The doors were too close together. That’s what they’d said. So close together that a visiting substitute teacher had mistaken the school’s cellar door for that of the office and plunged down the stairs to her death.
That was the story we’d always heard, anyway. The one that was told and retold whenever new students first learned of what had become known as The Cellar Witch.
Watertown Elementary was a single-story brick schoolhouse built in 1950. Before that, it was farm land owned by the Hendershot family. After old man Hendershot died one sweltering day plowing the back forty, his widow realized she could no longer maintain the farm, so she sold the land to the school district and moved to Florida.
Watertown was a rural area; the road going past the school had only recently been paved. Still, the town had a real Main Street with a fire station, post office and bustling general store. Across the road from the school was a decrepit one-room church with a sprawling graveyard at its side. Some of its markers dated back to the Civil War, and many were so weathered and worn as to be illegible. Having a graveyard directly across the road, an unavoidable sight from the playground and every classroom window, naturally a few ghost stories would be concocted, though none so elaborate as the tales of the Cellar Witch.
The school was a long building with four classrooms. First and second graders shared a classroom with a single teacher, and so on up to the eighth grade. There was an additional classroom used for music and art classes and a gymnasium, although it could only be called that in the loosest sense. The gym itself was maybe twenty feet wide and sixty feet long, with no seating of any kind. During basketball games, spectators had a width of about one foot to stand against the wall and hope to not get beaned in the head by an errant pass.
The school’s office was also small, connected to a modest library. When the library started to outgrow it’s closet-like space, more shelves were added in the cafeteria.
And there was one more part of the school…the cellar.
Beside the office door was another nearly identical one that led down to a musty, dirt-floored basement. The stairs were shallow and steep, and creaked as if they’d had something important to say for a very, very long time.
The cellar itself did not span the entire length of the school. It was about the size of the gymnasium, with bare light bulbs hanging a few feet apart from exposed rafters. Used mostly for storage, the cellar’s shelves were like a timeline of the school’s history. Old holiday decorations, signs from charity carnivals, props from school plays and outdated textbooks lined its walls. At the far end were stacks of old wooden folding chairs used for events and presentations in the gymnasium, until they were all replaced by metal ones. At the opposite corner was the school’s boiler which provided heat (most of the time) to the classrooms.
The legend of the Cellar Witch was born in the winter of 1955. A nasty flu bug was making its rounds and the first and second grade teacher, Mrs. Hill, had been unable to avoid it. In her place, the school brought in a substitute, Mrs. Agatha Stubbs, a 66-year-old former librarian. She was a widow living off her husband’s veterans benefits and thought becoming involved in the school would help pass the lonely days.
It was a bitterly cold February morning when Mrs. Stubbs first arrived at Watertown Elementary. Even before the students had started filing in, she had complained to another teacher that her classroom was absolutely frigid. She was assured it would warm up as the morning wore on. So Mrs. Stubbs went back to her room and put on an extra sweater.
Well into her lessons, she still could not get warm, even though her students seemed unaffected. When the 10am recess bell rang and the children began to file out the door, all bundled up and ready for some snowball warfare, she decided she’d had enough of the cold. The school heating was controlled by one central thermostat located in the office, so she tightened her sweater and headed down the hall. She never returned.
Agatha Stubbs’ crumpled body was found at the bottom of the cellar stairs by Fred Norman, the school janitor. As he lay down her arm, certain there was no pulse, the recess bell rang once again. He’d not thought to close the cellar door behind him, and now dozens of children, age 6 through 13, were all filing past. He raced up the steps two at a time to close the door, but not before a handful of kids had gotten a glimpse of the scene.
The doors were too close together, they started saying after the incident. Mrs. Stubbs, on her way to complain of the cold, had mistaken the cellar door for the office, and in what must have been the briefest moment of confusion and terror, found herself falling through the musty blackness and crashing down the creaky wooden stairs. Everyone agreed she must have broken her neck nearly instantly, so she likely didn’t suffer. At least that’s what everyone wanted to believe.
Soon afterwards, the office door was replaced by one with a large frosted window and a large plaque reading: ‘OFFICE’. It was also mandated that the cellar door remain locked at all times, with only the janitor and the principal having the keys.
