Less Than Pulp Special: One Halloween
A Tale of Occult Horror
In Memory of Jay Wilburn who would tell us to just keep writing….
ONE HALLOWEEN: A TALE OF OCCULT HORROR
At 4:51 pm on October 31, 2017, the streets in the small Texas town of Windom were supercharged with life as the first of the night’s Trick or Treaters set out for the holiday’s festivities. All manner of costumes adorned child and adult alike, from hockey-masked serial killers and black-clad witches to Disney heroines and Marvel superheroes. Their chatter and laughter carried on the cool but gentle autumn breeze. In chain stores and small businesses alike, shoppers scurried in to buy last-minute outfits, seasonal candy, and every variety of alcohol. In homes that lined the residential blocks, people put the finishing touches on their costumes, carved Jack-O-Lanterns, and started up horror movie marathons on their flat-panel TVs.
At 4:52 pm that same evening, the streets, shops, and homes were empty. Candy bowls at front doors were left untouched. Televisions and radios played for audiences that had been present one moment and gone the next. Surveillance footage from home and business security systems showed no indication of foul play or tampering.
The people of Windom, Texas simply disappeared.
If it was the Rapture, it was not what believers expected, but that didn’t stop some televangelists from claiming that was exactly what had happened. None of them could say why so few people were taken or why it had been relegated to a town in Texas that, until that fateful night, a hefty percentage of people in the country had never even heard of.
Some pundits claimed it was the work of extraterrestrials. The more crackpot among them said it was the work of the so-called deep state. And the real nutty ones said it was extraterrestrials working in tandem with the so-called deep state.
No one really knew, though. No one had any evidence pointing to one theory over the others, or toward anything, really.
All I knew was on Halloween of 2022, five years to the date of the incident, my friends and I were gonna see the ghost town of Windom, Texas for ourselves. We didn’t expect to find any answers as to what happened. If there were any, surely someone would’ve figured it out by now.
We just wanted to see it. I mean, come on. Can you think of a more unique way to spend Halloween?
I didn’t think so.
Windom was an hour and a half drive from our burb. Totally worth it.
We took Arlen’s pickup. He’d gotten it as a gift from his dad after a hunting trip. The rest of us suspected it was on account of him killing his first deer, but he never talked about it. I got the impression he didn’t like hunting, but it was the only way Arlen had of bonding with the increasingly distant old man. His mom didn’t exactly approve—would have rather had Arlen get such an expense as a reward for good grades in college—but she ultimately had relented.
I didn’t exactly know any of this. I’d gotten the information secondhand from Arlen’s cousin Brie. I believed her, of course, but I didn’t know for sure, just as I didn’t know for sure what had happened that one Halloween in Windom.
Brie was along for the ride. She had the weed hookup. She’d gotten some pumpkin-flavored shit from Colorado to celebrate the holiday. I wasn’t sure if I would imbibe. Sometimes weed interacted weirdly with my meds and I got agitated instead of chill. I decided I’d wait and see how I felt when we got to our destination.
Leading the pack was Joyce O’Hara. She was a YouTuber with a successful channel based on urban exploration and analysis of liminal space photography. It had been her idea to go to Windom this year. She’d brought her camera and everything. I didn’t know how she did it—put herself out there like that. I did a lot of writing I never showed to anyone, but what she did was on another level. I was a little envious of her shamelessness, her willingness to just broadcast her thoughts for tens of thousands to see. I also had a crush on her, which made things even more complicated.
I was a hundred percent on board with this trip, if only because it would help show Joyce how similar our interests were. Maybe it would help her see me as more than just a friend.
Unfortunately, she was with Arlen. I never could bring myself to ask her how she felt about him killing deer in the woods with his dad. She was a vegetarian.
On the way, we listened to Eldritch Youth, a collective who made a unique fusion of witch house and trap. Their spooky beats and lyrics about haunted houses in space helped set the mood. I rapped along while Brie sang the melodies. Arlen leaned forward at intervals with his eyes narrowed as he watched a road that never seemed to end. The muscles in his arms were corded and well-defined, like a bodybuilder’s. No wonder Joyce was into him.
