In March 1946, Robert O’Dell walked into Creek Haven Elementary with a shotgun and a pistol. Twelve children and a math teacher never made it home. O’Dell was arrested immediately following the massacre, after he’d fallen down a flight of stairs. When asked why he had done it, he didn’t answer. He just smiled.
He was executed within the year.
Creek Haven has changed a lot since then. It had been a mining town up until the 70s, when the ore depleted and the residents were forced to move away to find new work. Now it’s deserted, left for the woods and the wild to overrun. The buildings still stand, including the school, and ghostly rumors have surrounded the place since it was abandoned.
Supposedly, the spirits of the children can be seen in and around the school where they died.
I’d heard bits and pieces about it since I was a kid. My dad had been born there, but the family left even before the mines dried up. He had no memory of it. Grandma did, though. She’d spent her whole life there, and she’d been in the school when O’Dell opened fire. That was the one piece of her childhood she never talked about.
I was taking a film class and we’d received an assignment to shoot a mini-documentary. I knew right away what I wanted to cover. I decided to interview Grandma first to see what she could tell me about Creek Haven and the supposed hauntings that followed in O’Dell’s wake.
“We don’t say that name,” I recorded her telling me. Even over the tape, I can hear the thin, disapproving line she’d pressed her lips into. “And you don’t want to go there. Terrible memories left it ruined.”
My voice comes up after a moment of silence. “Do you remember that day?”
There’s a squeak of a chair as Grandma shifted uncomfortably. “Of course I do. I knew all of the victims. Some had been my friends. You don’t forget something like that. Never. Never.”
After so long, her voice was still raw with pain. I shut the tape off after. Even as a high school kid, I knew there were some things you shouldn’t push. After it was done, Grandma got up and walked to the kitchen. She asked me what kind of cookies she should bake for me to take home. I didn’t bring up Creek Haven with her again.
That didn’t put me off the project, though.
I recruited my friend, Nichole, to act as camerawoman and we picked a date to drive out to Creek Haven. Despite its bloody past, neither of us believed that it was truly haunted. My documentary was meant to cover its history and the birth of an urban legend. I called it, “The Making Of A Ghost Town”.
It was overcast and humid when we left. Nichole’s Jeep’s AC was broken and she spent the thirty minute ride complaining about it. I was too busy focusing on my notes to really notice. I don’t think I looked up until she stopped short and my seatbelt caught me as I jerked forward.
A barrier had been erected in front of the road leading into Creek Haven. I got out and filmed it and the long strip of potholed pavement behind it. I had Nichole put her four wheel drive to good use and directed her off-road to go around the flimsy barricade. I held the camera out the window, catching shots of the trees lining the way in and the first glimpses of houses, sagging and in disrepair, in the distance.
We slowed to a stop when we reached what had once been Main Street. I had dug up old photos of the town over the years and Nichole and I went through the pile to find ones that matched the spot we were in. I wanted a montage of “then” and “now” comparisons to open the documentary with.
“So when do we get to the school?” Nichole asked.
She was eager to get to the haunted part already.
“Come on, Cleo! You know that’s the only thing anyone’s going to care about. The video’s only going to be a half hour, don’t waste your time being artsy fartsy.”
The tight, grim set of Grandma’s expression crossed my mind as I relented. What was still an open wound for her was schoolwork fodder for us. It was a reminder to treat the subject matter with as much respect as I could manage.
We followed a map I’d brought down the bumpy streets toward the school. It was eerie to drive past the sun-bleached buildings still sporting their signs and business names, as if they were just waiting to open their doors again. I kept the camcorder rolling as we turned down Dogwood toward the low stone wall that surrounded the school.
It was a two story building, red brick and blackened windows. The small parking lot was an empty mess of weeds growing through concrete. Nichole parked just outside the front doors. The glass on one had been shattered, allowing us a view of the corridor beyond. As I started to climb out, Nichole grabbed my arm.
