Scary stories in virtually every form of media take place at night, or on cloudy, gloomy days. In reality, though, the scariest things can happen in broad daylight. They can happen any time, really. Even right now. When I went with two of my brothers, Andrew and Matthew, and my cousins Stacy and Chrissy to Bronx Park one sunny summer afternoon in 1991, we definitely weren't expecting anything to happen.
Bronx Park - I have so many fond memories of playing there as a child. For example, when my brother Michael bought me and Matthew skateboards, we would go to the small slope leading out from the Bronx Botanical Gardens and ride them down it over and over. I still have a scar on my right knee from falling off of the skateboard on that slope.
Then there was the gazebo. We discovered it only days after we moved in across the street from the park, and it soon became the de facto meeting place for my brothers, cousins and me. Andrew told us stories about how it was used for Satanic rituals. There were large black burn marks in the center, as if someone had made a huge fire, perfect for ritualistic sacrifices. The center was divided into five sections, forming a pentagram, so to the rest of us this seemed possible.
Those stories didn't stop us from meeting there several days a week, where we would hang out and reminisce about events from our earlier childhood. Stories of Stacy and Chrissy's mom, my late Aunt Martha, were chief among those recollections. She had died in August of 1991 from throat cancer, causing our two cousins to move in with us for a while until they were of age. Aunt Martha's loss was still fresh to us all, and talking about her felt like our way of eulogizing her.
One sunny summer day, we were hanging out at the gazebo as usual. Andrew and Matthew were talking to Stacy and Chrissy on one side of the structure. I was feeling a bit out of sorts and was keeping to myself on the the other side of the gazebo.
There was an old car wreck about a dozen or so yards away from the gazebo back then. From the looks of it, it had been there since long before we had begun frequenting the park. Once or twice we poked around it, looking for clues as to how it had come to be there. We never found anything but old rusted metal.
As I was leaning over the stone railing, peering into the underbrush, I noticed something. At first I didn't realize what it was that I was seeing. Movement near the old car wreck. It was too much movement for a squirrel or any other animal that we knew lived in the park. Thinking that it may have been a raccoon or something, I called Andrew over and pointed out what I saw.
Sure enough, that familiar sense of dread washed over us. I say "us" because the mood of the group changed suddenly and simultaneously. Happy chatter was silenced like it was cut off with a hot knife. Chrissy stayed back on the opposite side of the gazebo, a look of dismay on her face. Stacy and Matthew joined Andrew and me at the railing, also peering into the brush, looking for what Andrew and I had noticed.
This thought echoed in my head so intensely that I staggered. I noticed what seemed to be a skeletal figure with tattered, singed pieces of cloth hanging off of it moving toward us, the skull completely exposed. Perhaps a victim of the accident that had caused the wreck? Regardless, the sight of that thing was more than enough for me to do what I was told.
Every instinct that I had told me to run. So I did.
I ran as fast as I could, shouting over my shoulder for everyone to follow. Fear gripped me so hard that I didn't even look back to see if anyone had followed me until I was back at the entrance to the park. When I finally stopped, panting and gasping for breath, I looked back, terrified that this figure would be only feet away from me. Fortunately, all I saw was Matthew, followed closely by Stacy, then Chrissy. Andrew wasn't in sight.
Moments passed like hours. The fear that had ebbed as I had run from the gazebo returned. I turned to Matthew.
"Where's Andrew!?" I demanded.
"He was right behind me!" he gasped between breaths.
I started to gather myself to go back. Perhaps only ten seconds had elapsed, but it seemed like 10 minutes. Just as Matthew and I had started to head back up the path in search of him, Andrew came trotting down the path, his eyes wide and his face paler than usual.
"What happened? What did you see?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"I dunno. An aura of some kind. Like a light. It was this sickly yellow color. It made me feel gross. Why did you guys run like that?"
Perplexed, I replied, "I saw something very different. Like a skeleton with burned clothes hanging off of it. Plaid. Red plaid. I heard something scream in my head, telling me to get out, so I ran. You didn't feel that?"
I again turned to Matthew. He said, "You scared the crap out of us. I felt something weird, like sudden panic, so I ran." He shrugged.
After consulting with our cousins, we determined that we all had an odd, unsettling feeling. Something didn't want us there. I don't know why it affected me so much, or why I saw the image that I did.
We went home, freaked out by what had happened, but excited. Despite this incident, or maybe because of it, we continued to hang out at the gazebo for several years. Nothing like that incident ever happened there again.
Around 1998, the Department of New York City Parks and Recreation towed away that old wreck and trimmed away most of the underbrush surrounding it. The gazebo still stands, though, last I saw, and with a fresh coat of paint.
The center is still blackened though, as if from a fire.
Here are some pics:
The year was 1996. I was two years out of high school, and was working in White Plains, NY. From time to time, I'd hang out with my brother Matthew and our friend Joaquin, and through them, I met an unusual person named Ana*.
She was... yeah, unusual. She had an accent that I was unfamiliar with, as was evidenced by the fact that she had to repeat her name about 10 times in a row for me to get the proper pronunciation of her name. She always wore 99% black clothing. She smelled like herbs. She intrigued me.