She recorded herself as she bobbed along in the back seat to the music. She made dramatic faces as she mouthed the lyrics. When she caught me looking at her, I flashed a nervous smile and looked away.
Thirty minutes to Windom, we stopped to piss and buy energy drinks.
We reached the outskirts of town a little after 4:00 pm. The crisp air made me shiver. Leaves of exotic colors clung to tree branches for dear life. Windom was as its people had left it. Halloween decorations adorned houses and storefronts, sun-bleached and moldier than in prior years. Some of them were tipped over and scattered in the street beside gutters choked with dead leaves.
When we got out of the truck, Brie pulled a joint out of an old cigarette pack and lit up. After taking a generous pull, she offered the smoldering joint to the rest of us. Arlen took it from her and inhaled deeply. The tightly wound figure who had sat behind the wheel the last ninetyish minutes loosened up almost as soon as the smoke filled his lungs. He passed it to Joyce. She took a meager puff, like I expected, given she didn’t want to be too high to film and perform.
Moment of truth, I thought as she passed it my way.
She raised her eyebrows in a suggestive manner and lifted the joint a couple inches higher. I couldn’t say no to her.
What a difference five years can make! May as well be five decades. This place is D-E-A-D.
She typed that caption into her Instagram to accompany a photo of a moldy, deflated dragon, surrounded by yellow patches of too-tall grass. The house behind it had crumbling siding and windows opaque with dust. Two vehicles blanketed by pollen and dead leaves sat on a cracked driveway.
She pocketed her phone and took the joint from Arlen. It was nearly kicked but she wanted to get the last sweet puffs of pumpkin-flavored goodness before she snuffed it out.
Her push notifications were disabled, but she expected the photo would get a few likes by some of her more loyal connections right away. She lacked the following enjoyed by Joyce, but she also wasn’t interested in fame. Her aspirations were much more modest. On the occasions she allowed herself to think beyond the next bag of weed, the next order of jalapeño poppers at the 24/7, or the next girl she took to bed, she imagined herself a mechanic. Women who worked on cars were total babes, and she would be no exception.
That was, if she ever managed to finish trade school.
She had agreed to come to Windom because like Paul, she was hopelessly infatuated with Joyce. Hopelessly because Joyce had made it clear that she wasn’t into girls. Unlike Paul because despite Joyce’s declaration, Brie knew what it was like to be with Joyce. It had happened over the summer, on a night it had been just the two of them and a bottle of Cuervo. Joyce had said it couldn’t happen again. She didn’t need to know that it did, over and over, in Brie’s dreams. It was … an obsession. Some might say an unhealthy one, but it made Brie strangely happy, in a way she could never quite articulate to anyone, least of all herself.
She took one last drag off the joint and put it out on the heel of her sneaker just as a cool breeze blew against her bare arms.
Paul said it was 4:45 pm.
“So?” Arlen asked, scrunching up his face.
Joyce and Brie exchanged a glance. Joyce rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“It happened at 4:51,” Paul said.
“Oh.” Arlen frowned and looked at his shoes.
They continued down the street. It would’ve been the heart of the suburbs if not left in such an abandoned state. All the houses seemed fashioned from the same four blueprints, leaving little room for variety or character beyond the rotting and the weathered decorations.
Brie felt a pang in her chest at the sight of a 60s Mustang, rusting on the side of the road atop four flat tires.
“Now, that is a damn shame,” she said. “Who could leave a beautiful piece of machinery like that behind?”
She took out her phone to snap a photo that she would caption with something similar to what she’d just said.
“I don’t think they had a choice,” Joyce said.
Brie took the photo.
“But you’d think someone would’ve tried to salvage it,” she said. “I know I would.”
“I bet my rig could tow it out of here if you’re serious,” Arlen said.
“She’s not serious.” Joyce backhanded him gently on the arm, then turned to Brie. “Are you?”
Brie just shrugged and focused on trying to find a more succinct caption for the sorry sight. Another breeze blew against her. This one was stiffer than the one before it. Though not quite cold, it wasn’t exactly a breath of summer wind. She wished she had brought a sweater, but she had wanted to show off her arms, which still held their color from the warmer months and were nicely toned from helping out at the garage.
