You know, I used to have a harmonica.
Up in my purple playroom, which later became the current room of this old house that I stay in. I don’t know who brought it home, or where it came from. It just appeared one day, and I started playing with it. Things like that often happened, as my dad was a tractor trailer driver. He went all across the continental US and wasn’t around much when I was a kid. He wasn’t even there for my birth, but away on a job in Florida.
Anyway, I used to play with that harmonica and blow into it for hours up there. Until the inevitable happened and I got creeped out by someone or something lurking inside the room, or heard a noise from the closed storage room directly across. This still happens to this day. It is a creepy room, and it’s not often I hear the steps creaking and then awake from my sleep to find, see, or hear something odd.
I doze back off and ignore it, only for the sound of objects dropping to jar me back awake. I get up, look around, realize nothing happened, and try to doze back off – now more alert and unsettled than normal.
This has gotten better in the past few years, and is not currently happening right now, but it does happen. Along with a few other things I won’t mention.
When I was a kid, aside from traveling with my dad when the jobs were local, I traveled to see my grandma each summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had moved there after my grandpa died. We used to take the Amtrak train and be there in two days’ time. I loved going to the observation car and staring at the red rocks and clay surrounding the train once we hit the southwest. It was almost therapeutic.
I always met others kid on the train, and at night we would sit in the canteen and play card games. I got really good at playing spit and BS from those encounters. If one of us were feeling really edgy that night, we would shout “bullshit” while slapping down a winning hand of cards. Then of course, the person would look around nervously making sure no adult had heard them cuss. This was in the 90s.
Before leaving the train, we exchanged addresses to become pen pals. So much has changed since then. Now if you give a person your address and tell them to write you, they’d no sooner cyberstalk you in addition to being creepy and driving past your house at night. Then when you confront them about it, have the nerve to gaslight you on the issue.
Unless that’s just my experience…
Anyway, these train rides were special. I was always reminded never to get off the train when it stopped to break or refuel, and so I never did. Even if I wanted to take a rock or see what they were selling by the edge of the station. I just stood in the doorway, smelling the air and looking up at the clouds until it was time to go. Later that night I looked for and made new friends, and we played cards, watched movies, and watched the stars in the observation car.
I had always loved that about traveling. Going to bed in one place, and waking up in another. Trains were special to me in that way, and later trucks too. They were modes of transportation that brought people together, linked and connected different worlds.
When you stopped at another station, that was a snapshot into life there. I always looked on from the windows and wondered about the lives of those people. Are they meeting someone? Are they saying goodbye? Are they happy to be returning? Or, do they wish that they could go away forever?
I guess that’s when my love affair with locomotives started. They are fun, and the jostling of the train feels comforting. I also happen to live nearby a train station, and often late at night feel the bed beneath me jostle and shake from a train whizzing by. The station isn’t very active, but of late more trains have been passing by in the dead of night. No whistles or toots of the engine, just shaking and lights passing by in the darkness when I peek out my window. I always wonder what that’s about, but we’ll get into that another time maybe.
Today’s writing music is Black Hill & Scott Snee – On a deserted path. And, we’ll be talking about haunted trains, phantom locomotives, and the like. I’ll be reviewing Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold season 1, episode 8: “The List, Haunted Train”.
For those of you who don’t live in America reading, 90s Nickelodeon cartoons used to be the best thing since Skip-its. Seriously. It gave you a reason to turn on the TV and on weekends get up early to watch the marathon cartoon block. I think the cable channel used to be 33.
The network has fallen since the golden age, Avatar: The Last Airbender being its last great show.
Hey Arnold was always one of my favorites, and it was so nice to hear the theme song again. When I was a kid, the Haunted Train episode scared me to death. It got so bad that each time a train passed by our house at night, I would try and run into my mom’s room. She told me to take the thought, and “throw it out the window”, motioning her hand grabbing her head and then tossing the bad thought outside.
It helped for a while, but for one reason or another, it never stuck. Even to this day I still thought about how terrified I was, so I re-watched the episode and you know what? I am still afraid of it! Haha.
