Millennial Tales of Terror
True Horror Stories from Mercury Writers about Ghosts, Serial Killers, and the Worst Date Ever
By Suzette Smith
For a while, I lived in a Detroit mansion. It had three stories, two wings, 10 bedrooms, and a ceiling that was falling in. The mansion was rife with haunts. One guest saw a woman in white running down a hall (from the corner of her eye). Windows opened mysteriously. Weather got in. But the rent was cheap.
One summer day, in the middle of the afternoon, Dylan—an English major that lived on the second floor—announced he was going to teach himself how to dance. I rarely saw Dylan except when he was involved in a new scheme. He was big on single tasks, taken up randomly, that consumed all his energy. Afterward he would return to his room for another calendar season. Dylan decided he was going to learn “the worm.” Confidence was going to be acquired. He detached every mirrored surface in the house and carried them down to the basement. After much fussing, he arranged the mirrors along the cellar’s red walls, got a boombox out and started warming up to Michael Jackson. I wasn’t in the cellar, but I’ve seen Dylan dance so I can easily describe it. There’s usually a lot of elbow work. Sometimes he shakes his whole body like a dusty rug.
From the depths of the cellar, Dylan began to scream.
“Dylan!” I called down the stairs. “What happened?” Was it a dead animal? Or, more likely, ennui?
Suddenly, Twiggy from the third floor was also screaming. Maybe it was bees?
Dylan crept up the stairs, sweaty and wide-eyed. Together we ran up the claustrophobic back spiral stairs to Twiggy’s room. She was sitting on her floor, covered in Chinese food. Her bedroom window was shattered, blown out from the inside. The wind howled loudly against it, sounding like a plane on a tarmac. Twiggy began to cry. She had no memory of screaming or knowledge of why her takeout was all over the room.
Dylan finally let it spill that he’d been dancing to “Smooth Criminal” when a black shadow slunk out of a corner and stood up to human height, shuffling like it was made of paper. He watched its reflection in the mirrors and saw it slide along the wall curve—slowly at first—before it shot suddenly up the spiral staircase. He hadn’t stopped dancing and was unaware that he was even screaming until he heard Twiggy screaming too. In addition, he said, he was moving out.
It was not the appropriate time to call dibs on his room—but I did get his room. It was the biggest.
After Dylan’s famous dance exorcism we were no longer haunted. I thought it was ridiculous that we’d exorcised the house with “Smooth Criminal.” We still had a shitty landlord and after a while we had to move out because he was stealing utilities from the city. But the house stayed vacant, and sometimes I’d sneak back into the mansion and walk around in the dark. Even under those illicit circumstances, that mansion felt safe and warm—like grandma’s house—for the rest of its days.
The Ghost of East Reed
By Hutch Harris
Growing up, I was always skeptical about the afterlife despite being raised Catholic. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. I thought that when we die, only cold dirt and worms waited. I was never afraid of ghosts, because I didn’t believe in them.
When I was 19, I moved into a 100-year-old house that a few friends of mine rented on East Reed Street in downtown San Jose, California. My friends were musicians, like me, except they were good at music. They had a shoegazer indie band called Duster. Their songs were beautiful but gloomy, much like Clay Parton, the lead singer. Parton is a brilliant songwriter, but has a dark, tortured energy to him, like many great artists. I would later hear, from an occult-obsessed acquaintance of mine, that spirits in the afterworld are drawn to homes or people with dark energy.
My room was small, in the back of the house. There was a padlock hinge on the outside of the room, and a rectangular hole cut out at the bottom of the door. I didn’t think much about either when I moved in. The hole in the door was useful; Clay had an adorable Himalayan cat that would use it to sneak into my room and sleep with me.
The first night I was home by myself, I was positive I had an encounter with a ghost. I was sitting on the couch, reading. I heard a faint humming at first, a low, hollow ringing sound, like the noise made by those old whistle tube toys that children swing in circles. I heard the cellar door open in the back yard and bang up against the back wall of the house. Then I heard the back door open and close as if someone had quickly entered. I asked who was there—to no reply. I felt such a strong presence, but saw no one when I peeked into the kitchen. Terrified, I ran out the front door and down the block.
