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PRAY FOR AGATHA, BURNING IN HELL
The title of the e-mail from Wiggles Nusbaum was ninety percent exclamation marks, so Bryan thought London After Midnight must have been discovered, or Wiggles had scored a DVD of The Day The Clown Cried.
Wiggles Nusbaum (almost certainly not his real name, but Bryan knew no other) was a video-forum friend who was obsessed with hard-to-find films. Wiggles was obsessive; he’d sit through some obscure Norwegian version of Heidi if it was hard to get. Anything that had him writing like a sorority girl it was likely a big effing deal, and thanks to the video underground's relentless barrel-scraping there just weren't that many big effing deals left.
With his adrenal glands already kicking in, Bryan opened the email. It read:
DUDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Whatever you thought you were doing Thursday...
Then there was a link to a website. Anticipation growing, Bryan clicked, and it took him to the bulletin board of a small college in Tennessee, and a post which read:
THE BELLWORTH COLLEGE FILM CLUB PRESENTS
Thursday Oct. 22
A midnite showing of
Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell (1971, Color)
Reiger Hall Rm 464 (Auditorium)
Admission Free But Donations Welcome
"No fucking way," Bryan said, sending it to the printer. He dreaded taking the road trip, but he didn't have much choice. Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell was one of those films like The Strange Flesh Of Rosemary Blythe, having a reputation as one of the scariest films ever made even though almost no one had seen it and almost nothing was known about it. It was so hard to track down that there were more rumors of people who'd seen it than there were about the film itself. It was easier to find people who'd seen Bigfoot, and they were as often liars. How had some small-college film club in Tennessee turned up a copy of a film Bryan only half-believed actually existed?
He did internet searches for more info but there was nothing about anybody having turned up a print. That should have been an earthquake-magnitude event in the horror community, but there was nothing. Wiggles had a radar for that kind of thing but how had he even spotted the notice? Did the film club even know what they had on their hands? The posting was so low-key it was almost comical, like they were just trotting Night of the Living Dead or Carnival of Souls out for another drag through the projector instead of fucking Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell!
Bryan e-mailed Wiggles with a dozen questions. He thought Wiggles lived in Portland, but felt certain he'd be flying to Tennessee for this. Provided it was even true. It had to be some kind of mistake.
Bryan had phobias about traveling alone, but he had to go to this; he almost wished it wasn't laid in front of him like this because now he'd have to do it, and he didn't relish the effort. He'd have to miss two days of work, and wasn't likely to find anyone who'd want to make the trip with him. He Google-mapped the drive and printed out maps of Bellworth's campus and even tried to find a floor plan of Reiger Hall to help him find the auditorium, but there wasn't one.
There was a good bit of other information online about Reiger Hall, though. And it was so creepy he forgot about Pray For Agatha for a while.
Reiger, a biology building, was one of the few old buildings left over from a previous university that had stood were Bellworth was standing now, and before that it had been a children's boarding school that had burned in the 1840's and was rebuilt from the gutted shell. Eighteen children had died in that fire and many people still thought it should've been pulled down after that. When they were doing some renovations in the early 1960's they'd found the mummified, flattened corpse of a child wedged between a couple of walls, smoke-cured and pressed like a flower in a book by building shifts. The walls had squeezed it so flat it was reportedly translucent in spots, like cloudy amber, and rather than bury it they'd archived it somewhere as a medical curiosity. Ghost-hunter sites had made a lot of trips to Reiger and reported all kinds of craziness. Though still in use, the building was supposedly semi-derelict, always damp and cold and with a basement so perpetually flooded that they'd just sealed it off. Students claimed there were still anatomical specimens housed in Reiger, and that a few students had been expelled (and institutionalized) for making love to one they'd called "Dear Abby" -- Abby Cadaver -- which they'd claimed "seduced" them.
Bryan supposed that was why they were showing horror movies there; what better place? Even if the movie proved to be the disappointment that forbidden fruit often is, experiencing Reiger Hall might be worth the trip in and of itself.
Bryan printed out all the info, intending to include some of it as backstory when he reviewed Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell on the film forum. He'd make a whole narrative of it, because it would certainly be one of the most widely-read posts in the history of that forum. Horror film buffs obsessed about that movie the way penitents obsessed over the second coming of Christ.
He checked his e-mail again. Nothing from Wiggles.
* * *
Two days later, Thursday the 22nd, there was still no reply from Wiggles. The film club post was still up; Bryan had been certain that they'd print some retraction, but no. Bryan still felt certain that there was some kind of mistake. He'd get there and find out some joker had stuck a Pray For Agatha label on some old strawberry-vinegar reels of Don't Look In The Basement or Lady Frankenstein or some other common thing, or retitled some other movie. He was always hearing about how many movies on the Asian video market were named Voodoo Black Exorcist when none of them were the real deal. Even when they had a more-precious rarity like The Spider's Labyrinth they'd title it Voodoo Black Exorcist.
He'd arranged leave time from work, though, so he was going, fiasco or not. Whatever it was, he'd get a good story out of it.
