As soon as I saw the photo, I moved on pure instinct, grabbing my wife’s wrist and sprinting out the door, giving her absolutely no time to properly reshelve the records she was browsing.
It didn’t matter that it was broad daylight, or that other people were in the vicinity — we were getting oh-you-tee OUT, and never coming back.
I only stopped to explain three city blocks later, but continued to put distance between us and it.
This is my one and only ghost story, and it all started when Kathryn, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, suggested we head down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August 2015, since I had never been.
As I’ve written multiple times, the experience changed my life forever. But this tale isn’t about the festival.
See, Kathryn got her undergraduate degree at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. At this point in our relationship, she had already visited the Evergreen State College, my alma mater, but I had yet to see where she went to school.
The campus is gorgeous, no matter what time of the year you visit; because it’s the oldest university in the Western United States, the architecture lends the college more than a little gravitas (although beautiful dorms doesn’t always translate to comfort, as Kathryn’ll tell you).
After showing me her classrooms and where she volunteered at a sexual assault hotline, we decided to grab a bite to eat where she and her friends would hang out in Salem and check out some of the stores.
We were specifically looking for any antique shops, since we just bought a portable record player (yes, we’re those kinds of Millennials).
As luck would have it — or unluck, as I’d later think — we found the perfect place to browse for some Styx and Rolling Stones albums.
But my eyes were quickly drawn to another item; a small, porcelain doll.
It wasn’t just the doll, though. It was the glass display case the doll was inside, and the conspicuous sign in the corner stating, “Haunted composite doll — for your safety, DO NOT TOUCH.”
Now, just a year earlier, Kathryn and I watched the “Annabelle” movie, the first spinoff from “The Conjuring” series that follow Ed and Loraine Warren, famous (or infamous) paranormal investigators.
For those not in the know, the Annabelle in these movies is based on a real doll, though the real-life version is a Raggedy Anne doll, less terrifying than the porcelain monstrosity used in the films. Following that same line of logic, the movies play up the supernatural occurrences associated with the doll, but it’s history is less than innocent; there are reports of the doll appearing in rooms it wasn’t left in, shifting into impossible positions, and even causing physical harm.
So with all that in mind, here I was, face-to-face with another purportedly haunted child’s toy, complete with pale porcelain skin and, despite its lack of eyes, its stare managed to pierce your immortal soul. I asked the folks running the shop what the story behind it was. I’m afraid I can’t recall the details, just that the tale contained your stereotypical possessed doll tropes. It was even for sale, though the price was marked up in order to discourage people from buying it.
Now, I believe in ghosts and spirits, but I haven’t experienced anything personally that I would consider paranormal, let alone a legit haunting. But when it comes to spirits (or as the Warrens claimed, demons) possessing inanimate objects, I’m a skeptic.
At the same time, I’ve never liked dolls, especially these sorts, as their decent into “uncanny valley” gives me goosebumps (My wife would have a blast filming a short horror movie based in C.C.’s Collectibles’ doll room).
So what do I do, faced with unconvincing claims of supernatural activity and compensating for the fact that I just find the doll to be straight-up unsettling?
I make fun of it.
Kathryn, of course, already had enough of the doll, and was browsing the records for something to go along with the awesome Baroqe-style Beatles album we picked up at the Shakespeare festival. At one point, she shoots me a warning over her shoulder, but I’m having none of it, and getting bolder as I go along.
I make fun of its face. I criticize its hair. At one point, I think I called it a second-rate ghoul not even fit to haunt the boy’s bathroom at Hogwarts.
And that’s when I pulled out my phone.
My plan probably involved sending a photo to my Mom, since she is super creeped out by Annabelle (though is unaware the real doll was a Raggedy Anne, and she has one she cherishes).
But as soon as I hit the shutter button and viewed the photo, I knew something was very, very wrong.
I only showed Kathryn three blocks later while catching our breaths.
The camera couldn’t capture the doll’s image; all I got was a mess of vertical black and white lines across the screen. I still have the picture on my phone today — it’s the one you can see above.
My fear quickly gave way to my reporter brain; I had to go back to recreate this experience. But Kathryn, ever the wiser, convinced me that we shouldn’t be those white people in horror movies.
It was probably for the best, but I do wonder where that doll is now, and if it’s making some other arrogant meathead regret their foolish actions.
At least it isn’t me.