I didn’t stay out of the house for long. It was winter, and too cold to linger outside, ghost or no ghost. When my roommates got home I told them what happened, and they weren’t surprised at all. They also believed there was a ghost in the house, but neglected to say anything about it before I moved in.
They told me that decades earlier, an insane man had lived and died in the house. His family had kept him locked up—in the back room, my room—hence the padlock and hole in the door, which was used to pass food to him. This was information that may have been helpful to me when I was deciding whether this was the right room to move into. Despite passing away, the old man was still very much at home. Even the cat knew. Often at night you could see it watching someone walk around the house. Someone we couldn’t see—but knew was there.
Six Degrees of Ted Bundy
by Megan Burbank
Maybe it was because the crime-tempering influence of Roe v. Wade had yet to sink in, or because hitchhiking was still seen as a normal way to travel, or—if you ask Reddit—traumatized ex-soldiers were raising traumatized kids, but whatever the reason, the ’70s and ’80s were a particularly dark time for serial killer activity. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Pacific Northwest, where Ted Bundy abducted and murdered at least 20 young women starting in 1974, and Gary Ridgway killed at least 71 women in the ’80s.
Bundy was executed in Florida in 1989 after a killing spree in a Tallahassee sorority house, but Ridgway avoided detection for decades. I was a high school freshman in Seattle the year he was finally caught. Pre-tech-boom Seattle was then a muddy frontierland, a city as famous for its serial killers as its bad weather, and not much else. Bundy and Ridgway’s “active periods” (a euphemism if ever there was one) had been so close together that some members of law enforcement who’d tracked Bundy were now serving on the Green River task force.
I grew up following updates on the case in the paper and hearing stories about Bundy, feeding a nascent morbid curiosity that factored into my interest in journalism perhaps more than I’d care to admit. It was a surreal experience when, interning at our sister paper The Stranger as a young adult, I was sent to cover a presser on new evidence in the GRK case, a case that had been open since before I was born.
But I didn’t find out about my mom’s six degrees from Bundy until later. My mother had been a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia when Bundy abducted fellow Greener Donna Gail Manson in 1974. Manson’s body was never found.
Ridgway, like many serial killers, avoided detection from law enforcement by targeting women living on the margins, whose disappearances he assumed wouldn’t be noticed: Driven by a horrific, depressingly banal violent misogyny, he almost exclusively murdered sex workers he picked up on Highway 99. But Bundy intentionally went after women whose disappearances would be noted quickly. Almost all of Bundy’s victims fit a specific profile that crime writer and onetime Bundy acquaintance Ann Rule has matched to an ex-girlfriend of his in the tremendously creepy true-crime classic The Stranger Beside Me: The majority of the Bundy victims were educated, college-aged, petite white women with long, center-parted straight brown hair.
This, my mother explained to me after I’d fallen down a serial killers Wikipedia hole on a visit home, was exactly what she’d looked like in college.
Almost every woman I know who grew up in the Pacific Northwest has a story like this, always about a serial killer: It could have been me, or it could have been my mom or my sister—even though most of the time it really couldn’t have been, especially in the case of Ridgway, who murdered the most marginalized women he could find.
Even Ann Rule, during her lifetime covering violent crime in the Pacific Northwest, reported hearing from women claiming near misses with Bundy. Why do we tell these stories? Why do we fixate on these men who hate women? Given that one in six women are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, and that one-third of women murdered in the US are killed by intimate partners, it may be a way to acknowledge the threat of violence we live with every day, to contain it within one or two monstrous men and hope that by doing so, our own luck will hold.
Like some other men fixated on abusing and degrading women, Ted Bundy was an active member of the Republican Party, and a friend of my mom’s met him while they were both working at the State Capitol. He asked my mom’s friend out, and the woman went on a date with Ted Bundy, although she of course didn’t know then he was that Ted Bundy. The relationship was short-lived. My mom says her friend broke things off pretty quickly because he seemed creepy.
Whenever I’m in a situation where I get a bad vibe off a dude and am reluctant to do something rude because of it, I remember that.
I Broke a Headstone at Lone Fir Cemetery
by Morgan Troper
The house I spent part of my childhood in was, in all likelihood, a paranormal paradise. It was perched on top of a hill, there were rumors that one of the previous tenants had died in the master bedroom, and latched doors would inexplicably open and close in the middle of the night. My lack of imagination as a kid prevented me from ever appreciating the very real possibility that I was living in a Haunted McMansion.
