Welcome to our guests, Clay & Susan Griffiths of Vampire Empire fame as they continue their “What Scares Us” Halloween blog tour by talking about scary places.
Clay and I used to write scripts for Monster Creature Feature, an old-time horror host show that starred our good friend, Ormon Grimsby. We loved helping out with the low-budget filming too, and would meet Ormon at his various locations. The studio had set up shop once in downtown Raleigh in the basement of a particularly old building below an antique shop called Father and Son. Disturbingly old, odd collectibles cluttered the space so you couldn’t see all the way to the back walls. Shadows filled every nook and cranny and I tried not to look into those dark corners. The ceiling was low in spots so Clay and Ormon had to hunch over a great deal, while the top of my head just skimmed the low beams which felt like someone was touching my hair constantly. It was just the type of basement where creepy stuff happened in movies all the time, not to mention it was a death trap if a fire broke out.
I was doing fine of shoving those thoughts aside and keeping busy working the fog machine and various low-level special effects. Until ghoulish Ormon decides to tell me some history of the building. “You know,” he says, “back in 1918, an influenza epidemic swept though most of America, including Raleigh.” Yes, I heard that in North Carolina it killed more than thirteen thousand people. I didn’t need to hear any more, but of course that wasn’t to be the end of the conversation. With a wave of his ratty undertaker gloves, he gestured to the dark corners. “So many died that funeral homes couldn’t handle them all. They started stacking the bodies in the buildings. This one in particular. The word is they stored a number of bodies here in the basement.”
And that was it. I hated going to film there suddenly. Now every corner had eyes. The creepy tableau of antique dolls and old furniture seemed to cry out. The touches from the low beams felt human.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was when we moved to a new locale. The sad thing was I really liked the antique store above. They have some great items, along maybe with a ghost or two.
Susan and I were married in Edinburgh, Scotland. That city has plenty of scary and creepy places, but I found one that went beyond scary to genuinely disturbing. While honeymooning in Edinburgh, I decided I needed to see the skeleton of William Burke. Why, you ask. If you ask that, you don’t know me very well.
William Burke was one of the murderous pair of Burke and Hare, famous for killing more than 15 people in 1828, and then selling the cadavers to Dr. Robert Knox for anatomy lessons. Burke was convicted, thanks to testimony from Hare, and executed. Then his body was surrendered to the medical school to be anatomized and his skeleton displayed in the museum.
Unfortunately for me, Edinburgh has two medical school and two medical museums. I only had time for one and in those days before you could pull out your phone and Google William+Burke+skeleton+Edinburgh+museum, I had to just pick one. The museum of the Royal College of Surgeons was divided into a small public collection and a larger private collection for medical students. At the time, I worked for the Department of Plant Pathology at NC State University as a researcher in the history of science so I informed the museum gatekeeper that I was in town from NCSU and wanted to study the museum’s collection for potential research about connections between human medicine and plant medicine. Yeah, it sounded stupid then too, but it worked. The museum was closed, but they unlocked the door and told me to knock when I was finished.
It was a beautiful space, designed by the famous 19th century architect, William Playfair. And the displays were amazing. At first. Eventually, however, one tired of shelf after shelf, cabinet after cabinet, row after row of anatomical specimens floating in oily liquid. The peculiarly attentive and vengeful faces inside jars began to creep me out. And I saw no skeleton of William Burke.
Finally I had my fill of diseased organs, and frankly even the most crowd-pleasing deformity lost its power to charm. I went to the door and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked louder. Still no answer.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of horror movies. Were those bloated arms flexing their fingers? Did I hear the sound of tiny hands unscrewing jar lids from the inside? Were empty eye sockets turning toward me?
Needless to say, I managed to escape (although how awesome would it be to end this by saying I was writing from inside a display case?). The gatekeeper had merely gone to lunch and forgotten he had a lone guest that day.
I asked him about William Burke’s skeleton? Was it out being cleaned? No. It turns out Burke’s bony remains were at the University of Edinburgh. I had picked the wrong museum.
Or had I? On the way out, I noticed an odd little display item. It was a book. And it was supposedly bound in the skin of William Burke, flayed from his anatomized body.
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Okay, I get it, these two LOVE the scary places, right? As for me, my scariest place isn’t physical, it’s mental…when I’ve run out of ideas. I haven’t found it yet, and hope never to!
What’s the scariest place you’ve been/seen? What was awesome about it?