For many of us thrill-seeking Michiganders, this winter has been disappointing. Instead of gearing up for the long white haul, we find ourselves staring out the window with waning anticipation, praying for the sky to loose its elusive white sheets.

In December of 2011, I found myself invoking a different kind of elusive white sheet—ghosts. One of my lesser-known interests, anything paranormal or cryptozoological has always captured my intrigue. Right up there with outdoor recreation, classic literature, and all things Pure Michigan, ghosts are interesting. I’ve written and orated dozens of ghost stories, from childhood through today.

I fancy myself an innovator when it comes to quirky recreational opportunities, and so a similar winter with cold weather but no white stuff left the friend group with little to do during the chilly months. It was too cold to go camping or kayaking (so they claimed), and yet there wasn’t any snow for us to go skiing or sledding anywhere. Just one drizzly, foggy, muddy, damp day after another.

It’s a shame English doesn’t have a word for this kind of weather, but in Dutch it’s—and I’m sure I’m butchering this—vaterkold. It describes that gradually-induced, bone-chilling wetness you can only feel from being outside in a December rain for too long. It was then that I realized these conditions were perfect for ghost hunting.

West Michigan has a bounty of haunted places, and thanks to that December, I’ve been to most of them. In Saugatuck, there’s an old asylum where senile, inbred “melonheads” roam the nearby dunes. In Rockford, the devil screams at midnight on Hell’s Bridge, where a possessed priest drowned all the village children. There’s a sand mine just west of Grand Rapids reputed to be ideal for the discrete disposal of bodies. With the setting sun ushering in dense fog and vaterkold darkness, we’d set off through these primordial glens, spirits high-strung and pregamed on horror movies.

The capstone of these expeditions was a trip to White Cloud, a rural town in the heart of the Manistee National Forest. As the legend goes, one Robert Bennett, a disgruntled farmhand, tied up and hung all seven members of the family who hired him from an oak tree on the property. On a dark and stormy night (as is customary when one is undertaking morally suspect exploits), Bennett buried them in the appropriately named ‘Dungeon Swamp.’ He was convicted of murder and jailed within a month, but not before haunting visions of his slain wrestling out of the muck came knocking at his door, accusatory fingers raised.

Admittedly, the details seemed a little scripted. Nevermind that White Cloud was an hour away, and we all had work the next morning. Nor did we have an itinerary for this venture, other than to cruise the back roads in hopes of seeing something spooky.

Yet four of us made the trek anyway, on a foggy, snowless night in late December. Kevin was probably the only ghost aficionado I knew with a keener interest than mine. Jared, my younger cousin, was always up for a social outing, no matter how unorthodox. Cole was relatively new to Michigan; it was important to me that he visit as many off-the-beaten-path locales as I could find, even if that meant driving down forbidden two-tracks in December—hardly anyone’s idea of tourism.

Our destination was an old cemetery tucked back in the swamp. After parking, we stepped out tentatively and peered through the darkness. Fog hung stiff as a corpse in the dead air. Cole swung his flashlight in an arc at the simmering necropolis. Tombstones jutted out of the mud at sagging, distorted angles, like the apocalyptic limbs of a soul whose mortality remained uncertain. The sopping peat was bubbling with moisture beneath our boots. Practically speaking, this was a horrible place for a graveyard; it was a wonder anything stayed buried here.

We fanned out and combed the graveyard row by row. Our only light came from the dim, foxfire glow of our flashlights. Several times I tripped over graves sunken deep in the mire, and I had a good scare when Jared and I crossed paths in the mist.

Suddenly, I heard Kevin gasp. We stumbled blindly toward his voice until echolocation led us to a vine-covered mausoleum. The script was crumbling, but the names were unmistakable: Charles and Alice Hodell—the parents. Lee, Wilmer, Herman, Lola, and Meady—their children! I recognized them from the story we’d read online. Perhaps the murders were just a myth, but at least now we knew it had a strain of truth. The characters were real, and they just so happened to be buried here, all together, with a rather elaborate monument.

We sat and marveled for a minute, but the moment didn’t last long. The lateness of the hour and the chill of the fog began to creep in, and we made a unanimous decision to scram.

Just for kicks, I directed Kevin on a route that led through the heart of the Dungeon Swamp. Examining my map, there appeared to be a two-track that wound its way through a minefield of wetland symbols, numerous ponds, and a giant green patch of national forest land.

Little more than an ATV trail, our road led deeper into the Dungeon. The clawing branches, pond-sized puddles, and sucking mud almost proved too much for Kevin’s hapless Ford Focus. I could feel the car floating over the muck in places, wheels spinning madly.

Of course it was at this time that a monstrous, mud-splattered pickup came blasting out of a side trail, blinding us with its high beams as we passed, and then turning to follow us. This was ominous. It was after midnight and we were miles from anywhere important. Maybe he was just a friendly redneck out for a boozy thrill, but under these circumstances, Deliverance came to mind more quickly.

Smoke belched out from under its hood, and the diesel knock followed us for miles as we slipped and spun our way down the track. Turning back was no longer an option, and so we had no choice but to follow the artery right to its heart and out the other side. Our trail was petering out though, and the fog was getting thicker. The knocking was getting louder, like the rattling death knell from a horror movie, and as the four of us looked at each other uneasily, we were legitimately fearful.

We survived, by the way. In lackluster fashion, the trail spilled out onto M-20, the truck roared past, and we drove home with sighs of relief. The morning after was a little sluggish, but the adrenaline was worth every minute.

This December hasn’t been much different. I’ve yet to see any substantial snow, and yet these nights can still get cold—vaterkold. There may not be any ice to skate or hills to ski, but this weather is perfect for one thing: There are ghosts to be hunted.

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