This story is by Robert Smiley and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I can’t believe we’re breaking into a prison,” Erica said as Vince used his bolt cutter on the chains.
“A prison that’s been abandoned for fifty years.”
“Still counts as a prison break,” Erica sang. “We’re gonna get so many views.”
“Okay, we’re in.”
Erica pulled up her vlog camera. She checked her makeup and pressed record. “What up, Horror Nation! Erica and Vince here, with exclusive access to your terror needs. We are here in Idaho, state forty-three of our fifty-state tour of the most haunted places across the US. So, what is the potato state’s most terrifying location? The Old Idaho Penitentiary: an Old West jail that lasted a century until the 1970s. We have buildings that haven’t been renovated since the cowboys were around and modernish prison cells. There are gallows, a solitary confinement building nicknamed Siberia, and death row.”
“‘But what of the ghosts?’ I hear you poor viewers crying. The prison had 129 deaths, including murders, suicides, and ten executions. These ghosts range from Old West outlaws to serial killers, assassins, and black widows. That’s right, a co-ed prison. Most infamously of all, Raymond Snowden brutally stabbed a poor girl twenty-nine times with a pocketknife. He severed her spinal cord and cut off, uh, intimate parts of her. Folks claim that dozens of their evil spirits still reside in the penitentiary. Will we see any of these doomed souls?”
Vince and Erica walked through the penitentiary entrance. The sandstone walls enclosing the prison were peppered with turrets and parapets — a medieval castle surrounded by prairie.
“We’ve reached our first haunted tour stop: the Rose Garden. Here’s where the gallows were built during the Old West. Visitors claim they see cowboys hanging from their necks. All while the other prisoners ignore them and tend to their gardens.”
The rose garden was meticulously maintained and decidedly not paranormal. A shame.
“Whoa, babe,” Vince said.
“Check out the EMF. It’s going crazy.”
Obviously. There was electricity in the penitentiary for the tours. Oh well, better act it up for the cameras. “Wow!”
“I think it might be a class three poltergeist.”
Erica tried to stop the eye roll. “Vince. Stop trying to make a categorization for ghosts. It sounds stupid.”
“But babe, the viewers love my classifications. Don’t you guys?”
“I’m editing this out.”
“Are you kidding? The viewers love when we playfight.”
“Playfi-” Erica stopped herself. Never go into business with your significant other because then it won’t be a financial risk to break up with them. “Let’s take a trip to Siberia.”
Solitary confinement was on the East side of the prison. Vince and Erica walked past derelict buildings. The architecture was reminiscent of the Alamo, except with rusted iron bars coving every window. The night was silent, but that didn’t surprise Erica. Some places give off such an intense aura of death and evil that even birds and insects avoid it.
“We’ve reached the second stop of our tour: Siberia.” Erica panned the camera over a steel door with metal bars over it. She pointed to a doggy door-sized opening, the cell’s only light source. “The room was 3’x8’ and only had a bucket. Most prisoners went insane. In fact-”
“What the hell was that?” Erica whispered.
“Sounds like a class 4-”
“Goddammit, Vince. Stop. What was that?”
“A ghost,” Vince said in his spookiest voice. “Doomed to spend his eternal death trapped in the prison he died in.”
“I’m serious. What was that?”
“Really,” Vince said. “You need to stop breaking character. You’re ruining takes. It sounded like metal scraping against metal.”
“Maybe,” Erica said, holding the crucifix around her neck. She composed herself. “And we’re live. I think we just heard one of Siberia’s legendary screams. Folks claim… do you hear that?”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“I just said there wasn’t plumbing, only a bucket.” Erica followed the noise. “It’s coming from the cell.” She put her ear against the wall. There was another noise in between the drips. Rhythmic, shallow noise. Breathing.
Erica leaped from the door. “Someone’s in the room,” she hissed. “Crying.”
“Check the opening.”
Erica stared at the pitch-black maw at the bottom of the door. Slowly, she dropped onto her knees and shone the camera’s flashlight into the cell. The sobbing continued, but she couldn’t see anyone.
