Reflections on looking for the ghosts and ghouls of October

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

Halloween is just around the bend and soon children will be bouncing from door to door, begging for candies and sweets, avoiding the dentist’s house because he gives out toothbrushes and such.

College students will be gathering at parties, playing games, enjoying the company of peers and trying to freak each other out, occasionally answering the door for a group of kids who has strayed from the accepted trick-or-treating route.

Halloween has grown in popularity through the last few decades for one simple reason.

It’s fun to be scared.

Psychologists tell us we need the adrenaline rush and that we get that feeling from roller coasters and scary movies, but most people don’t care about that.

They just want the scare.

From the time we’re children, hiding under the sofa after seeing the ghost pirates on the Garfield Halloween special, we seek out that ever elusive big scare.

The problem is that we find ourselves harder and harder to scare as we get older.

The thrills get more and more expensive and the chills get harder and harder to find.

Fortunately, we in South Dakota are blessed with a bevy of options to pursue on a cold October evening. When searching for the perfect scare, ghosts and goblins may be in your own backyard.

Anyone who grew up in a small town knows that there’s always at least one spooky old house out in the country that’s “haunted.”

Usually a closer explanation of this house yields nothing but the hallucinations of high schoolers who’ve had a bit too much beer, but a night exploring a crumbling structure is always a good time.

However, every so often someone stumbles across a house that seems to drip pure evil.

This house rises from the prairie like a dark sphinx, daring all who pass to enter it, chortling at those who are too frightened by its ominous presence.

Often, one wishes that the house came complete with walls that dripped blood and its own pipe organ refrain, but life seldom works like the movie and intrepid explorers, flashlights in hand, must trip over rotting boards and old junk that once belonged to some loving family long ago on a quest to find the scary truth.

If one talks to friends long enough over hot chocolate, the wind tapping at the windows and the howl of the dog across the street sounding more and more like a wolf with every passing minute, one unlocks stories, seizing hold of small threads of story and drawing forth whole tapestries of imagination.

As the warm cocoa spreads slowly over one’s digestive system, a friend talks of the time they spent the night in a haunted building and heard footsteps tapping across the floor above them, faces white with fear, breath shivering in the suddenly chill air.

A silence falls over the group, hanging in the air and forming icicles. Someone says, “Oh yeah? Well …” and the storytelling starts up again.

Talk long enough with any of the instructors at SDSU who have been here for over 15 years and you’ll slowly learn of the numerous supposedly haunted buildings on campus.

Access to these buildings is easy, provided you can avoid the janitorial staff and a night spent there can offer chills, even if they are of the “what’s that sound?!” variety.

To walk into that haunted house with the peeling wallpaper is to fight back against that which we don’t understand and to struggle against the imponderables of our final destination.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe we all come back from the dead to haunt the living or we jump on an express train to Heaven or Hell; a haunted house is scary precisely because we don’t know what happens after death.

And we won’t know for some time to come.

Write to Todd VanDerWerff at [email protected].