A Brush with Evil
Recently I was reading a very disturbing book by Harold Schechter about a man he described as “America’s most fiendish murderer.” This man did a number of really terrible things in New York City in the 1920s, but I was surprised to discover, at the end of the book, that he committed most of his atrocities in an old house in a small village in the Hudson Valley. In my very own village! He killed people not five minutes away from where I live and if that’s not horrifying enough, he threw his weapons into the woods. Most of them have been discovered, but there is still an ax out there in the woods where I walk. Of course all this happened long before I came on the scene, and yet I found it changed the way I viewed my peaceable woods. That led me to ask my fellow Miss Demeanors: Have you ever had a brush with evil? And this is what they said: Paula: Great story, Susan. From my research for my mystery there are some 40,000 remains scattered across the woods and fields of this country, and those are just the ones we know about…. For my story, I must go back to my childhood in Germany in the late Sixties, where my Army father was stationed and our family lived outside the city of Mainz. I loved taking my little poodle on the trolley into town, where I would wander around and buy African violets and trinkets and visit the statue of Gutenberg. I was about 10 years old, a friendly blue-eyed blonde girl who spoke enough German to comport myself fairly well as the little ambassador my parents told me I was supposed to be. But when an old man on the trolley cornered me and started lecturing me on the glories of the Nazis, I got very, very scared. No one else on the trolley stepped forward to help me, so I got off the trolley with my dog and ran away from the old man. When I felt it was safe to go back, I got back on the trolley with my dog and went home and I never ventured into the city alone again. Tracee: Paula, that really made me sad. How terrible for him to have destroyed such a simple pleasure (plus they lost a great little ambassador!) On to the Q:I grew up in a house built in 1822, which is old for western Kentucky, and my father liked to tell stories of people (generic people) who would have lived and died there. For example it was used as a hospital in the Civil War and apparently he thought that talking about that…. and how soldiers would have been treated and perhaps died ‘right there in our bedrooms!’ was a good bedtime story.My mother put a stop to that. To be fair we weren’t scared and thought it was pretty interesting. Years and years later, in fact recently, my dad came downstairs one morning and said he had a terrible and vivid dream about a baby named Dot who was dead. He shared details of the dream (many of which I don’t remember) but she had died in the house. Later that week my sister was going through a box of photographs that she’d uncovered and found a very old photo with a large family seated in front of the house (truly early photography) and on the back were their names including that of Dorothy, “Baby Dot” and it was noted she died right after the photo was taken. My dad was a little shaken and it was actually all very strange. We weren’t familiar with those photographs, they were a collection given to us by a local historian. For a few days we were all on edge, but it really didn’t change the house for us. I’d like to think that the house has a memory and that we share it. (Although mention Baby Dot at any time and we will all get a little pale.) Robin: I’ve had to deal with living human evil personally and professionally quite a bit so I’ll tell a fun story instead. My parents had close friends that lived in one of the original Craftsman houses in the Oakland Hills in the SF Bay Area at a time when my family lived out of state. We went to stay with the couple for a weekend visit when I was probably around 8 or 9 years old. The husband told my brother and I to expect to hear or see strange things but not to worry about it. He said the house was haunted by the man who owned the house first who died in the master bedroom. The man didn’t like kids for some reason so his ghost tried to scare any kids that came over. We thought he was joking until all of the adults went outside. My brother and I were at a table in the kitchen eating a snack. One side of the room had windows facing a deck that had a spectacular view of San Francisco, the other end opened into a hallway with stairs to the left that led up to the bedrooms, living room to the right. While we sat at the table we could see our parents and their friends on the deck while we heard the stairs creak inside the house. The creaking grew in intensity until it sounded like someone stomping up and down the stairs. I was ready to run outside to the safety of the adults but my brother wanted to stay in the kitchen to see if anything else would happen. He’s a year older than me so, of course, I listened to him. I guess the ghost decided to step it up a notch. A few minutes after the stomping stopped, the cabinet doors in the kitchen started swinging open and closed. A few times they slammed so hard it got the attention of the adults outside. They came in to see what was going on and all the spooky stuff stopped. My brother and I babbled about what happened and my parents’ friends said, “The ghost is just trying to scare you into leaving. But don’t worry, he can’t hurt you.” Then all the adults had a good laugh. I don’t think my dad believed any of it until that evening when his friends made dinner. Drawers opened by themselves if my brother or I were in the room. The couple who lived there just closed the drawers and continued about their business as if it wasn’t unusual. I stayed close to the grown-ups for the rest of the weekend. Alexia: I’ve had four, fortunately brief, brushes with pure evil (as opposed to merely not particularly nice). 