Reluctantly, she inched her way toward the door. Heart pounding, she held her breath. So did the thing inside the cell. Erica shined the flashlight around the cell. “Empty.” As she got back onto her feet, the crying started again. Erica ran.
“What? Babe, wait up.”
“I’m going to the car and driving the hell away from here.”
“We have to finish the shoot.”
“That was a ghost!”
“You saw something?”
“No, but I heard something.”
Vince grabbed her arm. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. We’ve been to what, forty-two of the most haunted places in the country? There’s never been anything more than some scary noises.”
Erica’s heartbeat slowed. “Maybe, you’re right.”
The moment she entered Cell House No. 5, she regretted her decision. The narrow hallways and cells, the turquoise paint peeling off the interior, the rusted-over stairs: this place was cursed. It was as if the very walls had absorbed the century of death and despair. “The third stop of our tour,” Erica squeaked. She cleared her throat. “Maximum Security and Death Row. Our final stop is at the end of our building, the execution chamber. But first…” Erica trailed off. She clutched her cross pendant. “My crucifix feels like it’s on fire.”
“Babe, it was like a hundred degrees today. Of course, it’s hot.”
“R-right. That, uh, brings me to the next point about why this place is so haunted. The sandstone absorbed heat in the summer and let it escape in the winter. These extreme temperatures violated basic human rights.” Erica stepped into an open cell for the camera to have a closer look. Wham. The cell door locked behind her.
“Erica,” Vince bellowed. He pulled on the bars, but they wouldn’t budge.
“Get me out of here!” Erica screamed as she desperately shook them.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Shadows in her peripheral moved. “There’s something in here,” she sobbed.
With a metallic groan, the cell door opened, and Erica fell into Vince’s arms.
“You okay?” Vince asked. “That was kinda crazy.”
“Crazy! I almost died.”
Vince scoffed. “Don’t be dramatic; it was just a door malfunction.”
“But the gho-”
“Your mind’s playing tricks on you. I could see everything that happened in the cell, and nothing else was in there.”
“There was!” Erica disconnected herself from Vince. “Don’t you get what’s different this time? We don’t have permission to be here.”
“Yeah, well, the city was being stupid about it. C’mon, you can’t film scary scenes in daylight.”
Erica shook her head. “No, we committed the cardinal sin of ghost stories: we broke into haunted ground. We have to get out of here!”
“The execution chamber is right up the stairs. It’s the grand finale. C’mon, we’ve been teasing the viewers about it the whole time, and they’ll get upset if we chicken out.”
“I’m not going anywhere near there. Raymond Snowden was an absolute psycho, and his death was as ugly as it gets. A mechanical failure somehow blew out all the windows in the execution chamber. Snowden’s neck didn’t break, and the noose slowly suffocated him. It took him fifteen minutes to die. If that doesn’t create an evil spirit, I don’t know what does.”
“God, viewers will eat this up.” Vince grabbed the camera. “Fine, you stay here, and I’ll finish this.”
“Don’t leave me!”
Vince ignored her and walked up the stairs out of sight.
The prison hallway grew silent. Erica turned on the flashlight on her phone. The light cast long shadows. She swore something moved just outside of the beam’s path, but nothing was ever there. Skittering noises came from the floor above her. Erica’s heart was beating so fast she almost didn’t hear the whispers. She held her breath and listened to what they were saying.
Erica booked it to the exit and didn’t dare look behind her. Something followed. She could hear the unmistakable sound of bare feet slapping against the concrete. And it was catching up.
The exit opened, and a bright light blinded Erica. She ran into somebody, a solid somebody.
The policeman arrested Erica for trespassing. She and Vince had tripped the silent alarm when they broke in. Erica didn’t care. She was just glad to be out of there.
“You said your boyfriend was with you?” the cop asked.
“Yes, please find him.”
“We searched the whole prison and only found this.” The cop held up the camera, broken and bloodied. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him. It’s not like he could have escaped.”