Every summer, dozens of hatching Hemingways and budding Brontës come to the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio to learn how much they have to learn about writing. It’s a two-week camp that’s like Meatballs if it had been directed by Todd Solondz.
The Thursday night before the last day of classes, the counselors take the kids to Oakland Cemetery on Church Street, home of Iowa City’s Black Angel.
For those of you who have been to Iowa, you have probably noticed that it is neither a) very black, or b) very creepy. The Black Angel is both. It’s a dark, nine-foot statue of an angel looking down on a grave. It is supposedly cursed—pregnant women will miscarry if they walk under it; lovers will die in six months if they kiss under it during a full moon; and if place your novel next to it, Michiko Kakutani will rip it to shreds in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
The Lovely Becky was teaching at the Studio, and she and our lovely counselor friends and the Studio director, Mr. Lovely, all conspired to bring the children to this cursed spot. TLB asked me to partake in the fun of scaring the kids a bit. The Official Scaring is a two-part process:
1) The children, being all jaded from the videogames and the Scream movies and the rap music, expect the teachers and counselors to try and scare them. So the teachers and counselors prepare The Expected Scare—something a bit cheesy and fun that’s more Sam Raimi than George Romero.
2) After The Expected Scare, the kids are free to wander around Oakland Cemetery, which is pretty large and creepy. Here lies The Unexpected Scare—a second group of actors really try and freak the kids out. For instance, last year someone came out of the bushes and chased the kids with hedge clippers. This scared the insurers of the university, so the counselors had to come up with something else. During the first Studio session this summer, one of our friends, Brad, dressed up like a homeless man and tried to get in a fight with one of the counselors. This actually got the kids pretty nervous.
Brad planned to reprise his role, but the counselors wanted to up the ante. Enter yours truly. TLB asked me to join in—especially since the kids wouldn’t recognize me—and our friends/counselors Vinnie and Kate came up with the idea: I would be a deranged farmer, wandering the cemetery looking for my wife.
We went to the Wardrobe Department. I abstained from shaving for three days (which, with my Slavic genes, is sufficiently scary itself). I grabbed my beat-up black boots, my rattiest jeans, a white T-shirt I use as a shoe polish rag, and my faded Mizzou baseball cap. We ripped up the shirt and rubbed dirt all over the hat, shirt, pants, and my face.
The pièce de résistance was the shovel. I took our garden spade and dragged it, point down, behind me. Utilizing the shambling gate of the undead I know so well from playing Resident Evil, I slowly marched around the backyard. “Perfect,” TLB said.
Of course, any good act requires dialog, and I had few lines to repeat. Keeping my voice low, almost a whisper, I said over and over again:
Have you seen my wife? We’re supposed to be together. She said she would meet me here. I’m looking for her. Have you seen my wife...?
We arrived at Oakland Cemetery at 9:00 p.m. The cemetery was technically closed, but easily accessible after hours. I just hoped no one would call the authorities about a strange, dirty man wandering the grounds with a shovel. Honest, officer, I’m not here to rob graves, I’m waiting for some underaged girls and boys.
After reviewing the battle plan, The Expected Scarers (including TLB) assumed positions behind some nearby trees and headstones. They had wore black, had masks, and also had a small violin and autoharp to make some eerie music.
The three Unexpected Scarers scattered through the cemetery. Brad was back as the homeless guy. Another guy, Mark, was a cross between us: he had the homeless outfit, but also carried a shovel. My trusty shovel and I camped out behind a mausoleum about 30 yards from the Black Angel.
Just after dark, the other counselors brought the kids to the Angel. There was some poetry reading and picture taking for about 10 minutes, while the Expected Scarers moved in. I could see TLB’s silhouette creeping from grave to grave, and then heard the tinkling notes of the violin and autoharp. The kids, expecting this, had a good laugh. After some clowning around from the Expected Scarers, the students gathered for the stroll through the cemetery. I grabbed the shovel, took a breath, and started shambling and muttering.
I followed a meandering pattern through the graves, repeating my lines: Have you seen my wife? We’re supposed to be together. She said she would meet me here. After a couple of minutes, I could see some kids approaching out of the corner of my eye. “Who is that guy?” I heard one say. A few girls came within about 20 feet of me, not necessarily scared, but not sure what was up. I worried that I wouldn’t be scary enough.
TLB came over and grabbed the girls by the arms. “Come on, don’t go near him,” she said, sounding convincingly nervous. A brilliant bit of acting by the missus. The girls hurried away.
I followed them for a bit. When I reached one of the paved walkways of the cemetery, I dragged the shovel across it. The ringing, grating noise echoed through the cemetery, and I saw all the kids turn to look. A few approached, and some laughed, but no one got near me. Mr. Lovely walked over and told me I needed to leave the students alone. I kept repeating my lines and walking, ignoring him. He grabbed me, and I started shouting: NO! I’M LOOKING FOR MY WIFE! SHE SAID SHE WOULD BE HERE!
He let go and I continued meandering and went back to whispering. I would cross the walkways and let the shovel scrape against the pavement, and the noise seemed to be doing a good job of getting the kids riled up.
After some traipsing around the cemetery, the counselors gathered the students so they could return to the dorm. I changed course and headed for the whole group. When I got within 10 feet or so, I looked at one of the girls and raised my non-shovel arm. You, I said, trying my best creepy face, It’s you. You are here. Come with me.
She hustled away, and my friend Vinnie blocked my way. When he touched me, I started shouting again: THAT’S HER! LET ME GO! THAT’S HER! WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE TOGETHER!!! All the kids started walking away from me, looking over their shoulders.
As they left, I started following them out of the cemetery, staying just far enough away so they could see me. I kept drifting onto the walkway to let the shovel scrape for a few seconds, which triggered some swiveled heads and hurried steps. When I reached the edge of the cemetery, I stopped as if I couldn’t go further, standing and staring at the kids as they walked away.
Once they were gone, I doubled back met the other conspirators. Brad and Mark had not had as much luck as I had, especially since a couple kids had recognized Mark. “I think I scared them a little,” I said. “But I’m not sure.”
I waited for TLB to come back to the rendezvous point. When she arrived, she said, “You scared the crap out of those kids. One of the girls started crying.”
“Really?” I said. While I was proud of my effectiveness, I felt bad.
“Yeah, I was going to come back and tell you to quit with the shovel dragging,” she said. She smiled, “You really freaked them out.”
The next day, there was much buzz about the Shovel Guy (as I became known). Some claimed I was 6’4”, 250 lbs (off by four inches and a few dumbbells). Others thought it was an act. Others thought I might have been a bona fide weirdo.
The last night of the Studio, there is a talent show where the kids all gather and perform skits, read high school poetry, sing, etc. At one point, the Black Angel gang all come to the show, in costume and character, to reveal their identities on the stage.
During the talent show that Friday, I appeared in the back of the room, dragging my shovel and repeating my lines. The kids were now not nervous, but still curious. I marched toward the stage, up the steps, and stopped. Finally, TLB, also onstage and in costume, came over and planted a kiss on my stubbly lips. The spell was broken.
After the show, as TLB and I walked to our car, we saw some Studio students sitting outside across the street. I turned the shovel and dragged it across the road for a second. Their heads snapped toward the sound. We smiled. “You’re an asshole,” one of the boys said. Although he was kidding, I could hear an undercurrent of uneasiness in his voice.