We don’t trick-or-treat around the neighborhood since, for most of us, there is no neighborhood. Here we get treats out of car trunks—painstakingly decorated trunks exhaling clouds of fog-filled bubbles or lined with severed limbs oozing glowing zombie blood.
Instead of carving pumpkins at Halloween parties, out here we hurl pumpkins shot-put style into our host’s sheep pen where they explode wonderfully, to the delight of the sheep and our children both.
All pumpkin-hurlers are declared winners by our host, a sort of wolfman/mummy who wraps his hairy visage in toilet paper for the occasion, and we advance to the next challenge. While our children stick their hands into plastic skulls brimming with Jell-O salad to pick out marshmallows and candy corn, we parents are made to taste the contents of ugly goblets filled with faintly familiar potions that bring on strange transformations.
Then, after enough potion is imbibed, follows the single tradition that has drifted unchanged over the misty waters around our peninsula for a century: telling ghost stories around a fire. Beneath the sinister gaze of whatever lurks in the darkness beyond the firelight, each of us dredges up some spectral experience, usually not our own, filling in the blanks from the well of collective memory.
When it’s the children’s turn, before the glowing embers of flaring marshmallows and melting candy corn, we are surprised to hear that they too can dip into that well, and they speak as one about their local, shared terror: the Ghost Dog of Vaughn Elementary.
According to our second-graders, back in Indian times, a large dog (“probably like that Baskerville one”) was killed by something even worse just over the fence from the soccer field. (“The teachers found the bones.”) Ever since, the dog’s ghost has roamed that lonely corner of the playground, occasionally howling at wandering preschoolers or thoughtless parents who park on the grass. It even sometimes enters the building (“especially on pizza day”).
We drive home in our old convertible under the dying crescent of the Harvest Moon. The family wants the top up, citing fears of frostbite and ghost dogs, but they know my policy: top down in dry weather when I’m driving. And I am enjoying the communal fear as we roll by the darkened school, so close to home.
“There probably really isn’t any ghost dog anyway,” says my son, hopefully.
I do not tell him Ghost Dog is a story attached to every cemetery, moor and country lane in the Western Hemisphere, because I am still fond of the ghosts I grew up with. There was the one that lived under my first bedroom (a family of skunks). There were the spirits of Confederate soldiers nightly foraging outside my summer camp cabin (feral pigs). Then came the ghost in my first apartment that knocked glasses off of shelves at all hours and habitually unplugged my alarm clock (a fat gray squirrel we surprised in the oatmeal one day).
Besides, I’d already dispatched Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Was I really going to continue this massacre of imagination by exorcising Ghost Dog, too?
The looming black trees that line our lonely gravel road hung lower that night, brushing the sides of the car and the tops of our heads with cold, damp tendrils as we slowly coasted into the yard. Suddenly, a horribly loud animal scream tore open the night–piercing, grating, and richly terrifying.
“WHAT WAS THAT!” demanded the boy. I recognized it as a peacock that often escapes from a distant neighbor, gets lost, then makes that awful, ear-splitting cry for help.
But all I said was, “I think you know.”