by Erica Gingerich
Halloween my sophomore year of university was one of those scintillating and gloriously bright Midwest fall days that had you humming Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”—the line where he was frolicking in the autumn mist and all that. You so GOT that song on days like these.
Grooving along to the music in my head, feeling all young, sassy, pretty smarth and satisfied with life, I was halfway through the slog of another semester and pretty much halfway done with my four (which actually turned out to be more like five … okay, actually, closer to six) years of lying prostrate before the higher mind and all before I got my papers and I was free. So it took me a bit to come out of my “ode to autumn” reverie and realize there had been a guy trailing after me for the past minute and calling out “Yoko Ono!” “Yoko Ono!” to my back.
I stopped. Looked around. Not a single Japanese girl in sight. Just me. Who the FUCK was this guy talking to? Then I looked at him.
“Excuse me, um. Huh?”
He ambled closer—tall, dark, and all gorgeous. On a campus full of dull farmers’ sons and oafish, spoiled Chicago frat boys, I had somehow managed to pull a man who looked like … I dunno … the lovechild of Gregory Peck and the hottest Eurotrash French man you could imagine … into my orbit.
Okay—gorgeous, but all crunchy-alternative art-major gorgeous. Probably maybe smelly. That stubble definitely looked scratchy. But he was hot. But wasn’t there also something kinda weird about his eyes? Was it just the intense reflection of the deep blue October sky? Or was there something a bit too desperate, frantic?
He was messy-handsome, like he had just returned from modeling for some Better Homes and Gardens photo shoot trying to convince the housewives of America that they really COULD make the shabby chic trend WORK well in the sterility of their suburban homes. New sofas that had been artfully distressed to look threadbare—on sale at Crate and Barrel!
A faint hint of patchouli wafted off of Mr. Art Major. Not enough to be off-putting, though. But I was pretty sensitive to patchouli, and the kind of man who would wear it, back then. Nowadays, as a more mature 40-something, I’ve learned to appreciate all the medicinal and spiritual properties that the oil of this fragrant bush has to offer. But as an undergrad? It was like wolfsbane. I did NOT do HIPPIES!
But Mr. Art Major wasn’t wearing quite enough to drive me away. I waited for him to catch his breath and say something.
“Yeah!” he said, all earnest. “You’ve totally got a Plastic Ono vibe going on!”
For a girl who had grown up all over the country, watched ravers rub cocaine into their gums in Atlanta, escaped from a police raid on what turned out to be a gathering of pretty major Pacific Northwest drug dealers at a Seattle cliffside mansion overlooking the Puget Sound (hey, I was only 14 and drinking Coca Cola, I swear!), gotten into the Goth and clubbing scene and somehow stumbled into a porn production in a San Diego beachhouse (but I swear I didn’t take my clothing off!) but who was now stuck back in “boring little old” Iowa City, Iowa, ’cause that’s where she got the scholarship money from—being told I was cool like an early ’70s conceptual art rocker totally appealed to my vanity. I’ve seen some weird shit and some kooky characters, I thought to myself. THIS guy seems normal compared to some of THOSE people! What’s to be worried about?
So I smiled at him. Let my guard down. Took off my big black rock star sunglasses that had 100 percent cool and zero percent UVA or UVB protection to show I was okay with more interaction. Totally ignored the fact that with my sunglasses off, it was completely apparent that it wasn’t the blue October sky reflecting from this guy’s eyes that made him look weird. It was his eyes that made him look weird. Something wasn’t quite all there behind those eyeballs.
Now—both THAT AND the whole Yoko reference should have probably been the first big red flag that this guy was fucking nuts—I DON’T look like Yoko Ono, not even one bit. As a 5’10” Caucasian chick with a honker-size nose that made me look more Jeff Goldblum than Japanese, I was the antithesis of a cute little Nippon chick. But I just thought, okay, he’s obviously alternative and creative and all of that. Like Andy Warhol, but straight. And maybe it’s the blue-black dye job he’s talking about? And how many men do you have running after you here in Iowa City, Iowa, anyway, babes? Maybe I can be his Ultra Violet?
“So it’s Halloween,” he said. Big pause.
“Yeah, it sure is,” I replied. Another big pause.
“So, you doing anything tonight?” His eyes caught the light of the late afternoon October sun.
That evening at eight p.m. on the dot, ON THE DOT!!!, my doorbell rang. Red flag number two—and a BIG ONE! When did a college boy show up on time if he wasn’t some asshole business major trying to brownnose at a recruiting fair his final semester of senior year?
