A young filmmaker. A cash prize. A ghostly walk down the most haunted road in Ohio. Nonstop supernatural terror for fans of Stephen King.
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Preface: The Bridge
He stepped into the darkness of the covered bridge and told himself: Only a few more miles to go, if only your nerves and your sanity hold out, that is.
The inside of the bridge’s enclosure smelled of mold, mildew, and the unseen waters that ran beneath it. It had the dank, black feeling of the bottom of a well.
As he placed one foot down on the first creaking plank of the bridge, he half-remembered a nightmare: a dream of an evil presence that was vaguely female—or no, that pretended to be female. She (it?) might be a ghost or possibly something much worse. And she was lying in wait for him, like the evil witch in the children’s story, Hansel and Gretel.
He took another step into the all-consuming darkness. The wood creaked again, practically groaned this time. She’s waiting for you, he thought. Whatever she (or it) is, you’ll find out before you reach the other side of this bridge.
Now why would the sound of that creaking wood trigger such thoughts?
Then he remembered: Because she had told him that she would be waiting for him here. At the bridge.
He looked ahead and saw the moonlit pavement of the open road not a stone’s throw away. He could not go back now. Even worse things were waiting on the road behind him. He had to move forward.
Just walk, he thought. Take some long strides and you’ll be out of here in no time.
And so he walked, observing how narrow the bridge was, and reflecting that surely two cars coming from opposite directions could not pass through here at the same time.
The wood beneath his feet continued to creak, but that was nothing to worry about. The bridge supported the weight of cars, after all.
He heard a sound above him, from the rafters of the enclosure. It was like a hiss, like air escaping from a poorly tied balloon. Then he heard another sound: the sound of weight shifting, of something moving around up there.
Don’t look. Just keeping walking. If you look up there, what you see will drive you mad, even more so than the other things you’ve seen this night.
He was now in the middle of the bridge; the open, starry sky and the solid pavement were only a few paces away. He could make it in a short dash.
The thing above him seemed to sense his impending flight. He heard it scratch against the wood overhead.
And now he had the feeling that he must look upward and confront it—that this was the central task that he had set out tonight to face. It would also be true to say that the malevolent presence aroused his darkest curiosity. Like Lot’s wife fleeing from the burning wreckage of Sodom, he felt compelled to see the worst, and suffer the consequences.
Slowly and deliberately, he stopped his forward trek, steeled himself, and looked up into the rafters of the covered bridge.
Four days earlier…
The portly, fortysomething stranger hailed Jason Kelley in the corridor of the University of Cincinnati’s Old Chemistry Hall, just as the latter was exiting Video Journalism 201. And Jason, oblivious, walked right by the unknown man without even slowing down.
Jason’s thoughts were still lost in the lecture that had just ended. The professor who taught Video Journalism 201, Dr. Reinhold, was a transplanted Californian, a PhD who had worked for a time with Universal Studios. Dr. Reinhold had feverishly lectured the class through the end of the hour, even though it was the last week of classes, and everyone was feeling lazy in the early June heat. That was Dr. Reinhold for you: He was passionate about his subject matter, unlike so many other profs, whom you could tell were only going through the motions.
But school was not the only thing on Jason’s mind; and he immediately began to daydream about other matters. (This was why he did not hear when the stranger addressed him by name a second time amid the hum of the crowded university hallway.)
Jason was daydreaming about Molly Russell. Molly was a coed who on one night several weekends ago had quite unexpectedly spent the night in his apartment. Thoughts of Molly simultaneously stirred feelings of deep longing and unease. Jason was aware of the paradoxical and contradictory nature of this combination of feelings, and was wondering how it could be so.
Jason was thinking about the way he had treated Molly since their encounter, and feeling guilty about it. Jason knew that he had been a bit of an insensitive jerk lately. He was also thinking about his mother and father; that meant even more feelings of guilt.
And his sister, Amy—no, he didn't even want to think about Amy now.
Jason was about to walk around the corner of the hallway—the one that led to the main exit—when the stranger called out yet again.
“Jason Kelley! Excuse me!”
This time the sound of his own name snapped him out of his reverie. Jason stopped, turned around, and saw the source of the voice: an older man who looked somewhat out of place in the swirl of late teen and early twentysomething students.
