This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
It’s Halloween, but for the first time since I can remember, I’m not celebrating my favorite holiday. In light of a series of recent events that have been scary enough on their own accord, I’m forfeiting my usual extreme festivities in favor of some much-needed family time and life-sorting. So I guess I’m being an adult this year, possibly the scariest costume I’ve ever donned.
To compensate, I’ve decided to unearth one of my personal scary stories—one I’ve only disclosed a handful of times since it happened, across beach campfires and dimly lit dinner party tables; one I’d rather not admit unnerves me, being a woman of science and all. But, as a good friend once said, it’s good to be a little bit Mulder and a little bit Scully. I’ll preface this by stating that everything I’m about to tell you and show you is true, but it’s up to you to interpret that information. If you’re the supernaturally skittish type, probably don’t read on.
It was a muggy afternoon in St. Petersberg, Florida—a setting that, to me, makes “a dark and stormy night” seem quite serene by comparison. After spending seven years of hellish adolescence in the swamplands of Florida, one would normally have to drag me by the hair to get me to go back. But it was December in New York, and Art Basel (the gaudy American version of the Swiss art exhibition) was going on in Miami, setting the stage for a reunion with the only two people who could entice me to return to Florida on my own free will.
I met Tyler* years before at a tech mixer at the Tribeca Grand. In a sea of predictable networkers, we stealth weirdos were drawn together like magnets. I was instantly endeared by his closeted desire to ditch his white-collar advertising job to perform for subway riders as a cross-dressing clown. On the way home, we discovered we were neighbors. The following week, after a day’s worth of rooftop beers and spliffs, we wandered into a video shoot where Noel* was methodically capturing the effect of a handful of glitter being slapped on an underwear-clad model’s ass in front of a green screen. We all wound up back at Tyler’s until the wee hours of the night and had crazy city adventures for months thereafter until Tyler fled to Florida to escape the more damaging chemical temptations of the big city, and Noel left to go document some cult leader in Sticksville USA.
After a few days of galavanting about Art Basel, deeply contemplating the purchase of $70,000 finger paintings and convincing bouncers we were on the list at clubs named after sea creatures, our eccentric trio high-tailed it through the Everglades in Tyler’s Jeep. We stopped only at Parrot Jungle Island (upon my insistence, of course) and a Cracker Barrel, until we made it to Tyler’s grandparents’ empty condo in St. Pete.
There we spent the following week working on our various digital projects by day, sampling the finest crab shacks, dog tracks, and strip clubs the greater Tampa Bay area had to offer by night. Nearing the week’s end, restless from the day’s work but a little burnt out from our indulgences, Tyler suggested we have a low-key evening and take a scenic drive to one of St. Pete’s historic landmarks, Fort DeSoto, located on aptly-named Mullet Key.
We rolled into the parking lot of the fortress, which was totally empty. Great, we declared, all to ourselves, and we hopped out of the Wrangler and shared a spliff as we walked the path into the state park. The sun was just beginning to set, and we were happily chatting as we walked, admiring the abandoned fortress and the big cannons left behind from when the fortress was used to defend Tampa Bay against the Spanish during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Noel had his camera with him, as he always does (though the above pics aren’t from him), and he was casually shooting around. I posed sexually with a cannon, and we were joking around and being crazy as usual. Whatever.
On the left of us was an enclosed fortress structure that looked like a bunker or something. But unlike any bunker I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a fair share of bunkers in my days, there was a doorway, completely unobstructed to the pitch-black inside.
We looked at each other and the essences of all our personalities crystallized in that moment. Noel, face full of maniacal delight ran straight into the building. Tyler, chin set as if to say “fuck that,” turned around and walked the other direction. I opened the flashlight app on my phone.
“AAaarriiikkiiiaaaa,” Noel wailed from inside the darkness. “Come in, Ariiiikiiiiaaa!”
I looked at Tyler. “Come on, let’s see what’s inside,” I offered. “It wouldn’t be wide open if they minded if we went in.”
“Nope, not a chance,” he said smiling contently. This was, after all, a guy who wouldn’t even watch the most benign of horror movies with me because, once upon a time, his dad invaded one of his slumber parties with a Jason mask and a leaf blower.
I rolled my eyes and walked inside, using the light to guide me since after about five feet in, it was pitch black. I scanned the room, looking first for Noel, who was nearby laughing and making ghostly sounds, then for other people… squatters, homeless people who might be having a nap and wouldn’t want to be disturbed. As far as I could see, we were alone in there. Noel continued to wail.
“Shut up, there could be people like, living in here or something,” I said.
“H-h-hullo?” he called out in mock fear. “Is anyone, th-th-there?”
My cellphone flashlight was on full blast, and we could see all the way down the length of the concrete room, about 50 meters. It was cold in there, and it smelled old. Noel forged ahead, illuminated by my flashlight and using the light from his camera, taking still pictures and playing with the flash settings to turn it into a strobe light. We could soon see there was an opening off to the left. We turned when we got to the end, and were faced with a parallel room separated by a thin wall, kind of like the landscape in the original DOOM computer game. But the second room wasn’t as long—about 10 meters down was a concrete wall with a square meter cut out of the middle. We couldn’t see what was on the other side.
“Whoaa…” Noel cooed, aesthetically pleased in every way. I told him it was weird. He ran up to the square, examining it, photographing it, until he was right up on top of it.
