The full moon doesn’t change anything, in case you were wondering.
It’s a common question. Folks often ask me if I notice a surge in deaths and/or strange behavior on a full moon. I was frequently asked this as a paramedic as well, and the answer is disappointingly mundane. No, I have never noticed any marked up-swings in weirdness when I have worked during the full moon. But maybe that’s only because every day is pretty fucking weird when you shepherd the dead for a living.
That said, people (and their behaviors) are still affected by such things as seasons, dates, superstitions and so on. For example, as I write this… it’s October. People start believing all kinds of insane shit during October. For 31 days of the year, the occult is TOTALLY legit, burning sage is absolutely a reliable method for dealing with evil spirits and Ouija-boards get better reception than the iphone 6. People are very susceptible to suggestion like that. In a similar fashion, no one wants to be single on Valentine’s Day, people turn wildly patriotic on the 4th of July, and everyone was Scottish after they saw “Braveheart”.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the page that I got from the office: “Rachel Smith called and wants information on a death in her house. I didn’t know what to tell her.”
I read the message just as I was about to eat lunch and I was somewhat reluctant to call this Rachel person back before I ate… since it really wasn’t lunch, it was breakfast… that had turned into lunch since it was now 1 p.m. and instead of eating, I had spent my whole morning trying to thread through the death of an elderly gentleman who had been living in his friend’s garage. (It’s not as weird as it sounds… or maybe it IS as weird as it sounds. I guess this would be a perfect example of how weird stuff doesn’t really strike me as weird anymore. So for those of you who didn’t know… people totally live in garages… and die in them, too)
I glanced down at the lukewarm egg burrito that lay in my lap as I sat, parked outside a Home Depot. This phone call could de-rail my day in all kinds of ways. The message was too unspecific to be able to predict what, exactly, this Rachel person wanted. Sure, she as looking for “information” about a death in her house, but that could mean anything. She might be calling with questions about the passing of her grandmother that took place a week ago, or she may be a complete psycho who’s calling to let us know she had just axe-murdered someone in her basement…. after all, OCTOBER
I decided to throw caution… and my burrito… to the wind. (literally, I ejected it from the window, bestowing my blessing upon whatever wild animal or homeless person found and consumed it. Once the melted cheese congeals back into a solid clump, I consider burritos a loss) I dialed the number for “Rachel” and cleared my head of all expectation. She could hit me with her best shot, as far as I was concerned. Bring on the weird, I was ready.
“Hello?” came Rachel’s cautious voice when she answered my call. (The cell phone I use for work always comes up as “blocked” on caller ID, so it’s not unusual for people to be a bit hesitant to answer.)
“Hi, this is the Oswald County Medical Examiner,” I said in a chipper tone. “I’m returning a call to Rachel.”
“Oh…. Oh!” Rachel sounded surprised. People often do. I figure they don’t expect a call back from an actual person. Moreover, they don’t expect a call back from a woman, let alone a happy one.
“Right…. um… okay….” Rachel stuttered as though she wasn’t sure where to start. It seemed like she needed a little help.
“So the message said you were looking for information on a death in your home,” I began. “What was it that you wanted to know. Has someone died there today?”
It’s not a crazy question. Fairly often people have an elderly relative living with them who is fixing to take the long dirt-nap. When that elderly relative is found dead one morning, having passed away in their sleep, no one wants to call 911 because it’s not exactly an emergency, but all the same… they feel like they ought to call someone…
However, that was not the case with Rachel…
“No, no… that’s not… um… I was wondering if there was a way to find out…if there ever was… ummm.”
I was starting to get a feel for where she was going with this.
“What I mean is…” Rachel stumbled on, “Is there a way to find out…”
I could have helped her out, but I wanted to hear her say it.
“Is there a way to find out if someone died in my house?” she finally spat it out.
I sat there for a moment.
“I don’t understand.” I said to her, a blatant lie. I understood perfectly well and I could have just told her the truth… that the medical examiner’s office doesn’t track deaths using an address. The only means I have to look up a death is either by a decedent’s name or the date of their passing. But I wasn’t letting her off the hook that easy. It had been a shitty morning in a smelly garage and she was the one who had decided to march her particular brand of crazy right up to my door and knock. I felt the human race owed me a bit of cheap entertainment.
“Well,” she sighed. “Weird things have been happening in my house. My kids have been having really bad nightmares. So have I. And we’re all having the same dreams. It’s like we’re terrified to be there all the time. Things fly off the walls, there are strange noises at night…” She kept talking. I don’t remember all of the haunting evidence she offered, but she was stalwartly convinced the netherworld had it in for her and her family. I let her get it all out before giving her the bad news.