“Hello?” Jason responded. Jason knew immediately that he had seen this man somewhere on television—or perhaps on the Internet. Jason was barely twenty-one years old, and he could count his middle-aged acquaintances on two hands—not including professors and relatives. This man, who was balding and had flecks of gray in his beard, was neither of the above.
“I thought you were going to keep walking,” the man went on. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to run you down and tackle you.” These words were phrased as an offhand joke; but Jason could detect a slight ripple of irritation beneath the observation. This was obviously not a man who was used to being ignored.
“You are Jason Kelley, aren’t you?” the stranger said, when Jason continued to look confused.
“I am,” Jason said neutrally. “And you are—”
Where have I seen this guy before? Somewhere, I’m sure. But I have no idea where.
“Ah,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself.” Clearly he had expected Jason to recognize him on sight; so he was obviously some sort of a celebrity—albeit a minor one, in all likelihood.
“My name is Simon Rose. Does that name ring a bell?”
Simon Rose! Now Jason got it:
“It sure does,” Jason said, brightening. “Of course I recognize you: Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.”
“Guilty as charged,” Simon Rose said. He removed a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Jason. The business card contained Rose’s contact information, plus a little logo that featured a stylized cartoon ghost. “And I know this is strange, approaching you like this, but Dr. Hoffman said that I could find you here. With this being the last week of school and all, I wanted to make sure that I caught up with you before you took off for the summer.”
Jason nodded, his excitement growing. Now this was starting to make sense. Dr. Hoffman was his academic advisor. And this was indeed one of his last classes of the school year. He would be exiting his campus apartment in a matter of days, though his residence during the summer was still a contentious issue. That made him think of his parents again, and he quickly stifled those unpleasant thoughts. This was Simon Rose who had sought him out. Simon Rose of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.
Students milled about them, their pace and conversations buoyed by early June levity. A warm summer breeze swept into the corridor through a set of metallic doors that were propped open to allow a flux of students in both directions. To Jason’s surprise, no one else seemed to recognize Simon Rose, either. Cable television and the Internet had minted a lot of second-tier celebrities in recent years, Jason knew.
Simon Rose’s domain was cable TV. Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose was a regular staple on the Biography Channel—or possibly TLC. (Jason couldn't remember which one for sure.) And, of course, both authorized and pirated clips of the show could be found throughout the Internet.
“I was very impressed with those two short films you entered in the Southern Ohio Regional Scholastic Film Competition last month,” Simon said. “No—I didn't attend the actual event; but I saw them on the Internet. You’ve got real talent, Jason. Now, I have a proposition for you. Would you, by chance, be free for lunch so that we might discuss it?”
“Absolutely,” Jason said. His next class was not until the late afternoon. And he would have gladly skipped it anyway. It wasn't everyday that a man like Simon Rose paid a personal visit to an Electronic Media major at a public university in Ohio.
“Perfect,” Rose said. “How does Indian sound?”
Grand Taj India Restaurant was located in the Gaslight District of Clifton, the inner-city neighborhood that was home to the University of Cincinnati. They made the short drive in Simon Rose’s car, a sleek red Audi S5 Cabriolet that attracted numerous stares along the way. When Jason made an appreciative remark about the car, Simon seemingly could not help adding, “This is the car I use when I drive in the flyover states. When I’m in California, I drive an R8 GT Spyder.”
Jason had been told numerous times that a display of excessive eagerness was one of the worst mistakes that a young person could make, so he contented himself with small talk during the ride to the restaurant. Once there, they were efficiently seated by a sari-clad hostess; and each of them placed an order for lunch. Simon Rose didn't come to the point until he was digging into his appetizer, a beef-filled pastry called keema samosa.
“You entered two films in the competition we talked about,” Simon said.
“Yes, sir,” Jason said. The first of these, Community Portrait, was a sort of inner-city community immersion film—arguably low-hanging fruit for a student who lived within the confines of the city. The film had been well received in the competition. In retrospect, however, Jason was less than proud of it. Community Portrait, with its preachy script and stilted portrayal of the lives of the urban poor, now struck Jason as sanctimonious and self-serving. He had intended to produce a Film with a Message. He had ended up looking like just another affluent white film student who pesters the residents of the inner city for “material.”
