In honor of Halloween Week, I thought this would be a good time to take a step back from the usual world of sports and cautiously step into the unusual heart-pounding world of things that go bump in the night that this time of year represents.
Actually, I wouldn’t call it a bump. What happened to me one night at the old Record-Courier building on North Chestnut Street in Ravenna was much more than that.
First, some background. Even on the brightest, sunniest of days, something seemed off about the place. Yes, it was old — employees were told it dated back to around the turn of the 20th century. Yes, it was creepy — an aged brick structure wedged into downtown Ravenna amidst other aged brick structures. Yes, it felt ominous — we were told it used to be a funeral home with a morgue in the basement. (In fact, the basement was referred to as “the morgue” even among employees, a term we carried to the shiny new archive room when the R-C relocated to the Route 59 facility in Kent in 2012.) We never knew if the latter was actually true, but it certainly seemed plausible and nobody was taking any chances after the sun went down. You didn’t go downstairs — especially late at night after deadline, and especially by yourself — unless you absolutely had to do it.
One night, then-R-C sports staffer Brian King felt compelled to do just that. Then-Kent State athletics beat writer David Carducci and I bet Brian $10 — five bucks apiece — that Brian wouldn’t have the guts to go down to the basement alone, in the dark, when we got off deadline. Brian, never one to back down from a challenge, happily accepted our offer, and when we completed producing the sports section for the following morning, he set about taking some money off our hands.
But there was a catch: He had to close the basement door behind him, keep all lights off the entire time he was down there, go all the way to the back wall — located directly underneath the sports department — and touch said wall before returning back up the stairs and to the relative safety of the main floor. Oh, and he also couldn’t rush; he had to stay down there a minimum of five minutes.
I was impressed that Brian was even going to try. The basement was dark, dank and eerie on a good day. It smelled old, the air down there was cold and thick, the steps to the bottom narrow and rickety. It looked like something straight out of a Hollywood horror movie set.
Unfazed, off Brian went down the hallway from the editorial room to the basement door while Dave and I stood in the sports department at the other end of the carpeted hallway, a good 50 feet away. We watched as Brian opened the door, stared into the dark abyss that awaited him below, then disappeared from view as he closed the door behind him. And we waited.
Five minutes came and went. Then 10. Dave and I looked at each other, wondering if whatever many of us were convinced was down there — probably with glowing red eyes and big sharp teeth — had gotten Brian.
“Should we go see if he’s OK?” Dave asked.
I wasn’t a fan of this proposal. Brian was physically bigger and stronger than either of us; if he had met his fate down there, then Dave and I had no chance whatsoever. No sense in all of us getting torn to pieces. So we remained rooted to the sports department floor.
Suddenly, the basement door flung open, Brian stumbling through then crashing to the floor. He looked down the hallway in our direction, got to his feet and sprinted all the way to the sports department, eyes wide and nearly out of breath by the time he reached us.
“You’re not going to believe this!” he exclaimed.
“What happened?” Dave asked. “You were down there way longer than five minutes.”
So Brian started telling his story: “I did everything you guys said I had to do. Lights off, I touched the back wall, I walked back across the basement, I went up the steps, and when I tried to open the door, I couldn’t. I pushed and pushed but it wouldn’t budge.”
Brian had been an accomplished football player, excelling as a lineman at Streetsboro High School and Hiram College. How someone who played on the line in college couldn’t open a flimsy wooden door was beyond me.
He continued: “I started throwing my shoulder into the door, but it still wouldn’t open. I was launching my entire body against it, hitting it with everything I’ve got, and it didn’t move at all. I thought you guys were on the other side of the door holding it closed, and I started getting pissed, yelling at you guys to open the door and that I was going to kick your a– when I got out.
“I kept doing this, and suddenly it just gave way like nothing at all. It opened right up, no resistance whatsoever. I didn’t expect it because it didn’t budge for about five minutes no matter what I did, so I just flew right past the door and landed face-first on the floor.”
Trying to open the unforgiving basement door in the pitch dark was terrifying enough for Brian. But what he saw next instilled true fear in his heart.