“Ma’am, how old is your house?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not actually MY house. We rented it from this guy but he died recently. His son is the legal owner now and we can’t get a hold of him at all. I guess it was built sometime in the 60’s.” She sounded hopeful, like she thought having an ‘older’ house would support her claim. And she was right… in a way.
“Well, the problem is this,” I began. “If your house is more than 20 years old, I can all but guarantee that at some point SOMEONE has died there. I mean, people die, right? And they often do it in their house.”
It’s the gods’ truth. Whoever and wherever you might be as you read this, chances are a human being passed through the veil somewhere within 20 yards of your current location.
Rachel was silent… as people tend to be when they come up against the fact that dying is actually quite a common activity that people engage in regularly. Right now I imagine anyone reading this is glancing nervously around them, wondering how many specters just watched them pick their nose… or recite witty come-backs in their bathroom mirror… or dance around the living room to “Call Me Maybe.”
“No. No, that’s not what I mean,” she snapped. Rachel didn’t like my answer at all, but not for the reasons one would think. Some might balk at the notion that people are dying all willy-nilly and with no respect for the general public. But not Rachel. She simply wasn’t satisfied with any old commonplace death. The idea that her home was haunted by a kindly old man who was shuffling around looking for his pipe was downright insulting. She was hoping for something spectacular and memorable. Rachel wanted a human sacrifice or a serial killer.
Rachel told me as much as she explained her suspicions. Something terrible must have happened in their house because the entire family was experiencing such prolific mental and emotional torment that the only feasible explanation had to be metaphysical.
I can’t really say that her argument was all that compelling. Her case wasn’t helped by the fact that periodically she would, without warning, interrupt our conversation by screaming at her children to take the cigarettes away from the baby or quit trying to light the dog on fire… again.
All the same, her story snagged my interest. I must confess to being both a horror movie aficionado and a randomly superstitious soul. I don’t put much store in horoscopes or palm readers. But I do believe that one shouldn’t dis-count the unknown. I’ve been spooked from time to time. I’ve caught motion out of the corner of my eye when I’ve been alone in the morgue… alone, that is, except for the sheet-wrapped corpses that seem to almost writhe under their shrouds when my eyes are velvet-thick with exhaustion. I’ve been on scenes where little inexplicable icy fingers of fear have tickled up and down my spine. And I can’t deny it, some places… some death have just felt… weird. It’s a slithering, enigmatic uneasiness that hangs in the air like the smoke of an extinguished cigarette. I can’t explain it or predict it. But I feel it… and the police do, too. In such cases we, almost instinctively, arrange ourselves with our backs to the wall and stand close together. Our eyes dart from corner to shadowed-corner, watching for the oncoming assault like mice dropped into a cage that smells distinctly like a snake. No one admits it. No one just out-and-out says, “Jesus Christ, it’s SPOOKY in here.” But we all know.
Perhaps that’s why I found myself curious, if not downright sympathetic regarding Rachel’s problems… that and it was, of course, October.
Against my better judgement, I started asking Rachel questions. How long had this been going on? What sort of dreams, exactly, was everyone having? How long had they lived there? Had anything unusual happened that seemed to set these events in motion? Had anyone found a creepy old Latin book in the basement and decided to read it out loud? Had someone been farting around with a Ouija board and accidentally conjured a demon? (I’m just kidding, I didn’t ask those last two questions. But I felt like I was reading out of a script from a horror movie as the conversation went on.) As it turned out, Rachel had been living there for about 3 years with her family. The paranormal phenomena had started about 1 year ago and it all pretty much sounded like your typical vengeful spirit malarky. Random items would go missing and then turn up, quite decidedly, NOT where they had been left. Everyone had been having incredibly gruesome and violent dreams. The children were always nervous, exhausted and complaining that they hated being at home. They didn’t like it there. They were scared, etc etc.
I scribbled down all the information on a napkin and told Rachel I would call her back. She thanked me extensively for not blowing her off, ending the conversation with, “I’m so glad someone BELIEVES me!”