The drive from Alabama was long and tense, most of it through nowhere-country where if you saw a house at all you had to wonder what the people in it did for a living. October was already stripping the flesh off the trees, and the sky looked like dust, crawling overhead, thick and the color of disappointment. The day had a chill to it; winter had its teeth in the last of autumn and was gnawing, the warmth and color bleeding out of the world, dead leaves giving way to the skeletal. Driving through the lonely back country he could see it fading, feel the cold they were in for teasing like a playful uncle you're not comfortable being left alone with.
Watching the world outside the car windows, he felt even more certain that there was no way he was going to see Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell. All the portents were wrong. Doom, doom. Damn Wiggles for even sending me here.
He got to Oneda, the town where Bellworth College was situated, right after nightfall. Knowing his limitations, he'd given himself plenty of time to get lost. Several times he'd thought he was on the wrong road but he somehow found the place anyway, by lucky mistake more than skill. Oneda was the least collegey-looking of any college town he'd ever been in, some swept-into-a-corner place, shabby and dead and small, with a weird scent to it like an old house. He wondered what they'd study in a half-abandoned river town that offered nothing that wasn't bleak and cold. It was far more October here than in the town he'd left. It was probably October here even in the middle of summer, he thought, and wondered how students didn't get bored out of their minds. It looked like any other grimy nothing town, only more so, with lots of empty storefronts. Half the town was for rent and the other half was starving to bones. Where were the people?
Bryan stopped at a motel to make sure he had a room for the night; he didn't want to try driving back to Alabama in the small hours, especially after seeing a film as notorious as this was supposed to be. Once that was settled, he went to a Chinese buffet for dinner. It was a chain he liked in his town, but this one was cruddy and the food tasted stale and reheated, and there were fat flies buzzing around. Only three other customers sat in the whole place, an old couple who looked like they were going to a Halloween party as the couple from American Gothic, and a morbidly obese guy who had something disgustingly wrong with one of his eyes; it was bugged out and looked off in a wrong direction, slowly weeping like it was being shoved out by the slow emergence of something growing within. His bristly scalp had wrinkles so deep they looked like they'd hurt. Bryan wanted to take a picture of him for the eventual blog post and label it “One of the mutants of Oneda,” but knew that would be unkind.
For the first time he didn't make a return pass through the buffet and went back to the motel to kill a few hours. He'd taken the cheapest place he could find and it looked like nothing had been upgraded since the 70's, but that only added to the atmosphere for the film he was there to see. He checked carefully for bedbugs, but the place seemed clean enough, though worn. Some bored somebody had taken a knife to the plastic chair in his room, whittling its edges into saw blades.
The television gave him the last fifteen minutes of some old horror movie on a local station, and he couldn't recognize it, which was amazing since he thought he'd seen everything. It was crude and obviously 1970's vintage, and in it some guy with severe sideburns and sunglasses broke into a house and killed a hippie and his girlfriend using a hatchet. In the next scene there was a shot of hands baiting a lobster trap with bits of meat, presumably from the murdered couple, then tossing it into the sea as the credits started rolling and inappropriately "beautiful" music played on the soundtrack. Bryan tried to catch a few cast members' names to look up on IMDB but the station cut the credits off to show some loud used car commercial with a guy dressed as a chicken, hopefully for Halloween. Bryan waited for the station's call letters but they never showed them, instead going into an old episode of Mannix.
Bryan re-read some of the information he'd printed out about Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell, but it was scant. The longest review was from a non-horror film preservation site, from a list titled Lost?, and it didn't have much to offer.
Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell (1971, Color, dir: Paul Reed (deceased) - copyright status undetermined, alternate titles unknown.)
A demonic possession film that predates The Exorcist (film, not book, although production was finished before the book was published), this should have been boosted by the excitement that surrounded Blatty's book, but inept distribution condemned this one to scattered drive-ins and a few four-wall engagements. Rather than an innocent young girl, the demon's victim here is an old woman whose possession is initially blamed on encroaching senility. Instead of being tied to a bed, Agatha is free to roam and commits various blasphemous atrocities which are remarkably gory for the time period, and the whole film reportedly has the kind of septic, more-than-you-bargained-for feel of such films as Maniac or Last House on Dead End Street, combined with the dreamy early-70's atmosphere found in Let's Scare Jessica To Death and Messiah of Evil. Claimed by the few who've seen it as perhaps the most terrifying film they've ever seen and of having definite artistic merit, as well as a "unique atmosphere." No doubt the distributors of horror obscurities on DVD would love to track down a print of this one, but so far, no luck.
Finally, Bryan decided it was reasonable to set out to find Reiger Hall. He'd be early, most likely, but gave himself plenty of time-margin for getting lost. He imagined a small campus, but he took nothing for granted.
Slouched outside the motel, near Bryan's car, was a potato man. He wore a large, long brown coat of no particular shape, muddy-looking like a giant potato, and his face was like looking into a sack of them -- potato chin, potato nose, potato cheeks and brows, all with a layer of dusty dirt and specks, and growths that might be eyes sprouting. Bryan wondered if it could be acromegaly, but then some people are just ugly and it's not a disease. Bryan was alarmed but nodded hello. The man, apparently a vagrant, didn't respond. His behavior, too, was potato-like.