So of course I knew it was my hot-boy date coming to pick me up. I just flung the door open all insouciantly without even checking through the peephole to see who it was ’cause I wanted to be all worldly and carefree. Would Ultra Violet be all scared and checking through the security peephole? NO WAY!
Looming there in the apartment building’s poorly lit hallway was the Headless Horseman. I took a huge step back into my apartment. The tall figure was garbed in an old-fashioned-looking, black wool, three-piece suit that looked like it had been stolen from one of the Mennonites who lived in the Amana Colonies down the road. It lurched toward me, arms extended.
There was a Jack-O-Lantern where there should have been a head. Couldn’t see the eyes. Maybe there WEREN’T ANY EYES.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I screamed, and slammed the door on the Headless Horseman. I fumbled with the security chain lock just in case he tried to hack his way in with the axe I had noticed he was also carrying.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I hissed to myself. I waited for the first axe blow into the student-slum-housing apartment door. NO WAY that door was going to hold for longer than two minutes, tops! I started to hyperventilate. “Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh,” I was whispering to myself. Waiting for the axe blade to come busting through like in a scary Stephen King thriller.
Instead, a polite, almost tentative knock came a few seconds later. The Headless Horseman wasn’t hacking through the door to get me. Oh no, he was being tricky. Trying to get me to open the door so he could chop off my head and return to Hell with my skull without having to go to all that trouble!
“Erica?” he asked, his voice muffled by the inch-thick layer of vegetal material covering his head.
“Yeah?” I croaked back. Didn’t like how scared that sounded. Took a deep breath. Gathered myself. Tried to sound tough. “What the FUCK do you think you’re doing?”
“Awwwwwww, it’s Halloween, I just thought I’d SURPRISE YOU,” he said through the door. And his pumpkin shell.
“Are you KIDDING ME? Seriously? If YOU DON’T TAKE THAT PUMPKIN OFF YOUR HEAD THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL I’M OPENING THIS DOOR!”
I heard him struggling to get the thing off his head, then the sound of the fleshy gourd hitting the floor.
“Okay,” he said.
This time, I DID check through the peephole before being so foolish as to just open the drawbridge and let the Headless Horseman come galloping into the compound a second time. My hand shook as I released the chain and the lock and opened the door. Mr. Art Major was standing there with his hair plastered all damp and pumpkin-slimy to his face. There were bits of orange pulp and even a seed or two stuck in his hair.
“Um,” I said as I tried to pick the biggest pieces out of his hair.
Getting that close to him was a bad idea. The patchouli (had he just applied more of that shit instead of actually showering before he came to pick me up? Damn, he’s a hippie after all!) had mixed with that fresh pumpkin smell—you know, the smell of pumpkin that hits you and makes you ever-so-slightly nauseated when you reach in to remove the first handful of pumpkin innards?
Yeah. That’s what my date smelled like. Patchouli and pumpkin guts. And a whiff of the cedar chest I bet those Mennonite dudes had been storing that wool suit in.
But he was inviting me out to dinner, and I was HUNGRY. Not like, oh, I didn’t have lunch today hungry, but more of an I’m working full time as a Wal Mart cashier to pay my way through university and supplement that AWESOME scholarship they gave me that doesn’t even cover the cost of my books for one semester … and I have to decide whether to pay my rent this week or eat kinda hungry.
So smell or no smell, I took his hand and let him take me to dinner. He brought the Jack-O-Lantern with him.
“You are NOT putting that back on this evening!” I said to him. “And most certainly NOT in the damned restaurant!” He agreed to leave it in the backseat of my car so there’d be no sudden urge to sneak it on when I visited the ladies’ room.
He gave me a sheepish grin. But the glint in his eyes was all wolfish. “But it’s Halloween!” he said.
He took me to a nice restaurant for dinner. Okay, I drove because he didn’t have a car, but you get the point. Almost no other undergrads in sight. Red flag number three, right? What 20-year-old college boy takes a girl to a nice Italian place for dinner when most guys think they’re gonna get you to spread your legs open with a six pack of beer and a pizza delivery?
He even splurged on a bottle of wine. And then another. I was mostly a teetotaler back then ’cause it’s hard to work full-time and then spend all day going to classes, so Mr. Artsy drank wine. Two bottles of it. I drank water. He talked about his artwork. Something something about El Greco being one of his big inspirations. Red flag #……..?????
After dinner, we took a walk around the campus, the Indian Summer night all lit up and an almost-full moon spookifying the night sky. How romantic? How GOTH ROMANTIC, I thought. ME, a Goth Yoko Ono, and my creative-crazy-scary-Pumpkinhead-art-student-freak date.
