Dark house

It’s been more than nine years since the dark house in the woods burned down. Still, it haunts me.

This is one of those stories where you have to have faith that I’m not messing with you. I can’t offer exhibits or evidence beyond the few photos that I took of the house in Colorado’s Black Forest, the one that looked like a last stand set in a zombie movie.

This is a campfire story, and all campfire stories – the ones you swear are true – have that “trust me” component. And that trust gets taken advantage of a bit at times, let’s be honest. Stories evolve. Hearing footsteps in a dark basement can easily turn into hearing a dusty chuckle and being almost certain you saw the dull lamplight of ghost eyes winking there. They’re stretched truths, legends, but they’re not intentional.

Because memory is ice cream at room temperature. It melts down. Details go murky. Frozen, sturdy certainty eventually becomes a soupy puddle; basic structure intact, but with details pooling.

I don’t like to do that when I talk about the house. It’s a story with details I don’t want to try and re-freeze.

Enough people had done that to the house already. Even before it burned down, whatever really happened there had distorted into something that cast some pretty horrific shadows.

My interactions with this fabled monument in the woods are no dramatic yarn. There’s no structured plot, no formulaic beginning-middle-end, no slasher-movie scares. The structure’s eeriness was in its quiet, the way it always seemed to be staring at me with dark eyes whenever I ventured there, how it plagued my dreams.

How, silently and with a vicious smile, I always felt it beckoning me to come back and stay forever.

“Have you ever heard about Hell House?”

It started with last-minute shopping. It was the summer of 2005, the night before Fathers Day. I was home for the summer, a few months away from starting my senior year at Southern Oregon University.

My brother Blake and I, being the slackers that we were – are? – had yet to snag some presents for my father, including the regular gift of pistachios he loves so much. We traveled from our dad’s house in northern Colorado Springs to the nearby suburb of Monument. It’s a charming little town that abuts up against the Black Forest. It reminds me of Talent, that sort of “Ashland Lite” coziness.

We swiped the necessary supplies and climbed back into the 1991 Toyota Camry that used to be mine but had changed hands the year before when I bought my truck, the 2004 Ford Ranger I’m still driving. I drove.

Blake turned to me and asked the question: “Have you ever heard of Hell House?”

No. I hadn’t. I think I’d remember a moniker like that. My brother, who occasionally looks an awful lot like me, filled me in.

There’s a dark house in the woods, he told me. Bad things happened there.

Like…like what?

His campfire story already had its hooks in. I was ready to believe.

The yarn he spun was awful. It concerned a family who lived there and the child they abused, how their beatings accidentally killed the child and how they took their own lives afterward in a fit of ill-timed guilt. The house in the woods – their house – stayed up. No bulldozers or dynamite took it out.

Oh, and some of the things – I think he used the word devices –  they used to hurt the kid are still there.

I’ve been there before, he told me, several times. It’s messed up.

Wanna go?

I didn’t believe him at first. Sure, let’s go to your “haunted house,” dude. Let’s visit this cliche in the middle of the woods.

“You’re not going to want to go in.”

We drove from Monument into the Black Forest, toward the residence of myth, headlights cutting through the night as the pine trees blurred together in an eerie stutter of green. The dark made the sprawl of woods seem lonely, not even a place ghosts would care to meander through.

“When you see this house, you’re not going to want to go in,” my brother told me.

I nodded, didn’t say the “Whatever,” that sounded in my mind. Because of course he was still full of it at this point. This was still some prank or joke. There was no house. He’d end this charade by having me drive around in circles, promising, “It’s around here somewhere” or something until we gave up and went home.

Then he told me the driveway was going to jump out at me, that it was buried and hard to see. I needed to be ready. I slowed a bit, my headlights still stabbing through the darkness.

“Here,” he eventually said, pointing. “Here. Here.

I slowed almost to a stop and turned left. He wasn’t wrong. The “driveway” was hidden, a gap in the trees that was almost invisible by any standard. The Camry left the pavement and crunched on gravel.

The house was at the end.

