Of all the spooky places you could visit in Salem, Massachusetts, the old Joseph White House on Essex Street was one of the most frightening. It had a storied past including a gruesome murder. But, the real reason that particular house terrified residents was because of its owner, Vaughn Keating. In a city known for its controversial history and colorful characters, Keating was Salem’s most famous living resident. Thirty years ago the illustrious photographer had risen to the top of the tabloids with his infamous pictures of dug-up graves and decomposing bodies. He denied ever having anything to do with the actual grave robbing and was never officially charged. As the photos only helped to feed Salem’s ghastly appetite and bring in more tourists, the crime had practically been laughed off, as have all of the rumors of Keating’s misdeeds since. He reached mythical status in the city and the stories about him bloomed. He had constantly found himself in the center of unusual situations. Once, two recently photographed clients of his went missing, only to be found later in pieces all over the city. Pets who had the misfortune of living near his studio had wandered too close and disappeared. Neighbors had moved after complaints of his oddities fell on deaf city ears. The list went on and on. He was a legend.
Somehow, on that warm June day I found myself on his doorstep. The first time I met the old man I immediately had chills. There was something ominous and terrifying about him. His eyes, like high-powered drills, immediately bore into my skull. Like a toddler staring up at the sun I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. When I did, I felt cornered and trapped and had to glance back to be sure he was there. He was straight out of a photography exhibit himself. Tragic experiences hung like war wounds in the weathered wrinkles of the man’s famous face. Instead of brightening up at the sight of me, like elderly people and babies often did, the old man seemed to darken, and the slightest shadow of a sinister smile appeared above his white bearded chin. “You are Geoffrey.” The old man hissed, and I nodded even though it wasn’t a question. “Come in.” Every instinct in my body warned me against it, but I found myself entering the house anyway with an increased awareness of immense danger. Of course he knew my name, I had won a photography contest. He was the prize. I was leery about the experience, but my mother and my art teacher had convinced me. They had pushed and pushed and pushed and as a result I was in the lair of some sort of monster.
There was a familiar, yet slightly unwelcoming stench lingering throughout the house. It was like walking into a cave. Immediately my eyes were overwhelmed with darkness and when they did come into focus what I saw was horrifying. The pictures in the house were grotesque; body parts, death. I tried not to stare at them. A black and white photo with a crystal clear image of a freshly dead corpse swinging from a rope hung next to the chair I was offered. I looked and then immediately swung my head away.
“You don’t like my pictures.”
“I do. I’m just not used to them yet?” I wanted to throw up. He laughed slightly and moved in closer.
“How old are you?”
“I see.” He was examining me closely possibly pondering what I looked like chopped up and bloody. “Coffee?”
“Sure.” I didn’t even drink coffee, but choked it down as he explained to me what he had in mind for this arrangement.
Then, I became his apprentice, just as the contest had promised. I know it sounds far-fetched, but in the beginning the position was unexpectedly easy and he was surprisingly pleasant. On the rare days when we were going on a shoot, I lugged ridiculously heavy equipment into his van and used very specific checklists to be certain we were prepared for the type of assignment we were undertaking. We had some bizarre projects: family photo shoots with one last picture of a deceased loved one, expired pets before they were cremated, murder reenactments. He sent me to interact with the living, as he set up cameras for the dead and fake dead. With a natural knack I was unaware even existed, I negotiated with clients and gently demanded the odd requests he was known for. He was peculiar and only drank certain herbal teas and rare coffees, and nibbled on mushrooms and oysters. His customers seemed to love these eccentricities, as it added to his mystique and somehow justified his celebrity status and celebrity price. Of course the end result was nothing less than extraordinary.
Most days we were in the studio, preparing beautiful, but creepy photos. He did not embrace digital photography and we spent many hours in the dark room. He was patient and understanding with me as he took the time to try and squeeze out any raw underlying talent I was hiding. He spoke little when we worked, but occasionally asked probing questions. The darkness that I had originally felt from him had apparently softened or I had grown used to it. Honestly I loved the apprenticeship and it seemed I was the luckiest kid in New England. That all changed when I met Sarah.
Halfway through the summer, this stunning woman suddenly showed up at the studio. She was about 10 years older than me and unlike any other girl I had ever met. Like Vaughn’s, Sarah’s eyes were mysterious and inviting. She looked at me like I was the only person in the room. Sarah was probably the most attractive person I had every seen in real life. She seemed to have stepped out of a fashion magazine. She was supposed to be off gallivanting through Europe trying to rediscover herself after her husband’s disappearance almost a year earlier. Her husband was Vaughn’s grandnephew and she had been Vaughn’s assistant for the past 7 years. Her departure was apparently the reason there was a contest to win. Vaughn was was not impressed with her return.
“Why are you back?” He spit at her with a venom I hadn’t heard yet.
“And I thought you would be happy to see me?” She mocked, putting her arms around him.
“You know you shouldn’t be here.” The photographer batted her hands away with the energy of someone half his age.
“Who’s the kid?” She nodded slyly at me.
“My name is…” I blushed and fortunately Vaughn interrupted.
“He’s your replacement and much more useful.” He studied her face for a reaction. “Now if you will excuse us.” He turned and marched out of the room. I followed, but not before stealing another glance. It was worth it. Sarah looked at me in a way no girl in my high school ever had.
“Be careful kid. Don’t worry Vaughn, I’m not going anywhere,” she called out after us with a laugh that dared us to doubt her.