We hung out a few times, and started dating soon enough. It turned out that the accent that I couldn't figure out was a Russian one. Her parents liked me, her little sister was adorable, and for the first few weeks, our relationship seemed to be going well.
One fine summer day, Ana and I were walking towards the train station in Riverdale, an exclusive and upper-class section of the Bronx. There was a pizzeria around the corner from her apartment building, so we figured we'd stop in for a slice. The next store down from there was a video rental store, and between them was a small staircase that we hadn't really ever noticed or paid any mind to before.
After we finished the pizza, as we were walking by I saw that this small staircase led to what looked like a small courtyard surrounded by trees. Intrigued, I motioned for Ana to follow, and I headed up the staircase.
Two steps beyond the staircase, I knew that I had made a mistake. An intense feeling of fear struck me like a hammer in the gut. I stopped so abruptly that even though I was holding Ana's hand behind me, she bumped into my back.
The sunlight seemed to dim, like someone had thrown a cloth over it, despite the cloudless sky. The fear that I was feeling was palpable - it seemed external, practically humming in the air. It appeared to be coming from a copse of trees within the courtyard ahead of us. It felt like a warning. I backed away slowly, turned, faced Ana, and told her that we had to go. I remember the juxtaposition of this bright, beautiful day with the stark malevolence which seemed to emanate from those trees.
Once back on the sidewalk, she asked me what happened, and I could see fear in her eyes. I asked her if she felt anything. She said yes, and seemed relieved that she wasn't alone in that feeling. We both turned back, peering into the alleyway that lead back to the courtyard and resolved not to let it scare us off.
Being the mid-1990s, we were under what I have come to call The Craft Effect. I'll elaborate on that in another post, but suffice to say for now that witchcraft and New Age ideology was quite in vogue at that point in time.
After we had ruminated over what had happened, Ana and I thought that we had stumbled upon a herd of faeries. We had found a mutual interest in them in the first few days of our relationship, and to us, eerie feelings plus trees must equal faeries.
There are two types of faeries, you see; the seelie court, and the unseelie court. To put it succinctly, the former are considered the "good" faeries, while the latter the "bad" ones. Both groups are said to be mischievous, and good and bad are relative. Therefore, Ana and I thought we'd hit upon a gathering of unseelie faeries who were nonplussed by our intrusion.
This belief held us back from re-investigating the place for a week or so. Then we decided one night, while walking around her beautiful neighborhood, to poke our heads back in. This time we got all the way to the middle of the courtyard, hand-in-clammy-hand, before the feeling of dread hit us both again.
It was much stronger this time, as if the prior incident had indeed been just a warning. I didn't budge though. I stared at the trees, Ana pulling on my arm, almost daring whatever was causing this miasma to come out and show itself.
Movement in the trees. Pitch-black, shapeless. It moved closer to the low stone wall dividing the courtyard from the trees. We were wrong. It was a single entity. And it was moving closer to us.
Ana and I did the only sane and rational thing that we could think of -- we hauled ass out of there as fast as humanly possible. I felt like it was chasing us. Once we got to the sidewalk, we stopped and looked behind us. We didn't see anything, but we felt it there, lurking in the deep, post-midnight shadows. I stood there transfixed, staring into the blackness. This time, the blackness seemed to be staring back.
We headed back to her apartment building in a hurry. I escorted her up to her apartment door, where we tried to figure out what had happened. It was clearly not a herd of faeries, seelie or unseelie. We thought that it could have been a singular, large faerie, such as a bogey. Or it could have been something even more sinister - something demonic.
Those possibilities should have been enough to keep me away from that alleyway. My curiosity usually outweighs most of my other concerns, though.
I brought my brothers Kenny and Andrew there along with Ana a week or so later. Nothing as exciting as what had happened to us happened with my brothers in attendance, but everyone did report feeling creeped out by the place. We didn't tell them what had happened to us beforehand, because we wanted to see if they would experience anything without being influenced by our story.
After that, I did stay away for several years, but mainly because I broke up with Ana a week or two later. I would have loved to go and check the alleyway out more often, but Riverdale is on the extreme northwest portion of the Bronx, and was thus very far away from my usual stomping grounds in the Pelham Bay area.
I took a friend of mine there in 2014, expecting to show them the site of one of the most intense incidents that I had experienced up until that point in my life. We were disappointed to learn, however, that the video store had been torn down, and the alleyway with it. The last I saw, there was a green wooden wall obstructing the site. I did see that the trees were still intact, though. Perhaps whatever made itself known to Ana and me is still there.
* I changed her name for this story, since we're no longer in contact and I can't get her permission to use it.
Family picture, 1983. My grandmother is the little pack of dynamite in the middle.
When I think back on my memories of my grandmother, Kathleen Jane Smith, I can't help but smile. Love suffused every action that she took, and it showed.
Born Kathleen Jane Claffey in November of 1918, she lived through the Great Depression and came through it unscathed. She married my grandfather, Wilson Leroy Smith, and had three children: Patricia (my mother), Kathleen Jean (my Aunt Jean), and Michael (Uncle Mike). After his honorable service in the Navy, my grandfather died at the age of 35 due to severe coronary issues secondary to a heart murmur. Grandma was left to provide for herself and her three children.