It was a sprawling two-story in the middle of a bare patch of wildland. Either trees had been pulled up at one time or they just were giving the dark house a wide berth. Neither would have surprised me. A small guest house lurked nearby. Pine needles and dirt carpeted the surrounding space. The electric lights of neighboring houses were far-off, little punctures of light that barely twinkled – the way stars look in big cities.

Blake was right. I didn’t want to go in. The house looked out of place in the way roadkill does, misplaced and sad to look at, flat-out horrifying if you stare long enough.

Of course we didn’t have any flashlights in the car. There were two lighters, though, the Bic kind. In my days of youthful indiscretion, I liked to tug the metal components off the top, light the exposed vapor nozzle and make tire-sized fireballs in nightswept empty parking lots with pals. Years later, I’d be reporting on arsons in the city of Medford, Ore., with a vicious regularity

We each took an un-detonated lighter and walked toward the house, the gravel crunching under our feet.

Blake said, “Don’t touch anything.”

I said, “OK.”

We pushed through the front door, tiny flames swaying.

“Let’s get out of here.” 

The front hallway was impossibly narrow, almost maze-like, how I imagine Claustrophobia Hell is laid out. The room at the end was covered in curling wallpaper peppered with yellowing balloons. My lighter’s small flame danced across it. I looked at the closet, at the metal bars that eclipsed where the sliding doors should have been.

I felt sick to my stomach at the sight. Was the story my brother told me true? Did a child live in here, confined to a cell? The contrast of a prison with so many withering balloons felt like a nightmare, a room in a Resident Evil video game level. Blake and I moved on.

The house felt like the end result of seven different architects who’d reached a compromise: each of you design a section and we’ll connect them in disproportionate, awkward splendor. Legos for drunks.

Squatters had been here. Filthy, saturated mattresses and piles of soiled clothing had been left behind. The walls screamed profanity, written in streaks that could have been, well, anything. Yeah, even that.

We saw the garage and the piles of clothing, bicycles, books, furniture and garbage that had stacked up. We thought we heard something – a breath, a gasp maybe, nothing maybe – and ran back outside.

Blake showed me the shed.

It felt slapped on, too. I saw an old generator, dead for years, and the wires that ran from it out the back of the structure. I saw the basement, the broken steps that surely led down to a horrid room with swinging meat hooks and bloody walls. There was also a door, the brick wall seven or eight inches back and the dance of nails that had been plunged through the wood.

Solitary, maybe? The timeout corner? Misbehave and you get locked in? Move and you get scratched by an opus of tetanusy spikes?

My stomach lurched again. We walked back outside. Blake had one more thing to show me. Of course he did. Bad news comes in threes.

We walked into the forest behind the house. Hibernating scenes from ‘The Blair Witch Project’ awoke and slammed down a few Americanos. Beasts were suddenly everywhere, hiding in the trees and tall grasses and clicking their sharper parts together.

A worn chair shimmered out of the dark. Its place among so much overgrown vegetation was odd and uncomfortable, just like the house. The wires from a nearby electric fence running into it, the wrist and ankle straps, made it worse. Blake started to explain. He didn’t need to. I knew an attempt at a makeshift electric chair when I saw one.

I’d had it. The whole scene seemed like it was starting to close in on me. Like we’d walked into a drawing and the artist had started to crumple it up before chucking it in the garbage. Voices demanded answers in my head. Did something this awful actually happen here? Was a person tortured and killed? Was this all at the hands of some elaborate jokester with too much time on their hands? Where were they? Why would they do all this?

Something interrupted the frantic questions.

This is the part where I tell you I can’t remember what exactly.

I want to tell you we saw a light on in the house, but that’s impossible. A lightbulb burning in a house the world had given up on – where power has been cut – is impossible.

Flashlight? Had we walked right past someone who’d been hiding in the dark before? Is this sudden presence of light in the house an attempt to fill in the blank for this part of the story? I already told you I wouldn’t do that.

Safe to say my brother and I saw something, heard something that finally made us afraid enough to leave. I wish I could remember and tell you with certainty, something more concrete than: “Maybe we saw a light in the house.”

Whatever it was, we were spooked.

“Let’s get out of here,” Blake said.

