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The Haunting of Sarah Gray
I. Night beasts, her mother called them. For ten years, they came in threes, stalking her, always on a full moon, creeping through the century-old Victorian house on the coast of Maine. A precocious youth, Sarah knew these creatures wanted to slice her into bits with their sharp teeth, eat her flesh, and drink her blood.
Her mother Ethel, a dyed-in-the-wool Pentecostal, did nothing to dispel these fears. "Demons are everywhere, darling," Ethel never tired of reminding Sarah over the breakfast, lunch, and dinner they shared in the nook overlooking the gray ocean, "and the Devil rules this planet. Just keep holda the Lord, baby, and you'll be fine." Boasting a sturdy line of Puritan ancestors, Ethel was a tall, gaunt woman, used no make-up, did her mousy hair in a bun, and wore gray or brown dresses reaching her ankles.
Over coffee and pastry, Sarah told me the hauntings began when she was very young. At the encouragement of pastor Edwin Simms, who had studied in a backwater seminary in upstate New York, Ethel had begun reading stories about demonic activity to Sarah when Sarah was five: these graphic tales generally focused upon individual cases of possession or oppression. Sarah’s mother used these stories--hundreds of them--to pound home that she and Sarah inhabited a very dark world. When Sarah reached her eighth birthday, her mind spinning with stories of demon-possessed, knife-wielding children butchering sleeping family members, she couldn't sleep without the hallway light on. During her eighth year, just before she fell asleep, she began hearing rustlings and guttural sounds from the closet of her large bedroom, knew immediately the beasts lurked there, and often woke screaming just before dawn.
By the time she was ten, Sarah had learned that the full moon signaled the coming of the night beasts, which kept to empty rooms, panting in low rhythms and prowling the large house late at night. One night, trembling and sobbing under her covers, Sarah heard the things scratching the floor of the attic just over her room, trying to claw their way through her ceiling. The next morning, Sarah asked her mother if she could be moved into the basement or the dilapidated wooden garage adjoining the house. Her mother refused, convinced that God was allowing the visitations to teach a lesson. "Devil’s everywhere, sweetheart," Ethel said over breakfast between mouthfuls of French toast. "Just cling to Jesus, claim the power of the cross, and everything gone be all right. Old Slue Foot can't touch you."
“I do cling to Jesus,” Sarah said, fighting tears and buttering toast.
“Well,” said Ethel, sipping bitter black coffee, “cling harder.”
By her eleventh birthday, living in a constant state of subdued terror, Sarah was sick of hearing about Jesus and figured her mother, Pastor Ed, and everyone else in the church were “marginally insane,” a phrase she’d picked up at school. Sometimes, Sarah wished for her father, a one-eyed hustler who had left town when Sarah was five for the Canadian Rockies with a former Las Vegas stripper named Candy. Keep in mind that Sarah was an extraordinarily bright girl.
As she grew, Sarah figured the beasts out. By day, the things inhabited the supernatural, a murky realm she imagined to be filled with bat-things and floating body parts; at night, only during a full moon, they passed into the natural realm through a portal located in the Victorian house. Often, as she lay in bed on such nights, Sarah could smell the beasts. Several times, she heard the predators just outside her room and saw their shadows under the door. One stormy December night, as she lay shivering under covers, she heard one of the things nudge open her door, come into her room, jump upon onto her bed, and try to tear away her thick woolen blanket with its paws and teeth. The next morning, Sarah pointed out the scratches on her legs to her mother.
Sarah knew that, Jesus or no Jesus, these huge wolfish things were real and praying to an invisible Savior seemed to make no difference. As she grew, Sarah felt the creatures’ dark furry presence saturating her house and soul with sweet sickly satanic wetness. By age twelve, she knew what the things looked like: they were large, snarling, wolfish black hounds with long yellow sharp teeth and red piercing eyes, and they loped sideways as they walked.
