Edinburgh, Scotland – September 2016
Whatever it is, it emanates from here. At least that’s what they say. Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is the location of the most well-documented poltergeist in the world – the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Legend has it that, one dark and story night in 1998, a homeless guy broke into this mausoleum seeking shelter. It is the final resting place of George Mackenzie, a man responsible for the deaths of 18,000 of his compatriots. While the vagrant was ransacking the coffins he found on the lower level, he fell through the floor, landing on a pile of rotting corpses that had been dumped during the plague. He clawed his way out and ran screaming into the streets, never to be seen again. Ever since, hundreds of attacks on visitors to the graveyard have been reported. Scratches, bruises, and burns appearing on the skin. Sensations of being kicked or having hair pulled. One woman was found unconscious with bruises around her neck.
All is quiet around this little mausoleum. The hair on the back of my neck is at rest. We have just entered the cemetery, however. My mother, stepfather, and me. Tonight we are going on a Haunted Graveyard tour of this very place, but we wanted to see it in the daylight. We weave in and out of the gravestones, moving deeper within. These are the most sinister tombstone adornments I’ve ever seen: gaping skulls, leering demons, wicked cherubs. We attempt to decipher the faded epitaphs. Strolling through cemeteries usually gives me a sense of serenity. I’ve even adopted the Eastern European tradition of wandering at night through candlelit graveyards on All Saint’s Day. I pause to gaze into the weathered faces of twin girls. Demure hands clasped in prayer, a seductive glimpse of leg. Tainted virtue. Every image in this necropolis seems to mock the beholder. I’m not sure I could be paid to venture here alone in the daylight.
A black Labrador bounds back and forth along the back wall. It jumps on one of the tall tombstones and wags its tail. A male voice barks an unintelligible command. It takes a while for the ear to become accustomed to the Scottish accent. The dog stands up, catches a ball in its mouth, and carries it to the man. And the cycle continues. My parents and I exchange bewildered glances. As we approach, I notice an upturned hat. Ah, so that’s the purpose of this unexpected show. My stepfather adds his contribution to the hat, and we move on.
The wall curves around, leading back towards the entrance. The conversation turns to family stuff. Catching up. I’ve crashed my parents’ Scotland trip. Or rather, their voyage to this part of the world was an excuse for a much-needed reunion. A flicker on my left. A shadowy figure appears. Immobile, yet infused with sentience. Watchful. An abrupt halt. I gasp. “Woah.” We peer into the murkiness. Stillness like an indrawn breath before a forceful, taunting BOO.
A young man strides towards us, all arms and legs. Blonde hair protrudes from his skull. He pauses, twists his long neck towards the dark effigy, shakes his head, and proclaims, “Tha thing’s skelly as fook!” He lopes away with a chuckle.
I look at my parents with a snicker. “Did you understand that?”
My stepfather smiles and nods. My mother shakes her head. “What?” When my stepfather translates for her, she laughs.
I roll my eyes and laugh. “Scotland.”
Night falls. Intermittent rain and humid gusts of wind. I wonder what it takes to be classified as dark and stormy in Scotland. The tour guide is a tall young woman with long black hair. Black leather trench coat and combat boots. She is perfect for the part. She pauses inside the entrance of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. The group clusters around her. We are on a hill, but it’s not a natural hill. It’s made up of tens of thousands of bodies that were discarded here. Most of them died in horrible conditions or are the very worst of criminals. There are so many bones that, if there’s been a particularly heavy rain, they will rise out of the ground. You see the buildings next to the graveyard? Since the Mackenzie Poltergeist was awakened, there have been unexplained fires and other misfortunes for those who live there. Be warned: it’s not unusual to feel nausea or headaches or faint.
And she leads us deeper into the shadows. To the very back, where the black dog and its master were so joyfully playing just hours earlier. This is where the rogues are buried. Bad people. She launches into a tale of murder and mayhem. Torture. They used to lay a bottomless metal box on the abdomen of a prisoner, put a live rat in the box, and then heat the box until it was blazing hot. There was only one way for the rat to escape…
A sharp exhalation of disgust escapes me. I’ve been making an effort, lately, to dislike humanity a little less. This is not helping my attitude.
But the description of the torture is not finished! Do you know how long it takes for a rat to eat its way out of a human body? Sometimes they got lost and chewed their way up instead of out. Like into the arm. And how long can a human survive this situation? Hours!
My head spins. I step back and take a deep breath. The migraine I had earlier in the day has come back.
My mother moves beside me. “I’m starting to feel sick, but it’s probably just jet lag,” she whispers.
I nod my head at the rest of the group, their blank expressions. “I think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel sick after hearing that.”
