The temperature drops to 50 degrees, leaves crunch and pile up on sidewalks but the colors of the trees get a little brighter to me. Nostalgia warms my heart with thoughts of Atchison, Kansas.
Typically the people I know love the Halloween season because it means running through The Beast. Some get jitters about carving pumpkins or watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and trick-or-treating. But for me, the Halloween season is all about being greeted by the Shell gas station as my family drives into Atchison – the most haunted town in Kansas.
Established in 1855, Atchison is Amelia Earhart’s birthplace and part of the Pony Express trail, but more importantly for me, it’s rich with my family’s history and the location of many of my fondest memories. There’s no squirting blood or vampires hidden in attics: the thrill of Atchison’s eeriness is in the people who live there through stories they share.
It’s between the trees of Jackson Park and floating in the air on Parallel Street. The town is small, but the spooky reputation is colossal. The notorious hauntings and annual ghostly tours are a part of their culture, not something “Atchisonians” abstain from or deny. This culture is what has made Halloween so special for me. While others were trading Whoppers for Snickers listening to “Monster Mash” I was becoming a part of Atchison’s tradition by hearing these stories.
One of my favorite memories of Atchison is when my aunt Denise and uncle Jack piled me and my brother in the trunk of their 1990’s Tahoe. They drove us around Atchison in the night to see gargoyles mounted on the home on 4th Street and the infamous “Sallie House” that Atchison is widely known for, where a six-year-old died during an operation and has wreaked havoc for the home ever since.
We drove over gravel through Jackson Park, once a zoo, and heard tales about animals who were released years ago and may still amble down Green Street. We always stayed in my grandmother Din Din’s house, right next to the park where a girl named Molly – who was found hanging from a tree after her prom – is still said to be heard screaming in the night.
I’d take these chilling legendary stories over a walk through The Edge of Hell any day.
The stories I hear aren’t just the legends everyone knows some are personal. They’ve been told in my family for as long as I can remember. My grandma Din Din grew up in a large home across the street from the town jail. When a criminal escaped from the jail, a body imprint was found in the monkey grass under the willow tree in her front yard. As a kid, when there were bumps and creaks in the night, her mom told her it was Mrs. Parks, the wife of the man who built the home. Bats lived in the house tower and would occasionally creep down from the attic and Din Din would chase them with brooms.
My dad grew up visiting her childhood home on Parallel Street and still claims the attic there is one of the creepiest things he’s ever seen. He and his brothers found a china doll in a white dress with a cracked face and at some point, one of my uncles placed the doll in the window of the attic where it remained for a long time.
These stories and experiences trickle through generations. One evening my family was walking through St. Benedictine college and we encountered a woman we still aren’t sure was real. She had been sitting on a bench overlooking the Missouri river when we watched her get up, lay two flowers down on the bench and practically float across the frosted grass in a full length black dress. Who knows whether we created the illusion of her floating across the lawn up in our heads. It felt surreal and so fitting for Atchison. Isn’t that what Halloween’s all about? The scary clowns and werewolf movies just don’t live up to these super-natural encounters.
Despite the undeniably ominous air, the town still feels homey to me. Sitting in one of our distant cousin’s, then, Pumpernickel Café, my brother and I learned how second cousins three times removed works. We got to know our great great uncle Dick and see his art showing at age 90. We greeted Albert, the manager of Snowball’s, like family each time we stopped in to get ice cream.
Back in Kansas City, as Ward Parkway trees fade from orange to brown, I squeeze my eyes shut and the corners of my mouth lift into a smile. I think about the Ouija night we had there and see the fields of wheat that enclose the eerie town. I feel the goosebumps I get as we enter the town and instantly want my family and blankets and stories to pile in that Tahoe again.
I will drive my kids through the infamous “Atch.” I will tell them stories and relay family history during drives on the hilly cobblestone. I will hope they cherish the town’s spooky charm over trick-or-treating up the block the way I always have.