By Claire Perry
Devil’s Tramping Ground Road may scare some, but Tamara Dowd Owens was not afraid as her Honda traversed its dirt that sunny afternoon.
The road is named for her destination: the Devil’s Tramping Ground, a circle of land outside of Pittsboro where nothing will grow, rumored to be the home of Satan himself.
But Tamara has been driving that road since before the swaths of tourists and reporters, back when it was named Dowd Road for the century of ancestors that have lived in its stead. When she reached the tramping grounds that day, she tied up her hair with a blonde hair tie and told her middle son, Jackson, to get out of the car. It was time to pick up trash.
The beer cans and chip bags that litter the tramping grounds are covered in a thin dust, salty — so salty that scientists think it is the cause of the circle’s antipathy to the parasitic kudzu that surrounds it.
Today, there are no goat sacrifices sitting in the circle’s center. The trees surrounding the barren glen are not covered in spray-painted pentagrams; no Ouija Boards litter the ground. Today, there is only a hornet.
She warns Jackson.
“Honey, be careful.”
Tamara takes his hand, and meanders away from the circle out to the paths in the surrounding forest. She remembers walking these paths as a girl, getting lost in their spiraling curls until the time was as matted as the briars.
Even now, she refuses to go to the Tramping Grounds at night. She never forgot the warnings of her father, the custodian of the grounds until his death in 2015. He had heard stories of coyote visits, whispers of an ancient native burial ground amplified by the arrowheads he found.
Today, though, there are no coyotes to be found. There is only a hornet, seemingly trailing the pair, stuck on them like one of the path’s stray briars.
She was at the circle a week before, shadowing a group of paranormal investigators. Tamara always watched the people the site attracted from a distance, but that time, she stuck around. She watched the investigators communicate with whatever lived in the circle—or more likely, died — from a paranormal communicator.
“Is anything there?”
She drove home pretty soon after.
Tamara believes in things unknown, but can’t decide if they are bad or good, lost or found. She doesn’t know what spirits haunt that circle. She does, however, know what haunts the circle today, resting on her car’s rear view mirror until she turns onto Devil’s Tramping Ground Road — a single hornet.
Just a dream
Barry Landrum struggled to maneuver his hands, pushing in vain against a feather-stuffed Sisyphean boulder that was slowly smothering him.
Landrum woke up to his pillow in his lap.
He was staying in The Inn at Merridun, an antebellum-era bed-and-breakfast in Union, South Carolina, while covering the infamous 1994 Susan Smith infanticide trial for a local news station. Landrum put the pillow back under his head and tried to drift back to sleep, the thunder that rumbled outside the floor-to-ceiling windows an unsettling lullaby.
“That was a really vivid dream,” he said to himself. “I’ve never had a dream like that before.”
It was just that, he thought: a dream. Barry Landrum didn’t believe in ghosts.
A pair of ice cold hands grabbed his knees, and pulled him almost to the end of the bed.
Landrum didn’t look around. He didn’t want to look around.
For half an hour, he stared at the ceiling, caressing the masonry with his pupils to distract from his fear of spotting an unknown silhouette. Silent and still, as the lightning cascaded on the bed’s patchwork quilt, he drifted back to sleep.
What Barry Landrum didn’t know before that night was that the mansion housed a mysterious figure who lurked at the tops of stairwells and in the corners of eyes, gone by the time one could get a good look at it. As he scoured the guest book in his bedroom for its mention the next morning, he found nothing, but a clerk confirmed that he wasn’t the first person in.
Barry Landrum drove back to Charleston the next morning. He wouldn’t tell his wife what had happened for four years, when his daughter Megan was born. Barry Landrum didn’t believe in ghosts — until he did.
“Go toward the light”
It was March 17, 2016, St. Patrick’s Day, when 55-year-old David Baxter Long drove his Jeep Cherokee outside of Winston-Salem to Union Cross Road.
His sneakers hit the pavement. They walked into I-40. By the time the driver realized he had just hit a man, it was too late. David Long had committed suicide.
Julie Faenza was stuck in traffic on a work drive from Raleigh to Boone, her Silver Ford Escape reflecting the thick white sky. She was talking with her coworker when she saw the firefighters leaning down to check a pulse, and Jones’ feet poking out from under a semi truck. That’s when her stomach started to sink.
Faenzi identifies as an empath, which means she was familiar with feeling others’ feelings, even their pain. This feeling was different.
“It was what I imagined somebody going to commit suicide would feel, that they were in so much pain that suicide would be the only way to end the pain,” Faenza said. “Depression, soul-crushing agony — it was one of the worst things I’ve ever felt.”
Faenza is no stranger to death. Her mother was a trauma nurse, and a childhood friend of the Warren Family, the paranormal pillars of “Annabelle” fame. So as she cried, her eyes stormy like the clouds above as her partner pulled into a gas station outside of Kernersville, she dialed her mom’s phone number.
“Someone’s dead,” Faenza sobbed. “I feel him, and it’s agonizing and it’s awful and I don’t know what to do.”
Through her tears, she explained the traffic, the feet, the pit that was sinking to the bottom of her gut like a leaden Titanic. Maybe by instinct, maybe by luck, her mother knew what to do.
“Julie, you need to tell him to go toward the light.”
“Mom, I can’t.”
As her mother kept talking, Faenza thought back to her first interaction with death, shadowing her mother in an operating room when a person coded blue. She remembers crying while taking off the woman’s rings, and her mother’s ever-important words.
“This is a person. They’re not breathing anymore, their heart isn’t beating, but it is a person. That’s what you need to understand. It’s nothing to be scared of, it is a person.”
Reflecting on her mother’s words, Faenza was not afraid. What happens next, she doesn’t remember well — her memories are fogged with tears. She remembers a one-ended conversation.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting. Your family will find your body, and they’re not mad at you. It’s okay to go toward the light.”
The feeling wouldn’t budge.
“Go toward the light.”
And just like that, the feeling left, plopping out of her like Jell-O, and melting into the gas station parking lot’s iridescent shimmer. Just like that, David Baxter Long went toward the light.
Edited by Claire Tynan