Here’s a Halloween story for you.

In the fall of 1983 I took Abnormal Psychology, which as you might expect was a required course for my major. In this class, the option existed to receive a bump of one full letter grade if you volunteered at a regional psychiatric hospital not far from Duke, the John Umstead Hospital in Butner, North Carolina. I was all over that, both for the grade bump upside, and also because I was fascinated to see what went on in a place like that.

Located out in the middle of nowhere, the John Umstead Hospital lived up to every last, awful shred of the reputation for state psychiatric facilities. It was a concrete bunker built to basically contain the crazies until the fever passed. I can’t imagine a dime’s worth of effective treatment transpired in such a prison like facility. I went out there once a week for a couple of hours with another student, a football player perfectly named Brick Johnstone. Brick, a great guy, was a defensive back on the team. Walking into the dankness of that hospital, you can imagine the comfort I took in having Brick as my wingman.

We did very little to fulfill our volunteer hours; frankly, we played spades. We’d be placed in this large recreation room and encouraged to interact with the residents. Almost every week that amounted to Brick and I finding two of them and pairing up for a game of spades. Most of the patients seemed to keep to themselves, and it wasn’t like our spade games yielded rich opportunities for therapeutic exchanges. The place was creepy as hell, and Brick and I just wanted to log our hours and laugh nervously about it all on the drive home.

On one of our last weeks volunteering the night began with the usual spades fare. While we played, I couldn’t help but notice this young, skinny white guy across the way. That was because he appeared unable to not notice us. He stood against a wall and seemed to be staring pretty intently at our game. In my mind’s eye, he looked not unlike that crazy bastard who shoots Bruce Willis at the beginning of the movie, The Sixth Sense.

Knowing enough to know that it’s probably not a good idea to stare back at a nut, I didn’t pay him much attention. I’d glance at him occasionally, and yeah, that steady stare of his gave me the creeps. At one point an orderly approached and spoke to him. I wasn’t sad to then see them walk together through a door and out of the room. A few minutes later his face appeared in the window of that door, again, staring at us. It was chilling.

It wasn’t much longer after that when the head nurse approached our table and asked to speak with Brick and I. We stepped away to do so. “Guys,” she said, “I’m going to suggest you take off a little early tonight. Who knows why, but it appears one of our patients has taken an unnatural interest in you, Matt. We think it might be best for you to just get going.”

Brick had to break the speed limit to catch up with me running down the highway, let me tell you.

The next week, our last, you can imagine my trepidation going back to the place. That line, “…has taken an unnatural interest in you…” had been playing repeatedly in my head for the past seven days. Walking into the rec room I did the instant scan and was altogether relieved to see Scary Dude wasn’t there. No doubt discharged since the week before and back into his scary world, wherever the hell that was. The night passed uneventfully and Brick and I left Umstead for the last time.


A few weeks later a group of us went for “spags and balls” at Bat’s, this venerable pizza joint off of east campus (technically “Annamaria’s Pizza House,” but forever just called Bat’s, her husband’s nickname). The restaurant was all of one room up front, with the kitchen located in the back through the obligatory swinging doors, and a window through which order slips and food were passed. We were seated, had placed our order, and no doubt were joking about the many vintage comic book posters that festooned the walls of the place. Amidst the laughter a funny sense hit me, almost a distraction, as if something wasn’t right in the situation all of the sudden. I looked up and to the back, and there in the service window was Scary Dude. He was staring intently at me.

I explained myself later back at the dorm when my friends finally caught up with me.

One thought on “Boo!

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