As she began to type what she thought was a more suitable caption, she heard what sounded like children whispering to each other and giggling.
“Does anyone else hear that?” Brie asked in a harsh voice.
Arlen did, but he didn’t want to admit it. Until his cousin said something, he had hoped that what he heard was simply the wind and his weed-clouded imagination conspiring against him.
But he didn’t have much of an imagination. At least, that was what Brie and Paul and seemingly everyone else liked to tell him. Joyce was much kinder, but no surprise there since she was his girlfriend.
Still, even he had the self-awareness to know that his imagination wasn’t powerful enough to conjure up the laughter of creepy kids.
And if Brie heard it, too, that could only mean one thing.
“Guys,” Paul said. “It's 4:51.”
Like someone flipped a switch, the sky changed from blue to deep violet, the golden sun became a mustard moon, and shadows washed over the streets.
“What the fuck is happening?” Arlen said.
He looked at Joyce. It was hard to tell in the newly fallen darkness, but he could swear she was smiling.
She didn’t tell any of them that she was from Windom.
She also didn’t tell them that they weren’t the first people she brought here since that one Halloween.
And she most certainly didn’t tell them that she knew what happened that night.
She should know; it was her masterpiece.
It began with the pumpkin that grew off the path in the woods a quarter mile from her house. It started like any other pumpkin plant, all big leaves and sprawling vines. Pumpkins grew from it, too, but one dwarfed all the others, and soon, it consumed them; they deflated and liquefied as the largest among them grew larger. The contours of one surface gave the appearance of a face, albeit a grotesque one made up of myriad growths and craters. Its orange skin glowed with bioluminescence whenever the sun went down.
It wasn’t just the other pumpkins on the vine it devoured either. Soon, the surrounding plants withered and died, growing moldy and mushy as they fed the orange monstrosity. Even a nearby tree stump rotted from the inside, as if eaten by termites, before crumbling to desiccated sawdust.
Soon, Joyce started to find squirrels and possums tangled in its vines, drained of fluid and frozen in final expressions of horror.
She told no one, but she filmed the ravenous pumpkin’s progress.
She hadn’t yet started her YouTube channel, but she owned a decent camera. Prior to her life as an online content creator, she’d envisioned herself an independent filmmaker, a director of low-budget horror films, complete with cheap but extra juicy gore and concepts as high as their production values were low. She had no aspirations of becoming the next John Carpenter or Wes Craven, or even a Rob Zombie or Eli Roth. Instead, she saw herself in a league with true independent artists, like Lloyd Kaufman and Olaf Ittenbach.
Trouble was, she seemed to be the only one in Windom with any aspirations, and she could never find a reliable crew to join her on her cinematic endeavors. She had a camera, though, and until she found some like-minded individuals, she spent her days filming odd shit she saw in the woods.
Like pumpkins that seemingly ate the local wildlife.
One day, when the pumpkin had grown to the size of an overstuffed beanbag chair, she got a little too close, and the vines snaked around her legs and pulled her to the ground. Even in her panic, she clutched her camera like a life preserver and gazed into the pumpkin's black eyes.
Like Nietzsche’s abyss, the pumpkin also gazed into her.
Contrary to what Brie told everyone and what everyone seemed to believe, Arlen had never killed a deer on a hunting trip. He had killed one on the way back.
While in the woods with his father, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the buck they’d spotted in the clearing that day. He could only crouch there motionless while the majestic animal chewed on the grass. He lowered his rifle with a heavy sigh that prompted the creature to leave.
This inaction led to an uncomfortably silent car ride out of the wilderness. The silence lasted until another buck—or perhaps the same one, somehow—sprung into the middle of the road. The screech of the brakes was high and peeling, like the cries of a banshee in the throes of drug-free labor. The impact rocked the Land Rover and sounded like the detonation of a nearby bomb.
When the haze of shock cleared, Arlen saw the deer several paces ahead. Its legs were twisted at grotesque angles and pieces of its entrails spilled from a gash in its midsection. It was still alive, writhing in agony and making these awful, guttural sounds Arlen didn’t even know could come from a deer.