This might have some potential, I thought to myself. The two bottles of wine had dulled the glint in his eyes somewhat.
Pumpkinhead suggested we go back to his place.
Now, I was never THAT kind of girl. Really. Really!
But I thought, well, this might be good for a make-out session at the least. But this dude is simply GONNA have to wash that dried-on pumpkin slime outta his hair before I even touch him! He asked me to drive, because he was drunk.
So we went back to his place. A few miles from downtown and the main campus. It was a beautiful old Victorian house. One of those houses that landlords in my Midwest university town would have chopped up into 15 different studio units to max out their profit on desperate undergrads looking for shelter.
But when we walked up through the front yard – the leaves still on the century-old oak trees whispering softly in the mild breeze—up the stairs to the huge wooden front porch and to the front door, there was only ONE name above the doorbell. Not 15.
Okay, that’s weird, I thought to myself. Red flag? This is a REALLY BIG HOUSE. Hmmm. Maybe this … maybe he lives with his parents or something?
Uh uh. When he unlocked the door and we walked in, it was DEVOID of furniture or anything indicating that normal people lived there. There were canvasses propped against all the walls. In the dark, I couldn’t really make out what the subject matter was. But the bold black brushstrokes looked … violent in the moonlight coming through the curtainless windows. I was startled by a mannequin dressed in a ballgown in the corner of what would have normally been the dining room.
No sign of roommates, or parents, or anyone else living in the house. Pumpkinhead lives here alone, I realized.
Alarm bells! Baaaaad gut feeling! RED FLAG NUMBER FUCKING NINETY-EIGHT! But, naw. I was smarth, and worldly, and sophisticated. It was an adventure! Would Ultra Violet get weirded out by this kind of pedestrian clichéd shit? Yoko Ono would be laughing her ass off. Right? Right?
So I thought, okay, be cool, Erica. This guy’s just really out-there alternative. He’s an artiste. He’s supposed to live in a place like this. Artists don’t need furniture, even if it’s shabby chic! It’s OKAY. Oh, and by the way, he’s REALLY HOT, did you forget THAT, Erica? How many hot straight guys are out there who care about shit like art and culture and Japanese feminists and who take you out to a nice restaurant and several hours into the date still haven’t tried to rip your skirt off? Yeah, exactly five on the entire planet, so just BE COOL!
He was saying something something about the the house being on the state’s historical register. That it was one of the most well-preserved examples of Victorian architecture in the whole of the Midwest. He walked me from the ground floor up to the second to show me historical features like this and that and whatever … the sort of details that made Victorian houses so fascinating. I relaxed a bit. Chided myself inwardly for having been so freaked out earlier by this guy. Okay, sure, he DID arrive for our date wearing a pumpkin on his head. But just how DANGEROUS can a guy who waxes poetic about wainscoting actually be? Relax, babes, I thought to myself. And I finally did relax. For all of about the next five minutes or so.
“And what the historical society said was most notable about this particular house,” Mr. Art Student-cum-Architect-Major explained to me, “is the fact that up in the attic are the original stained glass windows the man who built the house had imported it all the way from EUROPE.
“Wanna go look at the windows, Erica?” he asked me.
Not really, I was thinking, because it was well past midnight by that point, I had to start work at nine the next morning, and something about the historical tour had totally killed my interest in making out with Mr. Art Major whatsoever. I just wanted to get done with the tour, say goodnight, go home and snuggle into my own little student futon—without the smell of hippie all over me. And honestly, something about him was really starting to irritate me at that point—not just the patchouli smell and bits of dried pumpkin pulp that were flaking out of hair like orange dandruff but just that he was so insistent about showing me the fucking stained glass windows in the attic.
Dear reader—at this point if you were watching a horror movie, you’d be shouting at the heroine on screen NOT TO GO UP INTO THAT ATTIC! wouldn’t you?
We stood beneath the trap door in the ceiling that led to the attic. My tour guide stretched up on his tippietoes and grabbed the rope dangling from a hook and pulled the door open. A dry attic smell and a chilly draft of air emanated from above.
“There aren’t any fold-out stairs,” I said. “How are we supposed to get up there?”
“Oh, yeah, totally forgot to get the ladder….” he stammered. “Well, if you don’t mind, I could just lift you up there on my shoulders and you can have a look,” he said.
Super dumbfuck me agreed. He crouched down, I straddled his neck, GAGGING ON A BIG BLAST OF DRIED PUMPKIN SLIME as I had to grab onto his crispy hair to stay aloft! He wobbled back to his feet (total non sequiter thought that popped into my head at that point: “this must be what it feels like to be a small woman who is always getting picked up and carried around by men,” I thought in amazement! “I’ve been too big and heavy for anyone to pick me up like this since I was about age seven! Wow, this makes me feel all cute and little. Like a tiny Japanese lady or something…”)…….. and there I was, my head just barely above the hole in the floor and me hanging onto the edge to keep my balance.