Seriously, I cannot tell you why. The dread settled in my chest around the phantom conductor’s song at the end. I literally sat here, mid-afternoon, wondering why I – someone in my mid to late-ish twenties – is afraid of a cartoon from the 90s.
So if you don’t remember or are unfamiliar with the show, 4th graders Gerald, Helga, and Arnold are bored. Arnold’s Grandpa Phil decides to tell a spooky story on his stoop, to which the neighborhood kids gather around and listen. Because Grandpa has a theme of (mild) neglect going on, he urges the kids to check out the creepy abandoned train station around midnight to look for the mad train conductor ghost. Apparently, the man literally just went mad one day and decided to descent to the underworld.
The kids go, and nothing happens until Arnold starts playing the harmonica while Gerald sings a Blues song. They board the train and events happened just as Grandpa described, or at least they interpret them that way.
It is later revealed that they had boarded a train for local relief steam mill workers, and the old man is called to come get the kids and take them home. Arnold calls Grandpa on his BS during the car ride home, stating that there “is no haunted train.”
Grandpa just ominously remarks “Well…now I didn’t say that” before it cuts to poor Brainy, who had been thrown out the train and into a shallow lake, now sitting on a fence by the train tracks in the dark at midnight.
(Take note, Prim Everdeen. These 4th graders tossed their fellow classmate to his death to presumably drown and thought nothing of it.)
Engine no.25 passes by, and away from Brainy’s peripheral the mad phantom conductor materializes. He plays an accordion, sings a spooky Blues song and in his tragic wardrobe choice smiles as the train begins to derail. Then there is an image of fire reflected in his eyes and the credits roll.
Watching this back, the lights are on in the train car. So, reflecting on what I know now, I assumed this would be a residual haunting. By residual haunting, I mean a traumatic event from the past that has left an energy signature on its location. The event repeats, but those enacting it are unaware of their surroundings. Think about all of those civil war ghost stories from Gettysburg and the like, where certain times of year on certain dates, soldiers storm now current hospital buildings, offices or houses in their original path.
They don’t know what they are doing, and cannot see you. It is just a blending from the past in our present.
Then I thought about it, and wouldn’t it have to be an intelligent haunting if the mad conductor is already aware and anticipating the derailing? In that case, he knows this has happened before and he has changed his behavior accordingly. Think of the Hawaiian night marchers, who lead a procession and if you block it, you are either spirited away or killed unless you have an ancestor in the procession.
So this conductor was actively seeking passengers to bring to hell. I don’t know if his train overlapped with the present train, or if it is something entirely different altogether and his apparition appeared to kill those workers.
It is very vague, and I don’t like it. Especially when Grandpa says passengers are hypnotized with a blinding white light, smell fire and brimstone and then are greeted by the devil themselves upon exit.
Some say they see a white light after near death experiences. Fire and brimstone could be likened to sulfur, as the living human conductor that greeted the children explained. Sulfur is often associated with demons and other low vibrational entities, so if your train were going to hell it would make sense that you would smell the stench of death slowly encumbering you.
Which makes me think…are these unwitting passengers being punished? What if they were never destined to hell to begin with, but simply became entranced by the light and it was never their time to go. Would they be permitted to leave and jump off the train, like Brainy was thrown off? Or would they have to stay there, awaiting their eternal doom?
I know it’s just a children’s cartoon based on an urban legend, but given how many trains I’ve taken in my lifetime and still take – it kind of scares me. You never know when you could potentially board the wrong train, lost in thought at the day’s activities and listening to music. Until it hits you, and you realize you are alone.
All is quiet around you.
The world has stopped, and the only thing still in motion is the hum of a train. Do you wander away, trapping yourself inside this dimensional shift? Or do you board the train, chucking it all up to a daydream gone wrong.
Either way, I don’t want to find out. I hope I never board a phantom train.
There’s no telling where it goes, if it’d let you off, or who else takes it.
☆ In Asian Spaces