In deepest Oklahoma, an ordinary family living in a sleepy hamlet has had its life turned upside down by a talking poltergeist with a fondness for chucking stones. KYM B. CHAFFIN traveled down Highway 3 to see what all the fuss was about.
Oklahoma, a southern plains state with a reputation for dullness, hardly enjoys the balmiest of climates; the summers are uncomfortably hot and the winters miserably cold. The attacks began in midsummer, on 15 June 1990. It was a hot night in Centrahoma — so hot that the Mc Wethy family, Bill and Maxine, their 18-year-old daughter Twyla and her baby Desireé, sought relief by moving their chairs into the front yard, hoping for a breeze. Without warning, a single stone flew out of the darkness and clunked against the side of the house. Then another stone came, followed by a third, propelled out of the darkness by an unseen hand.
"Stop it!" Mr. Mc Wethy yelled, rising from his lawn chair. More stones quickly catapulted from the darkness beyond the yard. The Mc Wethys, possessing the sturdy calmness of rural folk, were only mildly annoyed and sought refuge inside the house, assuming it was local kids playing a prank.
But the stones kept on coming, one every few minutes. Some were as small as a thumbnail, others the size of a golf ball. To the Mc Wethys' amazement, the attack continued for 24 hours, even breaking some windows. Centrahoma is too small to have a police station, so there was no one to call for help. Mr. Mc Wethy and his neighbors tried to investigate, but they could find no source for the stone-throwing.
The next night, just as they were beginning to relax, the stone-throwing began again. The attacks continued, on and off, straight through June and into July. Still, no thrower could be caught. Eventually it began to dawn on the family, and the town's residents, that it might be "a spirit."
All doubt about it being a non-human agency was removed one July night when close on 50 people were gathered at the Mc Wethys' house trying to catch the culprit. It didn't deter the rascal, who started up just after sundown. The group of citizens moved onto the porch and conferred. Someone had a good idea. They marked some of the stones with nail polish and tossed them out into the dark in different directions. Within minutes they came sailing back. Someone else had an even better idea. They threw the marked stones into a nearby pond. Within moments they came flying back . . . wet.
By the middle of August, the family was frightened enough to contact the office of the Coal County Sheriff. A deputy, Bill Ward Jr., rolled up in his patrol car that night. Before he could even get out of his car he came under a fierce barrage of stones. He managed to get out and search for the miscreant, but found no one. He returned to his office, spooked. The family again called the sheriff, requesting that he put in an appearance. He reportedly said: "If there's nothing I can see to shoot, I'm not coming."
Eerie things continued. Then the mysterious stone-hurler got creative. Maxine and her daughter Twyla were sitting in the front yard one hot night and were subjected to a pelting, not of stones but coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters. A few days later, Maxine and a friend walked into the toolshed at the back of the house and were hit by a potentially dangerous wave of screws, nails and other metal bric-a-brac. They ran back outside, screaming. Soon they heard someone or something in the darkness of the toolshed, tapping away on an old typewriter.
In November the coming of winter forced the family indoors and off poltergeist watch in the front yard. But whatever had been throwing the rocks followed them inside.
It kept diversifying its act, now not just throwing rocks and coins, but bottles, eggs and whatever odds and ends happened to be lying around. The Mc Wethys say that although these things were obviously pilfered from around the house, when they were thrown they seemed to simply materialize in mid-flight. The family would enter empty rooms to find that something has stripped the bed-clothes off the beds and draped sheets and blankets over two or more chairs to create makeshift tents. This pattern continued for some time.
Seeking answers, the Mc Wethys appealed to the Coalgate Record Register, the local newspaper. Two reporters were dispatched, one of whom, Helen Langdon, later admitted that the trip to the Mc Wethys was accompanied by a certain amount of sniggering at the supposed ridiculousness of the story they had been sent to cover.
No sooner had the two reporters arrived than Mrs. Mc Wethy appeared on the porch, excitedly urging them to "get in here, now!" The two reporters scurried into the small white-frame home. Bill, Twyla and Desireé were already in the kitchen. The floor was covered with small stones. Instantly an attack of stones began from all directions at once, focusing on Twyla. The reporters, aghast, closed all doors leading into the kitchen and checked for holes in the ceiling and floor. The rocks continued zooming around the room for 45 minutes, like popcorn kernels exploding.
Helen Langdon, shocked and frightened, and suddenly feeling a need for spiritual comfort, asked aloud if this manifestation could be "of God." Immediately the stones focused on her, assailing her from all directions. They all moved into the living room and "it" followed them. Helen sat on the couch next to Twyla. She noted in a few minutes that when Twyla stood up, stones had seemingly formed under where she was sitting. Twyla also said that when she woke up in the morning there were often stones in bed with her.
There was no doubt that Twyla was the focus of the phenomenon. In his massive Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, Nandor Fodor states that poltergeists are "noisy spirits, causing periodic disturbances of a malicious character in certain places in the presence of a certain, mostly unsuspecting sensitive person." It is also observed that the focal person is usually an adolescent. Twyla, though a single mother, was then 18.
But this poltergeist case had already broken with the norm in one important way. Soon after the family was forced indoors by the cold, Twyla and her mother began hearing a high-pitched "pssst" sound around the house. Then the sound resolved itself into a voice. It is rare, though not unheard of, that a poltergeist speaks.
I first heard about the case last summer from a short report on the local public television station in Oklahoma City. I contacted the Mc Wethys and arranged to visit their home along with Peggy Fielding, a writer from Tulsa.