“Someone’s in there,” she hissed.
“There!” She said, jabbing her finger forward. “In the first doorway inside. Someone’s looking out!”
I squinted into the darkened hallway and gasped. The outline of a person was peeking out around the doorframe. Nichole’s fingers dug into my arm. We sat, frozen, and waited.
The person didn’t move.
“What should we do?” Nichole asked in an uneasy whisper.
The person still hadn’t budged from their spot.
“It could be a homeless person?” She suggested.
I leaned forward in my seat. “I don’t think so.”
Despite her protests, I pushed the Jeep’s door open and lifted the camcorder to my eye. In hesitant, small steps, I climbed the short stone stairway leading into the school, until my suspicions were confirmed.
I laughed and waved for her to get out of the car and join me. “It’s a mannequin!”
“What?” She sounded doubtful.
“Is that supposed to make it less creepy?”
“Come on, you big baby. We’ve got a lot to film.”
After some convincing, Nichole finally joined me and we stepped through the broken glass opening. The inside was dimly lit in shades of gray that filtered through the grimy windows.
The dirty, child-sized mannequin we’d seen from outside was standing just inside the first doorway, which had a sign labeling it the front office. Over its shoulder, another mannequin, this one modeled after an adult, was standing behind the desk. Another pair were seated in some chairs outside another door marked “Principal”.
“What the heck,” Nichole said from over my shoulder.
I giggled nervously and filmed.
She stayed close on my heels as we walked further into the school. A few child mannequins were scattered throughout the hall: one at an old fashioned water fountain, a few were standing in a line outside a classroom door. Within the classroom, an adult mannequin had been placed in front of the chalkboard and some of the seats had more of the smaller ones in them. They were all browned with dust and age.
“This is way too weird,” Nichole said. “I’m going to wait outside.”
“Oh, come on! Someone was just fucking around a long time ago.”
“Whatever, I don’t care. I’m out!”
Nichole scurried back toward the front door, leaving me to call after her. She didn’t even turn around.
I grumbled and kept going.
Each room I passed had its own set of mannequins. They were positioned in ways that mimicked what a typical school day might have looked liked: teachers leading classes of students, an empty library where a lone mannequin was left behind the checkout desk, a cafeteria with a handful of child-sized mannequins scattered around the tables. There was even one class where a couple of kid mannequins had been made to look like they were passing a note between them.
It was weird, like Nichole had said, and I couldn’t deny that goosebumps had been creeping up my arms since that first child mannequin, but I told myself it was harmless. I wasn’t a little kid who was going to be scared by some overgrown dolls. Not when thirty percent of my grade depended on it.
I walked by faded, torn posters and glanced into every doorway, filming as I went. I’d have to add a voiceover later.
The stairwell leading to the second floor was halfway down the hall. They still seemed sturdy enough and I walked up them one at a time, slow and cautious the whole way. At the top of the stairs, a single adult mannequin was standing with its back to me. Someone had taped a stick that sort of resembled a handgun to its waist. A larger stick had been taped between its hands. I wrinkled my nose in distaste at the obvious symbolism and shoved the thing off to the side.
It fell over with a crash that echoed down the length of the hall. I shuddered and stepped over its legs to continue on.
Unlike the first floor, there was only one classroom that had any mannequins in it on this one.
An adult-sized mannequin was at the front of the room, half turned with its arm raised and pointing toward the blackboard. Every seat in this class was filled by a child-sized counterpart. They were facing forward, as if paying attention to their lesson. I panned the camcorder across the class.
A loud bang came suddenly from the stairwell and I jumped, instinctively turning towards it.
The silence that followed rang heavily in my ears.
“Nichole?” I called. “I’m up here.”
But my friend didn’t answer.
Icy sweat broke out across the back of my neck. I chewed my lip, trying to convince myself it had just been something I’d disturbed on my way up finally toppling over.
