Once upon a time, country kids in too-large pants and shirts stuffed with real straw piled into cars to collect treats from neighbors, who mostly gave out apples and popcorn balls. Those were Norman Rockwell Halloweens, with nary a glow-in-the-dark Jello brain or Naughty Nurse in sight.
Oh, for the innocence of the time before razor blades and fears of fentanyl in treat bags. I’ve heard the rainbow fentanyl thing is just an urban legend, but don’t know any parents who don’t take the precaution of inspecting candy before kids are allowed to dig in.
Isn’t it strange how rural the settings sound in many so-called urban legends? The first one I ever heard (although no one called it that at the time) was told at a 4-H campfire. You may know The Hook: A young couple parks in a deserted spot, a radio report about a deadly escaped convict, a fright, a flight, and finally when they’re back where it’s safe and light they see, caught on the car, the telltale hook.
Everyone shrieked – and then laughed. It’s tough to rattle kids who grow up playing hide-and-seek in moonlit cemeteries behind country churches. Who live in creaky old farmhouses where coyotes howl outside nightly and occasionally bats fly around indoors. Whose school buses go down dead-end roads where the structure with the best turnaround can pass for a movie set’s haunted house.
Fairy tales about witches flying on broomsticks aren’t nearly as frightening as the actual sight of your mom chasing a bull out of the garden with a broom. Nursery rhymes and scary songs about babes lost in the woods (plus Alfred Hitchcock, in my case), taught us well the risks of putting cradles in treetops and picking up hitchhikers.
Nevertheless, we still do stupid stuff – generally not as stupid as plot elements in horror movies, but still worth telling over the flickering flames of a campfire. Grab a brewski and a pocket knife for whittling a marshmallow roasting stick as I share three tales heard in rural northern Wisconsin. These tales are all true, as far as I know.
The Zombie Badger. Once there was a man whose job often put him alone in a company car with only voices on the radio for company on country roads in the dead of night. One night, in the headlights of another vehicle he saw a shape moving in the road. The other car braked but couldn’t stop before hitting it. The man stopped and got out to help. What lay in the road was a badger.
If you’ve never seen one, a badger is a beautiful animal. The first time I saw one was when a neighbor asked my husband for help freeing one accidentally caught in a raccoon trap. It was too dark to attempt a rescue that night, so we headed out at first light. It was bitterly cold for late fall, with just a dusting of snow. We drove along the fencerow to where the badger lay, one leg caught in the trap. It was still alive, although red in tooth and claw from trying to free itself. Some discussion followed, then, a couple of unsuccessful attempts to free it without exposing a would-be rescuer to those teeth and claws.
Eventually, Bill managed to spring the leg trap and jump back, tripping over a string of barbed wire and fully expecting the freed badger to rip out his throat. But we all three made it safely to the cab. Ignoring us, the badger started digging in for winter. Its powerful claws had soil flying 20 feet through the air – a sight that hasn’t dimmed in my memory.
Back in those headlights, the man marveled at the beauty of the badger lying in the road. And he wondered if a friend whose hobby was taxidermy might be able to preserve it. So he picked it up and put it in his trunk to deliver the carcass to his friend. On the way, he heard a thump. Then another, and another. Not from the engine or a tire. It was coming…
From. The. Trunk!
On arriving at his friend’s, all they could do was listen to the mayhem as the undead animal destroyed wiring, carpet and the contents of the compartment. Finally, they hatched a plan for getting it out without risking the release of a zombie badger in a residential neighborhood. Then they worked out what to tell the fleet manager about how that trunk came to look like something out of a Stephanie Plum novel.
But just like any good horror movie, there’s a twist at the end. They forgot to tell the buddy’s wife: Don’t open the freezer.
The Hunter. Once there was a man from Wisconsin who loved to pheasant hunt. Each fall he made a pilgrimage to rural South Dakota with his hunting dog – two boon companions, devoted to each other. The man found plenty of good places to hunt, diners that would wrap up an extra burger as a treat for his dog, and small motels that tolerated four-legged guests during the profitable pheasant season.
