According to my mother, I wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you could trick with ghost stories. Precocious, shrewd, and more than a little bit of a skeptic, I asked too many questions to be fooled for long. Or I asked too many questions for any adult to successfully stick to the story for long.
Despite being an analytical child, I avidly engaged in fantasy. Playing pretend wasn’t enough, oh no—I quickly branched out into making up fantastical tales and sharing them as fact. (This tendency would get me into trouble numerous times as a child.) I found myself stumped when trying to think of scary stories I believed as a kid for this blog, so I turned to my mom. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of any either. She did, however, share that “I used to believe many of your tales, but inevitably, a unicorn would appear in the story and that was when I knew we were in fantasy land.”
Spinning scary stories was never my favorite pastime, but my house at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (I’m an Army brat) was ripe with opportunities for ghost stories. Built in the early 1920’s, it was a large brick home with a roomy attic and plaster walls. It had tall, slender wooden doors with small, brass knobs that creaked in the winter, and a spooky basement with an old-fashioned cellar door that pulled open from the outside.
The attic had obviously once been used as a bedroom, and the exposed pipes and supports that crisscrossed the room had been painted in bright bands of red, white, and blue. The ceiling leaked in one spot near the dormer windows, and an old tin bucket was already in place collecting errant rainwater when we moved in. The steady metallic “plink” of water into the bucket, the sound of wind around uninsulated walls, and the creaking and settling of the old wood were the soundtrack of the room. Long rectangles of light streamed in from the dormer windows, but the sloping corners of the rooms were constantly in shadow. Though I found it rather charming overall, it was all too easy to twist the generally cheery ambiance of the room into something sinister.
I started constructing the story of the little boy who lived in the attic room not long after we moved in. Reginald, I thought, was a fine name for a little boy born in 1932. I imagined Reginald to be much like myself—prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, fiercely patriotic, and convinced that his father could save the world.
A consummate history buff, I delighted in associating him with historical events. Reginald was nine years old when the US entered World War II, I decided. He would work in the family’s victory garden and volunteer with his mother and three older sisters, of course, but he wanted more. He wanted to fight. So, the intrepid Reginald snuck off base one day and enlisted. Apparently, my imminently practical eight-year-old brain did not find it difficult to believe that an Army recruiter could be fooled by a ten-year-old.
By the time I was this far along with my creation of Reginald’s life, we were approaching our first Halloween at Monmouth. I’d already gained a bit of a reputation for my storytelling, and more than once other children asked me to tell scary stories. I didn’t have any. One day, as my friend Emily pestered me for a spooky tale, it hit me— Reginald. Poor, poor Reginald, run-away-to-war Reginald—dead Reginald? And so, the ghost of 44 Russell Avenue was born.
I told them of Reginald as though he was real, as if he still swung from the painted pipes and crowed with me over games of marbles. At first, it was benign. I’d created an image in my head of a boy who might have been my friend, and I was loathe to let go of it. But children are bloodthirsty, and my friends wanted something more frightening than a friendly ghost. Tales of ghostly heads popping out of walls or non-corporeal fingers dragging icily across a neck for a laugh only went so far.
Too proud to disappoint, I reluctantly turned my purported interactions with Reginald sinister. No longer did he appear to me bright-eyed and well-groomed, with a pressed uniform and a jauntily-angled hat; instead, he was dirty and bloodied, with ragged clothes and a thousand-yard stare. Reginald, you see, did not make it home from the European theatre alive. I started doing research on the second world war, looking at haunting images and reading frightening accounts of soldiers who were never the same.
My stories turned dark. Reginald no longer waited for me to come up to play, but haunted me at all hours of the day and night. I told my friends that sometimes he kept me awake with whispered pleas—to apologize to his mother, to watch out for his sisters, to bring them peace of mind—crying at my bedside, begging with tears in his eyes. Other nights, I said, he would scream—at the enemy, at his fellow soldiers, at God—angry and broken and desperate to move on.
At some point, even I started to forget that the stories weren’t true. A boy with haunted blue eyes and a torn uniform began to haunt my dreams. Every rush of water through the pipes or creak of the sighing house made me flinch, wincing in anticipation of a ragged voice that would never come. My friends were no longer so excited for ghost stories, the images of a boy destroyed by war a bit too close to home on a military base. Halloween passed, and they were happy to return to games of make-believe, no ghosts allowed. They forgot Reginald and my haunted attic.
I never did. Reginald would follow me for years, the embodiment of a story taken too far, a constant reminder not to forget the line between fantasy and reality. The attic, once the focus of my romantic notions of a garret hideaway on top of the world, never regained its appeal. My escape was irrevocably tainted with the specter of a little boy who never was.