The living love to hunt the dead. Every night, ghost hunters in green night vision turn our television screens into paranormal recreation. But how do the ghosts feel when they’re filmed and cataloged for our enjoyment? Do the ghosts ever turn the tables and hunt the living?
Pastor Steve has served troubled youth in the Philadelphia area for fifteen years. In that time he has experienced his own share of anxiety and pain and, in his capacity as counselor, borne the burden of others. But the events of June 1997, made that burden almost too much for one man to bear.
“We used to have a camp up around Schwenksville,” Pastor Steve writes. “About an hour out of Philadelphia.”
Pastor Steve’s mission held a yearly summer camp for youth from Philadelphia. “We had about thirty kids all around 12 or 13,” Pastor Steve tells me. Normally, the campers slept in modest cabins. On one night, however, they would hike out through the back woods and old apple orchards where they would build a fire and sleep out under the stars in sleeping bags.
“It was one of our favorite activities,” Pastor Steve told me. “The other counselors and I would tell campfire stories to scare the kids off to sleep.” For that summer night in 1997, however, no one would get much sleep.
“It was about one in the morning when one of the other counselors woke me up,” Steve recalls. “There was a camper missing.”
A 12 year old girl could not be found in her sleeping bag nor in the immediate woods. For Pastor Steve, losing a camper under his charge was the worst nightmare he could imagine. “If she were hurt,” Steve tells me, “I could never forgive myself.”
Pastor Steve woke the entire camp and he, the counselors, and all the other campers began searching through the woods and the orchards. They fanned out with lanterns and flashlights calling the little girl’s name, Jesse. Ten minutes turned into 30, then an hour of fruitless searching.
“I knew the more time that passed, the smaller the chance we could find her,” Steve recalls. “Then, suddenly, there she was walking out of the orchard like she had been there all along.”
Jesse was safe but not unharmed. She was hysterical and sobbing uncontrollably. Her feet were dirty and her clothes were covered in pine needles and leaves as if she had been running through the woods. Most ominously of all, she had three long scratches down her arm that left her pajama top in tatters.
“We got everyone back to the main camp and got the sheriff out there,” Steve recalls. “They got her calmed down so she could tell her story.”
What Jesse told the sheriff was frightening and implausible: the little girl claimed that a monster had grabbed her from her sleeping bag and dragged her through the woods to an old farmhouse. There it had tried to put her in the cellar before she managed to get away.
No one believed her. Either because she was a young girl or because she was a city kid in the woods for the first time. “The woods were searched, but no farmhouse was found,” Pastor Steve tells me, “and the whole thing was chalked up to a kid who got herself lost in the woods at night.”
The camp shut down for the summer and the overnight hikes were cancelled indefinitely. But in the back of his mind, Jesse’s story had always stayed with Steve, haunting his memory of his time at the summer camp.
But, as it turns out, that wasn't the end of the story. The end would come thirteen years later when Pastor Steve finally learned the true events of that night for the first time.
“Jesse emailed me out of the blue,” Pastor Steve recalled. “Tracked me down from the ministry's website. She said she had wanted to unburden herself for many years and now was finally able to talk about her experience.”
Jesse’s story began when she awoke to the sound of muffled screams. Her eyes opened and she looked looked up to see the passing silhouettes of trees against the moonlit sky. She was being carried through the woods at night and the screams she heard were her own.
Jesse was laying across the arms of a man who quickly making his way through the woods. There was no light so Jesse couldn’t see his face very clearly, but she wondered how he could see enough to navigate. The only thing she could make out were wisps of white hair around his head.
Her screams seemed far away, like they didn’t belong to her and she was only a witness to this paralyzing terror. Was she dreaming, she wondered? The coldness of the night and sickening dusty smell of the man made her think otherwise.
The man suddenly stopped. Jesse was crying now. There was a great shadow – a house – and the man pushed the creaking door open with his shoulder. Did she fight back? She remembers her hands pulling at the doorframe, gouging deep furrows in the rotted wood.
Inside the old house, the air was close and thick with the smell of mold and earth. There was a light but Jesse couldn’t tell where it was coming from. If she could, she would put out the light and go back in the darkness because then she wouldn’t have to see the face of the man who was still carrying her.
Gray skin stretched over a brittle skull; a sunken nose; broken yellow teeth inside a ragged, gaping mouth; black holes instead of eyes; a lifeless visage absent of spirit. What terrified Jesse most about his face, it seemed, were the things that it lacked.
His ruined face made no expression to her renewed screams. The man made his way through shadowy hallways until he came to a door. He nudged it again with his shoulder and the door slowly swung wide.
Jesse struggled her body to turn and look. It was the cellar and at the bottom of the rickety steps, a yawning darkness swirled. At once it seemed to Jesse that the darkness before her was the real threat and thing that held her was not so much its accomplice as a slave to its evil.
Many things happened at once. Several figures began to coalesce in the darkness below her. Jesse’s revelation that the thing that carried her was, in a certain way, powerless gave her the confidence she needed to try to escape. She kicked hard against the doorframe and the man spun around so quickly he dropped Jesse to the foor.
Jesse hit the dusty boards and was immediately on her feet. The man slowly turned his head and Jesse met his empty eyeless gaze. His hand shot out and Jesse saw the skeletal claw that had carried her in its icy grip. It closed around her arm and the man began dragging her toward the cellar door.
As he did, a sickly orange light began to grow inside the darkness beyond, and Jesse saw a face, then many faces, in the terrible blackness. Fiery eyes and twisted, coal-black horns – but before she could see more, Jesse pulled free of the man and ran screaming out the door.
Pastor Steve didn’t know how to process this story. On one hand, his faith taught him that evil existed in the world; on the other, does the story of a child told years later prove anything? “I needed to know if there was someway to prove it,” Pastor Steve said.
Soon after he received Jesse’s email, Pastor Steve went back to the campsite grounds. He hiked the woods around the old overnight spot and made a disturbing discovery.
“You can find lots of old houses out here,” Pastor Steve recalls. “But they’re mostly just foundations and bits of debris, not a standing house like Jesse described.”
Pastor Steve stumbled upon the remains of one such house. All that was left was the cracked stone foundation and a collapsed chimney. No sign of a cellar. But Pastor Steve did find some old bits of wood, one piece in particular that could have been part of the old house’s door. On the face were four small grooves about the size and spacing that a small child’s hand would make.
Is it proof that Jesse was indeed attacked that fateful night? And was her kidnapper alive or a ghost? A zombie? Whatever it was, it seemed that it only served a more diabolic power, one that demanded a sacrifice of innocence from its spectral servant. Whatever these creatures were, we can be thankful that somehow their evil was not strong enough to triumph over the spirit of one determined girl.