“‘Believe’ might be stretching it a little bit…” I mumbled to myself as I stared at the napkin in my lap. I think it might be more accurate to say I was vaguely amused by Rachel’s tale of terror and I decided that her situation was far more entertaining than the blizzard of paperwork that I really should have been working on rather than listening to a bad re-telling of the movie “Poltergeist”
Then again, you never know…
She had me, I had to admit it. I’m a sucker for a good story… and now apparently I was a sucker for a mediocre story. I couldn’t help but savor the possibility that I might stumble upon one of those cases you only hear about on those unexplained-mystery shows. I gloated over the strangeness of it all as I flicked through the directory on my cell phone looking for dispatch. Just because OUR office didn’t keep track of addresses, didn’t mean NO ONE did. Often, when on the scene of a possible homicide or overdose, the police will run what’s referred to as a “premise history”. Meaning they’ll check to see if any officers or other emergency services have been called to a particular location in the past. If so, why? Did someone call last week because their buddy was overdosing on heroin? Did the neighbors call because they heard gun-shots? The idea being, if you’re trying to figure out what happened at a certain place TODAY, it might help to know what’s been going on there for the last month. And I figured that if someone was brutally murdered at Rachel’s address… well… that’s the sort of thing that would turn up on a premise history.
“Dispatch, how can I help you,”
“Hey, this is the medical examiner, are you busy?” It’s always a good idea to ask, you never know when there’s a 5-car pile-up somewhere.
“Not really, what’s up?”
“Well…” I did my best to sound casual, and yet businesslike… just another call- nothing significant or out of line here. “I’m wondering what would be the best way to get a premise history on an address for a death I’m investigating…” … which wasn’t EXACTLY a LIE…
“Well, I can go back a year,” the dispatcher said. Not nearly far enough back for my purposes.
“Hmmmm… Well…” I did my best to make it sound like I was really considering it. “I think I need to go further back than that. Do you know if that can be done?”
“Not from my computer. But I can put you in touch with records.”
Oooh! Records! That sounded promising! “Lookit Me!” I thought “I’m a paranormal investigator!”. I dialed the number dispatch gave me and as I waited for the ubiquitous “Records” to answer the phone, my mind wandered a bit, ambling off to one of its favorite destinations in spite of itself. That location being: “What-if-this-makes-me-famous-Land”. It really wasn’t a long trip. The road is far more well traveled than I like to admit, especially since I maintain that my job, when done right, should make me virtually invisible to the public. Honestly, my goal is to intrude into people’s personal tragedies as little as possible. If, in the midst of their turmoil, they remember me at all it’s probably because I did something really stupid.
All the same, I couldn’t help imagining being interviewed by some show on the SciFi channel. “Well, at first I thought she had to be kidding,” I would tell them, smiling indulgently. “But you know, never say never. So I went ahead and looked into it, and that’s how I found out three people had been dismembered in the attic-”
“Oh… um… Hi….Mike This is the medical examiner. I need to do a premise history further than a year back. Can you help me with that?”
“Well, it depends. How far back do you need to go?”
“At least three years. Longer if possible.”
Records-Mike sighed. “Well,” he said. “How much longer is ‘longer’? Like, decades? I might need to talk to the guy who does deep records. You know, 911 calls that are still on cassette tapes and stuff. He’s only here on Wednesdays but I can leave a message for him. What’s the address.”
Wow, DEEP records,” I thought. The reality of what I was asking for waved a frantic hand in the back of my brain. “Stop now, while you’re ahead!” it seemed to signal. DEEP RECORDS might have been a bit overboard, even in the name of October. I mean, would someone have to listen to a million hours of old 911 calls? I wasn’t sure it was worth it to send the deep records guy chasing after a theoretical incident that may or may not have happened in the last 40 years. Still, rather than just bail out, I went ahead and gave Mike the address of Rachel’s haunted house. But I cautioned him to have deep-records-guy call me before anyone went traversing into the 8-track tapes of yesteryear.
I hung up and went back to the office to fiddle with my much-dreaded paperwork. I had written off hearing anything more about my alleged haunted-house until Wednesday when the DEEP RECORDS guy emerged from his sarcophagus (where I now imagined him living- surrounded by artifacts of long ago and only returning to the land of the living to retrieve batteries for his walkman) But suddenly, the phone rang. Lo and behold… it was Records-Mike.
“So I had a spare minute and I took a look at your address,” he began. “I’m not altogether sure what kinds of stuff you’re looking for, but there’s quite a bit there. I mean a lot.”
“Really…” I said, trying to sound casual. “Like what?”
“Well I’m looking at seventeen separate domestic disturbance calls. SEVENTEEN.”
“Wow,” I marveled. “What kind of disturbances?”