As he drove onto campus, he was glad he'd left early; it was a larger campus than expected, and sprawled and disorganized, and -- he was surprised -- badly lit. With the fear of bad press from rapes, most college campuses were lit up like Christmas trees, but not Bellworth College, where the slogan seemed to be "Get Raped, Who Gives A Shit?" Worried about forgetting where he left his car, Bryan picked out the most distinctive building he could find -- the library -- and parked next to it. The library had a clock tower, which was unusual, but the hands had fallen off the clock, which made it odd that its face still had spotlights beaming on it. That they maintained, while the parking lot was like the bottom of a coal mine.
Consulting his campus map, he saw he'd have a pretty good hike to Reiger Hall, which was situated through a wooded area near no roads. Unusual, but it was considered a relic. It was the official biology building but he wasn't sure Bellworth had much of a biology program.
There were a few students on campus at this hour and they all looked a little scary, acting drunk, stumbling through the corridors of night after some party that had gotten way out of hand. A crazy-eyed white guy with a shaved head met him on the sidewalk, openly smoking a very loud-smelling joint. He glared at Bryan with frosty eyes, dragged hard on the joint, blasted the smoke at him with a loud "Ha-HAH!" and then kept walking. Bryan thought of asking for directions to Reiger but decided he wasn't a good guy to ask.
A couple were sitting on a bench in front of a grimy statue of some college founder. The guy's face was buried in the girl's neck, his hand down the front of her pants, digging. She stared at Bryan with a wide-mouthed-and-sleepy-eyed smile and waggled come-here fingers at him, then witchy-laughed when he kept walking. Stoned out of her mind, Bryan thought, wishing he'd snapped a picture with his phone but not about to go back.
Buildings hulked around him in the dark. Occasionally there were lighted windows and he wondered what was going on in those rooms. He stopped under a working lampost (one of the few; someone had gone on a breaking spree recently, and glass was still scattered under them) and studied his map, trying to figure out where he was. Things didn't seem to match up, though. He felt sure he was going in the right direction but was lost just the same.
He tried stopping a girl to ask directions but she walked past him, ignoring him completely. He didn't blame her, a lone girl on this sleazy dark campus. He stopped a guy under one of the lights, a bald guy with a large, shiny, plastic-looking head with a few clipped hairs on it; it looked like something manufactured but dusty. The guy listened to him with a stare as he explained what he was looking for, but then stood there, offering no response but a slight smile. Bryan finally rushed away from him, unnerved. Behind him the guy still stood, smirking at nothing.
The clouded moon was high, like a coin dropped in muddy water, offering muted light. He saw a short, squat figure ahead of him and thought about trying to ask for directions again, but it ducked behind a tree. The tree's limbs clawed at the sky, its trunk warty and swollen with fungus; there was a sour smell of disease there, possibly from the fungus, possibly from whoever was hiding behind the trunk. Bryan didn't like someone he didn't know playing hide-and-seek with him in the dark, but heard them giggling, so low it was an impression as much as a sound. He hurried past.
Who needs a horror movie with a campus like this? he thought. He'd already had a trip through the funhouse, and this movie better be legit and it better live up to the hype, because he was going to already have nightmares just from getting to it. And even if he turned back now he wasn't sure he'd be able to find his car again; the layout of the campus made no sense. He looked back, trying to find the library's clock tower but there was nothing; maybe they'd turned off the spotlights and it was lost in the darkness, or maybe he'd already wandered too far away. Maybe he wasn't even looking in the right direction. Nothing behind him looked familiar, though he'd certainly passed it all. Mostly there was just a vast blackness, night wrapped in night.
He wandered the sidewalk for another ten minutes or so, feeling time creeping up on him; it was good he'd left so early, but would even that be early enough for this labyrinth?
He entered a copse of trees and was swallowed by darkness, barely able to make out the lighter stripe of sidewalk in the gloom. Glass from a shattered streetlamp crunched under his feet and he cursed whoever had thrown the rocks. Off to the right he sensed more than saw a presence, a shape sitting on a bench, maybe a person, maybe not. Experimentally he said, "Hello?"
"Hi?" said a whispery voice. Female, equally cautious, maybe mocking.
"I wonder if you can help me," he said.
"I don't know," said the voice. Dry, husky.
"Um... I'm trying to get to a movie a film club's supposed to be showing. Can you help me find Reiger Hall?"
"Reiger? Yes, I'm from Reiger." The shape stood up and joined him and they walked through the darkness.
"Is it far?"
"No, it's close. Just over this way. You probably would have found it if you kept walking."
"I don't know, I've been looking all over. I can't make sense out of this campus."
She laughed quietly. "I know what you mean. It was designed by a crazy man, I think."
They stepped into the light and the girl alarmed him, she was so thin, a final-stage something, not a thing that should be walking. Surely she was anorexic, in need of someone's help. Her hair was dark and lank and her face was all gloomy dark eyes, remarkably large, black like there was nothing but pupil, gleaming wet like oil. Still, she was the first helpful person he'd met here. "I appreciate this, I've been fumbling around. I came up here from Alabama and really have no idea where I am at this point. I asked a few people for help but they've all been... I don't know, I guess they've been partying."
She laughed, quietly again, everything about her was quiet. She seemed barely there. "People are strange here."
"Yeah, I'll say," he laughed.