My thoughts were cut short by the soft murmur of childish whispers coming from within the classroom.
Slowly, even as I screamed at myself not to, I looked back into the class.
All of the mannequins’ heads had turned toward the door. Their blank, pale faces were fixed on me.
I stumbled back a step with a short cry, my camcorder fumbling in my hands. Something creaked, low and long, from inside the class. Suddenly I couldn’t remember how to move my legs. There was a heavy thud, another, and then a third, like footsteps, and they were getting closer.
A deep, guttural growl rumbled out into the hall.
The footsteps were becoming quicker.
I tore myself from the spot and ran, screaming, down the hall. At the top of the steps, my feet tangled in the legs of the mannequin I’d pushed over and I barely managed to catch myself on the railing before pitching headlong down the stairs. Frantically, I looked back toward the classroom.
Dirtied, elongated fingers had closed around the doorframe.
The mannequin dragged itself stiffly into the hallway. Its head turned jerkily toward me. And it growled again.
I didn’t look back a second time as I leapt down the stairs two at a time and bolted back down the hall to the front door, shouting for Nichole to start the car.
I was convinced I could hear the uneven, angry footsteps of the mannequin pursuing me out of the school.
We screeched out of the parking lot, and out of Creek Haven.
I couldn’t bring myself to review the footage until a few days later, when the fear had dwindled a bit and it seemed less real. Nichole didn’t want to see it at all.
“I’m going to have nightmares enough as it is,” she’d said after I told her what had happened.
I sat at my desk, every light in my room on, and I plugged the camcorder into my computer. I skipped over the initial shots of the town, until I got to the elementary school. Seeing the mannequins again made my heartbeat quicken and I fast forwarded, until I got to the classroom on the second floor.
There was the bang, which sent the camcorder jumping and off focus. It had come to rest briefly on a plaque outside the door and I caught the word “Parker” before the camera was moving again and everything became a blur. My own heavy breathing and screaming drowned out any other noise.
The only thing I managed to capture in my desperation to escape was a glimpse of the adult-sized mannequin standing in the hallway as I headed down the steps.
I ended up turning in a documentary on a different, much duller topic. But I kept my footage from the school saved in a hidden folder. Aside from Nichole, I was only ever brave enough to bring it up to one other person.
“Grandma?” I said. “I know you don’t like talking about Creek Haven, but…did the name Parker mean anything?”
Grandma nodded once, a subtle movement.
“Mr. Parker. He was my math teacher.”
His classroom had been on the second floor. When Robert O’Dell began his rampage, Cyrus Parker had been in the middle of a lesson. Students, Grandma included, would later say they didn’t know at first what the loud noises they heard downstairs were. Mr. Parker must have known, but he calmly told them to stay in their seats while he checked if out. The last words he spoke to the children were the same he said every day at the end of class.
“Study hard. Do your homework. Make me proud.”
He had closed the door behind him. Grandma distinctly remembered the sound of the lock turning into place.
The teacher in the next class over had poked her head out when the screaming began from downstairs. She watched Mr. Parker run past her, toward a strange man who just had stepped on to the second floor landing.
It wasn’t until the shotgun blast that she realized what was happening.
Mr. Parker took it in the stomach, and he growled.
He had jumped on to the shooter and both fell down the stairs.
“He died lying atop that monster,” Grandma looked away and dabbed her eyes. “Held him down until there was no life left in him. If he hadn’t…”
She trailed off, and I didn’t ask any more.
I don’t know who put the mannequins in the school or why. Maybe it was an art project, maybe it was a planned memorial that never panned out. I’ve never found an answer.
But thirteen innocent lives were lost in March of 1946. Since then, it’s been said that the ghosts of the children haunt the school grounds. I believe it.
And I know they’re not alone. I know that Mr. Parker never got to leave, either. He remains, watching over those children now the same way he did then.
God help anyone who ever tries to harm them again.