“OH MY GOD!” he exclaimed, “THIS IS BLOOD.”
“Oh my god, stop trying to scare me.” I was not amused. I went over to examine this “blood,” and while there was a dark substance around the bottom of the square, it wasn’t like, red and oozing.
“That’s not blood.”
“Yeah, this is definitely blood!”
“No way, that’s like, old dirt or something.”
But Noel, doing the thing he always does that I endearingly refer to as “fantasy lying” continued to take this new and interesting plot line to the extreme. “What if people like, got murdered in here. What if this is the murder bunker?”
I continued to brush his antics off with all the level-headedness of Scully, but when I stared into the blackness of the square, it gave me the same uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what lies beneath as floating in the middle of the ocean does, like when you drop the water skiing handle and you’re waiting for the boat to come back around and pick you up. Yep, time to go.
“OK so, let’s not just stand around in the fucking murder bunker then,” I reasoned. “Tyler’s waiting for us.” I turned around and took the light of the flashlight with me. Noel finally conceded, and shot some more pictures on the way out.
Halfway down the main hallway, a fear gripped me and told me to run. It was irrational though, so the science-minded part of my brain kept me walking normally, as I contemplated the neuroscience of perceived apparitions, if you will—all the psychological forces that convince people they are perceiving, in positive or negative ways, the undead, supernatural beings, forces from beyond—whatever—when they are really just experiencing some kind of… neurological tick, a paranoid belief so strong the feared object actually manifests inside the person’s brain.
Outside, the sun had set and Tyler was smoking a cigarette. “You guys are crazy.”
Noel shared his fantastical stories on the way back to the car, and we laughed and I shook the stupid fear that made me feel like the little girl who was, once upon a time, scared to step off of my bed in the dark because something might grab my ankle. As we drove away from DeSoto, down the narrow, water-lined road, the beauty of the scenery melted away our shenanigans.
From the passenger’s seat, I asked to see Noel’s camera to look for that picture of me riding the cannon. Scrolling through the ones from inside the bunker, one made my blood run cold.
“Who’s that?” I asked, passing the camera back to him in the backseat.
He studied it for a moment. “That’s you.”
I held my hand out to see the camera again and looked at what was supposedly me.
“No. It’s not.”
Noel looked at me conspiratorially. “It has to be you, it’s just like, the shadow of the camera or something.”
“That’s not me. Look at what I’m wearing. How could any shadow do that to my clothes?” I was wearing a striped shirt and shorts, and the figure in the picture, well…
See for yourself:
Tyler took one look and thrust the camera back away from him. I grabbed it and scanned the other pictures for clues of what light refraction or shadow could have produced that effect, but well, frankly I’m stumped.
We didn’t talk about it the entire rest of the night. Once back at the condo, we watched Savages to try to chase the weirdness away with sexy threesomes and REAL world concerns, like drug mafias. I tried to fall asleep with Tyler, but 4am rolled around and my brain was doing its typical insomniac question-asking, so I rolled over and woke up my phone. Squinting in the light, I typed “DeSoto Fortress” into Google.
On that particular day, searching from that particular location, four of the results on the first page were from ghost hunter websites. Icicle blood.
According to the Anna Maria Islander, on May 9 of 1980, a fog descended over Tampa Bay near Mullet Key. Pilots of the Summit Venture freighter ship bound for the Port of Tampa lost visibility and, just as the ship was about to pass through the 800-foot opening in the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a squall hit, sending the ship crashing into the bridge.
Thirty-five people died, and they used the DeSoto Fortress as a makeshift morgue to store the bodies.
From The Islander:
Car after car after truck after bus drove off the edge of the bridge until one car, creeping through the storm, screeched to a halt only 14 inches from the yawning gap.
Of the eight passenger vehicles and one Greyhound bus that went over the edge, only one person survived the plunge and was pulled to safety aboard the Summit Venture.
Recovery of the 35 bodies claimed by the ship’s crash took almost a week. The twisted debris required explosives to break, and cranes were needed to lift the vehicles to the surface. The force of the crash ripped open the top of the bus along its length.
Divers recovered many bodies that day and transported them to Mullet Key’s Fort Desoto Park. Others washed ashore days later.
So, we had indeed, just taken a casual stroll through a room where dozens of people—people who had their lives cut abruptly short in an incredibly tragic accident—had been stored immediately following their deaths.
Was this one of those people?
I can’t say. Being the objective observer and science-minded individual I always strive to be, I’ve shown the picture to several people without any context and asked them what they saw. Some people said they didn’t see anything of note. Some don’t even see it when I point it out to them; it’s “a stretch.” Other people see a human figure immediately.
Regardless of what we experienced in DeSoto Fortress that day, and what is or is not contained in this image, what happened on that day in 1980 is a tragedy, and I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for all the people who were involved, and who lost loved ones. I hope they’ve all found peace.
So, that’s the story. Is it scientific? No. Did we blaze with a ghost? I don’t know. Do I believe Noel caught a ghost on camera or that I was contacted by beings beyond the realm of the living? No, I don’t believe that. But, I would not exclude it from the realm of possibility.
Happy Halloween! And now please enjoy the most marvelous X-Files mashup ever made of Scully reminding us about the most important thing of all to chase the creepiness: