I do not fear dark places, perhaps because I grew up with them. My father was a stickler for turning off unnecessary lights to save power and to please him (and to avoid the rod) I learned to navigate stairways and hallways in the dark.
This came in handy as I grew older and began to take long walks in the dark (because at night, I had the back roads and alleys all to myself). My nocturnal route ran through two cemeteries but the only place that gave me the chills was a dark corner beneath a tall copper beech, a mile out of town. I later heard that a priest had been robbed and murdered here several decades ago, and that even earlier the local gallows stood here. In the distant past felons were broken on the wheel and decapitated on a nearby hillock.
Once I discovered that, the place no longer gave me the shivers, especially since I never had any visions of hanged or headless men. Nor did the dead priest ever appear to me.
Other places that might have have given me shudders never did: Tyburn, Tower Hill, or the Tower Green in London--though the Traitor’s Gate did, but that had more to do with a story I once read than with historical happenings. Nor did Broad Street in Oxford, the Place de la Concorde and the Place de Grève in Paris, or a guillotine which had executed many criminals in the past but now rested quietly in Bruges museum. Nor had an old gold rush gallows sitting in the courtyard square in Downieville, California, any ghostly airs. But I did get hurt by the contraption when I tried to activate the trapdoor mechanism and cut a wasp nest in half with the lever. The wasps were not amused and pursued me clear to the other side of the square. That’s when I learned that I am not allergic to wasp stings.
But I had a different reaction when I stood on a trap door of the reconstructed gallows in the California gold rush town of Shasta.
Touring the courthouse, I had walked upstairs from the subterranean dungeon cells to the court room. When I stepped out of the back door, I found myself on the gallows’ scaffold which looked out over a low valley and a mountain slope which was bedecked with spring wildflowers. At that moment, I quite unexpectedly felt what it would be like to have a noose tighten around my neck and the trapdoor tumbling open--while the sun shone warmly, and the aroma of flowers drifted up the valley.
I had an even more dreadful experience in Colmar, France. The hotel I stayed in overlooked a small, rather nondescript square. I dined with friends that night and had overindulged in food and wine. Perhaps that’s what gave me a horrid--and very vivid--full-color nightmare. It seemed that I woke up in the small hours of the night, walked to the window, and looked down into the square which was bathed in moonlight. I noticed a tall object which I had not seen in the light of day: a guillotine. I was surrounded by soldiers in old-fashioned uniforms while tumbrels brought one victim after another.
At that moment I felt myself seized from behind, tied, and dragged down the stars to the bloody contraption. Chop! I woke when my head fell.
I learned the next morning that the local guillotine had been set up in that very square during the French revolution.
Unfortunately, this nightmare has returned, in different forms, many times since.
Causes John Doerper Supports
Defenders of Wildlife
Doctors Without Borders
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation