Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: Death Curve Pt. 2

When it comes to Halloween, I've only got ONE rule: Creepy is awesome, but scary is awful.

I love getting good and properly creeped out. If I channel-flip into a show about ghosts or aliens or unexplained weirdness, I can get lost for hours. If there's a campfire, I want to be the one roasting S'mores and hearing about things that go bump in the night.

But there's a difference between creepy and scary. Getting the willies is awesome, whereas having a guy named Willie chase you with a chainsaw is not. There's nothing fun about going to a movie where you're just waiting for the inevitable bogeyman to jump out and murder your face. That's not entertainment; that's just practice for the heart attack I'm already destined to have. No thanks.

So if I hate being scared more than just about anything else in the world, why did I spend tonight in an abandoned graveyard being stalked within an inch of my life by a hellspawn were-cat? It's a story that begins with your everyday harmless run-of-the-mill Death Curve.

If you're looking to get creeped out, you can't do much better than the legendary Cambridge Death Curve. In 1905, a woman named Julia Markham murdered her seven children with an axe. Afterwards, she slit her own throat, set her home ablaze, and later died of her injuries. It remains one of the worst murder-suicides in the history of Illinois -- and it happened just south of Cambridge right in our backyard.

While any sign of the Markham family and their unspeakable tragedy has long been swept from the land, multiple witnesses have reported seeing the apparition of a pale woman dressed in white roaming the fields along the curve of the country road where the Markham house once stood. It's a superb ghost story and the kind of place you just yearn for an experienced paranormal investigator to check out.

Instead, you get me. Last weekend, out of sheer professional journalistic curiosity and not at all because we were bored and I thought it might make for a fun column, I grabbed my best friend Jason and we took a roadtrip to the Death Curve. Our first stop was the nearby Rose Dale Cemetery, where Markham and her children lay in unmarked graves.

And stop was about all we did, because a prominent sign informed us that the cemetery was only open from sunrise to sunset. I decided this column wouldn't sit so well next to a headline of "Local Columnist Arrested for Creeping Around Creepy Cemetery At Night Quite Creepily," so instead we headed out to the Death Curve, where much excitement happened.

Except that it didn't. If you didn't know the back story, the Death Curve could be just another turn on just another country road. There's nothing especially spooky about the cornfields or the roadside, and there was nary an apparition in sight. The legend claims that Markham's ghost makes a repeated beeline from the house to Rose Dale Cemetery, but that would mean her path would go straight through the living rooms of at least two neighboring homes. I, for one, would be really ticked off if my view of "Ghost Hunters" kept getting blocked by a ghost.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, so I have no good explanation as to why I returned to the Death Curve earlier tonight. I just thought maybe it was worth another look-see. But this time, I brought along Sharon Wren, a correspondent for this paper who originally hails from Cambridge. We met up with her pal Rhonda, and this time we made it to Rose Dale with some arguable few moments of daylight remaining. It turns out the Markham grave is no longer unmarked. After research revealed its location, someone placed a small teddy bear figurine on the site. It remains to this day, weather-worn but steadfast.

Townsfolk often leave additional tributes to the Markham family, including Rhonda's friend Vicky, who once tied a pair of bracelets to the teddy bear in memory of the troubled family. Other than a brief mention about it on Facebook, she barely acknowledged the act. Months later, while wintering in Florida, Vicky received an anonymous Christmas card in the mail.

"When you get a chance, drive out to the cemetery and look at Julia Markham's grave," it read. "Keep up your good work and I'll do mine." Attached was a Polaroid of the grave, where a swan and a Christmas tree now accompanied the teddy bear. The note was signed, simply, "The Spirit." To this day, Vicky has no idea who the mysterious caretaker is. That's creepy, and I'm a fan. Then Rhonda spoke up.

"As long as we're ghost hunting," she said, "have you been to the Blue Light Cemetery?"

I was up for an eerie adventure. The Blue Light Cemetery (NOT its real name) is apparantly known to locals who claim a blue orb can be seen at night floating amidst the tombstones.  But what I didn't know is that the Blue Light Cemetery isn't just IN the middle of nowhere. No, it IS the middle of nowhere. It is the place from whence nowhere was born. It is a remote country graveyard at the end of a minimum maintenance road with no signs of life anywhere. You don't have to worry about this place closing at sunset. This was a place seemingly beyond laws. Even Chainsaw Willie would think twice about entering after dark.

And the girls just strolled right on in as I nervously tailed behind going, "Ummm...?" The silence would have been deafening, were it silent. Instead, all you could hear was the non-stop whipping of a nearby wind turbine, louder than it should be, as if the entire cemetery was a David Lynch production. With the advent of solar-powered memorial lights, blue orbs and dancing shadows were everywhere. And that's when the meowing started.

It was nowhere and everywhere, all at once. The sound of a displeased cat rising from the ether, meowing with a sense of haunting urgency. This wasn't creepy, it was downright scary. At least, it was to me. The girls, on the other hand, immediately went, "Aww, kitty!" and started bounding through the graves by the light of their cellphones in search of our feline friend.

I, meanwhile, decided it would be a far better plan to stand petrified in fear and take stock of the situation. Scariest graveyard I'd ever seen? Yep. Absolutely no idea where I was? Correct. Poor night vision? You betcha. Driven here by a complete stranger? Absolutely. No cellphone signal? Affirmative. Being stalked by a disembodied meowing hellcat? Check. Did I just pee a little bit there? Yep.

An hour later, I was back home and thankful to be among the living and the cats WITH bodies. Is there a lesson to be learned in all this? Even at the site of unspeakable tragedy, corn still grows and life goes on. There's power in the past, whether it's a horror no one can forget or a graveyard full of names we should remember. Life can be creepy and life can be scary, but as long as someone's got enough spirit to bring us teddy bears and swans and Christmas trees, we may just be okay. Happy Halloween.

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