“Yeah.”

We shuffled to car and rocketed down the driveway. I was fighting actual tears. We left the forest and dark house behind. I saw the dancing lights of Colorado Springs as we hopped back onto I-25. It felt like looking at 1,000 night lights. It was warm and safe and the opposite of everything we’d seen.

Obsession

I went back. A lot.

I took friends, acted as the tour guide my brother had been on our first outing. He lost interest, I think. See the scene of where something awful happened enough times, its eerie luster eventually fades, I guess.

It didn’t for me. I took friends, co-workers. I went at night, during the day.

Have you ever felt like you’re being watched? Gotten that prickle down your back that feels like a fresh slick of ice cocooning your spine? I did at this house. Every time.

I invented stories of what happened, started from scratch and completely erased the tales I’d been told. It wasn’t fun and games, some kooky, spooky Halloween fun. This was need, craving, necessity. I’d feel incomplete if I couldn’t figure out what happened inside Hell House. Why was there a cage in the kid’s room closet? Why was there a door with bricks and nails? Why was there a chair with straps hooked into a flaccid electric fence?

I called a local historical society and left a message. Local police, too. No one called me back. My tinfoil hat came out.

Something horrible did happen there. And they want to bury it. That had to be it. Never a thought that they might be busy with other things and that I sounded like a bumbling conspiracy theorist who’d had a few shots before he called.

Fine. I didn’t need them. I’d figure this out on my own. My delusional obsession became my drug of choice, and I shot up almost daily.

I dreamed about the house. Details of the nightmares escape me nine years later, but I do remember I was in it, that it was dark and I heard someone saying something to me in all that dark, that I couldn’t find them.

I awoke in actual darkness at 3 a.m. during one of these reveries. I watched movies until the sun came up and turned lots of lights on.

“It’s gone.”

This was also the summer I went to Germany.

It was a two-week jaunt of amazing beer and food, beautiful countrysides and charming mountain towns. I ran along the Rhine River, in the hills above a township called Königswinter where I saw a graveyard with a field of markers that were tilted and cracked and smothered in moss. Some of the birth and death dates were more than 400 years old.

I all but forgot about dark houses and the dreams they sewed in my head.

When I arrived home, Blake and my mom picked me up at the airport. We were driving home when Blake told me the news.

“Did you hear about Hell House?” he asked.

“No.”

“It burned down. It’s gone.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t know how. We didn’t say anything else about it the rest of the ride home.

Ashes

I made my final drive to Hell House a couple nights later. I took two friends with me. We’re all married now, and two of us have kids. We were single thrill seekers that night, eager to see the carnage I’d been promised.

We ducked under new strands of “No Trespassing” tape stretched across the long driveway and walked up to nothing. The dark house had been picked clean. Only a few bones remained, twists of metal and ugly gashes of burned wood. I could still smell the carbon charring.

I stood on the rubble in the house’s old center, glanced about. The feeling I’d had of being watched so many times was gone.

I don’t remember what the three of us said. The word “Crazy” was probably used. We likely asked each other how we thought it happened and offered theoretical responses. You know, like I’d done when it was still standing.

I gave a quick glance in the rear view mirror as we left. The twisting road embroidered with trees gave way to the lights of Monument and Colorado Springs.

We drove into the city and never went back into the woods. To this day, I don’t know how the fire started.

The house that time built

Hell House became the story I’d tell. I’d embellish a bit, certainly, polish it and make it sparkle. I don’t know why. The story of the dark house that gave me nightmares and eventually burned down stands on its own.

It’s been nine years, and it’s still in my thoughts. I wrote a full-length horror screenplay called ‘Cry Amy’ based on what I experienced. It’s based around the idea that some mysteries – the unsettling, unsolvable kind – are impossible to leave alone. So much so that sometimes we fill in the blanks with fiction, with guesses. We may even believe that conjecture if we say it often enough.

I won’t do that with the house. Not anymore. There’s no end to it. Sometimes you have to choose sanity over knowledge and set phantom theories free.

Sometimes houses just go empty and burn down in the night and can’t be rebuilt.

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