"No offense taken," she said, with a sly little smile that gave her a different face, an oddly attractive one.
"Certainly none intended," he laughed. "You've been very kind. My name's Bryan, by the way."
"Abigail," she said, then pointed. "There's Reiger. See the big ugly building?"
He followed the line of her near-fleshless hand and yes, there it was, he recognized it from the website, although it looked much worse in the dark, a looming derelict, ominous in the night. Surely no one was still allowed in that monstrosity! But he did see dim lights in some upper windows. "Wow! What a wreck. They let people in there? Is that really where they show movies?"
"Oh yeah, they do that," Abigail said. "Have fun." She turned and passed back into the darkness, fading.
"Thank you! Hey, would you like to come to the film with me?" She was creepy, but better than no company at all.
"Seen it!" she said, then laughed and was gone, back into the night. He was alone again, faced with the madness of going into... that. That thing.
"It's Pray For Agatha, Burning In Hell," he reminded himself under his breath. "Or it fucking well better be." It wouldn't even start for nearly an hour and it was already the scariest movie he'd ever seen. Admission free, hell. It wasn't money, but he was paying.
He climbed worn steps to a heavy black door and stepped inside. The place was dim, half the lights out and others flickering and fizzling, and Bryan got the feeling he wasn't supposed to be in here. Surely this wasn't a functioning building in a college that was still open for business. No maintenance crew would ever allow the lighting to reach such a state, and no janitors the amount of litter. The end of the hall was completely black, punctuated by one lighted window in a door near the end, so tiny it made the hallway seem to stretch for miles.
Looking down that dark hallway he wondered if he should go on at all. He wasn't in the right place, and he might get arrested for even being in this building. The whole internet posting must have been a prank, bait laid out to lure some film geeks into a place they shouldn't be.
But he heard the ceiling creaking from footsteps above. Someone was here. He had a printout of the bulletin board posting in his coat, he could show it to a security guard if he got caught here. He was innocent, invited by the guilty.
He wandered down the hall, squinting in the dimness, wishing he had a flashlight. On a column near a door labeled "STAIRWAY" was taped a piece of paper with "MOVIE, MIDNITE!" scrawled on it, with an arrow pointing up around the word "AUDITORIUM, RM 464." Beside it was drawn a winking smiley face and a disembodied hand holding a bunch of balloons. That made little sense, but it said "movie" at least, which gave him a little confidence. He went into the stairwell.
The light there was flickering like crazy, and Bryan remembered what he'd read about the basement of Reiger being flooded and sealed off. Maybe that was why the power was shorting out? The whole thing seemed ridiculously dangerous. There was a rusty smell to the place, probably due to the bricked-up basement below, swampy and iron like breathing through a bloody nose. As he mounted the stairs he could hear twangs and creaks echoing up the well like the whole place was tuning up.
Someone crazy for clowns had done a lot of painting in the stairwell, covering the walls from the second story on up. Their enthusiasm was not matched by their skill; the proportions were all wrong. Here was a hand bigger than its torso, a smile that stretched beyond the border of the face and hung in the air, an extra eye, crazy acid-pleasing colors, clowns far more of madness than of glee. They hurt Bryan's head and the stairs were so dark he could only make out the suggestions of more in the corners, furtive, skulking clowns in the dark. Reiger had once been a children's school until the fire in the 1840s (he remembered the body found between the walls, flattened like one of these horrible clowns) and he wondered if these paintings were some twisted tribute to them. He'd like to count them and compare it to the number of dead children. Eighteen, hadn't it been? There seemed more clowns than that. And daisies. Someone had certainly had a thing for those, too. On the way back out he'd be sure to take pictures of all this madness, because otherwise no one would believe it.
There was a lot of litter on the stairs. A shred of an old essay cover bore the scrawl "Why Man Will Never Land On The Moon." It had gotten a B+. Surely it was a joke, planted there.
What a funhouse, all caked with age. The building felt starved, and he had the sense of being digested as he moved through it. It was a horrible feeling, the night squeezing and absorbing him, making him a part of all this lunacy. And the stairs made him nauseous; they seemed hung slightly off kilter, disturbing his inner ear, the creation of a psychotic architect with a grudge against the human race. If you even tried to describe it you'd end up babbling, and he wondered how he'd type it up for the blog. Grime clung in every crack like the folds in some workman's unwashed hands, waiting to clap shut on him. The stairwell echoed like fingernails inside a coffin. God, did the stairs ever end? Up and up and up, stairway to heaven. How high up could the fourth floor be? He passed the door to the third and it was chained shut and padlocked, the window in the door showing lights out. Someone was there, though; he could hear them through the door, yelling far down the hall. Jesus.
The building was almost worn out, but by what awful people? Who would ever work here? What kind of minds could be grown in this environment? Mushrooms. They would clot up and sour like forgotten milk.
There was a window to the outside and Bryan rested next to it for a moment, taking in the campus in the moonlight. It looked like one big crime scene, some foul gutter too long untended. He'd never hated any place so much. Somewhere in this building were other people and he wasn't sure he wanted to meet them because he was an idiot for even visiting here, so what must they be? Maybe this dim, flickering lighting suited them, maybe they appreciated the clowns on the wall. Worse, maybe they painted them. An artist colony, a clown-cult, infesting this rancid shell, gone mad expressing loonietoon creative impulses better off repressed. Hang their works in a museum and then turn out the lights so they could be enjoyed properly.
