We’re All Smiling

pillow

The overly-wide, grinning mouth is a horror cliche. It’s a trope, albeit a successful one, that’s wormed its way into scary stories from around the world. So ubiquitous is its inclusion that it’s taken on a legendary status; it feels like something that’s always been around to scare people. Right?

In 1844, one of the first serial killers in Connecticut began a rampage. Little was known about the killer, save for their signature technique of disfiguration. While the victims were alive, they amputated their cheeks. When the bodies were eventually found, their toothy, skeletal smiles became fodder for nightmares, rumors, and legends. The killer was never captured.

Starting in 2012, local Connecticut message boards and forums started to feature messages and questions about ghosts.

There’s a town in Connecticut called Monroe. It is infested with hauntings. Two cemeteries, Union and Stepney, are sites where ghosts can be found wandering between headstones and sometimes out into the road. In November, 2012, there was an enormous uptick in the number of sightings, which precipitated the message board posts.

Those who saw the ghosts began having nightmares.

Those who read about the ghosts began having nightmares.

The nightmares themselves were unique, save for one, shared feature: they ended with the dreamer thinking they woke up, then seeing a white, ghostly woman with devastating facial disfigurements crouching on their chests. She’ll stare at them and trace her fingertips across their faces as she grins with her hideous, wide smile.

It’s not unusual for cultural events to shape the content of dreams. Following the release of the movie “The Exorcist,” it was widely reported that people were having dreams about demonic possession. These reports of the ghostly woman are likely tied to the prevalence of the scary stories I mentioned above, along with the sightings of so-called ghosts.

I believed that for a little while.

Then I started having the dreams. My kids and wife did, too. Each night, I’d watch, paralyzed, as the woman sat on my chest and touched my face. I’d wake from the nightmare sweating and experiencing pain in my cheeks and chin. Soon after, the kids would start to scream.

Online searches for the identity of the 19th century serial killer have gone through the roof over the years, according to Google’s list of trends. Other trends have started to show up, too.

Facial pain.

Difficulty swallowing.

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder symptoms.

Facial eczema.

Maybe it’s just my own paranoia, which, I admit, is growing by the day, but I can swear people around here are smiling more often. They’re joyless smiles, but smiles nonetheless. My wife, whose stern, no-nonsense expression is legendary at the school where she teaches, now has smile lines creasing the corners of her mouth. And they’re turning redder as the days, weeks, and months go by.

My kids have always been relatively cheerful; even when they’re bored or tired, you can still see a spark of positivity in their eyes. That spark is gone. But their smiles are as wide as ever. Wider, maybe.

The local Connecticut message boards are buzzing about a find someone made regarding the serial killer from 1844. Apparently there was a chest from a Monroe church that had been given to the historical society in the 1980s. It was never opened and remained in the historical society basement for 30 years. The other day, on a whim, someone opened it.

Contained within were the musings of an old nun. Musings on positivity. On happiness. On smiles. And there were drawings of people with impossibly-wide grins.

A knife was found, wrapped in cloth, tucked into the corner of the chest.

This morning, before dawn, I had the dream again. She was on me. For the first time, I noticed the heavy cross around her neck. She caressed my face like she’d always done, but this time her fingernails began to scrape and scratch against my skin. It tickled, then it hurt. It hurt very badly. I tried to struggle, but I couldn’t wake up. I couldn’t get her off. The sound of a bloodcurdling scream exploded through my dream, and I woke up. The woman disappeared.

I looked at my wife in bed next to me. She was screaming as she slept. I watched as the corners of her mouth split, and with a sickening crunch, I heard her jaw dislocate. Blood poured down on the sheets as I grabbed her and tried to pull her out of bed and back into the waking world.

Down the hall, I heard my kids shriek with pain.

A half hour later, we arrived at the hospital. It was full of people bleeding from wounds on their cheeks. Some were worse than others. The place is overwhelmed, and I don’t know what to do. Even as we bleed, we’re all smiling.

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