“When I looked up and saw you guys standing at the other end of the hallway,” he said, “I knew it couldn’t have been you holding the door closed. Something else was. I couldn’t get down here to you guys fast enough.”
With that, Brian went to the sports desk, grabbed the two $5 bills off it, and the three of us immediately left the premises.
That was about 20 years ago. And I still can’t explain why a college football lineman couldn’t open that door.
Especially since it didn’t have a lock.
I had my own bad experience with a door late at night in that same hallway some years later.
The place was scary enough on its own, but some R-C employees — out of boredom or cruelty — loved to frighten the bejesus out of their co-workers, particularly at night when we were off deadline. It wasn’t uncommon to hear shrieks, screams and yelps in various corners of the building as an unsuspecting victim fell prey to a co-worker leaping out of the shadows like a monster in a haunted house.
I was on the giving and receiving end of these frightful yet humorous episodes, so therefore I knew the best hiding places to either use to ply my twisted trade or avoid completely as I made my way through the building. It was well understood by all that the hallway leading from the editorial department to the front of the building was a monster minefield, chock full of enough shadowy nooks, crannies and doorways that you walked that gauntlet at your own peril.
But sometimes you had to, because the restrooms were located at the front of the building. Which is exactly what happened to me late one night.
I made it up the darkened hallway without incident, albeit slowly; you learned to keep your eyes peeled and your head on a swivel as you made your way up and down the hallway, because the wolves — your co-workers — were always on the prowl. I then returned down the hallway, approaching the “danger zone” of the unholy triangle of the conference room, break room and publisher’s office. The break room was opposite the other two, which presented a real disadvantage for the poor soul walking down the hallway because no matter which side you focused on, you would be turned away from the other side for at least a second or two — which was all it took to have a few years shaved off your life by an evil co-worker.
All three doorways were usually open, and the conference room and publisher’s office were usually dark, so that’s the side of the hallway you naturally gravitated away from — which I did on this occasion as well, making sure to stay as far to the right of the hallway as possible. I reached the conference room doorway first, quickly glancing to my right at the break room so as not to get ambushed. And as I did, I heard a loud swooshing sound to my left.
What I saw next will stick with me the rest of my life.
I turned my head just in time to see the conference room door swinging closed and slamming shut with such force that I fully expected the door to either shatter or come off its hinges. It sounded like a hand grenade had gone off next to me.
I was startled, but not frightened. My first thought was that one of the usual R-C suspects was the culprit behind the door slam. They were now trapped in the small room, and I was going to out them.
So I opened the door, flipped the light on and said, “Very funny. I knew it was you.” Holding the door open, I first cast my gaze under the conference table in the center of the room, expecting to see someone crouched underneath.
But I saw no one.
I then peeked quickly around the door, expecting to see a co-worker pinning themselves against the wall in an attempt to avoid detection.
Again, no one.
And with that, I had covered all the hiding places in the room. Nobody was in there. In an instant, I was overcome with a deep sense of dread: Something had slammed that door, something strong enough to almost blow it off its hinges.
It was then I looked down and saw the rubber door stopper lying on its side on the carpeted floor. I knew from past experience that it was almost impossible to move that door even an inch with the stopper under it. Yet something was able to slam the door with almost shattering force despite the stopper.
Now terrified, I beat a hasty retreat to the editorial room, where news staffer Chris Burkey was wrapping up his nightly duties.
“Who slammed that door?” Chris asked. He was familiar with the nightly scare tactics in the office but did not take part in them.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “There’s no one in the room. I looked.”
“You mean that door slammed like that and no one was in there?” Chris asked incredulously.
“The room’s empty,” I said. “I don’t know how it happened.”
“I’m outta here,” he said.
With that, Chris shut down his computer, gathered up his things and walked out the door — and I followed right behind him.
I gave one last glance at the building as I drove away, expecting to see glowing red eyes peering through one of the windows. Fortunately, I didn’t. But even though R-C employees were gone for the night, I knew the place still had at least one occupant inside.