Sarah told me that, during her teen years, as she took an active interest in boys and began reading literature not approved by Ethel and Pastor Ed, the visitations of the night beasts became less frequent, but when they did occur they were terrifying as death. On these nights—every third full moon? she wondered—the black figures filled the big house with a tangible evil, moaning and growling, tormenting the adolescent girl frequently left in charge of the family mansion while her mother went to a weekend church revival. When she was alone, certain that the devil was real as the gnarled oak tree in the front yard, Sarah ran screaming from room to room, hiding in closets, under beds, and in the bathroom. One frantic night, as one of the things stood five feet away, she cut herself with a kitchen knife and then, bleeding on the living room carpet, called upon the cross of Jesus to drive the beast away.
On her senior prom night, full blood-red moon overhead, damp ocean winds howling her name and battering the house, and her mother gone, the night beasts came to get her. This was to be the kill, she decided years later as she related the story to me. Lying on the battered sofa in her family room, Sarah had been reading Edgar Allen Poe and watching Highlander reruns on television while waiting for her date—Ron Murphy, captain of the high school baseball team--when she smelled the old familiar flesh and blood. Sticky sweet it was. She knew Hell had arrived, two of the things roaming the house at a faster pace than ever before; straining to listen, she heard the thump-thump-thump of paws overhead. As she struggled in her mind to find a way out, the big red lamp next to the couch flickered, and the smaller green lamp on top of the TV exploded. Frozen to the couch, heart pounding, Sarah listened intently during the next hour, horror building like pressure in a cooker. Like gnats, the sounds swarmed over and around her.
It was then that Sarah heard violent thumps against the front door, which was visible from the couch. Thinking the sound came from the wind, she turned her thoughts back to her reading. But the thumps became louder, and glancing up, she saw the door bow inward from the force of sudden violent impact. This can’t be, she told herself; this has gotta be someone’s idea of sick joke. It can’t be, it can’t be, she reminded herself. Trembling, she crept to the door, stood near it, waited, hoping that nothing would happen, then screamed and jumped when the thing came crashing against the door again. Breathless, she saw the door bow again inward and heard the wood crack. Unable to command her legs to move, unbelieving, she waited for the thing to send itself crashing against the door, heard the explosion, watched the door sag inward, and this time saw through the cracked wood the black bestial head.
Frightened to the bone, she ran to a small room in the back. There, standing in musty darkness, she heard whining, then a pattering back and forth across the shingles overhead; putting her hands over her ears and crouching like a jittery rabbit, she couldn’t drown the sounds of the third one moaning nearby. Fear shooting through stomach and intestines, she bent over and retched. Sweat dripped from her face and her skin went ice cold as Sarah, sobbing and drooling and now on her hands and knees, asked no one in particular, What should I do? Oh, please, please, please, what, what, what should I do? She knew she was going to die.
For the first time in her life, Sarah heard a still small voice telling her to pray. Pray, Sarah, pray, the voice said. Her trembling lessened and she thought: this cannot be God telling me what to do. She realized that her mother would advise her to do the same. Summoning courage and intelligence, still kneeling and fighting terror, she tried to dismiss the impression that the Maker of Heaven and Earth was communicating with her. She told herself that the beasts could not be real. Determined to break from her mother’s superstitions, she did not want to pray. Come hell or high water, she tried to tell herself to stand on her own.
Her resolve was not enough. A chill piercing her heart, she turned her head to glance behind her, and here, at the window, the thing stared in at her. Trembling, Sarah jumped to her feet and screamed, knowing it was going to come crashing through the window and tear her to bloody bits. Possessed by icy fear that clawed her gut, she bolted from the room and ran to the basement and bounded down the stairs three steps at a time. There, in the damp earthy coldness that her mother referred to as the wormhole, she knew the beasts would never come, for just months before, in a burst of “superstitious tomfoolery” as she later described it to me, she had planted a cross in the cellar soil, and she knew now that if she had the slightest amount of faith the Devil would stay away.
