trees in our back yard, and building forts in the woods while avoiding the decrepit house that seemed right out of a horror movie.
I was ten years old when my best friend Jeanne and I decided we were old enough to go see it up close for bragging rights to our bravery. It couldn’t have been more than fifty yards from my house but it felt like we were Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion approaching the witch’s castle. We crept up the path tamped down by those who had ignored the warnings and we made it to the front of The Spook House. The house was boarded up except for a broken first floor window. The only color around the drab peeling house was a flowering purple lilac bush left by its long gone owners. Peeking inside I could see an ancient wooden wheelchair and some dusty books on the floor. My heart raced. I was a 50 pound sissy who slept with a nightlight. Jeanne repeated the tale her older brother, Rusty, had told her. He said a ghost lived in the house and that if we looked up to the second floor window we might see her waving. Knees trembling, I looked up and I thought I saw a pale, disembodied hand waving slowly up and down. I ran the whole way home wondering if I’d actually seen that horrifying apparition or if my mind was playing tricks on me.
Jeanne and I stayed far from that house after that. But the frights weren’t contained to the dark woods. They were right there in plain sight. As we all grew up I learned to be wary of other things. The rambunctious boy, Chris, who lived behind our house, pushed me down one day and I came home with bloody knees. I learned to stay away from him. When we were twelve and finally allowed to go to the bus stop alone, there were more opportunities for his torment. As I stood one morning with Jeanne, he and another rough boy from the development threw coins towards me. I stared at the pennies as they spun around and landed on the sidewalk. I had a bad feeling it was a set-up.
“Pick up the pennies,” said Stephen, a pale, freckled hooligan with a crew cut and glasses.
“Why should I? I don’t want them,” I said.
He looked at me with a mean glint. “Don’t Jews like money?”
My face paled. A few kids laughed. The bus pulled up and I got in and walked to the back. I slumped into a seat and tried to make myself invisible. I learned to fear the monsters at the bus stop. I dragged my feet to miss the bus or got stomach-aches and stayed home. I dreaded going to my locker at school where a group of bullies would find me and harass me about my looks, my friends, my religion. I stopped playing outside after school. Mercifully, my body summoned a case of Mono and I spent weeks at home recovering my health and my confidence. After only a month back at school my parents announced we were moving to another town. I’d like to think it was because of my problems and the anti-semitic neighbors, but in reality they were motivated by the horror of sharing one bathroom with three daughters. Nevertheless, I was glad for the escape route.
Several years ago, I was in the area and curious to see my old street. The Spook House was long gone — replaced with a white Colonial and green lawn. I am not haunted by that vision of a waving hand. I am sure I imagined it. I know I did not imagine the terrorizing of the real phantoms. It turned out the scariest things didn’t live in the crumbling empty houses. They resided in the pretty painted houses. I don’t like scary movies. But I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. Sometimes the most frightening things happen in broad daylight.