There’s an old joke about an American tourist who comes across a disconsolate
Serb in his native countryside. “What happened?” says the tourist.
And the Serb replies, “Well, in 1319 this hillside was the sight of
a great slaughter….”
Yes, that’s the whole joke, the implication being that the members of
some ethnic groups are overburdened by their historical pasts and to them
the rootless American is the ideal foil. The idea behind the joke is also
the set-up for the modern horror story, from Jonathan Harker trundling into
Transylvania for a meeting with the count about real estate to innumerable
stories of unwitting families moving into haunted houses. The creatures aren’t
necessarily new, but in old tales their locales were well known—witches
lived in the woods, monsters in the uncharted oceans, etc. It took an increasingly
mobile, arrogant, and a-historic population to bring this mode of horror tale
The classic American haunt is the “ancient Indian burial ground,”
but when it comes to aggrieved ghosts the cemeteries of slaves and their descendants
are pretty tough to beat. Or so the residents of Newport subdivision outside
of Houston, TX learned. In 1980, Ben and Jean Williams moved into a new home
in Crosby with their granddaughter. Almost immediately, strange electrical
problems flared up all around the house and randomly flushing toilets sent
their water bills through the roof. Their pet birds died, their granddaughter’s
gerbils went insane, and their cat gave birth to a litter of hideously disfigured
kittens. Disembodied shadows stalked the house and the family had a constant,
palpable feeling of being watched. When Ben and Jean’s married children
visited the couples fought, and later divorced. Six close relatives were diagnosed
with cancer and three of them died within the year. To be fair, that’s
difficult to pin on supernatural forces, but it added to the stress in the
house and the vulnerability of its occupants.
The Williams weren’t the only family on Poppets Way to be so bothered.
Lights and television sets all around Section 8 turned on and off by their
own accord. Sinkholes insistently appeared in yards, and reappeared after
they had been filled. In 1982, Sam and Judith Haney moved into their custom
home across the street. They heard discarnate voices and footsteps in their
home. Judith was awakened when an unplugged clock started sparking and glowing.
The following year when their contractors began digging their pool, an elderly
black stranger knocked on their door and told them the development was built
on a pauper’s cemetery and gave them the names of some local families
who could verify his story. And sure enough, the backhoe unearthed a man and
a woman in crude wooden coffins.
The Haneys asked around and found a man named Jasper Norton, who as a youth
had been a gravedigger for Black Hope Cemetery. Norton identified the bodies
as Charlie and Betty Thomas, who had died more than fifty years before. The
Haneys made the unusual decision to reinter the bodies on their property,
but may have regretted it when a missing pair of Judith’s red shoes
turned up on Betty Thomas’s grave—supposedly on the date of Betty’s
The strange happenings took their toll on the Haneys’ health and peace
of mind, and they sued the Newport developers for building on a cemetery and
making the residents unwitting desecrators of the graves. A jury awarded them
$142,000, but the judge reversed the verdict and ordered the Haneys to pay
$50, 000 in court costs. The couple declared bankruptcy and abandoned their
The decision put the Williamses and their neighbors in a bind. Without producing
bodies on their property, they would have no grounds for a lawsuit—and
a favorable decision was unlikely even then. On the other hand even if they
didn’t produce a corpse, the notoriety of the case (which had been followed
in The Houston Chronicle and other press) stymied their attempts
to sell their homes.
Frustrated and furious, Jean Williams began to dig in her backyard near a
tree with strange markings on it that Norton claimed indicated the graves
of two sisters. When she became exhausted, her daughter took over—then
suffered a massive heart attack that ended her life at age 30. Soon thereafter,
Ben and Jean Williams with their granddaughter moved to Montana and left their
home to be foreclosed by the bank.
In 1993, the Williams with John Bruce Shoemaker published their story as The
Black Hope Horror: The True Story of a Haunting, which was subsequently
made into a nifty TV movie starring Patty Duke and called Grave Secrets.
And similarities between the Williams’s story and the movie Poltergeist?
Well, that film came out the year the Haneys moved into their home, which
doesn’t preclude it from being an influence on the Williams’s
account. But several other families fled Section 8, defaulting on their loans—it’s
difficult to chalk it all up to book and movie deals.
In the tale’s cyber afterlife, a woman who claimed to have known the
Williamses in Crosby posted a review on Amazon.com that was dubious of the
account. On the other hand, another reviewer with family in the area tended
to believe it. A third drove through the area with her husband after reading
the book and within a year, both of their mothers had died, their car had
a cracked block, and their marriage ended in divorce. All of which comes to
little other than some strange cases continually attracting attention over
Others are covered up so thoroughly that they don’t get a public airing
for decades and by then only rumors remain. Such a incident happened in Liverpool
in the early seventies. According to Liverpudlian ghost hunter Tom Sleman,
in winter 1971 several families in the Old Swan district began hearing a thumping
sound similar to a human heartbeat that seemed to originate somewhere in the
ground beneath their homes. The sound grew in intensity until about midnight,
when it abruptly ceased. The sound returned intermittently over the next few
weeks, and gave one resident such terrible migraines she moved out of the
area. The neighborhood council investigated, but could find no source for
In September of the following year during an especially noisy instance of
the phenomenon, a local woman’s bath was interrupted by the appearance
of grotesque, skull-like faces that appeared in the steam on the washroom
windows. Her husband, Mr. Jones, heard her screams and watched as the faces
appeared and faded for a few minutes, then the noise stopped and the faces
melted into streams of condensation. The following night, their neighbor claimed
to have awakened from a nap to see a crowd of skeletal people in her parlor,
leaning toward her and watching her intently. The fright gave her a heart
attack that claimed her life later that week.
The following night, the Jones’s teenaged daughter dropped a cup
of tea and the entire family watched as the liquid formed the shape of
a skull then evaporated. The night after that, a night watchman told Mr.
Jones that he had been chased by a figure that looked like a medieval
monk that appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously.
The monk was to appear again throughout the years, but the Jones had had enough
and moved to another part of the city. The following year, the city scheduled
the row of homes of which the Jones residence had been a part for demolition.
The workmen heard the strange sounds and once were amazed to see one of their
backhoes tipped onto two side wheels as if pushed by powerful wind that affected
nothing else in the area. The following day, the crew made an astonishing
discovery—3,561 coffins. The corpses were allegedly grouped by age (from
about ten or twelve to early thirties), and a rumor began that the sternums
had been smashed and the hearts removed.
Word of the mass grave reached London and archeologists made a dash for the
scene, but they were horrified to learn that the city council had exhumed
every body, cremated them, and buried the ashes. The burial pit was ruled
to have been from the 1700s at the earliest and was likely not a plague pit,
but the archeologists could deduce little more. The story was also effectively
buried and the deplorable sneakiness of the Liverpool government wasn’t
fully revealed until September 1981 in the Catholic Pictorial.