After ensuring he and Arlen were in one piece, Arlen’s father reached for his rifle with a groan. Almost without thinking, Arlen stopped his father’s hand and grabbed the rifle himself. He took the firearm out of the disabled vehicle, stood over the suffering creature, and aimed for the head.
When it was done, he and his father dragged the carcass off the road, and they called both roadside assistance and animal control.
Arlen’s truck had been a gift for his bravery and composure during the entire ordeal.
He didn’t feel so brave or composed now.
In the new darkness, the streets of Windom came to life. Dragons, ghosts, and sneering trees refilled with air and light. Discarded plastic skeletons and fallen scarecrows rose from shallow graves among tall grass and scattered, disorganized piles of dry leaves. Houses lit up with strings of purple and orange Halloween lights and the glow of long dead television sets. The hiss of static and bestial howling joined the high-pitched laughter of the still-unseen children.
Another breeze blew against Arlen’s face and arms. It was too cold for autumn. Biting and wintry, it made his eyes stream.
“Joyce?” he asked. All the toughness had drained from his voice. He sounded like a scared kid.
Joyce met his gaze. Her eyes glowed vivid tangerine. She flashed a grin full of neon green teeth.
Arlen screamed. She screamed too.
Her cry was not empty.
The black creatures that emerged from Joyce’s mouth—a mouth that opened much too wide—were something between a bat and a spider, all leathery wings and spindly legs. Their eyes blazed like angry stoplights, and they were laughing. The childlike laughter had been coming from them, from inside of Joyce.
They swarmed Arlen, blanketing him in black, split by seams of iridescent red. His screams came out muffled, as if he’d stuffed his face into a pillow. His arms flailed; his legs kicked. The wind blew at his back, causing a metallic scent to waft toward Brie.
Blood. Oh, God. Blood.
Arlen was dying. Someone in her family was dying right before her eyes, and she was powerless to stop it from happening. She could only stare aghast with a bellow of grief building inside her.
Her wail of bereavement didn’t emerge until the spider-bats retreated from her cousin’s still-standing form to reveal a body stripped of all its skin. Crimson muscle glistened in the sickly moonlight. Pieces of bone peeked through the meat like pale beacons of death. His eyes were gone, and his own screams had ceased. The only remaining sign of life was a schizophrenic twitching that jolted through his body as it slumped to the ground.
Brie’s cry shredded her throat. She couldn’t stop it from coming, and she couldn’t move from where she stood. The shock of the moment fused her to the spot. The high from the weed further amplified the sheer terror of it all.
Joyce faced her and grinned, again with those neon green teeth and fiery orange eyes. She resembled a Jack-O-Lantern with glow-in-the-dark, plastic fangs jutting from her bleeding gums.
Someone snatched Brie by the upper arm and pulled.
I dragged Brie away from Joyce, away from the street, away from Halloween decorations that were starting to seem more and more lifelike. They jittered with manic animation. Hulking mannequins breathed husky breaths. Candlelight flickered in every triangular eye. Over it all, the wind blew. It was far too chilly for October in Texas, and it harshened every breath I inhaled as I ran with Brie in tow.
I risked a glance back at Joyce. She was standing in the middle of the street with her arms outstretched and her face still glowing those infernal colors. Her right hand still held the camera. More of those spider-bats hovered around her like flies around a corpse. Their red eyes blazed in the darkness.
Somehow, she managed to remain frighteningly beautiful, which was somehow worst of all.
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I couldn’t believe Arlen was dead. Weird shit happened all the time. There were countless podcasts and YouTube channels dedicated to the unexplained and the uncanny. Tragedy, too, was no rarity. One only needed to scroll a news site to see that. And yet, I never expected something to face something like this. Every nightmarish thing I knew on some level existed always seemed somehow outside of my realm of experience. It was as if every unexplained event or random act of violence lived in some simulated world, an ongoing bizarre soap opera, the horrors of which were for other people, not me and my loved ones. By entering Windom, I had somehow fallen into this simulation, was now a player who faced the real dangers of that unreal world. There were real stakes here. And permadeath.