Above him the stairs went completely dark. He gripped the bannister and kept climbing, determined. He'd been through all of this, he'd see his damned movie, yes he would, and then he'd never stop bragging.
The stairs seemed to go much higher than the building, but he finally reached the fourth floor. Its door was marked by a lit window, cracked chickenwire glass. He pushed it open. A guy was sitting at a chair with an attached desk beside the door and looked up at him. "Hi," Bryan said. "Are you with the film club?"
The guy laughed. "Nope!"
"Oh, I thought maybe you were doing tickets or something. They're showing a movie here, right?"
The guy shrugged. "Could be. They do that sometime. Some weirdoes show them. Crazy shit." He shook his head, laughing, like showing movies was an absurdity unfathomable.
Bryan checked his watch. Almost half an hour before midnight. Time to kill. He noticed a tattoo on the guy's forearm, really beautiful art, a gorgeous girl with long hair flowing over her, hiding nudity. It was a relief to see good art after all the clowns crowding the stairwell. "I like your tattoo. That's some great art," Bryan said.
The guy grinned wider. "Thanks. Saved up a long time for that. I just want somebody to be there when I die, y'know?"
Bryan hoped he wasn't making the face he felt he might be making. "Yeah, I guess."
"Be my luck to die 'cuz I get my arm chopped off!" the guy said, then barked a laugh too loud for the building.
"Well, that'd suck," Bryan said, forcing a companionable chuckle.
"Tell me about it! You know how it is, though, girls always leave ya."
"Well, I hope not that one."
"That's the idea." He tapped his arm. "She's trapped in there. Like me."
"Um... the auditorium is on this floor, right? It's room four-sixty-four, I figured that meant fourth floor."
"Oh yeah, it's off down the hall there." He waved a hand. "Probably where they're showing your movie, huh?"
"Supposed to be. Well, thanks, huh?"
"No problem." The guy sat grinning at him. Feeling awkward, like he hadn't sufficiently closed the conversation, Bryan headed down the hall.
Off to the right was a door whose pebbled glass window read DISSECTION LAB. The lights were off in there but there was crazy giggling coming from behind the door, like drunks doing something naughty. Bryan got a chill and turned to look back at the tattooed guy at the desk. He was still turned in his seat, staring at Bryan with a wide smile.
"Shit," Bryan whispered and kept walking. The lights were dimmed by fixtures stuffed full of old moth corpses, light filtered yellow through dusty death. The floor was arithmetic made of limbs of roaches, mingled with hair, very unseemly for a building full of biology labs.
Here he was, in a building with a history of mass child-death, mummification, necrophilia, to watch one of the scariest films ever made. None of it felt real yet he wasn't dreaming. And there were madmen laughing in the rooms where they kept the cadavers, and running around screaming on closed-off dark floors. The guy at the desk was probably still grinning at his back, and if he turned he'd see it. Why not? Laugh at me, wanting to watch a scary midnight movie when so much worse was going on, a joke I’m not in on.
He found the auditorium to his left, a small one but impressive, angling downward perhaps a bit too steeply, so all the seats had a good view of the stage, which was so small he doubted they used it for plays. Lectures, more likely. Being a biology building it may have seen a dissection or two. Ol' Abby Cadaver. The room was chilly enough to keep the dead happy.
The film club had hung an old bedsheet up for a screen, nailed to a board at the bottom to make sure it hung flat. A film club without access to a real screen? A piece of cardboard (slashed from an old FedEx box, Bryan noticed -- the rest of the box had been thrown into a corner) was propped on an easel, and someone had smeared it in what looked convincingly like blood, spelling out "PRAY FOR AGATHA BURNING IN HELL!" above a smudged pentagram, and a smaller word, "Damnit!" Well, that was a good sign, ha ha, Bryan thought.
Midnight was approaching and the only other person in the auditorium was one guy sitting in the back corner across the room, in a spot so dim Bryan could hardly make him out. He was hunched up in his seat, and Bryan thought of the potato man he'd seen back at the motel. They grew them in the dark here. Couldn't be him, though. The shape twitched, apparently aware it was being looked at and not liking it. It made a noise like the greeting of someone so drunk the consonants wouldn't stick to his tongue and all that was left were the vowels, this big slurry of sound like you'd taken something away from a halfwit. "Aaaa oo eeee!" A chill crawled through Bryan and settled in his chest.
"Here for the movie?" Bryan asked, just to acknowledge the attempt at communication.
The guy gathered himself in his seat with an angry snuffle, and Bryan waved and turned back around in his seat, thinking why should the night start being normal now? He was already writing his blog post in his head, deciding he'd use artistic license to turn that guy into something put together by the drunks in the anatomy lab. Why not? It was Halloween, after all. The review of Pray For Agatha could turn out to be the shortest (and least frightening) part of his post.