When she came home at three in the morning, shouts of hallelujah echoing in her mind and feeling she had one foot in heaven, Ethel found the front door shattered off its hinges and large muddy prints throughout the house. Hours later, around dawn, she found Sarah huddled and shivering in a corner of the cellar, drenched in sweat, hair dirty and tangles, muttering the Lord's Prayer. “Come to breakfast in about an hour, Sarah Mae Gray,” was all her mother said. Ethel could be a hard woman.
II. Two months later, with the end of school a day away, having been released from a psychiatric care unit, Sarah Gray knew the time had come to break from Ethel and left the Victorian house and at the first light of dawn walked to the next town, twenty miles down the road, and hitch-hiked to Las Vegas. “I’d seen enough craziness to last a life time,” she told me with a wry smile.
For several years, Las Vegas was good to her. Sarah established some roots by enrolling in the community college, where she finished her associate’s degree in four years. To pay for college, housing, and food, she danced in nude bars. A gorgeous and creative stripper, she won some striptease contests, became a regional sensation and started rolling in the dough. Dancing naked gave her a rush that pushed away the bad memories.
For a while, things went well. After nearly completing her Master's in Psychology while still dancing, Sarah was approached one cold March afternoon by one-eyed agent Tom Grifter. Twitching nervously, Tom claimed to have connections with Dark Angel Enterprises and offered to make Sarah deal that she couldn’t refuse. Reassured by the wink from Tom's good eye, she drove to the man's Henderson office the next day and, after watching part of a film, signed on the dotted line. In month, she found herself spreading for the magazines Cheeks, Pink Taco, and Slut City Babes and appearing in the adult film Bangkok Gangbang.Living a life her mother would consider depraved, Sarah hadn’t forgotten Ethel and finally wrote: "I'm a stripper and a star, mother, and I love it. Friends galore. Always something to do. Tell your friends to look for me at the local video store (laugh).” Sarah sent Ethel a copy of her film, knowing her mother would never watch the piece, but would instead drop to her knees and pray. (Sarah even wondered at the time if she were reacting vindictively toward her mother.) As Sarah expected, Ethel wrote back within the month, warning her daughter to be careful. "I love you, honey, but remember the Devil don’t. Devil's like the jack of spades,” Ethel wrote, "and you never know where and when he's going to turn up. Just keep a hold of Jesus. Pray, pray, pray."
While moved by the letter, Sarah decided not to respond, for to respond would be to assent to a world view she no longer wanted to claim, and so she clung to a lifestyle that pushed her near the top of the world of adult entertainment. There she made an enough to buy a sports car, purchase the sexiest clothes, and start up a dance club.
But few of us remain on top. When she was twenty-eight, alone in her west Las Vegas apartment late one cold, windy Saturday night and drinking bitter black coffee to stay awake through the occult classic The Serpent and the Rainbow, the beasts returned with the fury of Macbeth’s witches. This particular evening, Sarah was pleasantly exhausted by the demands of running a nightclub, the success of which depended upon catering to a group of dancers with textbook neuroses, and doing on the side films that required patience, energy, and stamina. Thankful for time alone, certain that she was living in a womb of security, she slouched on her purple couch. Now a striking blonde, she wore the black leather skirt and an open red blouse that had become her trademark; underneath, as was her habit, she wore nothing. She had reached the scene when the film’s hero, Dr. Allen, is buried alive in a Haitian graveyard.
Then Hell came crashing into her life again: the set flickered, the table lamp dimmed, and she heard the large bathroom window shatter. Hoping that someone was playing nasty tricks, she ran to the bathroom, noticed fragments of glass and bloody prints on the floor. It was as she thought. Cold panic coursed through her, and she felt the familiar bloody ooze of eternal night dripping into her soul. Then came the headache that began as a dull sensation at the base of her skull, mounted to excruciating pain, and culminated with a burst of light. When the pain fled, she found herself on her back on the bathroom floor.
