October 2011 Issue
My Ohio: Fright Site
Young imaginations run wild on a Halloween visit to a notorious tombstone.
During my junior year at Findlay High, some friends and I decided to visit the locally famous Carey Tombstone on Halloween night. I had seen the stone six years earlier, after begging my older brother to drive me out to the isolated country cemetery where it was located. The instant I saw it, I was sorry that we had come. I had nightmares about it for weeks afterward.
While my first visit to the stone was prompted by a child’s curiosity, my second was motivated by teenage machismo. In the mid-’60s, this was precisely the sort of thing that high-school boys did to test their courage. Although my friends had not seen the Carey Tombstone before, they all knew the legend. A man whose wife was having an affair strangled her and committed suicide. Not long after they were buried, their faces began to appear on their shared stone.
After searching for a while with flashlights, we finally found it. On its front, the profile of a woman with wild, streaming hair was outlined in black. She was facing a man whose head was bisected by the stone’s left edge. As we stared, someone said “Check out her hand!” The marbling seemed to trace a dark, fingerless claw reaching toward the man’s neck. According to the legend, the stone was repeatedly replaced but the faces kept reappearing — and each time, the woman’s hand moved closer to the man’s throat.
My memory of that night confirms the power of peer pressure to make teenagers do insane things. Didn’t I agree to revisit the dreaded Carey Tombstone just to avoid having my friends call me “chicken”? Besides, I was reasonably sure that I could handle the encounter better than I had at 10. As for the aftermath, I can attest that a 16-year-old’s nightmares can be almost as bad as a 10-year-old’s.
Don’t bother going to see the Carey Tombstone for yourself. I say this not to save you from your own nightmares, but because I recently found a picture of the stone on the Internet — and it was shockingly disappointing. To be sure, the shapes on the stone correspond vaguely to what I remember seeing. The image, however, is not nearly as distinct as I remember it. You have to work fairly hard to see the woman’s face. Her “hand” is a mere tangle of lines, and the man’s face is virtually nonexistent.
Did time and the elements wear away the disturbing image that my friends and I saw? The photo gives a definitive answer to that. Kneeling next to the stone is a young man who appears to be high-school age. It’s clear from his clothes, glasses and crew cut that the photo dates from the late ’50s to the ’60s — the era of my two sightings.
This photograph is a humbling reminder of how deceptive our memories can be. It also shows how our desires can distort reality. If a carful of impressionable teens expects to see faces on a tombstone, the odds are good that they’ll see them, regardless of what’s actually there. Because my friends and I wanted to be scared, we half-created precisely what would scare us.
It was the safe predictability of our lives in Findlay that drew us to the Carey Tombstone: How could we resist so chilling a departure from ordinary experience? The stone might also say something about the habits of perception fostered by growing up in a small Ohio town during the pre-computer, pre-Internet era. Because we lived in a place where there wasn’t much to do, we were forced to work harder at making our own fun. Although our efforts sometimes backfired, the long-term result was a collection of extremely vivid memories.
I’d say that having these memories now, even when they’re not completely accurate, was worth a nightmare or two.
Jeffrey Hammond, a native of Findlay, is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.