1. I worked as a nurse’s aide at a rehab center as part of a summer program for pre-med students. I lived in the on campus dorm. We were within walking distance of a shopping mall and I didn’t have a car. The rehab center was in a safe, suburban area so some Saturdays I’d make the short walk to the mall by myself. Usually, uneventful. One time, as I walked past the bus stop a well-dressed, older (mid-50s) man got out of his sports car and politely asked me if I needed a ride anywhere. Middle of the day, suburban bus stop, guy’s waiting for a random woman to come by so he could offer her a ride. Not waiting for someone in particular, not in an urban area, not after dark, not in an area “frequented by known prostitutes”. My animal brain’s assessment: serial rapist/killer until proven otherwise. I said, just as politely, ” No, thank you,” quickened my pace, and made careful note of his polo shirt and khakis so I could give a description to the police if any women turned up missing. 2. I opened my door to a magazine salesman (one of the twenty-somethings who work for those shady programs where they go door-to-door in the summer and try to sell you overpriced subscriptions to magazines nobody reads). I could practically read his mind as he considered if he was going to try to get more from me than a subscription. Fortunately, he was with a partner who was bored and wanted to leave ASAP so I gave him the glass of water he asked for, lied and said I wouldn’t cancel the subcription I agreed to, and he left with his buddy. 3. An obviously drunk guy showed up at my door with his equally drunk buddy and claimed he had car trouble and wanted to use my phone. I had a dog who was 100% harmless (she would have played with Satan if he’d had a treat in his pocket) but she had markings that made her look like a Rottweiler. I held her in front of me so the guys could see her through the storm door. She, of course, jumped and pulled at her collar, thinking these creeps wanted to play with her but they assumed she wanted to eat them so they went away. 4. I had a patient who told me he was possessed by a demon. He told me (reluctantly, not boastfully) of the truly horrendous things he’d done to others under the influence of the demon and to himself (while in prison for the horrific crimes he’d committed) in an effort to exorcise the demon. Think of the worst form of self-mutilation a man could commit. He did that. He described all the treatments, medical and religious, he’d undergone. He’d been through all of them. Nicotine was all that seemed to keep the demon under control. The whole time I was talking to him a vibe filled the exam room that I can only describe as evil. Not anger at the man for what he’d done but actual evil, like something was inside him and I’d better be careful not to let my guard down or I’d find out first-hand that demons do exist. It was just like a scene from The Exorcist or The Omen or similar movie when you want to yell GTFO at the guy on-screen who’s about to get up close and personal with spinning heads and projectile vomit. I had the same sensation on the few occasions I’ve suffered “hag-riding” (hyponagogic hallucinations and transient sleep paralysis, scientifically speaking) and been convinced in the moment that a demon was circling my bed. (I wouldn’t wish hag-riding on anyone.) I focused on the patient’s physical issues instead of the spiritual ones and referred him to a cardiologist. The cardiologist’s report came back with the advice for the patient to “keep smoking”. All of these encounters occurred in brightly lit, “nice,” safe suburban locations. I’ve walked through downtown Dallas in the dark, ridden trains through ghettos that looked like war zones, and done mission work in Honduras and never felt as unsafe as I did in those situations. Probably why I hate the suburbs. I’m always on edge, like I’m waiting for the really evil, twisted sh*t to happen. Cate: I don’t really believe in evil. I think people do horrible things because of the circumstances that they are put in or have been put through, the values (or lack thereof) in their society and social groups, and, sometimes, because of severe mental defect. That said, the closest I probably came to a bad person was when I was a young reporter. Like all the rookies, I was on the weekend rotation. Once every couple months, I had to work breaking news on a Saturday and Sunday in addition to covering my usual beat. Often, breaking meant bleeding. Much of the weekend work involved listening to police scanners and going wherever the cops said they’d head next. One day, I’m listening to the scanner and there is a