ON GHOST STORIES, PART II: THE CREEPIEST SCHOOL ASSEMBLY IN HISTORY
I don’t know when I first became interested in ghost stories, but I distinctly recall the day I became obsessed. It was first grade, I was seven years old, and was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a packed Parish Hall at Holy Name Elementary in West Roxbury. Some nuns were visiting from the region of Medjugorje in what is now Bosina and Herzegovina, and did they have a whopper of a ghost story for us kids.
Before I continue, let me add some brief context. The faculty of Holy Name Elementary in 1990 was roughly half nuns, half laypeople. From what I understand, it’s all laypeople now, which saddens me some. Our nuns were mostly older women belonging to the Sisters of St. Joseph order in Boston, though there were some from other orders I can’t recall. Most of these Sisters were very sweet, and all were excellent teachers, but there were a few who definitely fit the stereotype of the strict, hardass nuns of my parents’ generation. My own teacher at the time was one of these hardasses. The older kids in my neighborhood warned me about her constantly during the summer leading up to my entry into first grade, and when I wound up in her class I was more or less regarded by those kids as a dead man walking. I actually ended up loving her class a great deal, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in a constant state of pants-crapping fear for the first month or so. That’s not an exaggeration—during that first month I saw this woman staple a kid’s shoelaces to his shoe with his foot still in it, all because the dumb shit kept showing up to class with them defiantly untied.
All of this is to say that when it came to scaring children, even the foot-stapling disciplinarian couldn’t hold a candle to the good Sisters of Medjugorje.
We were called to the auditorium for a special event sometime in the afternoon. With it not being a holiday or a first Friday of the month, when we’d routinely attend mass together as a school, there was much interest and speculation as to what this event was. Mr. Arciero, the principal, took the stage and introduced three or four small, soft-spoken women. They weren’t scary in and of themselves, but there was a calm graveness to them that was unlike anything I’d ever encountered in another human up to that point and have only a few times since. Anyway, with the mystery of the big event revealed not to be a traveling team of yo-yo artists or the Harlem Globetrotters I was a little bummed, but what the hell, it was better than sitting in class worrying about phonics or the state of my shoelaces. I even found some of what they had to say to be interesting. Remember, my world at the time extended about as far as the Dedham town line, so learning about such an exotic place as Medjugorje was enough to hold my attention. I don’t know if the ankle-biters of today would be so attentive, but that’s neither here nor there.
It was about halfway into the nuns’ talk that shit started getting dark. I had assumed they were there to tell us about charity and doing God’s work and feeling guilty about all the stuff we had and took for granted (in other words the usual), but it turned out these women were there with a much darker, dire message. They set the stage by bringing us up to speed on some of Medjugorje’s history, including the Serbian massacre of 1941 and later mass murders of Franciscan monks in the region. Looking back, I can see how deftly they prepared us for the tale to follow; horror stories are always complimented by some well-placed historical context. I might have known jack shit about Serbs, communists, and the Croatian Revolutionary Movement, but I knew what World War II was, and just mentioning it in conjunction with what followed was enough for my young brain to weave their tale into the fabric of history (or at least my concept of history) without much effort.
I was vaguely aware of the Fatima apparitions at that point; it’s hard to grow up in a Catholic community without hearing about the alleged phenomena of the sun that occurred there, or the rosier Lourdes apparitions with their resultant healing waters and pilgrims. However, the tale these nuns told over the next hour or so introduced me to some of the darker tropes of the standard Marian apparition. Those tropes included dark prophecies, dire warnings about the future, secrets about the fate of humanity, and visions of hell. You can read in depth about the Medjugorje apparitions on Wikipedia and the Medjugorje website, but the gist is that the Blessed Virgin appeared to six children there and continued appearing daily for several years, divulging all sorts of scary info and calling believers to pray for those in Purgatory. But I’m not here to spread the Medjugorje message, just to explain my reaction to it.
What was my reaction? I rarely indulge in this Bostonian expression, but between you and me, I thought the whole thing was pisser! Scared me out of my wits, sure, but I loved every minute of it. These weren’t just adults, they were nuns, authority figures, all but saying magic was real. Not only was it real, it could bite, man! I observed something then that that really ratcheted up the stakes. Our principal was clearly uncomfortable. I don’t think anybody told him that hell itself would be a topic of conversation. For all the flak Catholicism gets, it’s not as fire and brimstone as some of the other denominations. In fact, that stuff is seldom discussed. So hearing these Sisters describe what one’s reaction to seeing hell would be (you’d be scared to death, quite literally) was a rare pleasure. The principal, however, probably would have stopped the discussion if he could. Just seeing him nervously shaking his head and glancing from us kids to the nuns told me that maybe this was stuff we weren’t supposed to be hearing—which of course only made it all the more riveting.
The nuns finished their talk and handed out devotional scapulars, which are long necklaces made of string with a small piece of cloth attached at opposite ends. Written on this cloth is the Scapular Promise, which reads, “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”
Us kids practically fought one another to get our hands on them after the nuns’ talk. My seven year-old brain naturally saw the scapular as the ultimate get out of jail free card, and I may or may not have worn it on several occasions in the following days when I was up to no good. I still have it actually, set aside in a little box with other artifacts of my youth.
The Medjugorje talk was my first major lesson in the power ghost stories can wield on a receptive mind. It occurs to me now that those nuns could have scared us into believing anything, perhaps doing anything, and that’s the really scary part. It was a small taste of the fervor which plenty of other kids around the world are not only exposed to, but actually raised in. I don’t believe that assembly was evil or anything, but looking back I do have a healthy respect for the kind of power that was conjured in the auditorium that day, and think of it often.