At first, nobody seemed eager to talk about the matter. But given the distance of time, stories began to percolate. And like a decades-long game of “telephone”, the tales were embellished and shaped, until they made their way to my ears when I’d transferred to Watertown in the fourth grade.
I’ve always loved a good ghost story, even as a kid. I’d beg my parents to stay up to watch the latest episode of “That’s Incredible” to see segments on UFO’s and haunted toy stores. And though I’d often have dreams so vivid I’d fall out of bed, I couldn’t get enough of it. So when I started hearing stories of Watertown’s “Cellar Witch”, naturally I absorbed it all like a sponge.
The stories were all over the map, depending on the storyteller, but the core of it was simple and undisputed: the ghost of a dead teacher had been haunting the school for thirty years.
Most stories were fairly benign, almost comforting. They said the ghost of Mrs. Stubbs roamed the halls of the school day and night, constantly shivering, never again able to feel warmth. She was on an eternal quest to the office to ask someone to turn up the heat. On particularly cold days, classrooms would get so hot, students would just shrug and say, “Mrs. Stubbs just cranked up the heat again.” Over the years, the thermostat had been replaced multiple times, and a brand new gas furnace system installed. Yet nobody could explain the wild, spontaneous temperature shifts.
Some also said that if you were out in the hall while classes were in session and it was very quiet, you could put your ear to the cellar door and hear the wooden stairs creak as if someone were pacing up and down. Up and down. I have to admit, I was never brave enough to try for myself, but was more than eager to believe every word of it.
Some tales were more sinister. They painted the ghost as a bitter, angry creature who blamed the school for her death. She lurks in the cellar, shivering from some phantom chill, waiting for one of us unsuspecting kids to venture into her lair. What would the Cellar Witch do if she could get you in her clutches? None of us were sure, nor were anxious to find out.
For years, the metal folding chairs for assemblies were stored in stacks in the cellar. Over time, students refused to go down there, so the staff was forced to move them upstairs into a room formerly used to store band equipment. By the time I was enrolled at Watertown, nobody but Fred Norman, still the custodian, would venture into the cellar’s depths.
Agatha Stubbs was buried in the graveyard across from the school, which only served to fuel the stories. It was said that her ghost passed back and forth between her grave and the school’s cellar via some secret passage, which of course no one could prove actually existed.
Yet, for the most part, the legend of the Cellar Witch was all in good fun, an excuse to sit around and tell ghost stories and scare the first graders during rainy recesses.
Until the tornado came.
We were no strangers to tornado drills, usually one or two per semester. We’d open the windows and hunker down on our knees along the outer walls with our hands over our heads. Apparently, opening the windows helped equalize air pressure and reduce the chances of the glass shattering inward, or some such nonsense.
One summer afternoon, we were jolted from our studies by the clanging of the school bell in a pattern the teachers all recognized to signify a tornado drill. Only, they had no knowledge of a drill scheduled for that day. I was in sixth grade at that time and our teacher, Mrs. Clark, hurried out into the hallway to see what was going on. Within seconds she came back to the room and calmly announced that a tornado was coming. Before she could say much more, we all started to get up and assume our normal tornado drill positions.
“No,” she said. “They want us all to go to the cellar.”
We all froze. The cellar? Didn’t they know what was down there? Is it possible the staff hadn’t heard any of the stories?
While we all stood stunned, she said, “Just follow the seventh graders. I’ll open the windows and be right behind you.”
We slowly filed out into the hallway where the seventh and eighth-graders had already formed a line at the cellar door. They, too, looked apprehensive, exchanging worried looks with their classmates. Fred Norman was at the door, unlocking it with the comically large set of keys he always had latched to his belt. I can’t be sure, but I thought he’d looked a little worried himself. No doubt it was out of concern about the impending tornado, but at the time, I was sure it was something else on his mind.
The cellar door swung open silently and beyond it, total darkness. It was as if it was a doorway to nowhere, a black hole centered inside a tiny rural schoolhouse. Then, the custodian flicked a switch and the blackness gave way to, well, not-so-blackness. A single bare bulb hung at the foot of the stairs, to the right of which was another open doorway leading into the cellar itself. We all knew the stories, and it was as if this single, stark bulb was a grim spotlight on the exact location of Mrs. Stubbs’ demise.