Struggling to suppress fear, denying the beasts’ return, she weakly stood and unsteadily walked into the TV room, her senses alert. Her apartment was large, and she knew that the something lurked behind her, perhaps in her own room. Then, she heard the unmistakable panting, coming from the far side of the apartment, and glanced down at the Bible resting open on the coffee table in front of her. Clutching her sanity, she reminded herself over and over that this could not be happening, that the beasts were no longer real.
Confidence disintegrating, she grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the coffee table, removed one, and lit it. Her hands shook, and cold sweat dotted her brow. Smoking, she knew, sometimes eased tension. Trying to steady herself, holding the cigarette between her fingers, she nervously strolled onto her patio, heard the wind blowing through the trees and then, barely distinct, a guttural rumbling. “Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” she whined, her head spinning. “This is not going to happen again.”
She glanced overhead. Through tears, she could see that the full moon was dripping bright crimson into the dark blue night sky. Then, she smelled the flesh and blood, heard her front door slam and another window from the apartment break, heard the heavy and steady patter of wolves’ feet approaching. “Oh, my sweet, sweet Jesus,” she muttered. Telling herself to face the darkness, Sarah leaped instead onto the gray iron railing surrounding her balcony and, just as the huge black things slinked into her TV room, she jumped down into a mulberry bush two stories below. She shrieked as she landed. Her ankle twisted, she quickly picked herself up and did not stop running until she reached her girl friend’s apartments six blocks away.
When she returned to her apartment a week later, Sarah decided it was time to leave Las Vegas and head for the northwest.
IV. On June seventh, 1996, having sold her club, Sarah packed her belongings and, in her cherry-red Dodge pickup, took two and a half days to drive to Point Luce, a small picturesque town situated in a cove on the Pacific coast three hundred and fifty miles north of Seattle on the Canadian coast. The area was beautifully green, the town surrounded by huge mountains and lush forest. Frequent rains kept the air fresh. The only thing Sarah did not like was the fog nine months of the year.
Within the first three months, Sarah put a large deposit on a Victorian-style house on the hill overlooking the town. Settling into her new community, Sarah made friends, attended a Four-Square church, worked as a part-time accountant for a trucking firm and attended the local university to complete her masters. Weeks passed and nothing broke her rhythm. Months passed, and she remained stable.
But after half a year, they returned, like thieves in the night, as Sarah sat alone in her house, protected from the pounding rain and the violent thunderstorm. She was watching Halloween, and in this particular scene Jamie Lee Curtis was trapped in the house with the Michael Myers. Instantly, as if alerted by something in the movie, she knew the night beasts were coming, and, as pain exploded in her head, she heard them come crashing themselves through the windows in her upstairs bedroom with howling fury. The stench of blood and animal flesh thick as oil filled the house. Heart racing, sweating, freezing, she knew the beasts were slinking down the stairs. Fighting panic, Sarah opened the Bible she kept on the coffee table. Her hands shaking, she opened to the 23rd Psalm, began with “The Lord is my shepherd, / I shall not want….”
“It was a desperate, even insane move,” she whispered to me as she related this instance in the back of the pasty shop. Sarah told me that she shouted the prayer aloud over and over until she heard the rain subside to a pleasant drumming on the windows, and knew the beasts had vanished. For the first time since she had left her mother years ago, she felt assured of the presence of something good and far greater than herself.
A week later she visited the office of Dr. Harvey Mellon, a psychologist who also taught an evening seminar entitled Psychology and the Occult: Does the Devil Really Exist? It was ten o'clock at night, coastal winds howling like demons. Wearing tight blue jeans and a loose, thick red sweater, Sarah rested her head against the back of the soft recliner in the semi-darkened office, listening to Dr. Mellon and the branches clawing against the window.
Mellon wore a blue and yellow Hawaiian print shirt one or two sizes too small. The shirt’s last button was undone, and Sarah couldn't take her eye off the man's protruding belly button. "Don't worry your little self about those superstitions,” Mellon droned on. “Devils. Angels. Ghosts. That's all nonsense. What you see," Mellon asserted, whacking his desk with a meaty hand, "is all there is. Ain't nothin' more. You die, it's lights out, sweetheart, and then fade, fade, fade into sweet oblivion. It's the old dance of death, sweetie pie. Actually, I find the thought of annihilation pretty goddamned comforting.”