The second film, A Haunting at Travis Books, was a bit more interesting. A bookstore owner in a nearby Cincinnati neighborhood had complained of paranormal activity. The one-hundred-fifty-year-old building in which Travis Books was housed had a troubled history: Sometime around the First World War, a young woman had apparently hanged herself in the attic. This woman, it seemed, was dead but not yet departed. The bookstore’s owner and a handful of his patrons had reported hearing the creaking sound that a rope makes when it swings back and forth with a heavy object attached to one of its ends. Cold spots suddenly chilled the air without warning, even during the height of summer. Books and other objects would occasionally disappear from the main downstairs store area, only to appear later in one of the bookstore’s back offices. According to the owner, these missing objects sometimes even made their way to the very attic where the long-dead woman had taken her own life.
Jason had learned of the allegedly haunted bookstore when he read a brief article about the place on one of Cincinnati’s news websites. He had sensed immediately that the bookstore’s owner’s predicament had short film potential. Moreover, he believed that he could take the story itself to another level, one that the local journalist who had written the ho-hum article could never grasp. So he contacted not only the bookstore’s owner, but also a representative of one of the many ghost-hunting organizations in the Cincinnati area. These groups, Jason had heard, were always eager for exposure.
Jason began A Haunting at Travis Books with a series of interviews with the bookstore’s owner and several customers who were willing to participate. He included a short sketch of the woman who had hung herself—a woman whose name turned out to be Lena Caudwell. But the main portion of the film consisted of an onsite paranormal investigation, complete with EMF readings and EVP recordings.
The results, as Jason had half-expected, were inconclusive; and the tormented spirit of Lena Caudwell failed to oblige him with a dramatic appearance. Nevertheless, Jason knew that he had nailed both the subject matter and the presentation. He had woven a piece of local lore into a compelling human interest story, then combined it with a detailed study of a textbook ghost-hunting investigation. A Haunting at Travis Books contained no irrefutable proof of paranormal activity. But then, no films about the paranormal contained such proof.
“I assume that you were most interested in the second one,” Jason said now. A waitress in a colorful Indian sari brought them their entrees—tandori chicken with naan and saffron rice.
“Good guess,” Simon said with a smile. “You showed a real intuitive grasp of the subject matter. Tell me, do you have a special interest in the supernatural?”
“Not really,” Jason said honestly. It was tempting to lie; but Jason figured that a man like Simon would be able to instantly spot a response that was sycophantically or opportunistically dishonest. “I have a special interest in making good films.”
“Fair enough,” Simon said, before putting a forkful of tandori chicken into his mouth. “But the project I have in mind for you is—as you might expect—supernatural in nature.”
Jason felt a pleasant tingle of excitement. Rose was finally coming to the point.
“Have you ever heard of a stretch of road called the Shaman’s Highway? It’s located in Carey County, just a little past Osborn Lake State Park.”
Jason shook his head. “Can’t say as I have. But then, I’m not from around here. I grew up in Columbus. I’ve heard of Wagosh, though. Isn’t that in Carey County?”
“Another good guess,” Simon said. He removed an iPhone from his pocket and manipulated its screen for the better part of a minute. Then he laid the phone down on the tablecloth and scooted it toward Jason.
The phone’s screen was filled with a Google Maps view that showed a stretch of U.S. Route 68 running south from Wagosh, Ohio. Jason picked out Osborn Lake State Park on the map view, as well as a few small towns lying south of Wagosh. “This is the Shaman’s Highway,” Rose said.
“It looks like a pretty remote area,” Jason observed.
“It is,” Rose said, taking the phone back. “About sixty miles northeast of here. As you probably know, central Ohio is fairly unpopulated to the east of I-71 between Cincinnati and Columbus. The area you would be walking through is rural. Note that I specified that you would have to complete the entire study on foot, for reasons that I shall explain shortly. There are houses and towns along the Shaman’s Highway, but you’d be a long way from the city—a long way from anything resembling a comfortable, brightly lit suburb. And you would be walking at night, through an area with a reputation for paranormal activity. Would that be a problem for you?”
Jason sensed a slight air of baiting in the question. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”
“That’s good, Jason. Mighty good, because a lot of people living in Carey County have been scared by the Shaman’s Highway late at night. And from what I hear, the majority of them were anything but cowards. When my team was conducting its initial research, we spoke to a 38-year-old man who had done two tours of duty in Iraq. He told us that nothing—not even a midnight patrol in Fallujah—had scared him as much as what he saw on that little stretch of U.S. Route 68. Now, are you still interested?”