Provided they ever actually showed it, that was. The time crept up past midnight. Another guy, thin and tall and with a weird waxy smile on his face, dressed too formally, came in and Bryan thought maybe he was from the film club but he took a seat on the other side of the room and sat straight and stiff, still smiling like something wrong with his face was forcing him to do it. Bryan glanced over at him a few times and the guy never moved. If he hadn't seen him come in he'd think he was a propped-up mannequin. The shape in the back corner fidgeted as if itchy.
It was twelve-fifteen and Bryan wondered if the film club as just waiting to see if some stragglers were going to show up, or if something was wrong. It'd be his luck if the last print of Pray For Agatha in existence got eaten by the projector. This isn't going to happen, Bryan thought. All this creepy shit and then no movie.
Then, sometime around 12:30 the lights suddenly snapped out.
Approximately a minute later the screen lit up with a loud crackle like a strong wind catching wet canvas. Green scratch-lines raced over a black background and the warped chords of an acoustic guitar started, and adrenalin surged through Bryan, jolting him alert. This was it.
The scratches continued in the dark as the most morbid blues song he'd ever heard started crackling on the soundtrack, hideously bent chords shoving each other aside to escape busted speakers. He wondered if the condition of the soundtrack was warping the music or if the guy playing was just that evil with talent. Screech and thunk, like something coming up from the ground.
The screen slowly lit up to show a fat black spider on a web gleaming in the sun. It brightened, then gradually darkened, and the lines in the web melded perfectly into the wrinkles around an eye where the spider had been. It was a hell of a shot and Bryan already knew he was looking at art. In the lower left corner under the eye red words faded in, PRAY FOR AGATHA BURNING IN HELL, as the soundtrack grew louder, louder, louder, a harsh sound between an ambulance siren and the buzzing of flies. Too loud, it alarmed him.
The print had gone slightly pink and vinegar-splotched and was full of scratches and jumps but it was still sharp, showing an old woman -- presumably Agatha -- with a dead stare and wild white hair trudging through a forest at what looked like early morning. In the surrounding woods Bryan could see smoking figures writhing in the brush, more suggested than seen. A close-up showed her bare feet stepping through the mud. The camera lingered on the footprints long enough to show him the mud was full of teeth and hair. Charred feathers hung in the weeds.
The blues song tumbled along, the most ominous music he'd ever heard, and the camera focused on Agatha's face. He didn't feel like he was looking at an actress, but some terminal patient stolen from a hospice and exploited. Her stare was senile, senseless, flesh swollen and loose on her face, wobbling with each step like it might drop off. If she wasn't sick then she was already dead and being animated. Nothing had really happened yet and Bryan already felt like he was watching something he shouldn't.
He noticed no other credits were following the title. The 70's were weird, so maybe they were saving them all for the end. It made the whole thing look even more like some kind of snuff product, cheap porno-film sleaziness, but already undoubtedly more artistic than the usual. Bryan was staring, trying to absorb every detail, every second, knowing he might never get to see this thing again. On the soundtrack vocals joined the guitar but they were inarticulate, chuckling, drunken raspy mumbles, too creepy to stand.
Agatha trudged along through the foggy woods. She was clutching a package wrapped in rags. A swirling shot showed a tall tower rising above the trees, an abandoned chapel in the mist. The camera pointed up and turned dizzily. An establishing shot over Agatha's should showed the tower again in the distance, and the camera zoomed on a window at its peak.
Then there was a shot of an old black man grinning in the darkness, plucking at a guitar. Its wood was scarred and scorched, and his teeth were silver and so, it appeared, were his eyes. He bent the strings and the sound was cold, severe, deep as a train moving through the three-a.m. distance, chords throbbing like draining blood. He mumbled and nodded, voice like the stirring of dried leaves. Roaches scurried in and out of his guitar as he plucked it. In close-up he laughed and a couple of roaches rushed out of his mouth.
Jesus, Bryan thought. No special effect, the guy'd just held some live roaches in his mouth. How they'd made his eyes silver was harder to guess, unless he was eyeless and they'd tucked a couple of pinballs in the sockets.
This, Bryan knew, was the devil. They ddin't need to use any cheap horns or makeup to make this man look demonic. He was a crossroads Satan, calling his servant through the woods.
Agatha trudged along. The package she was carrying squirmed.
Bryan already felt full of dread and the film was only three or four minutes old.
There was a sudden cut to a man and woman in an office, both dressed in 1970's polyester. The guy's hair was longish and he had a silly mustache, and the woman's hair was straight, long, and blonde. Her pants suit looked like it was made out of motel-room curtains. "You're sure she's nowhere?" he asked.
"Nowhere in the hospital," the woman said. "We've looked everywhere."
The man shook his head. "I don't see how she could have gotten anywhere. She's terminal. I'd have bet she couldn't even climb out of bed. And even if she could walk around, her mind is gone. She hasn't done anything in the past couple of weeks except giggle."
The woman shuddered, remembering.
"She couldn't have found her way out of the hospital," the man's voice continued on the soundtrack as the camera prowled the halls of a hospital. It showed little details, surgical implements, doors with numbers, a few smeared blood drops on white tiles. A maternity ward. It panned over babies and settled meaningfully on an empty crib before cutting back to Agatha walking along. “I don’t know how she could even find the door to her room, the state her mind is in. She wasn’t even here when she was here. She’s nowhere.”