bunch of loud chatter about a building in Paterson. Apparently, a would-be robber broke into a Pennsylvania home, surprising the children and babysitter. He shot them all and fled to a Paterson, NJ, housing project. My editor sent me to the building. Somehow, I arrived in the courtyard outside the buildings before the police cars. The sun was slipping beyond the horizon and the sky had a deep purple tinge to it, like a fresh bruise. A group of large, young men openly smoked joints as thick as cuban cigars and threw dice against a brick exterior. I walked over to them with all the bravado of a 21-year-old cub reporter armed with a notepad and press pass dangling from a lanyard, and asked what they thought of the police helicopters overhead. They looked at me like an extra for another film had wandered onto the wrong set. “Apparently, this guy killed a babysitter and shot two children,” I said, trying not to betray my nervous excitement. “He fled into this housing complex. Are you afraid to go inside?” Maybe it was a stupid question to ask a bunch of large men who didn’t seem to care that marijuana was, technically, illegal and that their building was being monitored by police helicopters. But I thought it made sense. It’s one thing to look intimidating to a hundred fifteen pound woman fresh out of college covering her first “murder.” It’s another to face down a real, armed man who’d killed a teenager and two kids. The guys told me that “no they weren’t scared to go into their building.” Then one asked if I was scared, letting his eyes roll over my cheap skirt suit in a way that suggested maybe my reporter’s badge didn’t give me any special powers to wander into his neighborhood. I took the pretty blatant hint and retreated to the side of the apartment complex to call my editor. “There are police helicopters overhead, but the cops aren’t here yet and the guys in front of the building basically told me to get lost.” “Okay. Well, can you go inside the building and see if you see anything?” My editor was a large dude, outweighing me by at least a hundred and fifty pounds. It seemed like a job for him to go inside a building with an armed murderer and a gang of men outside who’d basically just told me to get the heck out of there. Not me. “Um. You know. It’s getting dark and I don’t feel great about going into a building housing an alleged murderer when the police aren’t even here.” “Well, that’s how you get the story. But, if you’re frightened… I felt awful. But I was still too scared to go into that building. “I guess, maybe, I’m not cut out to be a cop reporter.” When I went back, I called the police and got some on the record quotes, feeling ashamed of myself for being a wimp. Weeks later, I was having drinks with some colleagues and they all told me about the time the big, burly editor was beat up inside the same building by a gang of guys for asking too many questions. When I tell this story now, I wonder, who was the bad guy? Michele: A brush with evil you ask?How about standing outside the bedroom door of your two children, both under the age of three, and feeling the hands of a man tighten around your neck until you see stars and think you are going to die and leave your babies helpless?Or feeling the cold nozzle of a gun taken from the top of your copper tone refrigerator and held against your temple?Finding every pair of pants in your closet has had the crotch slashed?Having your back door broken down and landing on the kitchen table sending the Cheerios in your children’s bowls flying into the air, never to be forgotten?All at the hands of your now dead ex-husband, who was a cop.Evil doesn’t just exist in cities or suburbs. Evil can be disguised as adoration that once inside your heart and home becomes deadly. Alison: Beyond the inexplicable personal evil Michele described so horrifically, I think there are ways of organizing societies that can nurture evil (and, conversely, can nurture compassion). I had an experience as a kid in Germany like Paula did. A neighbor down the street used to talk about the good old days when you could leave your bike on the street and not worry about having it stolen. Then, when I studied in the Soviet Union, a friend told me about the neighbors who used to disappear in the night. Being the naïve girl I was, I asked why people didn’t “do” something about it. His response is one I’ll never forget: “Fear. You don’t understand the power of fear.” Then, of course, I’ve always been bothered by stories in the Book of Mormon where the “good guys” use deadly violence. I’m not a fan of anything that glorifies taking a life.Political, philosophical and religious belief systems that worry me tend to have three things in common: (1) a claim there’s only one true and good way to live; (2) it, whatever belief system “it” is, is that one way; and (3) there’s no room for variation.I know that doesn’t directly answer your question, Susan, but that’s all I have. Paula: Wow. No wonder we all write crime fiction, where we can ensure that justice is served. One way or another. Robin: I have long maintained writing crime fiction is therapy. It’s a world we can control where justice prevails, one way or another.The answers to this question make me prouder than ever to be a Miss Demeanor.