It was Halloween, and I was riding around New Orleans with two of my high school friends trying to think of what to do. We were listening to our favorite station on the car radio when the DJ began to sound serious. We cranked up the volume.
"That strange red glow is back in Metairie Cemetery," he said. "Every year around Halloween, a red glow is seen moving about Metairie Cemetery. Legend has it that Octavia Fontaine, one of the area's most celebrated madams in the 1900's, returns from the dead around this time of the year to entice a solitary male victim to her crypt. The tabloids in her day named her the Murderous Madam, because she was convicted of dining on and serving human flesh to clients at her brothel. Supposedly, they were men who, for some reason or other, displeased her. So beware guys! Don't visit Metairie Cemetery after dark tonight unless you want to meet her -- and end up being her main course," he laughed.
"Hey, you hear that?" Bill asked. "Let's go see if we can find her. He turned his car in the direction of the cemetery.
"It's just a joke. Nobody believes in ghosts anymore; certainly not flesh eating madams. That stuffs for little kids, not guys like us," I said.
"So what if it's a joke, Mike? It'll give us something to do," Tom replied from the back seat. "Let's go over there and see if we find anything."
"Fine. Whatever. We don't have anything better to do," I mumbled. To me, this was just a waste of time. I wanted to find a Halloween party to crash. Someplace where there were live girls we could party with, rather than chase around in a cemetery stalking some dried up old hag floating in the vapors.
Drifting gray clouds scudding across the new moon, and the promise of fog later on made this a great night to go ghost hunting. As we drove along, we made macho boasts of what we'd do if we saw Madam Fontaine's ghost. However, when we arrived around eleven o'clock and started to sneak into the desolate and dark cemetery, Tom now began to have second thoughts.
"Hey look, what if this legend stuff is true? What if we really see her? I don't want any flesh-eating ghoul after me."
"Tom, you're a wimp," I said. "First of all, there's no such thing as ghosts, much less flesh eating ones. Second, we're not going to just walk up to it, if it's really there. We'll sneak around and stay in the shadows. We'll see the red glow well before we get close enough for her ghost to see us. But we're not going to see anything because ghosts don't exist."
"I agree with Mike. Let's get going. Over there looks like a good place to start," Bill said, pointing in the direction of the sixty foot white Moriarty monument off to the right. At the foot of the monument, Bill gave us a warning. At least I thought it was a warning, but maybe he was just hyping the place.
"You know this place has a bad reputation at night. They say all kinds of things go on in here. That's why they lock the gates at dusk and tell people to stay away from here in the evening. So stay together. If we get separated in this maze, we'll never find each other until daylight."
I'd never done this kind of thing before, and I had to admit I was a little scared. I pulled down my ball cap on my head and zipped my jacket. Oh, I didn't believe in ghosts; but it's hard not to be uneasy in a cemetery at night when enveloped by its shadowy and silent darkness.
As we walked along, I carefully peeked around the larger monuments hoping to see nothing except other monuments. I began to get more interested in the tombs and crypts rather than in finding nonexistent ghosts. Some were really simple, while others were huge affairs four tiers high of solid masonry. Still others had marble benches and urns for flowers. Occasionally I would stop to read a name or date and then rush to catch up with the guys.
After I finished inspecting one of the more elaborate mausoleums, I turned around to rejoin the guys and found myself alone. Normally, I don't scare; but I expected to see the guys, and I worried when no one was there. Quickly, I looked around. "Hey guys," I whispered. There was no response.
"Come on, this isn't funny. Where are you?" Still no answer. I remembered what Bill said earlier about how dangerous the place was at night. What if there were really ghosts here? The sound of a snapping stick caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. I turned and thought I caught a glimpse of something dark disappearing behind a massive round-arched crypt behind me. I hoped it was just my imagination.
I began to backtrack, but things were beginning to look alike in this eerie world of temples, towers, and mausoleums. Faint shadows flickered across the stones from Spanish Moss draped trees moving in the gentle wind. The moon's illumination weakened as drifting clouds began to block its light. It was at those times that I became most apprehensive.
As I looked around a large obelisk, I thought I saw something dark disappear behind a nearby tomb head of me. This time I knew it wasn't my imagination. I ducked back behind the obelisk and backed away until I was against a medieval monument that looked like a very small church. I hid behind its pillars and peeked out. I saw nothing except the silent cemetery and its stony monuments.