“Oh, everything. You name it. I’ve got neighbors calling about shouting coming from the house. I’ve got a drunk boy-friend making a scene in the front yard, I’ve got a bunch of drunken-disorderlies on the mom… and that’s just this year…”
“Yeah, seventeen domestics in the last year. They’re nothing too serious. Looks like just petty stuff. No arrests or anything but… I mean DAMN. It’s on like Donkey Kong in that place. You want me to keep going?”
Rachel said she’s lived there for the last three years
“No, Mike. I think we’re good. Thanks!”
“Anytime, I’ts what we do.”
My phone call back to Rachel was brief. Partially because she didn’t answer and I had to leave a voice-mail, but also because I didn’t say any of the dozens of things I really wanted to say. For example, I would have loved to tell Rachel that she really needed to stop calling local government services and asking them to make sense of her life for her. Seventeen calls for police assistance had originated from her address, and yet, not one arrest had been made. This indicated that law enforcement had arrived and determined that no one was in danger, nor was a crime being committed. I know for a fact that, in my county, our boys in blue take domestic disturbances really seriously, leading me to believe that the reasons behind these calls had been, as Mike so aptly put it, “petty”.
I also would have liked to tell Rachel that if her children were having nightmares… if they were nervous and exhausted… if they hated being at home… maybe it was because they were living in a state of constant conflict. Maybe their reaction to living in a situation where the police are called every two-and-a-half weeks is perfectly reasonable and their trauma has nothing to do with ghosts or demons or the emotional leftovers from some long-ago tragedy. The tragedy is NOW, all around them. It’s bleeding from the walls and seeping into the carpet. The smell of it is in their hair and its gristle is wedged between their teeth.
I should know.
I remember in my own childhood, I was utterly convinced that the house in which I was raised was haunted. I still believe it in a way. There are very few good memories there for me. When I do remember that place, I remember being nervous and frightened. I remember how the house felt around me… like the walls were holding their breath. Then tension sang a never-ending taut note in my head that was truly maddening… the high-pitched wail of a missile that was always coming toward us, and yet never hit. And beneath that wail was the whispering fury of fights that went unvoiced, the hissing of accusations when my parents thought I was asleep and unable to hear them quietly hating each other in the next room. Disappointment, Distrust, Resentment… these entities all wandered the rooms where I grew up. I felt no pangs of sadness when I left it behind and I’m completely devoid of nostalgia when met with the option of going to see it again.
As an adult, I realize that if that house was haunted, it was haunted by me. The “ghost” was the manifestation of a small child’s confusion… one who knows that something is wrong, but she can’t understand what it is. No one is doing anything about it. No one is talking. No one is willing to just come out and say, “Jesus Christ, it’s SPOOKY in here.” -even though everyone knows.
And, hell… all other explanations aside, pretty much everyone I know is haunted by something. Especially me. Sometimes, for no reason at all, vicious little recollections of things I said or did long ago, they meander back into view to act out a phantom-drama in my head. I’ll shudder. I’ll cry. I’ll wish things had been different. I’ll wonder why the hell I thought thus-and-such was a reasonable thing to say or do. I’ll wish I could forget. I’ll wish could take it back, but I can’t. I’m stuck with the ghosts of my decisions. If Rachel thought that her house was awash in the residue of bad happenings, maybe she ought to take a look at the residue of the life-choices that she tracked into that place on the day she moved in. If ugly spirits live in our homes, maybe it’s because we move them in with us… along with our Wal-Mart area rug, and mom’s wedding china.
“I wasn’t able to find any history on your address,” I lied on Rachel’s voice-mail. “The police records don’t really go back very far. I would say maybe try ‘google-ing” your address or checking old newspapers in the library. Good luck and call me if there’s anything more I can do for you.”
I haven’t heard back from Rachel. I’m not sure what I wold say to her if I did. Probably nothing. I would listen to her, make a bunch of sympathetic noises and then tell her that I really only deal with dead people that… you know… are… like… PRESENT in a corporeal sense…. all while rolling my eyes and shaking my head- because I’m judgmental like that. It’s just interesting to me, how we externalize our problems to such an extent that we even go so far as to blame the dead for our own discomfort. In all honesty, I can’t imagine the dead are really all that interested in anything the living have going on. It’s such bizarre egoism to think they’d bother with us at all. I compare such a notion to that of someone being released from prison after a grueling, laborious sentance… and then hanging around their dirty old cell for a while- just to see what everyone else is up to. Why would they choose to do such a thing with their freedom? They’re gone. Let them go, they’ve earned it.
But of course, that’s quite the un-popular opinion. It simply doesn’t do for horror movies, seances, people like Rachel…
or anyone who happens to notice it’s October.