Sarah cringed and wondered if the devil could assume the form of a therapist who couldn’t distinguish Swiss cheese from schizophrenia. Doesn't this man believe in anything beyond his own appetites? she asked herself. She sensed he was hollow as a drum and dumb as a bag of hammers.
Sarah was not stupid and read the man's thoughts easily enough. She knew that as he slurped coffee and ate an enormous piece of rhubarb pie, the odious man was put out that his best student had requested therapy. “Truly smart people don’t get fucked up,” Mellon had yodeled during one seminar. Too, Sarah knew that Dr. Mellon had undoubtedly seen her on film and hoped to lure her, a former porn queen, into the sack. The prospect of having sex with Dr. Harvey Mellon made her queasy.
"Dr. Mellon, let me tell you once again what happened. Last time the night beasts came, I read form the Bible and they vanished," Sarah said, going slowly so the man could understand her. As she spoke, she realized that Mellon was not interested in her recounting a phenomenon that could ruin his own theory that faith is superstition and myth.
As Mellon stifled a yawn, Sarah could see bits of rhubarb in the man's mouth. Sarah thought to herself that, as a stripper, she would not have danced for this man for five hundred dollars.
"Used the old damn Bible, huh?" Mellon pronounced it "babel." It was the first time during this session that Mellon had responded directly to her own account.
"Yes," said Sarah, growing impatient, "and it worked like a charm. The things left."
"Y'know, I was raised a Southern Baptist myself, my daddy a goddamn hollerin' preacher, but I don't put much credence in that horse shit." Mellon was still chewing his pie and, it seemed in the gathering darkness of the office, lasciviously squinting at Sarah. "Heaven, hell, God, Jesus K-rist, the good ole devil hisself--hell, honey, that’s dog poop."
"Dog poop?" Sarah asked, angry. "Did you say ‘that’s dog poop’?"
"Ah did indeed, little lady, Ah did indeed," responded the man, burping, then lifting another piece of rhubarb pie into his gaping mouth.
Sarah could bear no more. Nothing, she thought to herself, is worth this freak.
"Lemme talk about the damned Bible, little woman," Mellon began, but before he could go on, Sarah rose and began walking to the door.
"Hey, Puss in Boots!" Mellon barked, crumbs tumbling out of his mouth and onto his shirt, "our session ain't through." Pussy Boots had been Sarah’s film name.
"No," countered Sarah, "but I sure as hell am." With this Sarah opened the door, stepped into the night, and left. Dr. Harvey Mellon, she decided walking across the parking lot to her truck, could go fuck himself.
Driving home, Sarah knew she was on her own. To stave off anxiety as she drove the coastal highway, Sarah turned her radio to KOND. Twenty-four hours day, KOND played hard, driving rock, the kind Sarah liked—"Devil music," Ethel had told her years ago—and as she drove she imagined herself dancing nude in Vegas. She knew she should have stayed in Vegas when, through the swirling fog in front of truck, her headlights shone on a shape huge, furry and bloody, lying in the middle of the road. Audibly, a voice told her to stop.
As she slowly drove past, Sarah saw that the thing was a dog, or a wolf, the biggest she had ever seen. The blood around the body told Sarah that the thing had been hit and was dead. Shaken, she pulled her pickup over to the side of the road, stopped, opened the door, and slowly stepped onto the empty highway. She wasn't sure what she was doing. Maybe she was going to pull the thing off the road, as her father would have done. Maybe she was facing fears symbolized by a dead dog.
As Sarah stood looking down at the thing, blood-scent filling the air, the dead animal’s mouth partly open, she noticed its huge yellow teeth and, panic building, put her right hand into the pocket of her black leather jacket where she felt the hand-size metal cross she had stolen from her house in Maine years before. Inhaling slowly, she smelled the thick familiar mixture of blood, fur and rain. The thing’s gotta be dead, she reminded herself. Turning to walk back to her truck, she breathed deeply, looked up at the night sky, and saw a full moon whose bloody hue blended with the swirling fog.