The line of students ahead of me started slowly down the stairs, which unleashed a series of creaks and groans, of which any respectable haunted house would be envious. I remember thinking, this had better be one big tornado to get us all crammed into the cellar. As it turns out, it was. The biggest twister the area had ever seen had just been spotted, and since the cellar had no windows, the principal had deemed it the safest location.
As I stepped through the door and made my way down, step by step, I realized I’d never been down here before. Everything I knew of this place was via rumor and hearsay. For all I knew, nobody had even died here at all. But this wasn’t the time for rational thought. As I made my way down, I believed every story about the Cellar Witch I’d ever heard, and was already conjuring new scenarios in my head.
As I neared the bottom, I noticed several students where stopping on the last step and then jumping into the open doorway to the right. Then I realized why; nobody wanted to step on the spot where the Cellar Witch died. Neither did I, so I did likewise.
On the way down, I hadn’t noticed any particular smell, but once inside the actual cellar, an overwhelming damp mustiness hit me in the face. The atmosphere was what I’d imagined an ancient crypt to smell like, as if no living soul had broken the seal in a thousand years. But that was ridiculous. Fred Norman had probably come down here at least once a day during the winter to check on the furnace. But again, on this day, rational thought was out the window.
Students were being lined up along the edges of the cellar, sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor, facing the walls. The room was big enough, and there were few enough of us that we were only lined up a couple rows deep. I was somehow positioned at the end of a row furthest from the stairs. Behind me sat the iron hulk of the school’s original boiler, looking like part of some giant locomotive that would never again ride the rails. I wondered how long it had been since someone had stoked its firebox.
The teachers and other staff were moving up and down the rows of kids making sure everything was orderly, and soon we had all assumed our positions. The bulbs hanging from the ceiling afforded enough light to see by, but glowed a dull yellow that cast bizarre shadows around the room. A tangled stack of wooden folding chairs in one corner created shadows resembling a giant spider on the cinder block walls. Another shadow loomed like a huge gargoyle, cast by a plywood cutout of a waving Santa Claus.
While the staff attempted to enforce “no talking”, there was a persistent murmur amongst the rows, particularly between the older kids. A few of them thought it would be funny to scare the younger ones and began to talk about the Cellar Witch just loud enough for them to hear. At that point, Rodney Gill, the eighth grade bully, shouted, “It’s the witch! She’s here!”. This led to a wave of screams cascading through the stuffy room and teachers trying to calm down the younger kids.
Mr. Shaw, the eighth grade teacher, had just started towards the prankster with gritted teeth, grumbling, “Mr. Gill…” when we all became aware of the dull roaring sound coming from above us. It was as if a diesel train was rumbling past, right above our heads. The ground began to vibrate, and tendrils of dust began to fall from the beams above. The bare bulbs swung slowly in small circles, bringing the shadows around the room to animated life.
We began to hear crashes and breaking glass from above. It sounded as if the whole place were about to fall down around us. The teachers shouted over the noise, telling us to stay down with our hands over the backs of our heads. A few were comforting the smaller kids. As the last of the staff crossed the cellar threshold, Fred Norman and Mr. Shaw struggled to close the cellar’s heavy door. It made its own deep, bellowing sound as it scraped across the dusty floor, having likely not been closed in decades. It finally slammed shut and a large crossbar dropped to lock us in.
Despite the maelstrom above, a distinct thought seeped into my kid’s brain. We’re locked in the cellar. With her.
I’ll never know for sure why I turned around. Perhaps something tickling my ear. The feel of a soft hand on my shoulder, I don’t know. But as I turned around, I noticed something I hadn’t, in the midst of being herded into the dingy room.
At the far wall, a few bricks had been shaken loose by the storm’s vibrations, revealing a large hole. Beyond it, complete darkness. As I watched, more and more bricks started to fall away, and I will swear to my dying breath that I caught a glimpse of something moving in that blackness. A figure.
