Friday, April 1, 2011

The Spooky Old House On the Hill

Many simple pleasures have been destroyed due to the arrival of better technologies: letter-writing, playing outside, all-day cooking. It was less than 20 years ago that the only way to find answers to questions both crucial and trivial was to read a book. Now, it takes approximately 3 seconds to pull things up on Google. Thanks to iPhones, people are connected 24/7. Nothing takes effort anymore. Video and computer games keep children inside with a mountain of junk food. At least when we burned our brains on cartoons Saturday morning, they were usually done by noon, at which point my mother would shoo me into the Great Outdoors to play, discover, and yes, learn. The pre-internet and cell phone years had their problems, sure, but things definitely seemed more idyllic.

Now, one could blame all of this on nostalgia, the fact that being children made us less aware of society's issues, and any other number of things. And to a point that's true. I certainly didn't know what a recession meant when I was 10, nor did I care. I just knew that the weekend was mine, and my buddies and I were going to discover hidden treasure like in The Goonies.

The point I'm trying to make is this (yes, I know it took me awhile. Shut up): a fundamental part of childhood has been forever lost because of our constantly shifting world. Of course, I'm talking about the neighborhood haunted house. No one has one where they live, or even been to a suburb that does. It's gone the way of barbershops and Betamax tapes.

It wasn't long ago that most of the US was still untouched, a vast expanse of plains and valleys. After World War II, millions of soldiers came home, got hitched, and started building. Thus began the greatest growth project in our nation's history. Houses, corner stores, and drive-ins were springing up everywhere. Seemingly overnight, we dropped the last traces of immigrant trappings that we'd clutched onto since the first World War, and became Americans. Pop commuted, Mom placed apple pie on the windowsill, and brother and sister played outside. No supervision, no problem. All they needed to worry about was getting home in time for supper.

Well, that's not entirely true. They also needed to worry about the spooky old house on the hill. Everybody knew it was haunted. The garden was overgrown and the windows were always dark, but a friend's older sister KNEW she heard noises coming from it late at night when her boyfriend dropped her off a block away (so they wouldn't get caught sneaking out to Make-out Point, of course). Besides, it looked creepy, and the last person who stayed there was a really mean old man. Probably died there and now he's haunting the house, killing any kids who go inside. Then there was always the dare to spend a night in the place, and it became a prank war between the boys and the girls, everyone realizing that there were no ghosts (none that showed themselves, anyway), and so the old house would continue to sit on the hill, abandoned and condemned.

If all that sounds like a bad Halloween episode for a sitcom, well, that's because it has been. Several times. But it also used to be a common experience for hundreds of thousands of American children. Checking out the creepy abandoned house at the end of the road was as normal as baseball or Barbie dolls. My generation was perhaps the last to have such an experience. When I was 12, my younger sister and I broke into an old condemned house in our neighborhood. Well, more like we crawled through the doggie door, but still, pretty hardcore. You'd better believe we were freaked out. We'd eyed the place for months. All we knew was that the people who used to live there moved out after only a few weeks, and no one had bought it yet. Plus, it was a two-story house, with black paint, at the back end of a neighborhood full of one-story units. How could it NOT be haunted?

Well, we didn't find any ghosts. No hidden treasure either. We found a lot of bugs and dust. Anti-climactic, to say the least. It didn't matter. We'd conquered our fears. We outdid our friends. We'd had a genuine adventure in a seriously awesome setting. And we didn't die. This is what today's kids are losing. Correct that, this is what today's kids have lost. When's the last time you saw a domicile that could even remotely fit the bill? True, there's plenty of horror movies to suggest that it doesn't have to be the Victorian Gothic place with the broken glass, that any home can be haunted from a typical suburban with a garage to the most expensive NY apartment. Kids can't imagine their fears in a NY apartment.

Some people would say this is a good thing. "Don't today's kids have enough to worry about?" They cry. "There's bullying, academic pressure, emotional trauma, maybe problems at home like divorce or abuse. Why add the imagined dangers of a haunted house?" This argument could not be more moronic. Such an experience is exactly what today's kids need. It's an escape from reality, a challenge they can meet on their own terms. It puts them in the driver's seat and lets them make the move.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not is irrelevant. The fact is, the spooky old house on the hill once helped children mature and grow by forcing them to confront what were once huge fears. Kids today no longer have the opportunity. Every condemned building is torn down to make way for more, and even if the creepy old house was there, everyone is far too jaded and cynical (kids included) to even pretend there's ghosts inside.

Entering the haunted house should be a necessary part of life. Like realizing that Santa isn't real (not in the traditional sense, anyway), or getting your first kiss. I'm so grateful that I actually had this experience. I didn't know it at the time, but I was one of the last. The only thing that can even remotely convey this now is the animated film Monster House, and that had to be set in the 80s for the primary concept to be taken seriously.

We can still choose to go play outside, and I suppose a few neighborhoods haven't yet done away with the essential piece of childhood, the ice cream truck. The spooky old house on the hill though? Gone forever.


  1. Ah, my old grade school had a nature trail, and the teachers would sometimes take us back to a certain path that lead to a private family cemetery where we'd often sit and read.
    A cemetery's an odd place to read outdoors, isn't it?
    There was also a very dilapidated old house a distance away that we weren't supposed to go near, but on a dare (what else?), I ran off with nearly half of the class to see the place up close.
    Thinking that it was haunted from the get-go, we were standing a distance away, each waiting for one of us to walk up to the porch and finally the door.
    Eventually, we all started inching up, gradually giggling and finding amusement in how close we'd approach it each time.
    Then, we heard a clattering banging and a man in a weary tone saying "GEEEET OOOOOOOOUUUUT".
    We screamed bloody murder and ran back to the cemetery where our teachers were waiting.
    Later found out that it was one of the groundskeepers playing a prank on us.
    Ah, that was such a nice day..

    (*I can't seem to type properly tonight, let alone post comments!)

  2. I remember when I was a boy scout and there was a campground my group went to every year. Our scout leaders would tell us a story about a creature that lurked on the grounds that was part-cat, part-human, part-chicken. I think it was called the Whomp-Cat or something similar. Silly? Yes. But still creepy. And every morning, someone would come out of their tent and find scratch marks in the door. We figured out it was one of the leaders with a screwdriver. Not exactly a "scary house on the hill" story, but similar. Kept ME in my tent at night.

  3. Stephen King visited an old desrted house as a child, and once inside the house, someone as a prank started playing an old piano that was there, Causing King to freak, and flee the house. "Marnstern", was the name of the family associated with this deserted house, and King drew upon this childhood fright when writing "Salems Lot", by calling the house the vampire moved into "The Marnstern House".