The drive took us three hours into this remote part of southeastern Oklahoma. We arrived at the house on Saturday 16 July, unaware that the poltergeist was in fact still in residence and that it made a discernible sound. Upon entering the kitchen we were accosted by a number of people who had spent the previous night in the house to experience the ghost. They were not members of the family and they told me that the ghost was still around and that it had slapped them, pushed them, pulled their hair and scratched them the night before. In fact, they said, it had just gone into town with Twyla and would be back in a few minutes.
"Beg pardon?" I said.
"It will be back in a few minutes. You'll hear it. It makes a sound."
Mrs. Mc Wethy welcomed us warmly and introduced us to all present. She assured us that Twyla would be back in just a few minutes with the poltergeist in tow.
One of those present was an amateur investigator of psychic phenomena, Shirley Padley, who told me that she had tape-recorded the ghost. She played me a tape of a high-pitched metallic sound, not human, that did indeed seem to be saying, "This is Michael."
"That's what he calls himself," she told me. "Michael Dale Sutherland."
Shirley Padley had originally come here doing a story with a television crew from a local station. She had left thinking it was a hoax because the sound the ghost made was just too strange. Later, she returned and became convinced. She said she'd searched all through the southern United States for paranormal phenomena but had found nothing real except this.
I was becoming uncomfortable. There was a ghost. It threw things, it attacked people, it talked and it would be back in a few minutes. On top of that, in my opinion, this place had an electromagnetic atmosphere you could drive a nail into, it was so thick. It felt like being in the presence of a large, silent, invisible generator.
Some parakeets in a nearby cage squawked. They had odd colorings.
"Oh, he did that," Mrs. Mc Wethy said. "He threw food coloring all over them. He warned me the night before. He said, 'I'm going to paint your birds.' I heard them squawking this morning. He'd thrown food coloring from the kitchen on them." One of the birds fluttered uncomfortably, rocking on its perch. The ghost had painted him.
My writer friend Peggy was in the kitchen. Soon she called out: "Come in here, I hear him!" I went and sat at the kitchen table. The ghost has apparently arrived a few minutes in advance of Twyla. I could hear a high-pitched mewling sound, like a cat only different. It was roaming around the house, from room to room, one minute seemingly next to us, the next minute far away in one of the bedrooms.
"He usually picks out somebody to pick on," Mrs. Mc Wethy said.
"What makes him pick out one person?" I asked.
"He can tell who's the most scared," she said.
This was not what I wanted to hear. Soon Twyla came in, a robust looking blonde girl, now 22. She sat down wearily at the table and I introduced myself.
"What is this thing?" I asked. We could hear it mewling in a nearby room.
"I think it's an alien," she replied. "I really do. Once he took me to a field and showed me a place where all the grass had been pressed down, like something had landed there."
"A spaceship?" I asked.
"He says he's from Saturn," she said. "And that he got left behind."
It mewled from the living room. I was wondering if I didn't already subscribe to enough odd beliefs without adopting one about invisible aliens living in Oklahoma villages.
"Course, he lies a lot," Mrs. Mc Wethy added.
A scene from "The Exorcist" flashed into my mind, the one in which the old priest says the main thing to remember is that the demon is a liar. We were back on firmer ground here. I thought, please get me back to the kind of bizarre superstition I grew up with.
"He followed me home one time," said Shirley Padley. "On the way home my daughter said she felt something in the car with us and when we got there we could hear him wandering around the house and the phone kept ringing over and over but no one was there."
I wondered what I would do if it followed me home. I wondered if I would actually have to become a Catholic in order to get a bishop to come out to the house for a little toilet flushing ceremony.
"He draws things with lipstick on the mirrors around the house, too," Mrs. Mc Wethy said.
"Symbols. Some of them we don't know what they are. This one we found in a book. It's the symbol for Saturn."
They showed me some copies of symbols the poltergeist had allegedly drawn. One was the astronomical sign for Saturn. Something like an electro-magnetic breeze brushed by my shins. I was ready to leave.
"He gets more active at night," Twyla said. "Can't you stay till this evening? No, you look pale already, maybe you'd better go."
Pale indeed. I was ready to leave. Driving away, I reflected that the Mc Wethys were very good people. I could see why a ghost would pick them. It told them, they said, that it learned to talk by watching television with them. As for the theory that the poltergeist is a projection of someone living in the house, there is no doubt that it is tied to Twyla. Some time ago an off-duty police officer from a nearby town came out here to investigate the ghost, fell in love with Twyla and married her. Now the ghost usually went with them. But, Mrs. Mc Wethy told me, it sometimes stayed with her for days without Twyla present. My belief is that something about Twyla allows it to manifest, but that it is very much a separate being.
When I asked Mrs. Mc Wethy why she thought it picked them out, she told me: "It said it's 'cause we stay up late at night." I found that comment interesting; it reminded me of something that Eileen Garrett, the famous Irish medium, once said: that for a ghost to manifest, the family in the house has to create a nest for it. Tolstoy once observed that every happy family is alike; maybe we could add that every haunted family is also alike. [FT]
(TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: REGARDING THE NAME THE SPIRIT "CALLS HIMSELF" — PERHAPS THIS WAS NOT 'MICHAEL DALE SUTHERLAND' BUT, ON THIS PARTICULAR OCCASION, 'MICHAEL / DALE SUTHERLAND.')