Sarah froze. Low howling came from the forest next to the road. She could hear wood cracking and branches rustling just beyond the highway, and knew something was walking parallel to her. Her heart and head felt like they were going to explode, and as she felt pain building in the back of her neck, Sarah dropped to her knees and felt frozen inside. It was a moment of complete terror. She felt something gripping her throat and running its fingers into her mouth. Holding her head in both hands, trying to scream, she couldn't utter a sound. After vomiting onto the wet pavement, she forced her eyes shut, hoping to squeeze away the fear, which remained like an ice pick in her gut. Alone on the forest highway, late at night, Sarah Gray forced herself to stand, fear knifing her stomach, opened her eyes, and faced her pickup, no more than one hundred feet away.
She remained standing in the middle of the highway, fog thickening, stench of flesh and blood growing thicker. Panicked, suffocating, she turned, looked behind her, and there it was. Yes, there it was, the beast, its head down, snarling, red eyes ablaze, slowly moving towards her. She knew the others had to be near. As Sarah turned to run toward her pickup and found she couldn’t move, the thing snarled and sprang, landing on her back, sending her sprawling onto the pavement. Her jeans torn, her knees cut, bleeding from the mouth and nose, Sarah bellowed, struggled to get to her feet, and felt the thing seize the back of her neck in its powerful jaws.
Pain coursing through her, she fell forward, scraping her face on the asphalt, the heavy beast upon her, and whimpered, "Oh, God, God, God, someone, anyone, help me, help me, help me!! Help me, help me, help me, please!"
The pain in her neck excruciating, she sobbed hysterically, "Oh, God, God, God, I am so afraid. I am so afraid. I don't want to die like this. Please, please, please help me. Please, please forgive me. Please, Jesus, please deliver me." She knew she was dying.
Sobbing, Sarah crazily imagined the abyss that Dr. Mellon had told his students awaits every man, woman, and child; she focused her waning energy on the memory of her mother kneeling and praying in the old Pentecostal church and remembered the cross in her pocket. “In Jesus’ name,” she sputtered hoarsely, bathed in her own blood, “in Jesus holy name, I wish you dead and gone, thing of Hell.” She paused, certain heaven would remain deaf to her cry. Suddenly, brilliant light exploded around her, she felt the beast release her neck, pain quickly and surprisingly subsiding, and weakly turning onto her back she saw the howling beast consumed in flame.
If one’s dead, they’re all dead, she told herself. At that moment, she felt a tremendous calm settling upon her, followed by a gradual renewal of strength. At that point, she knew could would rise again. Lying on her back on the highway, her face and knees scratched, Sarah knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this evil would never bother her again. Certain she would live to see another day, she looked up at the full moon through the dissipating fog, and saw it was no longer bleeding. Running her fingers through her hair, wet from rain, perspiration and blood, she pushed herself up off the pavement and staggered toward her pickup, stopping every few steps to catch her breath. Sarah Gray would be fine. When she opened the door and climbed behind the wheel, she thought of her mother. Her mother, she realized, was her best friend.
Yes, mother, it is a dark world ,Sarah thought to herself as she released the emergency brake, took the vehicle out of neutral and into first. But, the good Lord willing, I'm going to be live a long, healthy, and fruitful life. She could feel more of her strength returning, her body quickly healing itself. Moving the truck out onto the abandoned highway and stepping on the gas, she flipped the Radio to a gospel station, heard someone singing “Amazing Grace,” and felt cool winds move over her from the open window. She thought it was God.
When Sarah got home, she would undress, shower, and wash the blood off. Then, she would call her mother on the phone. It would be early in the morning back in Maine, and Ethel would be glad to hear from her daughter.
Driving the Canadian coastal highway, Sarah knew, for the first time in her life, that her life was going to be glorious.
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