I close my eyes. She’s surely embellishing the story. A memory arises. There was a game the kids in our neighborhood loved to play in the autumn. When the air was rich with the smell of decaying apples and burning leaves. For a night or two, rivals made a truce. Because: the more the better for Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard.
We gathered at my family’s house, because we had the biggest yard in the neighborhood. My brother and sister, me, the neighbor twins, the bully who lived down the street, and his brother and sister. Two people were picked to be the ghost and the tour guide. We turned our backs while the ghost hid. The bully was usually the tour guide, because he was the most entertaining. His name was Derek Farrio*. He was the oldest. Scrawny, but vicious. He had a skinny, oblong head covered with black hair. Chimpanzee smile. He was the terror of the Catholic school. The altar boy from Hell. He made faces at the priest’s back during mass. He brayed the hymns with exaggerated fervor, even after the organ’s last notes had died away. Even the teachers had a hard time keeping a straight face. Undeterred by the punishment that was bestowed upon him, he operated by stealth. His impassive expression was the most fearsome. Lips at rest, watchful orbs under heavy eyelids as he prowled the school bus aisle looking for a target.
On Derek’s tours, the front porch became the site of a bloody battle. A smoldering pile of leaves became a plane crash. An unremarkable bush became “The place where JFK, um, shitted on.” We’d giggle behind our hands. He was the only one brave enough to swear. It was all a way to distract us. This was the goal of the game. When we reached the ghost’s hiding place, Derek would screech, “And this is…Ghost, Ghost in the Graveyard!” We’d squeal and scatter. The person who was unfortunate enough to be caught by the ghost would be the next ghost. And so it continued.
I smile to myself in the dark. As we are shepherded towards the finale of the tour, I share the memory with my mother. She remembers Derek, of course. The bumps and bruises and hurt feelings she had to soothe because of him.
“His sister told me, not so long ago, that he was actually bullied by the kids in his class. That’s why he took it out on us littler ones.”
My mother snorts. “That’s no excuse.”
“No, not an excuse, but an explanation. He was the one with the problem, not us.” Bullies are so often the result of bullies. It comes from a need to feel powerful. Those who are truly strong feel no urge to perpetuate the cycle. Scars are so much easier to bear than guilt. “She also told me that his kids are worse than he was. What goes around always comes around.”
Our lovely and talented guide pauses at the gates of the Covenanter’s Prison. She pulls a large key from her pocket. The tour company had to take out extra insurance for the right to enter. This is where the majority of attacks have taken place. “I’ve seen people become very distressed very quickly in here. You are not obligated to go inside.” She pauses. There are no objections, so she rattles the gate open and closes it behind us. We follow her down the long row of mausoleums. Twelve hundred religious prisoners were crammed in here and left to fend for themselves. George Mackenzie, “Bluidy Mackenzie”, was the overlord. Hence the connection with the present hauntings. He was awakened to wander in perpetual torment. What goes around comes around. Always.
As the guide continues her florid account, we are herded into a tiny mausoleum. She stands in the doorway, facing us. Voice lilting with rising drama. A masked face lurches into view. A scream blasts us. Deafening, elongated, heartfelt. A collective scream erupts in reply. The face disappears. The shock is replaced with laughter.
“My goodness, that was impressive. It’s rare to see someone with such passion for their job these days,” I say to the guide as we make our way back to the gates.
She nods. “Yes, he takes his job very seriously.”
Fat raindrops begin to fall. One more stop before we are free. I come to rest at the back of the group with my parents. A couple stands in front of us. They have stood to the side for most of the tour, casting disdainful looks at the rest of us. Her gold metallic platform sneakers glitter in the darkness. She pulls a fur-trimmed hood over her blonde hair. The guy wrestles an umbrella out of his coat pocket. It opens into a mangled mess. He lifts it above his head anyway. My mother nudges me. We attempt to stifle our giggles. The guy looks over his shoulder at us with a haughty smirk. The tremor intensifies. The worst thing to do with a laughing fit is try to control it.
My stepfather rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Men are so stupid.”
Through the gates and into the streets we go. Dispersed into the night. My parents and I trod back to the hotel. My eyes in the bathroom mirror are glassy, exhausted. When I lower my gaze, I notice three scratches, like claw marks, on my chest.
*Name changed, but the rhyme is the same.
My stepfather took the last photo, which is of the Covenanter’s Prison, on his iPhone. We sent it to the tour company. They added it to their collection of hundreds of such photos. The photo of my scratches is blurry and unimpressive, so I didn’t post it. I made an effort to check my skin before the tour, so I know that it was clear. Except for the migraine, I felt absolutely no pain during the tour. Apparently, most people don’t. The marks just appear.