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Horror movies don’t scare me anymore, so I read ghost stories on Reddit

Horror movies don’t scare me anymore, so I read ghost stories on Reddit

Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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I’ve never seen a ghost. I don’t want to see a ghost. That doesn’t stop me from asking everyone I meet if they’ve seen a ghost. I don’t have strong beliefs about it. I’m not skeptical. I just want to hear about it. And I want to be scared. Because I like being scared. And, as much as I enjoy horror movies and TV and books, it’s not because I find them scary. They’re entertainment. They’re jack-in-the-boxes. I clap with joy when the clown appears. When I want to be scared, I want to hear a ghost story. A real one. And since campfires are in short supply these days, I go on Reddit.

r/Ghoststories isn’t a revelation. If you’ve spent any time on Reddit, you’ve probably been there, if not the abundance of other threads where folks share “true” stories of hauntings, aliens, unexplained phenomena, and brushes with serial killers. Or perhaps you’ve visited r/NoSleep or r/CreepyPasta, two popular communities where writers pen fictional, sometimes great stories of terror. But I prefer r/Ghoststories. The disclaimer is what wins me over: “This is a subreddit strictly for posting real paranormal experiences, not fictional stories that you have created.”

Not an ironclad guarantee of authenticity, obviously, but what is in this realm? It’s not as if there exists any objectively true stories of hauntings—if there did, there would be no need to prove they exist, which is part of the fun of believing in ghosts. Besides, it’s easy to tell what’s crafted and what’s earnest in places like r/GhostStories. Some are just silly—“The day I had a 5 pound bag of marbles thrown at my head by something” is the title of one recent post; “Spirit conformation by dog” reads another—and others are just too elaborate, as if the author is sketching it to the beats of traditional horror. Just look for a narrative, or an emotional peg—if the ghost you saw is wearing the clothes of your papaw, I’ll assume you’re making it up, or at least tailoring it into something that brings you comfort instead of terror. If you can’t explain what you saw, on the other hand, or aren’t even trying to explain what you saw, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If your post is filled with misspellings and vague, unformed descriptions, I’m rapt.

Take “Bible Camp,” a story posted just last week. It’s filled with spelling errors, casual turns of phrase, and non-detailed descriptions of stuff recounted to the author by their uncle. The author describes a religious camp for children from troubled homes, saying the camp “has had many creepy things happen there because these kids bring shit from there homes to there and that shit fucks with the kids.” This includes kids seeing “figures in the windows and in the bathrooms,” and one little girl who no one knew wandering through the bunks.

There’s also this, which was submitted into the annual frenzy of scary stories solicited by The A.V. Club’s sister site Jezebel. Like r/Ghoststories, the site demands the stories be true and, though plenty of this year’s entries raise red flags in that department, I’m completely, utterly unnerved by this woman recalling a strange figure demanding to be let into her home from both the front and back doors, simultaneously. Later, she writes about a neighbor who apparently went through a similar situation, but the nature of it all is deliciously murky. In the comments, the author chats with those responding, readily acknowledging she has no clue what happened.

Both are simple, hazy, and incomplete, as if glimpsed through a smeared lens. There’s no lesson, no catharsis, no coherent link to a larger mythology. My acquaintances and friends who’ve had experiences recall their own hauntings similarly, and have even admitted to spicing them up for company, lest it not impress the curious.

But it’s the banality that makes them interesting. When you go see It Chapter 2 or Annabelle Comes Home, you know what you’re in for—the environment is set, the groundwork laid, and the jump-scare stings turned up to 11. Modern horror, both in the indie and mainstream realms, consists mostly of set pieces in which a fuse is lit and allowed to simmer before detonating into a storm of shrieking chaos. Though you can find an ephemeral dread in the work of filmmakers like Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar), and Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House), their films nevertheless exist in a medium that demands elaboration, be it in a narrative or a thematic sense. They’re wonderful—and scarier than most—but I’m drawn to the banal horror, the hauntings so brief and odd that they drift almost immediately into the subconscious, only to rise as you stare at the headlights crisscrossing your ceiling some sleepless night.

You can find this kind of horror on screen. There’s the infamous dog-man blowjob in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, for example, which Shelley Duvall’s Wendy stumbles upon as The Overlook falls into supernatural madness. Those who’ve read the novel get it, but the majority don’t, and that’s all for the better. It’s a moment that screams for context, and the fact that is has none in the film is what keeps it wedged in our brains.

I also think of Halloween II and the child with the razor blade in his mouth—there’s no reason for it, only the implication that somewhere beyond the orbit of Michael Myers is a monster sinking razors into bits of candy. Or the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which begins with Robert Duvall, dressed as a priest, swinging in a playground with some children. It’s just a cameo, but it’s hard not to sense something sinister about it, especially when we never see him again. I think of Heather Donahue screaming “What the fuck is that?!” at something we never see in The Blair Witch Project, the drunk randomly cackling at the gravestone at the beginning of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, anything David Lynch has ever made. Something is wrong, and we don’t know what.