And while I’m still skeptical of phenomena that can’t be explained scientifically—with the exception of astrology, which is just too much fun—I’ve had some strange things happen to me in Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery.
It was a tradition at my artsy high school for the student body to perform community service the first week of school. My senior year, we were put on a bus and sent to Lone Fir to clean headstones for an entire day.
Each student was given a brush and a small bucket of cleaning solution. The goal was to scrub away the coagulated dirt and moss that had made some of the engravings hard to read. Most of the dirtier graves seemed to be located in the far corners of the cemetery.
My knack to “over-clean” finally burned me. I must have spent half an hour scrubbing a large stone cross at an ornate gravesite, until it finally broke. Horrified, I looked down at the engraving, which honored a toddler who had died in the early 1900s. “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever,” it read. I stared at the words for what felt like 10 uninterrupted minutes. I had committed the ultimate crime against the dead—I had tampered with their burial ground.
Then I heard someone say my name. It wasn’t quite a whisper, but it was certainly an “inside voice.” I immediately turned around, but saw no one. Unless you count Claritin, I was not on drugs.
So I inconspicuously tottered back to the center of the graveyard, making my way to the designated meet-up point by the mausoleum. But no one was there—more time had elapsed than I thought. I was apparently fixated on the grave I had inadvertently destroyed for over an hour, only to be transferred back to reality by the illusion (?) that someone was calling my name.
I hurried to the bus stop, and thankfully, my classmates were still waiting there, “What the fuck? I thought you went home,” my friend Martin said. Apparently a few of my friends had tried searching for me in vain—they thought I was playing hooky, as I was wont to do. I dared not tell them—or anyone else, except for the Mercury’s entire readership, right now—otherwise. If you’re the baby ghost whose home I ruined and you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
Make Room for Daddy
by Joe Streckert
“Oh, I don’t drink coffee,” she said as we sat down at a coffee shop, “but you suggested this place, so I said yes.”
Had the worst date of my life been a horror movie, this is where the ominous music would have started, thrumming over a shot that lingers just a second too long. I sipped on a latte. She sipped on nothing. I asked her why she moved to Oregon. I might as well have picked up a strange hitchhiker.
Almost immediately, she dove into her family backstory about her step-mom and father. Or rather, “daddy.” She always called him “Daddy.”
She talked a lot about her step-mom. She hated her step-mom, went on about what a bitch she was, how she wasn’t right for Daddy, how Daddy could have done so much better. She talked about Daddy. Daddy was wonderful. Daddy was amazing. She missed Daddy.
Daddy used to be worth over two million.
Daddy, she said, would still be worth over two million if he hadn’t done time for child pornography.
If this were a movie, this would be the first appearance of Leatherface—the brief, violent shock that comes after the first act of a slow build.
Oh, she said, don’t worry. It wasn’t bad. It’s not like they were five or six. They were all over 10. Some were even 16! And it wasn’t like Daddy was taking the pictures. He was just running all the servers. That was all. Daddy didn’t deserve those two years in jail. Sure, it was child pornography—but it wasn’t, you know, the BAD kind.
I got up and went to the bathroom. I did not actually need to use the bathroom. I looked for windows, vents—anything that could hasten my escape. There were none.
When I returned, she was on her phone. “Bye, Daddy!” she said, “I’ve got to go. Joe’s back!” She hung up. “That was Daddy,” she said. She was smiling.
We left the coffee shop and she took my arm. “Just so you know,” she said, “I am a virgin, so you’ll have to be gentle with me.” Maybe, she said, we could do some rough stuff later, but I would have to be nice at first. Her hand was on my shoulder.
At this point, the average audience member watching this movie would have shouted “Run!” at the screen. I didn’t run. Not quite then. I half thought about it. I had a very real opportunity to have sex with this woman. This woman who terrified me. I almost wanted to. I kind of did want to.
But I didn’t. I made my excuses and left. I walked home alone and played video games. I don’t know if she was angry with me, annoyed, or anything else for leaving so suddenly—but I’m sure she told Daddy all about it later.