In eastern Utah, trapped in the godforsaken emptiness between Salt Lake City and Denver, there is a stretch of highway known as “Jack O’Lantern Road.” It is 24 miles in length, and rarely used. It was more popular in decades past, but now it only provides folks with a very roundabout way to reach Arches National Park. Pretty much the only people who drive on it these days are hopelessly, hopelessly lost.
This is the story of the first and only time I drove this stretch of highway, a great many years ago. It is not a long story, but it’s a true one, and it’s taken me a long time to tell. I suppose you’ve come here to be frightened for a bit, to hear about the things that go bump in the night, and this story ought to do the trick. But when it’s over, and you’ve gone about your day, I hope you bear in mind—reality holds far more terror than any legend ever could.
I grew up about fifteen minutes north of where the road begins, in a small town called Coal Flats. The name was perfect—coal production was the only thing keeping us afloat, and the place, unlike much of Utah, was flat as a goddamn pancake. There weren’t many kids at my grade school, so everybody talked to everybody. This meant that when one kid had a story to tell, it wasn’t long before everyone had heard it.
I’m not sure who first brought the tale of Jack O’Lantern Road to my school, but I do remember who told it to me: Barbara Kingsolver, who last I heard was the widow of some wealthy old rancher up in Heber. Anyway, old Barb and I were nice friends back then, and I noticed one day that she seemed rather put out. During break time, I asked her what the matter was.
“Well,” she began, looking around a bit nervously, “I’m just worried about tonight.”
“Tonight? What’s tonight?”
Barb pointed at the calendar on the wall of the classroom. “October 29th. My family is driving on…driving on Jack O’Lantern Road tonight.”
She clearly expected this revelation to have some effect on me. Myself, I had never heard of such a road, and had no idea why October 29th was supposed to be such a bad time to drive on it. I’m sure my blank stare gave her all the permission she needed to jump into the story.
“Oh, you don’t know? I thought everyone knew. Well—”
She dove right into her tale. To hear her tell it, back in the 1930s, our very own grade school had held an event at an old barn near the side of the road in question. Nobody knew it as “Jack O’Lantern Road” in those days. Anyway, this barn, it was all decked out for Halloween festivities. The students were there on a Friday, October 29th, because the holiday happened to fall on a Sunday that year. Children ran around gleefully in their costumes, trading treats and playing games. As was often the case in those days, there weren’t enough grown-ups there to watch all the kids.
So nobody noticed when four of them wandered right up next to the road, dressed in homemade skeleton costumes and carrying orange jack o’lantern buckets to hold all their candy. Well, of course, these children were struck by a passing vehicle, and each one killed instantly.
Years later, I did my research, and found that the dreadful accident had indeed occurred. However, not many of the details of Barb’s story had been correct. The accident happened at the end of August, during back-to-school festivities. The driver claimed that the heat waves emanating from the road blurred his vision, and that he didn’t see the children until it was too late. According to at least one deputy, the man’s breath indicated there may have been another reason his vision was blurred.
I’ve still no idea how these details worked their way into this schoolyard legend. But, according to Barb, every October 29th, these four children return to that road, holding their orange jack o’lantern buckets, and seek for revenge on any poor souls who happen to be driving upon it.
It wasn’t true, of course, but I didn’t know that then. Barb’s story, and she told it very well indeed, chilled my neck hairs every time I passed the entrance to Jack O’Lantern Road, even long after my grade school days had passed.
There comes a time in a man’s life when he is inspired to put away his childish fears. I suppose this night was one of those times for me. I was 26 years old and visiting my folks up in Coal Flats. I left their place a little after midnight and planned to drive through the night to get back home to Phoenix, where I’d shacked up with a young lady I met in school, who later became my wife. She hadn’t come with me, though—my folks didn’t know about her quite yet.
It was near the beginning of this drive that I became aware I would soon pass the entrance to the terrible old road from my youth. God, I hadn’t thought of that in years. It wasn’t exactly on the way, but it wasn’t terribly far from it either. I suppose it was more nostalgia than anything that got me to make that fateful left turn.
The first thing I noticed was how bumpy the road was. The other pavements in the area had the occasional dip, it’s true, but this road in particular was no fun to drive on. It was clear it hadn’t been kept up—and why would it? Local legend or not, nobody drove here anymore. I winced as my Buick lurched along the road, sure the old girl would fall apart at any moment.
A brown signpost greeted me, bathed in my headlights: NEXT GAS 40 MILES. I’d just filled up a few minutes before at the old Main Street station in Coal Flats, so that wouldn’t be a problem.
There were no other signs on the road—just the occasional rusty mile marker.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit, I actually felt cool, conquering my childhood fears like that. It wasn’t even October 29th, but still. It was my first time on Jack O’Lantern Road, I had a beard now, and I wasn’t even scared. Yep, grade school me would’ve thought that was all pretty neat.