I read about Morrow Road on the internet. I was in high school and my friends and I drove from the suburbs of Detroit to Algonac. There’s a bridge there, and they said if you stop your car on it, turn off the ignition, and honk the horn three times, you’ll see a ghost: a woman approaching their car in a light blue nightgown, her hands covered in blood. Some say she’ll ask after her lost baby. Some say you can hear the baby crying. Sometimes your car won’t start. Sometimes glowing orbs descend from the trees and follow you home.

But we couldn’t find Morrow Road. Driving through the dim, abandoned streets of the town, we saw a woman standing in a phone booth in the parking lot of a gas station. We pulled up, asked her where Morrow Road was. She didn’t know. “Never heard of it.” She needed a ride, though. We gave her one. As we drove away, we noticed the phone booth had no phone in it.

Lacking Google Maps in this pre-smartphone age, we started driving home. That’s when the girl began giving us directions. “But we thought you’d never heard of Morrow Road,” we said. She shook her head, calm. “My best friend lived on Morrow Road,” she said. “We used to ride our bikes here.”

We drove on, slowly approaching the bridge. We sat there, idling in silence. We put the car in park. “You have to turn it off,” she told him. “You have to turn the car off.” We turned off the car. We rolled down the windows. We honked. Once. Twice. Three times. The blare echoed through the air. We waited, for the cries. For bloody hands. For orbs. Instead, we heard something else. Very distant. The sounds of shouting, chanting, laughing.

We started the car. Pebbles flew under the tires. We burned down Morrow Road, our headlights bouncing. And on our left, in a spacious clearing, was a giant bonfire, at least 30 feet high. We slowed. We looked. A dozen or kids, roughly our age, were dancing around the fire, stripped down to their underwear.

I’ve been tempted to embellish that story, because, well, that’s it. We drove the girl home. She lived with her parents in Center Line. She’d been at a party and done a little cocaine and that’s why she was scattered, she said. The kids in the woods were… just kids, probably. It was warm out. But I scoured message boards in the aftermath. I read other people’s Morrow Road accounts. I wondered what was real and what wasn’t. And when you’re dealing with ghosts (or, for that matter, the internet), it’s easy to believe everything is true or everything is not. It was during that digital dive that I realized I’m not sure what I believe. Did we experience something, despite not encountering anything supernatural? Because it still feels that way.

I grew up a terrified kid. For years, I couldn’t sleep until my parents came upstairs to go to bed. I saw shadows in the corner. I heard noises in the closet. One night, I swear I felt something grab my leg from the right side of the bed—my feet dangled off the left side for years afterward. Every creak or shift or odd glint of light was threatening. My parents told me it was the “house settling,” but, now that I’m older, I realize even more how little those words actually mean. That’s not to say that what I heard were ghosts, but rather that I never got a good reason as to why they weren’t, aside from the fact that “they don’t exist.” You can say that, and you can unspool some scientific theories regarding carbon monoxide or low-frequency sound, but you can’t expect people to listen.

I’m reminded, hilariously, of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, a series perhaps best known for muscular, ghost-hunting ghost-bros. I unashamedly love Ghost Adventures, not because I believe that every shadow and scrap of static they capture is a spirit, but because I believe that they believe it. (If you doubt me, listen to host Zak Bagans on Talk Is Jericho.) Try as they might to build narratives around what they discover—and they do—the show is always best when it stumbles upon something that doesn’t suit the story of the location they’re investigating. To me, it seems what we perceive to be ghosts are as unknowable and immune to pattern as I imagine a holy deity to be. If one bit of “evidence” doesn’t check out, does that invalidate the rest? Believing in ghosts, I imagine, isn’t unlike believing in God—there will never be proof, only subjective experience.

Which brings me back to Reddit. There, in these chunky, unadorned blocks of text, I find people who feel as if they’ve touched upon something otherworldly, and from it are trying to foster some kind of connection, be it through validation or comfort. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I relate because I know that sensation of not-knowing, of sensing that something is somehow wrong and not being able to grasp why. Outside of the long nights I spent listening for creaks in the walls, the night on Morrow Road was the most scared I think I’ve ever been. I don’t really get it, but revisiting it brings me an odd kind of nostalgia for a moment I felt connected to something larger.

“Someone keeps calling me” reads the title of a post from a few weeks back. It goes:

For the past few years when I am home alone I swear I hear someone calling me. But when I go to look there is nobody and everything is quiet. Or when I am wearing earphones I hear someone or something calling out my name but again there is no one. It gives me the chills everytime [sic] and I sometimes feel watched.

Is it true? Maybe. But I believe it. I believe it because I believe they believe it. And that scares me.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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