The last thing I saw before the lights went out was a string of gray drool hanging from a gaping mouth sparsely populated with splintered yellow-green teeth. Everything else was in shadow.

Scrambling backward, away from the grotesque image, I instantly became ensnared in a pile of barbed wire, its sharp, rusty talons tearing at my jeans, shirt and exposed arms.

Trapped and unable to move without becoming more entangled, I tried to steady my breath as I strained to listen, scanning the room for any sounds of movement.

“Brendan, you OK?” I whispered into the darkness.

No response, the only sound the steady kerplunk of something dripping, possibly a nearby leaky barrel or maybe blood from what I imagined were large, seeping gashes on my arms.

Slowly I began to try and dislodge myself from the wire, all the while aware that the horrible twisted face I’d seen only moments before was out there in the dark. My friend was out there, too.

Earlier that evening we’d met in the field near the river. Halloween was fast approaching, and instead of dressing up and pestering neighbors for high-glycemic treats, we’d decided that our near-teen status required us to take our creativity and put it into something riskier and potentially more lucrative.

Months before we’d found an old abandoned warehouse down near the Napa River on the south side of St. Helena. It was one of those finds that was hard to believe. Each of us had been exploring the river and its banks for years, but neither of us had ever come across what turned out to be a three-story cinderblock building hidden among a grove of gangly scrub oaks.

Brendan had spent hours alone in the space hooking up a system of car batteries to power a series of Christmas lights that helped illuminate the building’s center foyer and a few of the hallways. A detailed exploration of the building and its many twisting hallways and windowless rooms suggested the structure had been some sort of prison or what we imagined might have been a home for the insane at some point in its history.

Precarious stairs led to the basement, where each of the tiny rooms contained various piles of rotten wood, mounds of electrical wire and enormous metal barrels, many filled with an odiferous, oily liquid that reflected rainbow colors. Other stairs led to the roof, where a few of the rooms on the top floor had rotted away, revealing sweeping views of downtown during the day and stars at night.

Throughout the entire building the walls were either covered with ivy or spray-painted with generations of messages – “Kilroy was here,” Peace, man,” and “Warning — the dead live here at night.”

As we explored, an idea had emerged. We’d create a haunted house in the space for Halloween and then charge other kids in town to walk through the darkened building. We would decorate the main rooms with ghosts, blacklights and silk spider webs, then dress up as ghouls to scare the bejesus out of our customers at every turn. They’d love it and we’d charge $1 a kid and then use the money to invest in next year’s haunted house to make it even more extravagant.

Beyond the failing infrastructure, rusting metal protuberances, toxic sludge barrels and the precarious electrical grid of the building itself, another potential problem was that we had no idea exactly who owned the building. We’d convinced ourselves that it was abandoned; however, based on the numerous — albeit tattered and age-weathered — “Keep Out” and “Private Property” signs plastered around the ruin’s perimeter, it was abundantly clear that we might end up having to share some of our proceeds if any adult happened to catch wind of our plan. We had kept what we were doing a secret and would encourage our customers to do the same if they wanted to see it happen again.

Halloween was only days away and we were nowhere near being ready, so that evening Brendan and I had stayed extra late working on finalizing the best route for our customers. His idea was to have them only within the basement, but I argued that the view from the rooftop was a must-stop on our hell-house horror tour.

Regardless, we both agreed that the tight and crumbling basement was where most of the trauma for our guests would take place.

As I plucked my way out of the wire the lights flashed back on. Brendan crouched in one corner of the room rocking back and forth on his heels slowly, his face buried into his knees. No one else was in the dimly lit space.

“Can you help get me out of this mess?” I yelled across the room.

Brendan remained unresponsive and just kept rocking, mumbling something inaudible.

I finally freed myself from the wire and quickly scanned my body for damage. A few scratches but nothing that required stitches.

“Did you see it, too?” I asked as I approached.

He nodded his head.

On the floor below where he crouched was a pool of shimmering liquid and there was a distinct pungent smell of gasoline.

My friend looked up, his huge eyes terrified, his lips quivering. Slowly, with a jerking movement he raised his hand and thrust his finger toward the space behind me.

Reluctantly I turned. Behind me was a towering figure in tattered black robes. Within the shadow of its face was the gaping mouth I’d seen minutes before. In one hand it held a sharp, gleaming sickle and in the other a blue object about the size of a pack of gum.

Brendan grabbed my ankle.

“It has a lighter!” my friend yelled, his voice now loud and clear. “Run!”

Then we heard the distinct scraping of metal on metal as the ghoul ignited the lighter.

I grabbed my friend’s hand, pulled him to standing and we turned to flee. What happened next is another story.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. tfcarl@gmail.com