Nowhere, nowhere echoed on the soundtrack, over a close-up. Agatha’s dead eyes and a thin wet smile. Her mouth moved with muttering. The blues chords were gone and there were only early morning birds and late-night insect sounds giving way to each other. The film jumped and scratches obliterated the picture for second, like the print had been attacked by a cat. A clot of dust caught in the corner of the screen, then sped away.
Agatha reached the ruined chapel. More pale shapes writhed at the edges of the frame, and more burnt feathers drifted through low-hanging tree limbs that tore at her hair. A close-up showed a live mouse tangled in it, and Agatha looked directly into the camera, eyes feverish. She smiled and Bryan squirmed in his seat and gasped as the camera held the shot too long. He felt stupid, but this film was getting to him already.
There were more shots of rooms in the hospital, nurses searching, one running and screaming soundlessly, then back to Agatha walking into the chapel. It was cluttered with dead leaves, and a close-up showed Agatha's muddy feet stepping on shards of stained glass and leaving smears of blood in their wake. Flashes of the hospital intercut with the chapel.
The film crackled harshly and jumped and Agatha was on a stairwell. A few more seconds missing and she was higher. The stairwell wound upward, dimly lit. There was graffiti on the walls. The film popped and jumped, threatening to derail.
Crickets and roaches scrambled away from Agatha's bleeding feet on the stairs as she climbed. Worms and larvae fell from her, twisting on the stairs as she passed.
More shots of her walking and Bryan looked at the stuff painted on the walls. Crazy stuff, words that made no sense, letters backwards, in impossible order.
He saw daisies on the wall in the background, then a clown. Its hand was bigger than its torso and its smile hung past the borders of its face.
Bryan frowned. He wished this was a DVD so he could back it up and make sure he'd seen what he thought he saw.
Was there some cult built around this film, so people had copied images from it on the stairwell of Reiger Hall?
He glanced around the auditorium. The stiff guy was still sitting motionless, and it was too dark to tell if the one in the back corner was there at all. Another couple of people had joined them since the film started, he saw, but the room was too dark to make out anything about them, just presences in the seats. He wished he knew someone here.
Agatha climbed further past more clowns painted on the walls. There was a quick shot of Agatha's blankly smiling face and then a flash of a face with seven eyes, all moving. It looked real and Bryan wished he could get a better look at it but it was gone in the dark.
Agatha reached the summit of the tower and set the writhing bundle down, then fumbled in her gown, laughing soundlessly. A few blues chords came back. She pulled out an ugly-looking little knife and there was a shot out the tower window of the misty woods, full of furtive movements. Agatha's hands, like gloves pulled over bones, trembled as they opened the bundle's cloth and the soundtrack screamed an amplified hiss as it opened, but the film cut to Agatha's eyes, looking down, before the contents were shown. She stared down, trembling, doing something with her hands as the hiss got even louder, malevolence made audible.
Then the film was out on a sunlit street and for the next ten minutes or so it followed a young woman through a city. She went into an office where she and a man behind the desk discussed a murder her grandmother Agatha had been involved in. The girl argued that her grandmother couldn't possibly have chopped someone up with a hatchet when she didn't have enough mental capacity left to even make her own lunch. Besides, she’d always been a kind, sweet woman, she couldn’t have done such a thing even if she were physically able. The man told her Agatha needed to be institutionalized anyway, so exonerating her would make little difference to her fate... but her bloody fingerprints were found all over the scene and bite marks on the body matched her teeth and the victim's blood was on her clothes, her arms were covered with scratches and bruises, and one of his eyes and some of his teeth had been found in her pocket. But her grandmother was a frail old woman, the girl argued, there was no way she'd be able to do to human anatomy what had been done to the dead man. Surely someone had framed her. The man suggested that, if so, whoever had done the framing did such a good job that the must've found a way to use her body to do the killing. A song full of laughing played after he said that.
The girl, looking upset, drove around some more and went into an old bookshop and talked to a creepy old man who told her that sometimes when a mind stops using a body it leaves space for another to move in, take over. Demons and spirits, he said, were desperate to get into our world, and they'd find any body not sufficiently occupied and swarm into it, like people rushing into a building to escape the rain. “You are not looking for your grandmother,” he said. “Your grandmother is gone. You are looking for a hoarde.”
Then there was a shot of Agatha laughing in the dark, demented and squealing, blood around her mouth, chewing. She crawled off into a shadow and the film was darkness and hissing laughter for longer than Bryan was comfortable with enduring.
Back to the girl, who was driving into a sunset, listening to radio reports of crimes, civil unrest, and the war in Vietnam. Around her the town grew dark. Bryan was impressed with the cinematography and composition, showing the sunset, the long shadows, dusk coming down, lights in houses coming on. Even without music on the soundtrack the sense of building dread was clear and strong. When night fell even worse things would happen.
The camera prowled through the woods, emerged into a back yard, and headed for the lights of a house.
Back to another scene with the young woman in a kitchen, preparing dinner. There was a knock at the door. She answered and it was the police, reporting that her grandmother had escaped from the hospital and had stolen a baby. The young woman was very upset and promised to alert them immediately if she heard from her grandmother, and said she didn't see how any of this was possible, her grandmother was frail to the point of dying.
