September threw itself at our household with hurricane strength. While the wind and rain trashed Haiti and the U.S.’s lower southeast, evil peppered my New Orleans home in the form of my mother’s surprise cancer diagnosis, my uncle’s death, and a ratcheting up of tantrums from my children that makes me consider constructing a panic room over my heat-shriveled garden. And, oh, Reader, as much as you’d like to discard the political nightmare, don’t. The nation’s anxiety and anger levels – which I wished had peaked months ago with the uptick in shootings and protests – have continued overflowing onto the oven floor with all the charred and smoking mess of a baker’s Hell.
I stuck to the tried and true methods of avoiding evil by pretending not to look at it, then running away. I began with a news fast. Which was quickly followed by a Facebook fast (because, seriously, NEWS). Then, because that was insufficient, I threw our tiny cooler, sleeping bags, and my family into a car with failing a/c and pointed away from Society and cell range. A traffic jam and an argument later, we landed just outside DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi. Having outrun misfortune, our little unit was, for the moment, at rest.
Another autumnal flight through the woods undoubtedly trotted through millions of minds recently. Irving Washington’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is perhaps America’s most enduring ghost story. Washington wrote the story in 1820. I know you’re familiar with lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the villainous specter of a decapitated Hessian soldier, but I’ll forgive you if Katrina Van Tassel – the lovely farmer’s daughter – and Brom Bones – the rival suitor – have slipped through the cracks in your memory. What has surely remained in your stomach is the exquisite sense of dread and humor Washington conjures from the story’s outset. Long before Ichabod’s encounter with evil, the ghost has already been sketched out, the texture of night woods felt. One of the tools that helped Washington so effectively terrorize his protagonist is the idea of unseen evil.
How about this theory: we’re pretty good at anticipating natural danger. We jump away from growling dogs, we have a heightened sense of awareness around fast things, and at night, we turn up all of our senses to make up for the loss of sight. At our campsite, for instance, my children and I were about to venture down a path to the lake when some invisible force stopped us. I told them to wait, and then a few seconds of close scanning brought into focus a six foot wide spider web, its maker poised in midair for breakfast.
We’re also creative animals that, when taken out of the wild, need something to occupy that idling brain space. Enter the Unseen Menace (or Devil, if you like, but more generically than Lucifer). The Evil Eye threatens southern Europe and the Middle East. Louisianans morphed the French “Rougarou” or Loup-Garou into a swamp creature that lies in wait for people breaking Lent – or misbehaving children, depending on whose behavior you’re trying to influence. One of my favorite Loup Garou stories is Feliciana Meets d’Loup Garou, a modern children’s story about a girl whose misbehavior calls forth the monster.
People in the Balkans have vampires and the regional Croatian vukodlak. Please note these are not the modern American versions, the sexy immortals with moral compasses, but monsters bent on human destruction. Téa Obrecht writes in her amazing essay “Twilight of the Vampires” that the nature of the vampire is much closer to that of the Evil Eye and the Loup Garou – any regular person could be seized by the evil and encouraged to act malevolently, though if you are a drunk or miser or have nastiness in your soul it certainly facilitates your transition to being claimed by the monster.
But it’s not enough to merely be good – you must also be lucky. What a boring life it would be if Evil, having failed to tempt you into its jaws, could not also rattle your windows late at night when Netflix has gone silent. Poor Ichabod knew this. All he’d done was go after the prized Katrina. He’s like us, just trying to better his standing in the community. His anxiety and superstition are imminently relatable. We might all be like the farmers, telling tales and hypothesizing about what we’d do when confronted with Evil, but who among us hasn’t tried to politely ignore Evil or close our eyes to it? It takes a rare person to take on the threat, to drive a stake through the heart of the vampire. Defeating Obrecht’s southern European vampires involves the whole community:
Once risen, the vampire makes his way to the nearest village – this is sometimes his hometown, or the place of his death, and almost always a community sufficiently isolated so as to demand the combined effort of all residents in order to stake him.
We modern Americans love to think of ourselves as united, secure, and self-sufficient. We define ourselves in national terms, focusing on the “sea to shining sea” whole rather than isolated communities – or even states. I challenge you to go down one city block, or through one rural community, and not find a symbol of who we’re supposed to be as a unit: the American flag. And especially recently we love attempting to define community threat, to paint a picture of the Unseen Evil that we must all guard against.
The terrors we sketch out for each other –boogeymen refugees from Arabic States or “Inner-city thugs” – are every bit as irrationally evil as the Headless Horseman. They bring fear and threaten violence to the community. They do not understand us, would not know how to handle our abundance. They are humans incapable of being at peace. Of integrating into the sunny picture of Sleepy Hollow we would choose.
I know of no ghost story born from a happy life and uneventful interment. The spirits bent on tormenting the living always harbor revenge or destruction. Whether we choose to indulge in supernatural stories about rich, beautiful vampires who are moral weapons for humanity, or chaotic monsters that can only be stopped by burly, shot-gun wielding heroes, the fear of evil will never leave humanity at rest.
How the Evil found its way into my home I don’t know. But perhaps if I make it a bed, give it a cup of milk, and pet its tangled fur, it will pass back into the ether, maybe hitting its next target with a touch less fury.
(Photos: Stephanie Stoecker)