At that moment, as another wave of intense crashing came from above, the hanging bulbs flickered. Once. Twice. After a collective gasp from the room, they went out for good.
Have you ever been in complete and total darkness? It’s suffocating. You can’t see an inch in front of your face. The world seems to close in on you, and even in a room full of people, you are now utterly alone. I thought I would surely die of a heart attack right then and there.
The blackness was then pierced by first one beam of light, then another, as the custodian and another teacher lit flashlights. The little kids were still screaming, but it was all melding into white noise by then.
Another monstrous roar from above and something was suddenly different. Rays of weak light were peaking through the floorboards over head. One of the teachers yelled something I couldn’t make out, but I knew what it was. The school had just been ripped off its foundation, allowing the dim daylight to reach into the cellar.
I looked back, and the bricks in the far wall had all fallen away. Where there was once darkness now was a faint glow, revealing what looked to be some sort of passageway.
I looked back and Mr. Shaw and Mrs. Clark were having a heated argument. She wanted to open the cellar door and evacuate everyone outside before the floor above caved in. He was saying something about it being safer down here.
I looked back at the tunnel opening and jumped up. A teacher shouted at me to assume my position, but I ran past her, grabbing Mr. Shaw’s arm. He turned and was about to tell me the same thing, when he saw what I was frantically pointing at.
“It’s a tunnel, come on!” I shouted.
Fred Norman looked up, shined his flashlight in that direction and said, “I’ll be damned. There is a tunnel down here!”
“Where does it go?” Mr. Shaw asked.
“Who cares? It leads to anywhere but here!”
Mr. Shaw clenched his jaw for a moment, then said, “Okay, everyone, stand up!”
A young teacher named Ms. Sandford said, “What are you doing?”
“We’re getting out of here before this place collapses,” Mr. Shaw replied, making his way to the tunnel entrance. “Everyone line up and follow me,” he said, waiving his flashlight into the opening in the wall that wasn’t there twenty minutes before.
We all lined up and pushed our way to the tunnel, none of us wanting to be left behind to the mercy of either the storm or the Cellar Witch. The wind continued to howl above us.
Once into the tunnel, our way was illuminated by a light source of unknown origin. It seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. Several yards into the tunnel, I looked back. The custodian was making sure the last kid, one of the third-graders, was through the opening. As he took a last look around the room, there was a massive cracking and splintering overhead as what was left of our one-story schoolhouse crashed down into the cellar. Mr. Norman was enveloped in debris and smoke, and the tunnel entrance collapsed in a heap of billowing rubble. I was the only one to see it.
We kept pushing forward until we’d reached another door. It took a couple teachers to put all their weight against it, but it gave way and we all filed into what looked to be another basement. The storm had dissipated during our underground journey, and Mr. Shaw made his way up a set of rickety wooden stairs. A minute or two later, he returned, saying the storm had miraculously moved on. We all filed up the stairs. I knew immediately where we were: the old church across the road from our school.
As it turned out, the fabled tunnel linking the school with the graveyard was real. We never learned of its purpose or who built it, though there was no shortage of speculation. What us kids did know was that the Cellar Witch used it to wander back and forth from her grave to the school.
As we emerged from the church, which was mysteriously unscathed, we saw the fate of our schoolhouse. One half had collapsed and the other was gone. No debris, just gone.
Poor, faithful Mr. Norman was the storm’s only casualty. In fact, the tornado seemed to have targeted our school specifically. Very little property damage was reported elsewhere in town. It was as if a school-devouring monster had descended from the sky, ate its fill, and went back to where it came from, stuffed and satisfied.
As for us kids, we all got transferred to the next closest school in the district. Not much changed except our daily commute on the bus. The school sat untouched for many years before eventually being bulldozed. The cellar was filled in and the entire lot was converted to a public baseball diamond, dubbed “Norman Field”.
But the legend of the Cellar Witch lived on. Only now, it had taken on a less ominous tone. We all realized it was Mrs. Stubbs that had saved us that day. She got my attention. She lit our way. She’d been looking after us all along.
Now, my kids tell stories of the ghost of an old teacher and former custodian that haunt the graveyard and watch over us during ball games.
Sometimes folks report seeing them walking the field together just before a summer storm.