Halloween episodes are the pumpkin spice lattes of the cultural world. Each October they become, suddenly, ubiquitous. They lend a dash of adventurous flavor to a comforting, if somewhat bland, offering. Our familiar sitcoms take brief inroads into horror. These forays into fear are usually tongue-in-cheek, collapsing horror entirely into comedy. (One exception might be The Simpsons, whose Halloween episodes serve up grotesque visuals that left my nine-year-old hair standing on end.)
Our familiar beverages, likewise, modify themselves in a way that is formulaic and expected but delicious nonetheless. These are the joys of the seasonal: an interruption of homogeneity (the same predictable show, the same predictable beverage, finally gets a twist), but an interruption that offers predictability of another kind. No Halloween sitcom episode ever shocks, and after your first pumpkin spice latte, the item becomes just part of the menu.
This American Life’s celebration of Halloween is no exception to this trend—nor should it be, given the presumably disproportionate number of latte-drinkers that tune into the show. But This American Life, as a journalistic non-fiction program, is hemmed in from tipping into the supernatural. So the producers have the challenge of bringing us scary stories that are true.
The Halloween episode’s introductory segment brings to light a “true” ghost story that appeared in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. A woman, identified only as Mrs. H, reports a strange series of events that happens to her and her family once they move into a gloomy old house. She and her children are held down in their beds by unseen figures. Their bedclothes are jerked off them suddenly. Mrs. H wakes one night and sees, sitting at the foot of her bed, a man and a woman (the latter wearing “a large picture hat”).
It turns out the family’s furnace is sending carbon monoxide fumes into the house instead of up the chimney, making the family feel sick and experience hallucinations. They fix the furnace and the hauntings stop.
After the introductory segment, I feared the entire episode would be devoted to providing scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena—an exercise whose entertainment value would diminish with each successive segment. The episode turns quickly, however, to stories that are spooky but not supernatural. The first act recounts a woman’s harrowing attack by a rabid raccoon. She has to wrestle the animal to the ground and wait for help from her husband and brother, who slowly—and gruesomely—beat the creature to death with a tire iron. The second act brings us an adolescent memory of two teenage brothers who try to hitch a ride on Martha’s Vineyard and are nearly abducted for some unknown cult-y purpose: the vehicle takes them to a graveyard and begins circling a Jesus statue, at which point the boys leap from the car.
The third segment invites readers to call in and share stories about the most terrifying and powerful entities in many people’s lives: their parents. And in the delightful last act, David Sedaris tells us about his time spent managing dead bodies at a medical examiner’s office in 1997.
I listened to this podcast in a way I never had before: while running. Never before had I listened to anything—not music, not lectures, not a podcast—while running, walking, or biking. As my fellow writers and editors on this website know, I am a notorious “late adopter” of technology. (The first podcast I reviewed for this site was perhaps the third podcast I’d ever listened to.) But this week, decked with an armband and hooked earphones that snarled around my lobes (I looked obnoxious), I set out, Ira Glass speaking in time with my footfalls.
In England, where I live, it gets dark early. And abruptly. I loped along a river shadowed on each side by trees, nodding to fellow joggers, ducking aside to give room to the occasional cyclist. The river had little starlight or moonlight to reflect. It looked sleek and black, like shiny asphalt, its surface betraying no hint of a current. And then I was alone, running headlong into a void, listening to a woman with a New York accent recount how she fought off a 30-pound raccoon.
When I was a junior in high school, a bat bit me when I was on a run near dusk. My medical history is a litany of common infections—colds, flus, strep throat—and, out of nowhere, rabies. My story is banal in comparison to the raccoon episode, but I sympathized with the woman’s struggle to get the vaccinations she needed: the rabies treatments are very expensive, and rabies exposure can be hard to prove.
As I ran farther, I heard—or thought I heard—rustling in the trees nearby. A bird screeched. I thought back to one of the first conversations I had upon moving to England. It was with a British woman who asked me if the United States was “dangerous”—not because we collectively own about 300 million guns, but because our forests were allegedly overrun with bears, cougars, and other predators. What kind of wildlife does England have, I wondered? No lights, no other joggers: I was the only person this far up the bank.
I turned and sprinted back to civilization.
So, congratulations, This American Life: you spooked me.
Readers, enjoy this Halloween episode: best listened to while running at night, or sipping on your pumpkin spice latte.
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