One day while they were in pursuit of feathered prey, the dog tangled with a skunk. It stunk so bad the man knew he had to do something about it or risk being evicted from their lodgings. So he drove to the nearest grocery store. Unfamiliar with its layout, he asked a stockboy where to find tomato juice. He loaded a cart with every can they had. Back at the motel, he emptied the cans into the bathtub and got his dog in to soak off the skunk smell. In the meantime, he went across to the diner to get a bag of burgers for them to share.
When he opened the door to the motel bathroom, it looked like the colorized version of the blood splatter in Psycho. Tomato juice was everywhere, shaken off by a dog that thought it smelled just fine (it didn’t). The man took shallow breaths and hoped the odor didn’t bring management to his door. Because it looked like a murder scene, and getting thrown in jail would cut short his pheasant hunt.
So he spent that long night carefully, meticulously cleaning every square inch of that motel room and carefully, meticulously reviewing everything he ever heard or read about how to get skunk smell off a dog. In the dark recesses of memory, he found one possible solution.
So the next day, he went back to that small-town grocery store, back to the same stockboy. Again, he asked in what aisle he could find what he needed. The query made both blush because it’s not the most common treatment for skunk smell on a dog and probably not often purchased in large quantities by men in hunting gear.
But he screwed up his courage and filled his cart with feminine hygiene sprays, sure he would drop dead of embarrassment in the check-out lane and be doomed to haunt the sanitary supplies aisle. He did not, but his dog wafted a haunting floral fragrance for a long, long time.
The Dead Zone. Once there was a couple who retired to a place at the very edge of a rural county. There were tall trees and rolling hills where they built a house with a metal roof. You could huff and puff but not blow down that cozy home. But you couldn’t connect to a cell tower without driving to the top of a nearby hill.
One dark and stormy night the couple heard a crash from across the road. Rushing to check on their neighbors, they found a large tree fallen on the house. The occupants were shaken, but unharmed.
During a break from cleaning up storm damage, the neighbors learned that the families had separately made plans for what to do in an emergency. Where they lived, it was likely that a 911 call would route to the adjacent county and have to be relayed to their county of residence, which would then dispatch an ambulance. They had added up their best estimates on how long it would take an ambulance to reach them and make a return trip to the hospital. It sounded like a very long time.
And remember, they had to drive to the top of a nearby hill to call anyway. So, they reasoned, it made sense to just stay in the vehicle, head toward the hospital in the adjacent county, and call 911 en route to relay their plan to the target ER or ask for a paramedic intercept.
The part of the plan that made both families uncomfortable was this: If one of you is hurt and the other is driving, there’s no extra set of hands to apply direct pressure on a bleeding wound, perform CPR, or catch a newborn baby. So they made a pact to help each other if ever the need arose.
Cell phone numbers were exchanged, and practice texts were sent (texts may go through where voice calls can’t connect). And the neighbors went back to chainsawing the fallen tree.
No, the chainsaw didn’t slip, forcing them to put their Dead Zone alternative 911 plan into effect only to run out of gas en route and be stalked by Leatherface, Jason, Chucky, and other horror film characters. As if there really are costumed serial killers on every dead-end road.
But some weird things happen in these woods. I heard a story that dates back to Prohibition. A local man had a way with animals, and at one time or another trained everything from a black bear to big cats that are not native to northern Wisconsin. The lions were caged “out back” in very close proximity to his moonshine operation. Locals knew to stay away, and if Chicago gangsters knew of the still they didn’t bother it. But one time, or so I heard, a daring revenue agent came close. He might have been tipped off when the bootlegger’s pigs got out of their pen, got into the mash, and stumbled drunkenly down the highway. If that revenuer followed the hogs back after their bender, he must have been surprised by the feline welcome committee.
Some say he’s out there still. If you get lost in these woods, beware of the ghostly figure that flags you down on a lonely road. He’s not directing you to high ground where you might get a cell signal to call 911. He’s lonely for some company – any company besides those goshdarn cats.
He’d like to keep you with him. There. In The Dead Zone.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. But she grew up in Indiana, where reciting James Whitcomb Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie is a tradition at Halloween campfires.