The attic was indeed filled with amazing stained glass windows where the ceiling met with the floor … narrow, foot-tall stained glass in flower and ivy motifs. But the moonlight that had looked so romantic earlier that evening just looked ominous now filtering spookily through the stained glass and casting strange patterns and colors across the dusty attic floorboards.
“Can you see all of them?” he asked.
“Yeah, kind of… lots of flowers and ivy motifs and stuff,” I said.
“Well let me boost you up all the way so that you can really see them all—there’s one with a sunset motif toward the left front side of the house that you HAVE to see…. It’s the biggest one and the most amazing.”
Before I could say “no, no, that’s really okay, I can see them well enough from here,” so that he would let me back down, he gave me a big shove off of his shoulders and into the attic. I had NO IDEA that his slender-ish art-student arms were capable of that much strength. My legs were half dangling—super elegant—out of the hole in the ceiling, so he grabbed my feet and gave me a final push.
“OWWWW!” I hollered down to him as I scraped across the rough attic floor on my belly. “That hurt! And it’s totally dusty up here! I bet this shirt is RUINED NOW THANKS A LOT!”
No answer from below.
As I crawled past the edge of the hole in the floor and carefully stood up in the attic, the trap door came slamming shut behind me with immense force.
“What the hell?”
NO answer from below. And then I realized that I knew EXACTLY what the hell.
Oh fuck o fuck o fuck o fuck! I thought to myself. You’ve seen this movie before, Erica! And it does NOT end well for the girl trapped in the attic!
All the red flags I had blithely ignored all evening flashed through my mind.
Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuckedy fuck fuck! I thought to myself…… I was RIGHT! My gut feeling was RIGHT about him when we first talked this afternoon! He’s crazy! He’s evil! I AM on a date with The HEADLESS HORSEMAN / TED BUNDY / CHARLES MANSON! Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!
I could hear him below…. trundling back down the stairs. To do WHAT? To GET what? The PROBABLY HUGE carving knife he had used to make that Jack-O-Lantern earlier in the day? Was he going to grab the ladder so that he wouldn’t have to lift himself up into the attic and risk having me kick his head when it emerged above the hole?
Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck! I started panicking for the second time that evening. This had turned into the DATE FROM HELL! Seriously. It was the worst Halloween EVER!
“You’re such an idiot!” I said out loud to myself. I was hyperventilating, then running around the attic in circles, stumbling over old boxes, discarded clothing (FROM WHOM? AND FROM WHAT YEAR? I wondered)…. Looking for some way out. Wondering if there were any corpses lying around. I remember thinking how disappointed my Mom was going to be that her smarth, university-scholarship daughter was going to end up getting offed in this manner.
But then I caught myself. “No way, Mom. That’s not how it’s gonna happen!” But there was no way out besides back down through the trap door. Assuming Ted Bundy was gonna be back up soon to finish me off, I couldn’t risk that route. I’d have to find something to use as a weapon and then wait for him to come up.
I looked around frantically. Nothing but old boxes and scattered clothing. That was it. No baseball bats, maces, old revolvers, old floor lamps, vases or ANY of the other kind of cast-off shit a NORMAL attic would have lying around. NOTHING I could use as a weapon.
Then I heard Ted / Pumpkinhead / Charlie coming back up the stairs to the second floor. I did another quick scan of the gloomy dark. NOTHING. Not even an old trunk to hide in. Then my eyes rested on the window with the sunset.
Ted Bundy hadn’t been joking when he said that was by far the most amazing of all the stained glass windows in the attic. It was gorgeous. It was a bright red sun with beams radiating out in orange, yellow, and gold. And unlike all the other windows in the attic, it was tall.
Tall enough, actually, for a person to crawl out through I suddenly realized!
“Oh shit, that’s IT!” I said to myself. I heard the serial killer reach the second floor. It sounded like he was putting the ladder into position or something. It was now or never if I was going to make my move.
“I am so sorry Iowa Historical Society people!” I cried to the empty space around me. Then I rushed to the window. Was so glad I was wearing what my dad always called my “dyke boots.” Cause they were the right kind of boots to be wearing for THIS kind of date. Don’t be wearing high heels if you go on a date with a serial killer. They make it harder to run away!