My master, as I had grown accustomed to calling him, was transformed from that point on. His movements became more manic, his eyes more wild and as a whole he was more explosive. He began to mutter to himself. The first few times I actually thought he was talking to me. He would forget to tell me important details of our day and then detonate when I made a misstep. In the matter of a week, my dream job had become hazardous. When he wasn’t berating me, he was locking himself in the forbidden side of the house. There had always been two rooms that were off limits, but it never mattered because he barely used them. Now he was spending most of his time there. He canceled jobs and sent me home three afternoons in a row. Sarah’s effect on the old man was tremendously damaging.
She, however, found it amusing and continued to loiter around his studio even thought it was obviously painful for him to be in the same room with her. She seemed to understand that he was a keg of dynamite waiting to ignite and that she could easily light the fuse. She also managed to maintain just a hint of restraint. Clearly she also realized that pushing him completely over the edge was extremely dangerous. I knew it. It was clear that he was in the midst of the sort of nervous breakdown like ones I had read about in my English classes. He was King Leer. I thought about leaving. It was the logical response. When a building is burning you run out of it. Sarah and Vaughn were bound to destroy each other, so why would I want to witness it?
The answer to that question was Sarah. I can’t explain why or how I was drawn to this woman, but I was. I had never met anyone like her. At first, I despised her for disrupting this magical internship I was having. She was an adult and she acted like a toddler. She threw fits, always had to have the last word and was often downright cruel. I hated that she had forced to Vaughn to withdraw into himself. He was unraveling. She had done this to him and to me. Then as days turned to weeks, something unusual seemed to happen to us. Instead of me being a victim of them, we both seemed to become victims of him. My time at the Captain White House was spent more often with her in the kitchen and less often with Vaughn in the dark room. She began to notice me more and we began to actually have conversations. Her spark for life was contagious. She was funny, intriguing and flirty. I found myself infatuated with this woman. She led me to believe she felt the same way and certainly made it impossible for me to leave.
Summer in Salem isn’t as popular as Halloween, but it is spectacular nonetheless. It is a city by the sea and was once a bustling trade port that at its height rivaled other trade cities like New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. During the summer these maritime traditions are in full swing. Many August weddings happen in Salem and our studio was prepping for a blockbuster. A famous Hollywood filmmaker had chosen the Salem Harbor for its picturesque views and had selected Vaughn Keating as the person destined to capture those images forever. Our client wanted to inject some of Salem’s darker side into his celebration. So, the wedding reception needed to echo the witch scare the city was famous for. Macabre themes were certainly Vaughn’s specialty, particularly now that he was wildly spinning out of control. The filmmaker embraced all of Vaughn’s ideas, such as a traditional séance, blood swapping vows and a fabricated animal sacrifice. But, the absolute epicenter to this spectacle was a gallows in the middle of the outside reception. A tool of death erected for whimsy in a city that at the same time abhorred and celebrated it. It seemed inappropriate, even for Vaughn and it frightened me.
Sarah and I were spending a lot of our time together, which had not gone unnoticed by our manic master. He knew we were together and we knew the danger. Sarah was frightened and no longer attempted to manipulate Vaughn. She stayed away from him. She also shared something I had already suspected. She had an affair with the old man years ago and my beloved employer was the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance. Seeing how insane Vaughn had become, Sarah suddenly began to believe the accusations. I wanted to call the police. She needed proof and we knew where it might be. However, Vaughn rarely left the house. Finally, our chance presented itself the morning of the wedding. While on the site preparing the final morbid details he realized we had forgotten some important lighting equipment and sent me to retrieve it. I called Sarah. Unbeknownst to him, I knew where he kept a spare key to his locked rooms. As soon as we got to the studio, I found the key, fumbled with the lock and opened the door.
The effect was immediate and absolutely terrifying. Just like the pictures in the kitchen, here in this room were Vaughn Keating’s most horrible artistic expressions. There were photos of fresh corpses, body parts, mutilated animals and faces contorted in immense pain. Some pictures featured vivid colors. Others were in dramatic black and white like a Hitchcock film in its climactic scene. The gore and horror washed over us. Then Sarah saw exactly what she thought might be there, a picture of her husband, drowning with one hand around his neck. She screamed and ran out of the room. I pulled out my phone and started after her, when I saw something else. There were pictures of Sarah and I together. Intimate pictures taken when we were convinced we were alone. “Sarah! We need to go!” I panicked and quickly moved toward the kitchen.
My nervousness caused me to drop my phone and it skittered across the kitchen table. As I picked it up, something that made no sense caught me eye and my heart stopped. I was staring straight at the crystal clear picture of the hanging body and I noticed to my absolute horror who the person hanging from the gallows was in the picture. As I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me, I saw something else, the reflection of Vaughn coming from behind me with a rope. Before I could even turn to face him, the noose was around my neck. In the picture, which clearly showed me hanging in crystal clear black and white, I could still see Vaughn’s reflection. As the rope tightened and the world started to get dark, I could now spot Sarah standing next to Vaughn with something in her hand. Still chocking me, Vaughn whispered in my ear, “Thanks kid, because of you this wedding is going to be perfect.” As he finished the last word, a heavy zoom lens came crashing down on his skull. The rope loosened and I gasped in multiple breaths of air. Sarah repeatedly bashed his head in while I caught my breath.
“Enough, enough, Sarah.” I breathed through my damaged throat and picked up my phone. “Let’s call the police.”
“Wait. I have an idea.” She grabbed my hand and looked at me with those deep eyes.
Indeed she did have an idea; an idea that would keep us out of trouble, keep us together for a long time, and keep the business thriving. It seemed appropriate somehow that our master was now part of his own collection. After all, we learned from the best and I love this house.