We ducked between two houses, beneath tree branches cocooned in cotton spiderwebs and unspooled toilet paper.
In the street, other figures came to Joyce’s side. Their eyes glowed that candlelight orange while their teeth gleamed that glowstick green. The last thing I noticed before slipping behind the house on our left was that these figures were also Joyce. She had somehow cloned herself; there were six of them. Some stood. Others levitated.
Brie and I turned the corner behind the house on the left and stumbled into its backyard. In this nighttime world, the lawn was well-manicured, as if the people of Windom had never disappeared.
If that was true, they had all somehow become Joyce.
More of the orange-eyed clones came climbing over the back fence. The sight of more ghostly copies of the woman I liked and maybe even loved broke my brain and sent me into babbling hysterics.
“What the fuck are we gonna do?” I blubbered. “We’re so fucked.”
Now it was Brie’s turn to take some initiative. She spun me and yanked me toward the house’s back door. It stood over a small stoop and some concrete steps between two flowerbeds that were full of pumpkins instead of roses or daisies. It was our only chance. Barricade ourselves inside the house. God, I prayed it would work.
She grabbed for the knob. It was unlocked. The door opened and another Joyce came drifting out like a haunted house decoration designed for jump scares. Her feet floated several inches above the back stoop, and her face blazed with October light. Her arms wrapped Brie into a black embrace.
Brie lost hold of me and clawed at the air. I fell backwards off the stoop and landed on my butt. The impact sent painful vibrations up my spine and made my teeth clatter together.
Brie began to scream, but Joyce muffled it with a kiss. I staggered to my feet and moved to pull Brie from the Joyce thing’s grasp, but black vines from the flowerbeds snaked in front of the stoop, creating a thorny barricade.
The Joyce from the house pulled the now limp Brie inside, and the door banged shut behind them with a you’re-fucked sense of finality.
Behind me and beside me, more Joyces filled the yard. Their candy-colored eyes fixed on me as I backed against the thorny vines. There was more than a dozen of the copies all around me, maybe twenty or thirty, and they kept multiplying. There could be thousands in an hour’s time.
I locked eyes with the one nearest me. I saw nothing of the woman I’d crushed on for the better part of two years in the orange gaze, but I hoped she would see me. How similar our interests were. How I could be so much more than a friend.
The Joyces remained still, some standing and some hovering. The air felt icy on my skin, causing all the hair on my body to stand on end. I couldn’t so much as blink. I might not have even been breathing. I simply stared, and they all stared back.
Until finally, they spoke. They spoke as one in a buzzing, collective drone like wasps nesting inside my skull.
To say the video that went live on Joyce O’Hara’s YouTube channel on October 1 of the following year caused a fair bit of controversy would be a massive understatement. It was her first in a year’s time. All her subscribers had to go on were cryptic community updates that she was working on something big. Lucky for her, she had a loyal enough following that most people stuck around, and the algorithm overlords were kind enough to let them know when the long-awaited video was uploaded.
Joyce had titled the upload One Halloween: A film by Joyce O’Hara.
At fifty-five minutes, it wasn’t quite a feature. Critics said it was exploitative to include scenes of friends who had been missing since its filming. Defenders pointed out that Joyce donated a significant portion of her income to the families of Arlen Harris and Brie Muir.
She captioned the video with a huge thank you to all her subscribers and patrons, and a note that this year, she wanted to do something extra special for her biggest supporters. Contributors to the highest tier of her Patreon could join her on a Halloween tour of Windom, Texas, where she had filmed One Halloween. The tour would be livestreamed and would include exclusive access to filming locations, as well as a Q&A with her.
I would be there, helping to field questions and control the crowd. And it would be a crowd. Almost a dozen people had signed up so far. I was glad to do it, though; I couldn’t say no to her.
The tour started at 4:30 pm on October 31, 2023. We would be in the heart of town by 4:51 pm. By 4:52 pm, well, you would just have to wait and see. Maybe it sounded dangerous, but hey. Can you think of anything better to do this Halloween?
I didn’t think so.
I’ve made “One Halloween” available to read on this Substack for free. If you’d like to buy a copy for your Kindle, you can do that here.