I know first hand what it’s like to be afraid to go into a barn.
The Telford barn in my novel Apparition is inspired by a very creepy barn that was on a farm property my husband and I bought some years ago. We were city folk looking for a weekend escape from our stressful jobs in television, and we couldn’t afford much. The farmhouse in Grey County, just south of Meaford, Ontario, was an eyesore. It had been neglected by an absentee owner who left it to a series of short-term renters for years. But it was affordable. There are condo parking spaces in Toronto that cost more. And if there was ever a house that seemed emotionally depressed, it was that one. We proceeded to put ourselves into deep debt fixing it up, and in the end, it did seem happier.
But the depressed state of that old farmhouse was nothing compared to mood of the huge weathered barn out back. It had issues no hardware store could heal.
Have you ever stepped into a space and with no physical evidence at all, you just knew that bad things had happened in there? The barn hadn’t been used by a proper farmer for many decades, and though it was mostly empty except for the odd unidentifiable pieces of farm equipment, small piles of the kind of old junk you might find in a garage, it seemed crowded with discontent.
It was impressively large. The roof rafters reached up three stories high, like some post-apocalyptic cathedral. The beams that held up the frame were massive tree trunks. Along both sides there were platforms and a series of stalls. The air smelt of an awful old dust and straw, and the sunlight came in shards through all the cracks and gaps and missing boards in the walls and roof. The whole place had a strange spiritual quality. Bad spirits.
If there had been human sacrifices in that barn, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I hated going in, and wouldn’t do it alone at all. My son, 14 years old at the time, thought it was pretty cool and would hang out inside with a buddy, mostly breaking things for fun. We did find one mysterious box of personal stuff, old papers, notes, bills from years before. And a short journal. I admit I read it. I figured the author had long since gone.
It wasn’t your average ‘dear diary’ journal. From the first paragraph, the writer explained that she was keeping a record of interactions with her estranged husband, at the recommendation of her lawyer. He had just been released from prison, and though she had a restraining order against him, she was afraid he would show up looking for her and the kids. She had been staying at the house temporarily, as a kind of shelter or hide-out. There were several accounts of him showing up at night, banging on the doors, shouting and swearing. There was a lot of fear and anger and guilt and regret on those pages.
On weekends we would go for long hikes along the Bruce Trail, and that was when I first started imagining a story about the barn. The scene that kept playing in my mind was of a mother, trying to talk her suicidal son down from a high beam where he’s about to hang himself. The problem would be that he’s been possessed by a suicidal ghost. She would eventually find out, with the help of an eccentric ghost expert, that there had been a series of suicides in the barn over the last century. The skeleton of the story hung in my head for almost ten years. I didn’t begin to write it down until I’d ditched the narrating mother for the teenage boy’s sister. I gave the story to Amelia to tell.
Every few months, a few wicked storm would bring pieces of the roof flying down into the yard, and the boards seemed so unstable that we finally decided to have the whole thing taken down before it fell down on us. We enlisted the services of a young preacher who ran some obscure church in the county, taking down barns on the side in exchange for hauling off the old barn boards. They would sell as reclaimed wood for cabinet-makers. The process was slow and methodical, a barn-raising in reverse. Still, one day, a young teen he had helping him came running to the house in a panic. The preacher had fallen from a great height, and we had to get him to the local hospital right away. He was only out of commission a few days and lucky he didn’t break his back, that’s all I can say.
In a way, I feel badly now about destroying the barn. Old abandoned barns, from a distance, are a beautiful sight. Just as long as you don’t have to go inside or, God forbid, spend the night.