The rusty old nail was supposed to summon a witch, as was the brick.
Both were stolen from the ruins of the witch’s house, deep in the woods outside of Loachapoka, Ala., on Halloween night roughly 15 years ago.
Per local legend — and by that, I mean the old hippy who ran the Lee County Museum in downtown Opelika — the house belonged to a woman (whose name I have long since forgotten) who ran a brothel out of her home.
One night, the local ladies, sick of their husbands sneaking off to bed other women, decided to put a scare into the brothel owner, maybe even run her out of town. Under cover of night, they set fire to the woman’s house.
Instead of running, she was burned alive. Before dying, the woman cursed not only those who murdered her, but the woods surrounding her home.
"I’ll never leave until the fires of hell consume you all," were supposedly her last words.
For the previous couple of years, as features editor for the Opelika-Auburn News, I had done various creepy things for Halloween stories. The year before, I’d spent the night in an old plantation house that was supposedly haunted by the ghost of the owner who’d been murdered by a former slave on the 13th step (duh!). People swore they’d seen him wandering the woods and heard him playing piano late at night.
I saw and heard nothing, largely because the photographer who came with me kept on all the lights and brought a rifle … to a ghost hunt.
The old hippy had always been a good source for local color. He was the kind of guy who — seriously — got a wart under his tongue and went to a gypsy, who told him the only way to cure it was by burying a found penny on his property, digging it up on the night of a full moon and placing it under his tongue at midnight.
I suggested Compound W.
On this particular Halloween night, I found the alleged witch’s house. It was spooky. All that was left were the remains of a chimney. The woods had reclaimed the rest. I hung around for a few hours, alone, in the dark. She never showed.
According to legend, if you took a remnant of her home, the witch would come to reclaim it. I took the nail and the brick. Again … nothing.
All that mattered to me was the creepy legend brought to life by an ominous sense of dread, which was what I wrote. I was rather proud of my effort … until the letter arrived.
It was from the witch’s sister. Turns out, not only was she not a witch, she wasn’t a brothel owner either, and the house hadn’t been burned by an angry mob of housewives but was struck by lightning, and she wasn’t even in it at the time. Instead, she’d died of a stroke in a nursing home in her 80s.
The gist of the letter was that my so-called witch was a sweet lady who never had kids and liked living alone. When her house burned down, somehow this story arose from the ashes.
I ran a correction … or at least I think I did.
I did save that rusted nail. I keep it on my desk as a reminder that all stories, especially ghost stories, have a life of their own. As the storyteller, I’d better get it right, even it that makes the tale less interesting.
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.