The inside of a dimly-lit house. Flickering TV light, a television laugh track was going in the background. There was blood all over the floor. A child's hand stuck past the edge of the screen. Bloody. The camera drew close, showing white hairs tangled in the fingers. The TV audience laughed.
The camera followed a giggling Agatha down the hallway. In one hand was a knife, in the other a hammer. A shot of her face showed a bloody grin, her eyes moving independently of each other. The screen faded into different colors, 70's psychedelic effects, urgent whispering on the soundtrack, things Bryan could almost make out but not quite. She went into a bedroom where a couple already lay dead in a blood-soaked bed. There was a shot of the man's bloody, staring face. She fitted the claw end of the hammer into his mouth, and the film cut away to a shot of a police car driving down a dark street, sirens and lights going, the red lights superimposed over blood pouring over a pillowcase as the siren grew too loud and warped.
Bryan couldn't believe this film had gone unseen. He planned to find the president of the film club, find out who owned the print, and work out some kind of DVD release. He had little knowledge of how to go about such a thing, but even with the film in less-than-perfect shape, someone could make a fortune off of this. It had an atmosphere he'd never encountered before, and it was working on him. It had been a long time since a film had actually scared him; this one was doing it. He felt half-here, half-not, trapped in a dream.
He glanced around the room. Everyone else was gone, except the guy with the rigored smile, who was now sitting in a different seat, still unmoving, like a prop. Bryan frowned; he hadn't heard any movement. And why had the guy changed seats? He still couldn't see into the back corner to see if the first guy was still there. He supposed the film's vibe was too intense for the others. It was almost too intense for him.
There was a blurred shot of what looked like a bunch of raw meat, and Agatha, her eyes and teeth gone silver, suddenly vomiting live mice. He wasn't sure how they did the special effect but it was particularly repulsive. The director -- Paul Reed, wasn't it? -- must have had some severe issues mixed in with his genius. Bryan had never seen a film with a feel like this one. It was overwhelming, immersive.
Psychedelic lights swirled.
Agatha's body, swollen, burst open and spilled larvae from within, a maggot bloom, and she stumbled through the house, spilling them. They writhed everywhere. A shot of a white wall veined with blood splatter cut to a close-up of her bloodshot eye, blank with madness. Flashes of bodies undulating in a forest, some smoking. One looked exactly like the potato man who'd been outside the motel, exactly, and Bryan was confused. Had some film cultist planned that, too, like the clowns in the stairwell? Early trick-or-treating as The Potato Man?
Agatha's point of view, hallucination. Dark neighborhood, the camera prowling through it on a tilt. Colors flashed. Lights strobed over wide eyes, bared teeth. The soundtrack hissed, laughed, squealed, forward, backward. Bryan felt cold, dizzy, manipulated.
There was a scene with the police discussing where "the senile old bitch" could possibly be. "I'm almost afraid to find that baby. Jesus," one of them said. Then the police radio reported a human arm found in the street in Meadowbrook neighborhood. The police, faces grim, turned on their lights.
A dimly lit scene of some place where reflections coming off of water swam marbled upon slimy walls and the slow slosh of Agatha -- just a black shape in a deeper blackness -- wading through water. Some flooded Hell, Bryan supposed, one of the circles. Roaches scuttled in masses through what little light there was, and the water-light showed the walls were practically living.
God, how had they filmed this? There was no CGI back then. They'd asked a lot of this actress.
Agatha was climbing stairs again. Crazy things were painted on the walls, clowns and smiles and daisies, and Bryan stared at them, trying to make them out and memorize them. He'd take another look at the graffiti in Reiger Hall's stairwell on the way out, while he took pictures with his phone. Someone had definitely been inspired by this film, and maybe some time ago, because the graffiti in Reiger's stairwell looked old. Had Paul Reed gone to this college? Maybe that's why they had a print of the film when no one else did.
Or had it been filmed in Reiger's stairwell, perhaps? It looked familiar.
Bryan felt things crawling on him and he jumped and swatted at himself. He felt wet little globs, like cold lumps of fat. He couldn't see what they were in the dark, but he felt sick at their touch. He looked around the auditorium, and the waxy smiling guy was still there but now he had his back to the screen.
"What the fuck?" Bryan whispered.
He looked back to the screen and got a glimpse of what looked like his own face.
He sat back down and stared, feeling something had gone very wrong. The screen was flickering, dim flashes of a room, and a man sitting in it. He couldn't make out the man's face but stared at it, blood singing in his ears. Flashes of light showed him features he'd seen in the mirror.
Am I asleep? Bryan thought. I must be dreaming. I should leave. I can't.
More things were crawling on him and he tried to brush them away. The soundtrack played the laughing song again.
Something was coming through the darkness on the screen behind the man, becoming gradually visible in the darkness like a corpse rising from the bed of a muddy river. Terror seized Bryan like a cold fist and squeezed so he couldn’t move.
He smelled her before she appeared on the screen, soured like something clogging an old drain, swampy reek of ferment and bloat, rusty and wet from the basement, and he was choking on the stench before he felt her nails in his neck and the film went black and ripped with a great crackle it bubbled and melted and the squirming was all over and everything was bright then black and then he wasn't there to see it.
Pray for Bryan, burning in Hell.