Subscriptions to South Dakota Magazine make great gifts!
Subscribe today — 1 year (6 issues) is just $25!
Horror on the Hill
Oct 30, 2012
The fog was thick by the time we heard the knock on our door. My brothers and I were drifting off and Dad was half asleep on his easy chair. Boom, boom, BOOM came the frantic knocks. When Dad opened the door, a wide-eyed, white-faced stranger stumbled into our home. Dad sat him down at the dinner table but couldn’t get much out of him other than gibberish about getting lost in the fog and something about someone needing help. This of course prompted Mom to call the sheriff. My brothers and I huddled in the shadows of the hallway out of sight, but not out of earshot.
What we didn’t know at the time was the scene that unfolded earlier that day in town. A stranger with a camera arrived, checked in at the post office, the bank and finally into the café. He apparently was a somewhat renowned photographer working on his next book featuring ghost towns and abandoned buildings.
By the time he finally pulled a chair up to the main table of the café, the elderly members of the liar’s club (as they were affectionately known by the café’s regulars) already knew he was coming. Such is the miraculous nature of news in a South Dakota small town — it travels faster than the speed of light. The liar’s club proceeded to tell this stranger the best place in the county to photograph. About 13 miles south of town on a lonely gravel road was an abandoned house on a hill. This wasn’t just any house, mind you. It also happened to be haunted.
The story went something like this: During the Great Depression, two brothers in their twenties and their younger 18-year-old sister lived with their aging parents on this ranch. They suffered like all the rest of the farmers and ranchers due to the hard times. The impossibly dry weather couldn’t stop love from blossoming, though. The girl fell in love with a boy from Nebraska who worked on the WPA crew that built the dam just south of town. One foggy October night this girl snuck out to be with her lover and accidentally fell into the open well her brothers had been digging next to the house. No one heard her cries above the wailing wind. By the time she was discovered, it was too late. The brothers took their grief out on her boyfriend. A week after the funeral, they caught him, tied him up and threw him down the same well that took their sister’s life and then sealed it tight. No one ever saw the boy after that. Eventually, the brothers were found out, convicted and later died in prison. Folks who lived in the house afterwards talked of strange sounds and eerie cries on nights when the weather was foul and the wind blew. It wasn’t long until no one wanted to live there anymore.
Only the old-timers knew how much truth was in the story. The stranger was smart enough to figure that out. His only real concern was if there truly was an abandoned house on the hill. If so, a nice photo of it along with the ghost story would be perfect for his new book. He was assured the ranch house still stood.
After getting directions, he left town in order to shoot the building in the golden light before sunset. The golden hour never came, as the wind switched and a cold front blew in from the northwest. The remaining warm air collided with the chill to create a thin, drifting layer of fog. Our photographer didn’t mind as the atmosphere and fading light provided for dramatic shots of the house and he soon became lost in his craft. After taking his time to frame up a few photos, a shrill shriek pierced the evening. He called out. No answer. All at once, he felt like he was shoved squarely in the shoulders. He tripped, fell backwards and blacked out. When he awoke, the fog was so thick he couldn’t find his camera… or his car. A gnawing feeling of fear began to wash over him as he remembered the story from the liar’s club earlier. Alone in the dark, he left the house behind and started running as pure terror washed over him. He ran far and he ran hard. That was when he saw our yard light through the fog and began pounding on our door.
The sheriff came and got him within an hour. That was the last I saw of the photographer. The next day my older, braver brother and I rode our bikes to the abandoned house. We found a camera with a shattered lens lying about 20 yards from the house. My brother took the film out before turning the camera in. We secretly mailed it off to have it developed. It turned out that only three images were on the roll; two beautifully composed shots of the ranch house in an eerie fog, and the last photo showed two faint yet unmistakable sets of white, ghostly hands reaching towards the lens. We burned the photos and never went near that house again.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on South Dakota's state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.