I gave the window a huge kick. The brittle old glass cracked and splintered, but most of the glass and leaded parts stayed put. Another kick. Harder. Then another. I had managed to clear out the center of the window when I heard the trap door start to open. So I kicked out the remaining shards of glass and ………
Poked my head out and looked down, and realized I’d have to dangle and drop two floors to get back to the ground level. There was a ginormous lilac bush right underneath the window that would either break my fall—or all the bones in my body. But I didn’t have a choice at that point. I backed out of the window (so grateful they had made us do these sorts of fire-escape drills as kids, soooooo glad….soooo glad….)….. carefully, trying not to cut myself on the bits of glass still sticking out of the window frame … clung to the windowsill, lowered myself out the window … dangled, and dropped. The lilac branches reached up to grab me. One stabbed through my jeans and into my thigh, but ultimately the whole bush gave way and I fell to the ground. Scratched up and abraded, but not dead.
It’s amazing how flexible the human body is when you’re still that young, isn’t it? Either I hadn’t broken anything, or I was too pumped up on adrenaline to notice that I had broken both arms and legs and my neck.
We can deal with that LATER, I thought.
I got up off the ground (damn my leg hurt! That was for sure gonna need some hydrogen peroxide when I got home, I thought) and hobbled as fast as I could around the side of the house … back out to the driveway where I had parked my car. Oh my gosh this is my karmic reward for being the designated driver tonight!
Every step I took in the dark (’cause goshdarnit if the moon hadn’t decided that was a good time to finally set for the night!) around to the front of the house, I was scared shitless that I was gonna slam into Pumpkinhead or his axe before I reached my car.
But he wasn’t lying in wait for me. I reached the front of the house. Dug into the back pocket of my jeans for my car keys, missed the keyhole because I was trembling so hard, scratching the paint job on the driver’s side door of my old Mazda 666 unlocking the door. I got in and slammed the door shut … and had just fired up the engine when Pumpkinhead came hurtling down the steps of the front porch and rushing toward my car—carrying something ON FIRE in his hands.
He ran up to the side of my car. Ka-THUNK as he banged on the window. The glass thankfully held. I hit the manual lock. Fuck, fuck fuck!
Is this what Jamie Lee Curtis felt like in all those cheesy ’70s horror flicks she starred in? I was sure that Pumpkinhead was going to produce another axe and just bust the car window open, reach in and grab me and finally do what he had been wanting to do all night—decapitate me!!!!
He held what looked to my panicked eyes like a fireball up to the window. But when I looked closer, it was a just a pumpkin pie lit with candles. Candles that were shaped like skeleton fingers.
“Erica! Erica! This was my big Halloween surprise for you! PUMPKIN PIE! I made it from scratch myself! Why are you leaving? Do you want vanilla or butter brickle ice cream on this?” he asked.
That was it for me. I wasn’t going to stick around to hear another word from this lunatic. So I slammed the car into reverse, skidded down the driveway, hit the brakes. Something came flying forward from the backseat and hit the radio console on the dashboard. I screamed again. It was the Jack-O-Lantern that my date had left in the car, now rolling around in the passenger side footwell.
I slammed so hard into drive that the automatic transmission was bitching about it, and DROVE MY ASS HOME.
When I got back to my apartment building, it was two a.m. and completely pitch black in the absence of moonlight. I was sure that every darker spot in the nightscape was going to be Pumpkinhead, magically arrived ahead of me on a demonic steed and waiting for me. Because of course he didn’t have a car.
But he wasn’t there. Not on the street, not under my car, not in the stairwell, not in the hallway leading to my apartment. The phone was ringing when I opened the door and walked into my place. I saw the axe Pumpkinhead had brought with him as part of his ensemble lying on the floor near the sofa. He must have forgotten it.
When I picked it up, I realized it was a plastic toy. Which made me laugh. Sheer nervous-relief laughter that I had survived the worst blind date of my young life. But I still clutched it to my chest as I approached the phone, which had been ringing nonstop for the whole three minutes I had been home. The light on the answering machine was blinking furiously. The mini cassette was full. I counted the blinks. Pumpkinhead had already left over 50 messages for me in the time it had taken me to drive home.
As long as the phone was still ringing, I thought in that era where cell phones were still the exclusive reserve of rich people and nobody normal would have one for another six or seven years, that means he’s still at his house, and not on the way over here to murder me. I gripped the toy axe tighter and crouched down on the floor next to the phone. Should I answer? Talk to him? What should I say? Or should I call the police? Would they even believe me?
Then I surprised myself by laughing out loud in my quiet apartment.
“I bet Yoko Ono would have at least gotten a piece of that damned pumpkin pie after all of that!”