Jason smiled. “I’m very interested, Mr. Rose. Let’s hear what you have in mind.”
* * *
Text entry entitled “The Shaman’s Highway”, from the paranormal website, HauntingsinOhio.com.
“Between the small city of Wagosh, Ohio and the town of John’s Mistake, there lies an eleven-mile section of U.S. Route 68 that locals refer to as ‘the Shaman’s Highway.’ Over the past one hundred years, there have been numerous reports of paranormal phenomena along this roadway. These include unexplained voices and sounds coming from the surrounding woods, and sightings of ghostlike apparitions, hellhounds, and various other unidentified creatures. Near the southern terminus of the Shaman’s Highway, there is a nineteenth-century covered bridge that is believed to be haunted by the spirit of a witch. The witch reportedly lived in the area around the time of the Civil War.
In 1997, a Carey County Sheriff’s Deputy was interviewed by the Columbus Dispatch regarding the road’s reputation. “South of Wagosh, Route 68 drops off into a remote part of the countryside. It’s a section of road that will play games with your imagination if you aren’t careful,” Deputy John Porter stated.
There are several theories that are commonly cited as explanations for the disturbing occurrences. Carey County, Ohio was home to multiple Native American tribes prior to widespread European settlement of the area—most notably the Shawnee. When Route 68 was paved in the early 1930s to accommodate vehicle traffic, workers reported finding Native American artifacts, including arrowheads, shards of clay pottery, and stone amulets. There are also unconfirmed reports of skulls and other human bones being unearthed during the roadwork. This has led to speculation that a Shawnee burial ground may have been located in the area.
Another theory links the strange sightings to rumored satanic cult activity during the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s there were persistent stories about satanic rituals being carried out in an unspecified part of the woods along the same portion of the highway. These reports, like those of the unearthed human remains and the burial ground, were never confirmed.”
* * *
As Simon Rose finished his description of the Shaman’s Highway and its history, Jason feared that the hint of a repressed smile would show on his face. Jason did not define himself as a coldly rational atheist. To the extent that such matters occurred to him at all, he supposed that he would have acquiesced to the existence of God and the human soul. However, Simon’s story was over the top.
“I sense a skeptic in the room,” Simon said without a trace of resentment. No doubt the ghost-hunter was accustomed to dealing with skeptics.
“Well, I—” Jason began, struggling to decide how honestly he should respond.
“No hemming and hawing,” Simon preempted him. “Just so you know, your belief in the supernatural—or lack thereof—is in no way a prerequisite for your participation in this project, which I’ll outline in detail shortly. For now, I want you to tell me what you think. Be honest.”
“Okay, then,” Jason said. “Here goes: I can accept the idea—in theory, that is—of a wayward spirit, or some sort of residual energy from a past event producing a rapping on a wall, or maybe even traces of an apparition. I can deal with the notion of words being articulated on EVP recordings, and unexplained cold air pockets in rooms where a person was murdered or committed suicide. But dead witches and a who’s who assembly of spirits haunting a highway? And hellhounds? I’m sorry Mr. Rose, but it all strains my sense of credibility. I don’t know exactly what a hellhound is, but it doesn't sound like something that’s likely to exist in the woods of Ohio.”
Simon laughed indulgently, his good humor not yet flagging. “The hellhound,” he said. “Is a universal element in folklore. In one form or another, the creature can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek myths. Have you ever heard of the three-headed dog known as Cerberus? The Greeks and the Romans believed that it guarded the gateway to the underworld, and kept those who had crossed the River Styx from escaping back into the world of the living. Multiple iterations on the theme of the hellhound can be found throughout the world, from the Barghest of northern England, to the black cadejo of Latin America.”
“Fair enough,” Jason said. “But hellhounds in Ohio? You’ll pardon me if I say that it all sounds a little bit hard to accept.”
Simon chuckled. “I can see that I don’t have to worry about you being overly credulous. That’s okay. I’ve often found that some of the best ghost hunters are skeptics, anyway. And certainly there would be a problem if you were too eager to believe. But let me tell you now what I have in mind, exactly. Are you physically fit, Jason?”
The question surprised Jason somewhat. “I ran track in high school,” he said. “My event was the two-mile. I went to the state finals my senior year.”