"This is ridiculous," I told myself. To hell with the guys; I'm going back where we started. But where was that? Which direction do I go, I wondered? I only remembered what our meeting place looked like. More clouds filled the sky; and the waning moonlight faded as they moved across its face. I became lost in this dark city of the dead.
As I was trying to decide which direction I should go, I heard a sound on the gravel path ahead. Maybe it was my friends. Then again, maybe it wasn't. I hid behind the monument's pillars waiting to see what it was. Suddenly, I was cold; and the hair on my arms stood on end. Then I smelled a faint putrid odor, but I couldn't see any reason for it.
I moved away from the monument and crept under some large nearby trees. Something wrapped its moist, soft tendrils across my face. I closed my eyes and dropped to my knees groping at my face and head. It felt like a wet tangled spider's web. It was thick and sticky, and I worried about being bitten by the spider. With great difficulty, I got it off my eyes' first and pulled the stringy strands from my face one at a time.
After clearing my eyes, I quickly looked around during a brief minute of faint moonlight as an opening in the clouds occurred. Was there something just barely visible in the darkness behind me? I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Nothing was there. I shook my head; was I seeing things now? There was nothing out there except my over active imagination.
Then I saw an open grave not more than ten feet away from me. I could smell the fresh earth. I stood up and leaned against a tree and had the sensation of something cold passing through me. As I stood transfixed, I saw my breath. Why? It wasn't that cold when we started. Why did I feel cold now? As I pushed my back against the tree, I had a terrible tightness in my temples and my heart pounded. I looked back at the grave. Was it my imagination again or was it within five feet of me now?
As I watched, the near edge came within two feet of where I was standing, and the far edge filled in. It was as though something or someone was moving earth from one end of the grave to the other. The earth under my feet began to crumble into the hole while the far edge slowly became whole. This has to be a dream. I have to get away from the grave. I quickly detached myself from the tree just before the last of the ground beneath my feet sank into the deep, open hole. I raced to a large cross flanked by huge granite shafts which towered over my head.
The cemetery suddenly became dark. I looked up to the sky at the heavy clouds crossing the moon. A strange feeling of dread filled me. It had to be just nerves, I thought. I felt dizzy and light headed, but it passed. I just had to wait until the moon reappeared.
Then I heard a whisper. "Oh, come on now," I said to myself. "I'm letting my imagination get the best of me." Just the same, I crouched down and moved to the cover of a tomb shaped like a row of books on a library shelf. As I peered around its corner, I noticed a faint flickering red light in the fog coming from behind a large temple on my left.
Was this the ghost of Octavia Fontaine? I didn't believe in ghosts up until now; but I was quickly becoming a believer. As I studied the light, I heard another unintelligible whisper.
The moon made a brief appearance and shadows wandered across the stone blocks of the dead. This was the time to leave, but I couldn't. I had to see what was causing that flickering red light. When the moon disappeared again, I crawled slowly closer to the source.
There were no sounds except my heart beating and my breathing. Surely these would betray my presence to the ghost. I calmed myself as I moved alongside a large stone sarcophagus. It rested on top of a tiered platform inside an open monument. The flickering red light came from somewhere around the row of vaults and crypts across a gravel walking path in front of me. Again, I felt a chill. The cemetery darkened again as a cloud mass slid across the moon.
As I watched, I gasped. Twenty feet ahead was a featureless blob with a red lantern. It floated across the gravel path towards me. I ducked back behind the sarcophagus and smelled a strong putrid odor. Suddenly, there was a red glow behind me. I turned around and saw a living corpse of rotten, weevil-infested flesh covered by a dark shroud in which grave worms crawled in and out of its folds. Was it Octavia Fontaine?
I didn't know, but I thought it was. She grabbed for me with the arms of a rotting corpse. I yelled and pushed myself away falling down the stone tiers in my fright. The specter slowly floated down and moved closer to me. Again, the eerie sensation of a cold wind and an intense putrid smell reached me.
I froze. I couldn't move. Spiders started crawling out of the cloak and over my legs like an advancing army. It was as though I was watching a movie or having a bad dream, but I wasn't dreaming or hallucinating. This was real. I had to move. I had to get out of there. The spiders were now going up my pants, and I could feel them as they crawled along my skin. I jumped up and batted them from my pants and stomped on them as they neared my feet.
