Ghosts I've Known

My little sister's depression was realer than mine. It was not self-inflicted, but deep and hard-wired and inescapable. Ultimately we could not save her.

People used to say that the dorm I lived in my sophomore year of college was haunted, that there was a ghost in Hewitt Hall. The details were unclear, but the general consensus was that sometime, a while back, a student had taken his life there and now that same unfortunate soul haunted the dormitory. People claimed they saw things: the figure of a young man behind you as you brushed your teeth in the mirror, an apparition that always vanished when you turned around to investigate.

Some reported hearing loud crashes at the end of the hall, bottles breaking, garbage cans being hurled about. One student swore that every time she went into the co-ed bathrooms a faucet would inexplicably turn off and on by itself. But I never saw or heard anything. And I haunted that dorm far more than any ghost.

My time in Hewitt coincided with the height of my depression, a period when I couldn’t sleep for days on end. I’d spend grueling hours lying on my extra-long twin mattress, tracing the arc of the moon across the sky, unable to turn my brain off. It wasn’t a specific affliction that tormented me, so much as a general malaise. In retrospect it seems juvenile, but at the time it was all-consuming.

Eventually I’d grow so frustrated trying to sleep that I would get up from my bed, dress and leave my room. I’d walk around the dorm, daring the ghost to show himself, lingering for long spells at his purported haunts, traipsing silently through the hallways. But he never appeared.

Sometimes I’d sit at the top of the central hill on campus and think about being back home, some two-thousand miles away. Sometimes I’d go for long jogs through the wooded areas that surrounded the school. Mostly I’d go to the nearby Indian Hills cemetery and wander among the old mausoleums and crumbling headstones.

I’d often think about killing myself. Never all that seriously, I suppose, but I did ponder it a lot, with my back propped up against a tombstone. I’d think about how I would do it, who would find me, who would show up to my funeral, who would feel bad for how they treated me, who would remember me, who would forget. How my family would respond. It was childish and aimlessly vindictive. There’d be no doubt about who haunted Hewitt then.

When the sun started to rise over the cemetery, I’d rouse myself, go back to my dorm and shower, preparing for another somnambulant day of classes. I’d wonder what about becoming a ghost appealed to me. And I’d think about Old Man Toad.

Every camp has his equivalent: a spirit that both watches over and haunts the campgrounds. At my summer camp in Conifer, Colorado, it was Old Man Toad, a frog-like creature the size of a small human who was purported to live in the area and served as the camp’s mascot of sorts. A large, wooden statue of him greeted you as you pulled through the gates into camp. His face was carved into fence posts and adorned our annual T-shirts. All the kids at the camp were obsessed with him. His occasional appearances sent us into shrieking convulsions.

There you’d be, shooting an arrow into a target draped over a giant hay bale, swimming in the lake, or elbow-deep in pipe cleaners and beads at the arts and craft barn when suddenly someone in the distance would scream, “Old Man Toad!” You would immediately drop whatever you were doing and run toward the yelling. If you were lucky, if you had gotten there in time, you’d catch a glimpse of the old fella: a sheet with holes cut out for eyes darting through camp, hurling candy at the growing cluster of children in his wake. Sometimes he’d rip through camp in a VW van, a trusty accomplice driving while he sat in the back, sliding the van door open, tossing handfuls of his signature candy. We would tear after him as fast as our little elementary-school legs would carry us but we could never catch him.

According to tradition, Old Man Toad lived in an old school bus up near a collection of enormous stones we called the Elephant Rocks, on the far part of the campgrounds. You could hike up there. You weren’t technically supposed to, but the counselors looked the other way. They knew what they were doing, the mythos they were cultivating. We’d sneak off in small groups there and dare each other to touch the school bus door, to jiggle it and try and open it. It was always locked, but the mere act of confirming that it was there would send us sprinting back towards camp, squealing in paroxysms of danger and delight.

“He was in there! I swear to God he was in there!”

“Well go back there tonight! We’ll see him at night!”

But we never did. We were too afraid or too enchanted with the legend. Old Man Toad represented the unknown, the mysterious. Scary, but never dangerous. He was our first window into the abyss.

One afternoon, the whole camp was gathered for some sort of presentation near the main cabin when suddenly Old Man Toad came darting through the crowd, a white blur, close enough to touch. We jumped up and scurried after him as he charged towards the lake and launched himself off the dock. Then, something amazing happened. Within seconds he was on the far side of the enormous lake, clambering through the reeds and sprinting into the forest beyond, up towards the fabled Elephant Rocks.

The older campers always suspected it was the counselors masquerading as Old Man Toad the whole time, a cynical theory that trickled all the way down to the youngest campers. But if that was true, how could they explain what we just saw? The creature that had just been so close to us, so tantalizingly within reach, was now separated by an entire lake, some three hundred yards away, at least. It had been only a few seconds.

No, to swim through a lake that fast you’d have to be part … toad.

Many years later, after a brief stint as a counselor in training, I realized that one counselor, wearing the signature Old Man Toad sheet, must have jumped into the lake and then swam underwater back beneath the dock. Meanwhile another counselor, clad in the same sheet, waited on the far side of the lake, ready to pop up out of the reeds and sprint for the hills. It was high camp theater, executed perfectly to leave a generation of Colorado campers in awe of that bogeyman, Old Man Toad.

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Adam Cayton-Holland is a writer and comedian based in Denver, Colorado.

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