It wasn't easy. Though NYC experienced an economic boom in the late 40s, finding a job was no easy task for a single mother then, as now. However, she found a job as a cafeteria worker at I.S. 192 in the Bronx. Supplemented by survivor benefits from the Veteran's Administration, she was able to provide my mother and her siblings with a normal, happy childhood.
My first memory of my grandmother was when I was under two years old. It's very rare for a child of that age to form any permanent memories, but I can recall her smiling face as she placed a blue and white plaid bunny doll in my crib. While I'm sure that she must have visited my family while we were up on the farm in upstate New York, I don't have any clear memories of her doing so. My next memory of her was when we lived on Mulford Avenue in the Bronx. She'd come over for dinner and would bring Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies. She'd give us birthday cards with a couple of bucks in them, which at the time seemed like a fortune. She also loved M&Ms, and would dole out handfuls to us when the mood took her.
She was there for my family when we hit some snags. In 1983, she took us in when we had nowhere else to go. Those 6 months living with my grandma should have been miserable, but they were some of the happiest days of my early childhood. Grandma taught us things, like when you wash silverware, always put them in the drain board sharp ends down, so you don't cut yourself when you reach for them.
She was a gentle soul. She wouldn't yell or curse or even get very mad, that I can recall. Even when we kids were being lazy and trying to get just a few more minutes' sleep, she eschewed the typical methods of rousing layabouts in favor of a simple damp washcloth. She would gently drag it over our faces until we woke up. I can still remember that feeling.
She was a fixture in my life. A touchstone that everyone in my family always counted on and assumed would always be there.
In 1989, she moved from her apartment on Schley Avenue, where she'd lived for over 40 years, to live with my Uncle Mike in New Jersey. In 1991, she moved from there to a senior citizen center back in the Bronx. Something changed about her after that. She grew forgetful and suspicious. She became convinced that the attendants in her new building were stealing from her.
My older brother Andrew and I would go and visit her after school. She was just... different. Sometimes, it would take her a moment to recognize us when we arrived. Then her eyes would brighten and she would escort us in. She would have the customary chocolate chip cookies waiting for us, along with her ever-present smile and a great big hug. After a few months, those moments of confusion became more frequent, and lasted longer.
In early 1992, Uncle Mike was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He went from a strong, vigorous man in his late 40s to a man trapped in his own body. Despite MS having only a 3% mortality rate in men, he passed away in June that same year.
In September of 1992, circumstances that I'm not privy to caused grandma to have to move in with my family. It seemed to me that everyone treated her like a fragile porcelain doll. I chose not to. She was still Grandma to me, and though my siblings report varying degrees of cognizance from her, she acted more or less normally towards me. We would talk about myriad topics, from my early childhood to her memories of working in that school. From growing up in the depression, to losing her husband.
I came to know her better in those two months than I had in my entire life before that. She was so strong, but stayed so kind and loving her whole life, despite living through things that would have broken other people. She had loved my uncle more than anyone left on this earth. Losing Uncle Mike had been the last straw, though. After he passed, she finally broke.
On September 29th, 1992, I had a dream. I dreamed that Grandma was sitting on the bed in which she had been convalescing since she moved in with us. She seemed somehow younger. More focused, more like the grandma of my younger days. She beckoned me over to her. Despite her minuscule stature, she had always had a way of making me feel like a little boy. She gave me one of her huge hugs, then took my head and kissed my forehead.
"Goodbye, Douglas." she said, a content smile on her face. "I love you, and always will. I'm going to see your uncle and your grandfather. I'll give them your love."
I replied, "I love you too, grandma."
That was it. The dream ended.
My sister Trish woke me up that morning with tears in her eyes.
"Grandma died in her sleep." she said, her voice husky from crying.
"I know," I said, seemingly unfazed.
I turned over and went back to sleep, wishing that I'd feel that damp washcloth brushing my face to wake me up.
I knew that I never would again, though.
As a side note, after speaking with my mother regarding dates and circumstances regarding her mother, I learned that there were more oddities than just my dream the day that grandma died.
My mother had a routine. She would wake up, jump into her clothes and go around the rooms, seeing who needed to be woken up. For some reason she found herself wearing all black clothes that day. She would normally go to her mother and ask her what she would like for breakfast. She found her in bed, having apparently passed away in her sleep. She didn't get hysterical, as she put it. She called 911, asked for the coroner, then called her sister Jean. Not wanting to give out the details of her mother's death on the phone, she asked Aunt Jean to come to the house as soon as possible, but didn't say why. Aunt Jean showed up also wearing all black.
My mother recalls that one of our cats, Mack, gave a yowling scream in the middle of the night. She says that it sounded mournful. Animals are said to be able to see and sense things that humans can't. Who can say what he saw that made him make that noise?
I know that his post isn't the paranormal-est one I've made, or will make, but it is important to me to portray my grandmother as my family remembers her, to give context for the impact that the dream I had the morning she died had on me.
Thank you for reading, and as always comment below if you have comments or criticisms.