On The Road: Haunted Houses and the Ghosts of Dying Cities

Houses just like this populated the rural countryside of Ohio, just waiting to be haunted.

Everyone who knows me knows I am a fan of Halloween. So October, obviously, is my season. As I’ve done in years past, on the last Friday of this month I will be leading a haunted tour of Sag Harbor as a benefit for the Whaling Museum. Incidentally, pretty much all the stories have come to me first hand, or second hand at most.

While this annual tradition has garnered some loyal followers and I enjoy it greatly, it can’t compare to the Halloweens of my teenage years. That’s because of a distinctly Midwestern — or maybe just Ohio — tradition that I have yet to encounter anywhere else.

Here’s how it worked. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the local Jaycees (the equivalent of the Lions Club) would take over an old abandoned farmhouse in a farm field in the middle of absolute nowhere. And because there were only fallow fields for miles around, the Jaycees had free range to create the most awesome haunted house experience you can imagine, complete with hayrides, bonfires and whatever else they could dream up.

For a mere $5 per head, they’d turn you loose inside this truly decrepit and dangerously neglected house. Once inside, you’d maneuver down dark hallways with peeling wallpaper, up creaking stairs with no handrails, nails poking out of every surface and past holes in the floorboards which would be illuminated by red lights shining up from below. At every turn and in every closet that once held a farming family’s most prized possessions you’d be confronted by chainsaw wielding maniacs, bloody brides, and an assortment of ghouls pawing and growling at you.

Throughout my teenage years, the theme and the scares were always somewhat different because every year, the Jaycees in our rural town halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton took over an entirely different farmhouse in a totally different field. Driving up those long dirt roads in late October toward a creepily lit abandoned building sitting alone on a hill in a dead field made quite an impression. Spooky sounds of blowing wind and creaking doors were amplified at top volume and always elicited uncontainable excitement among my friends and I, as we eagerly lined up behind dozens of others waiting for their turn to have the wits scared out of them.

The Jaycees made a lot of money for charity with these places. Then, on November 1, like clockwork, the local fire department would arrive with pumper trucks and hoses and the old homestead would be set alight as a practice drill. By day’s end, nothing would remain of the haunted house except ashes, a stone foundation and some memories.

Looking back, it’s shocking that these things existed at all given the liability issues, but I never gave much thought as to why they did. Until, that is, I started telling people here about these haunted house experiences and realized that most had never encountered such a thing.

Now, I think I understand why.

Last month, the PBS show Frontline did a whole hour on Dayton, Ohio, my hometown, which once had a reputation for inventiveness. The Wright brothers’ bicycle shop was on Third Street before they took to building airplanes, and the city was headquarters for NCR, Mead Paper Company and Frigidaire — anchors of a stable, middle class life. It was an idyllic place to grow up with a vibrant downtown, decent jobs and a mess of kids living in every house on every block.

But then, in the late 1960s, things began to change. Companies laid off workers and left town and a new underclass began moving in. As the city died, so did restaurants and retail businesses and, most importantly, residents fled in droves. That was largely the focus of the Frontline documentary, which noted that today Dayton has the unenviable title of opioid overdose capital of the world, a fact punctuated by long tracking shots of a deserted downtown and block after block of abandoned houses in neighborhoods I once knew well.

Truth be told, back in the mid-‘70s we were one of the last families on our block to move. We left not long after I found a loaded gun in the park when I was 11. White flight was real and palpable in Dayton which, according to Frontline, lost half its population in 50 years.

And where did those folks go?

Not far as the crow flies, but it was light years away, culturally speaking. Most of us fled south to what is now the predominately white, wealthy Republican suburbs, but back then, were all white rural farming communities. Hence, the never ending supply of abandoned farmhouses to haunt. It was a socio-economic phenomenon distinctly of its time and place — attributable to the explosive growth of suburbia in rural communities that existed just beyond the fringe of decaying urban centers, like Dayton.

It was a tragic tale, but one that was a boon for bored high schoolers. That perfect storm of inner city flight and the need for miles and miles of sparkling new suburbia is ultimately what made the haunted house experience so unique in that era. These kinds of haunts no longer exist because they can’t. All the old farmhouses and the fields they once occupied were destroyed long ago — burned down and plowed under for new housing developments and shopping malls. The rural farming town we moved to became just another upscale bedroom community while Dayton itself has continued to wither and waste away.

Just for the fun of it, I checked online and it seems the Jaycees still do fundraising haunted houses. But now they charge $25 a head and they do them in the same industrial building every year. It isn’t really an old house and it certainly isn’t going to be set on fire come November 1.

Like drive-in movies and authentic roller derby, my childhood haunts are just one more memory that seem to exist in a very specific period in history. A brief and tragic blip in the story of another Midwestern dying hometown. But wow, they were a helluva lot of fun for me and my friends.