Suddenly, the moon came out from behind the clouds, and I ran in a direction that would put the inhuman ghost as far behind me as I could. I ran through a stand of trees; and Spanish Moss whipped at my eyes, wrapped around my head and robbed me of vision when I most needed it. As I tore its net like tangles from my face, I bumped into monuments, crypts, towers and stone blocks in my fear.
Clouds covered the moon again, and now a gloomy fog began to cloak the cemetery. Sweat streamed down between my shoulder blades. I came to a lagoon, and plunged in before I realized it was there. In panic, I struggled up the far side. I reached the security of its tree lined bank and cowered behind the reassuring hulk of a trunk.
In my terror, it seemed that gaseous shapes were drifting all around and clutching for me with spectral hands. As I caught my breath, I looked back in the direction I'd come. I could just make out a dark shape. She was on the other side of the lagoon looking for me with the lantern, and glanced in my direction for a fleeting second. Then she disappeared into the fog.
I got up and ran. I didn't know how to get out of there. I didn't know which way to go. I just wanted to get away. Suddenly, above the tombs the Moriarty monument appeared out of the fog. I remembered it was near the fence we jumped over to get in the cemetery. I ran towards it, cursing at all the monuments, crypts, and mausoleums I had to go around to reach it.
Again, I noticed a putrid odor in the air. I ducked behind a large building that said Cemetery Receiving Vault. I remembered passing it when we started from the foot of the Moriarty monument searching for Madam Fontaine. I carefully peeked around the corner of the vault looking at the tall granite pillar. I saw the glow of the lantern at its base, and I could just make out her dark shape in the thickening fog. How did she guess my direction? I didn't know, but now I knew where I was. The fence had to be just out of sight in the fog off to my right from the vault.
The apparition slowly floated to the left and farther away. I guessed the fence was only a hundred feet from me, and I made a run for it. I saw the fence appear out of the fog, and I reached out and put my hand on its top rail preparing to jump over it. Spiders covered the rail. Something grabbed my coat from behind, and I looked over my shoulder to see what it was. She had it in her moldy hand. I tore my coat away and jumped the fence; but she didn't stop.
I ran towards the road as I watched her over my shoulder float through the fence after me with outstretched arms and rotting hands clawing for me. I was knocked flat by something in front of me. Blinded by red light, I fell to the ground. I covered my head. She had me, and I could feel her arms around me. I would be dead any second now.
"Geeze, you ran into us! Why did you do that?"
I opened my eyes and saw my two friends as they pulled me to my feet.
"Didn't you see I was being chased by a ghost?" I said.
"Chased by a ghost?" they derisively snickered. "We didn't see anything chasing you. All of a sudden you appeared out of the fog and ran into the back of us. We've been driving around this place for over an hour since we got separated from you. We figured you'd find the fence on your own and wait for us to pick you up. But we didn't think that you would try to get run over. What got into you anyway?"
"I saw the ghost, Octavia Fontaine's ghost."
"Sure you did," Bill snickered. "Get in the car, let's go. Hey, wait
a minute! You've got spiders all over the back of your coat. Knock them off before you
© 1999 William H. Miltenberger, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This story also appears at the literary web site, The Story Exchange, with the title "Trick or Treat."
The idea for the story came from the word 'ghost' mentioned in a casual conversation with a writing friend of mine about where to eat. We wanted to go somewhere that might inspire a story for each of us.
While in New Orleans the following week, I decided that my story should take place in a cemetery. Therefore, I toured several cemeteries to get the feel of them. I picked the Metairie Cemetery for the setting because it is huge with monuments, crypts, mausoleums and tombs that not only are impressive because of their size, but also because of their historical significance. At night, and police strongly suggest you do not go there at night because "it attracts the criminal element" you can truly get disoriented. However, a foggy night is the only way to get the real feel for the place and its spooky environment.
The legendary Storyville of New Orleans produced many infamous prostitutes and madams, one of whom was buried in Metairie Cemetery for a time. While Octavia Fontaine is my creation, she owes her existence to a celebrated madam, Josie Arlington, of Storyville who was buried there until her daughter had her dug up and buried in an unknown place somewhere else.
So the word 'ghost', a cemetery, and a madam formed the basis of my story. Then I let my imagination roam.