A shadow lurked in the distance. The old barn, I thought. Those hairs on my neck stood up again. It’s not that I was scared, exactly, it’s just that I knew what had gone down there, all those years ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a place where something horrible happened once, but lots of those places have a weird feeling about them. Call it superstitious if you will, that’s the only way I know how to say it.
I slowed down as I passed the barn, hoping to get a better look. It was on my right side. I craned my neck and saw it there, perched on its crumbling foundation, abandoned as a building ever was. I should’ve sped away right then and there.
I pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. There had always been a sort of morbid curiosity about the place, and I wanted to get a closer look. I unlatched the door and took my first and last step onto Jack O’Lantern Road, gravel crunching underneath my foot.
I stood, with one foot in the car and one out, staring intently over the roof and toward the barn, only just illuminated by the brilliance of the Milky Way above. The crickets chirped loudly, and that was the only thing I could hear. I became a little nervous. I was completely alone.
Or so I thought.
Something caught my eye—a flicker, a little glimmer of light, from the left side of the barn. I blinked, thinking I had imagined it. I hadn’t. There it was, a faint orange glow. Two of them, in fact.
My mind went wild. Jack o’lanterns. Any pretense of being cool dropped at that moment. I practically leapt back in my car and slammed the door behind me. I closed my eyes and shivered. There was no way I’d seen what I thought I’d just seen. Was there?
As a matter of fact, I hadn’t. There were no jack o’lanterns on the road that night. Sure enough, when I peered back out through the passenger side window, they were gone. I chuckled to myself. Jesus, man. Be cool.
I figured it was just my mind playing tricks on me. It wasn’t. What I had actually seen, I later learned, were flashlight beams.
I turned the car back on, shaking my head. As I began to pull forward, I flicked my headlights on. Then I slammed on the brake. Hard.
A group of men, perhaps five or six, were standing in front of me in the road, blocking my path. They were dressed in dark clothes, wearing hoods or ski masks. I could see their eyes reflected in my beams. A couple of them held bats, and the one in the back carried something that looked, at least in the shadows, like a ball-and-chain flail. They stood about fifty feet in front of me.
I heard a pop from far away, and something cracked into the side of my Buick. The gas tank display lit up on my dash. Had someone…shot at my car? I screamed like a woman, you better goddamn believe it.
I ducked down in case any more shots were fired and reversed hard. After a moment, I spun the car around in a quick three-point turn, and sped in the opposite direction—or at least, I tried to. Another group of men blocked my path, looking every bit as frightening, as menacing, as the first group. They walked slowly towards my car. In my rearview mirror I could see the other men walking towards me too. I looked out the window and saw two or three more approaching from the barn.
I began to hyperventilate. Was this it? I thought of my girlfriend, sound asleep hundreds of miles away. I was supposed to be on my way home to her. I began seriously to doubt I would make it anywhere near there. Looking back and forth between the groups of men, I thought wildly that I’d rather take my chances with a bunch of dead schoolkids.
Another shot rang out. It must have missed the car, but it was enough. I knew I had to move. I’d have to drive into them. But surely they’d planned for that? Surely they had a way to stop me? It seemed too easy, too obvious. And yet it also seemed like my only hope. I reversed again, getting dangerously close to the group behind me. A couple of them, I think, realized what I was up to and started running toward the car. One of them smashed their bat into the back driver’s side window when I sprung that Buick to life and aimed it at the men in front of me.
More gunshots. The back passenger window collapsed into a shattered heap of glass. My foot pressed so hard on the pedal I worried it might snap. A couple of the men got out of the way instantly, a couple more stayed for a time. But none of them seemed interested in being flattened by two tons of American-made steel, and by the time I’d reached them they were all on the side of the road. I could hear their voices jeering at me through the broken back windows as I sped past, flying down the lonely road from whence I’d just come.
My car broke down at the end of Jack O’Lantern Road. Gas had been pouring steadily from a bullet hole in the side, and I’d been doing more than a hundred the whole way back. I never drove the old girl again.
I hitched a ride from the first car I saw—people were more trusting in those days, go figure—and headed straight to the station. The sheriff called in some backup from bigger towns up north and they went to investigate. By the time they’d gotten there, all the men had cleared out. What remained was an enormous stockpile of the most horrific weapons imaginable, and a whole lot of bodies.
There was a woman from Littleton, Colorado who’d been reported missing just a few days before. In fact, several missing person cases were solved in that barn. They’d all been mutilated in strange and ritual ways. And I was almost one of them.
Life is short, I realized, so I ended up introducing my girlfriend to my folks a few weeks later. We’ve been married forty-six years now. We had a couple kids, and when they were young, I told them scary stories, just like the ones that were told to me. To be honest, I don’t see much harm in tales about monsters and ghosts. It’s good for the soul to be a bit frightened at times, I reckon, especially when it’s all just make-believe. But these days, the only stories that frighten me are the ones on the news, of people gone missing, young people with a whole lifetime ahead, cars left abandoned on the side of a road. I don’t need much imagination, see, to work out what happened to them.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some of the legends are pretty bad. But it’s tough to know for sure, because real life…well, it can be ever so much worse.