“The Haunted House,” New Era, Oct. 1983, 38
Near my home in the north woods of upper Michigan, there once stood an old turn-of-the-century home. For years it had been abandoned, its black, weather-beaten frame cracking with age and crawling with snaky tendrils of ancient vines that wrapped and coiled themselves across the windows and around the doors. Various out-buildings were scattered here and there, but they were barely distinguishable beneath the creeping tangle of brush and brier. The house towered three stories high and cast a forbidding shadow on the bleached and withered ground. This shadow had spread throughout the community and entered the fearful heart of every child around.
When I entered the ninth grade, however, I decided it was time to get over being frightened of the old place. I wondered if perhaps I couldn’t use it for a party. Now, being the only Latter-day Saint in my high school, I had heard and tolerated some pretty cruel things. I figured I could stand up to jokes and criticism for not smoking and drinking, but what I couldn’t take was hearing over and over again about how Mormons just didn’t know how to really have fun at parties. Because of that, my bishop (who was also my dad and a biology professor at the nearby university) came up with an idea to prove my friends wrong. On Halloween night he would temporarily move into the local neighborhood haunted house. But by then—thanks to the efforts of my dad, brother, and missionaries—it would be transformed into a terrifying realm of horror and fright. According to plan I invited about 20 of my closest nonmember friends. Since all of them lived in town, about six miles away, I assumed none of them had ever heard of the old Sutinen home. I assumed correctly.
At 7:00 the party began at my house; and after about an hour of games, pizza, and root beer, I suggested we visit a poor old man named Toivo. I explained he lived alone but always had treats ready for any trick-or-treater who dared venture down the lonely, overgrown trail that led to his home. My suggestion was enthusiastically received until they saw Mr. Sutinen’s home. Even I, who knew my dad waited within, felt a shiver of fear creep along my spine, like a spider on a web of nerves. We approached cautiously toward where the house loomed up, outlined starkly against the moonlit sky. To add to the eerie effect, a single light flickered from behind the drawn curtains. Ghostly wisps of fog clawed at our legs, and branches whipped wickedly against our faces. We were considering bravely marching on, when shrill laughter split the tomblike quiet. Some of the group turned, running wildly for home, while the rest huddled near and bombarded me with questions. “Are you sure this is the right house?” “How long have you known this man?” “Are you positive he’s harmless?” and finally, “If this is a joke, you’re gonna be sorry!”
Reassuring them that everything was fine, I boldly knocked upon the blistered door. Like something out of a horror movie, the door slowly creaked open, and I gazed into the red-rimmed eyes of a madman. With a start I realized this white-haired maniac was my father!
“Trick-or-treat,” my friends whispered as Toivo Sutinen ushered us into his parlor. This room was dimly lit by two flickering candles perched on large polished skulls. Nice touch, Dad, I thought as I gazed at the skulls, the cobwebs, and the coffin set back in a corner.
“Wall now, ain’t dis a surprise. Ten purdy gerls cum ta visit ol’ me,” muttered Mr. Sutinen in a slurred drawl. “Ah was jist gunna eat ma supper. Join me, hey?”
Carol, the Good Samaritan of our group, slapped “old” Toivo on the shoulder and heartily agreed. The rest warily glanced around. And Mary, still hovering near the door, asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Uh, Mr. Sutinen, what were you planning to eat?”
“Why, ma favorite,” happily responded Mr. Sutinen, “barbecued bat wings!”
Too late we noticed the dozens of murky specimen bottles crowding the counters and shelves of the kitchen.
“Unless, of course,” finished Mr. Sutinen, whacking something near him, “you want ta wait until Mabel here thaws out.”
Looking up, we saw a row of frozen cats hanging stiffly from the rafters!
This, of course, made sense when one remembered my dad was a professor of biology and used such things in his labs. But to my friends it was a ghastly spectacle and required a hasty exit by the nearest door—which was locked! Mary promptly began to cry, and several others looked like they wanted to. I begged my friends to stay and humor this crazy old man a little while longer, and they agreed.
“Wall, ah kin see yer not hungry,” cheerfully said the old man, picking up one of the candle skulls. “Why don’t ah take you on a tour of ma home?”
Happily accepting any excuse to leave the kitchen and its occupants, we followed Toivo Sutinen up the rickety, wooden steps and into a narrow hall.
“First room on the left here was ma dear Mildred’s” explained Toivo opening the door wide and allowing us to enter.
Except for a dusty end table on which lay a bloodstained knife, everything in this room was covered with enormous sheets. Avoiding eye contact with the knife, we halfheartedly listened to Mr. Sutinen reminisce about his dear departed wife. Uncomfortably we began to realize he was talking about Mildred as if she were still alive.
“Yep, ma heart was near broke, couldn’t stand it no more. So went out late one night and brought ma Mildred back home.”
With a flourish, Mr. Sutinen pulled back the bed sheet. And there, in all her skeletal beauty, lay the former “Mrs. Sutinen”!
That was too much; my dad had gone too far! Screaming frantically we ran from the bedroom and down the stairs. We must have triggered something because as we ran ghosts in Victorian dress swooped past, bats squeaked, and howls echoed through the empty corridors. The door was now wide open, but as we bounded down the steep steps, something huge and hairy jumped out from behind a nearby tree.
I don’t remember much after that except a lot of screaming and running. Within minutes we were safely back in the security of my home, breathlessly reliving each terrifying moment. My mother insisted I tell my friends the truth, but it took some doing to convince them crazy Toivo was not only my father but the “minister” of my church.
Later, when my dad, brother, and the missionaries returned, everyone wanted to ask them questions. I’m not sure that much gospel doctrine got discussed that night, but all in all the experience had a positive effect on my friends. Two of them later joined the Church and four others seriously considered it. The greatest result, however, was that from then on there wasn’t a single Church activity that wasn’t attended by as many nonmembers as members.
A couple of years ago, the old house burned to the ground. I’ll never forget that day. Standing with a crowd of interested bystanders and frustrated firemen, I remember thinking that no one would be sorry to see this place go. It had stood too long, frightening children, and reminding others of ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump in the night. With a crash the house collapsed, showering sparks and ashes on everyone. For a brief moment I felt a twinge of regret. And then it was all over. The firemen doused the glowing coals with buckets of water, and the crowd broke up.
As I wandered back down the path that led to my home, I thought once more of that terrifying, yet zany, Halloween party. It was ironic, but comforting to know, that a place of such indescribable horror had served as a site where good opinions of the Church had been formed and, I hoped, would be nurtured for many years to come.