“Excellent,” Simon replied. “Then you would have no trouble walking eleven miles. And an eleven-mile walk is exactly what this project entails. My crew will drop you off just south of Wagosh shortly after dusk on the day of the film project. Then you’ll hike the eleven miles to the end of the Shaman’s Highway. Along the way, you’ll document your findings with notes, video, and whatever sound recordings you can gather.”
“I’ll be walking by myself”? Jason asked. “Without a crew?”
Simon smiled. “I thought you said that you didn't believe in any of this stuff.”
“I’m not scared,” Jason clarified. “What I’m worried about is the video quality. As you know, you can’t shoot a good film without the proper equipment: a professional camcorder with a 64-gigabyte or so hard drive, boom mics, lighting, etc. I can’t carry all of that with me.”
Simon shook his head. “Don't worry about that. What I have in mind is more like an eyewitness video, the sort of thing you see uploaded onto sites like YouTube. I understand going in that the footage you’ll be able to gather will be fragmentary and incomplete. I figure you should be able to carry a prosumer camcorder with you. You’ll need something that has night-vision capabilities, though.”
“My Sony has night vision,” Jason said. “But it’s like you said, ‘prosumer’—not the sort of camcorder that you would ordinarily use for television. The audio is decent but not completely clean. There may be some static. And the hard drive isn’t big enough to record the three to four hours that it will take me to walk eleven miles. I’ll need to be selective about what I capture.”
“That’s fine,” Rose said. “Do what you can. The point here isn’t to generate hours and hours of footage. Film as much as you can. Just get me something. Hopefully something that I can use on the show.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Rose,” Jason said. “Why are you doing it this way? I mean, I don't want to sound ungrateful, because I am. This is an excellent opportunity for me. But why don't you simply bring in your regular crew, and have them do a walk under full lights, with all the video equipment you need in a pickup truck?”
“An excellent question,” Rose replied. “When I saw those films of yours, I knew right away that you’re a young filmmaker who knows how to identify and ask the proper questions. And so I’ll give you an answer: I filmed the Shaman’s Highway last year with a full crew, and we saw nothing. Just a dark wooded highway that was a little spooky, but completely devoid of any concrete phenomena.”
“So why not have a member of your crew complete the walk solo?”
“It all comes down to manpower, logistics, and scheduling. If you watch our show, it might seem that we function in an ad hoc, random sort of way; but that really isn’t the case. We plan projects out months in advance. Our second attempt at the Shaman’s Highway—what I intend to hire you for—has been on the schedule for nearly nine months. It isn’t the only project on the schedule, though. This week most of my team will be shooting down in Tennessee, investigating a house where a man murdered his wife and two children in 1965. The house is said to be crawling with malevolent presences. So the Shaman’s Highway project, while important, is not at the top of the priority list. I can spare only two crew members for Carey County. One is a pregnant woman; and the other is a somewhat overweight and out-of-shape man who would be unable to complete an eleven-mile walk. You can see, then, Jason, why I want to outsource this job to you: You have the right mix of video and journalistic skills, physical fitness, and, I hope, availability.”
“I should be available,” Jason said. “What is the timing for the project?”
“This weekend. Friday night, in fact. The timing is important because the road is said to be more spiritually active during the full moon. The full moon arrives this Friday night—about a hundred hours from now.”
Jason contemplated the upcoming weekend. What else did he have going on? That reminded him of Molly Russell; and now he had one more reason to accept Simon Rose’s offer—provided that the pay was right, of course.
“Everything sounds good,” Jason said. “I can be available this Friday. I have only one question, really.”
Rose smiled. “Of course you do; and I know what it is: Your compensation as a subcontractor on this project will be $2,000, plus expenses,” Simon said. “The walk itself should take about four hours, with an additional hour for the post-walk interview.”
That’s $400 per hour, Jason thought. It was money that he could definitely use. His financial resources were minimal—a combination of loans and part-time work, and a partial scholarship that he had cobbled together. His parents, despite their declaration of best wishes for his educational endeavors, had been unable to provide him with any financial assistance. The two of them were barely able to take care of themselves, after all.
“That will be satisfactory,” Jason said, recalling again those admonitions against displays of excessive eagerness.
“Excellent,” Simon said. The waitress brought the bill for lunch. Jason reached for his wallet and Simon waved him still. “Lunch is on me,” the semi-famous filmmaker said.