On Saturday night, Aug. 31, 1996, seven people — three adults and four children — drowned in John D. Long Lake near Union. The tragedy was news in itself, but its national poignancy came from its happening exactly where Susan Smith, now in prison for life, let her two children drown on Oct. 24, 1994 (20 years ago).
In a bizarre and irony-wrought sequel to the Smith horror story, a 1987 GMC Suburban rolled past the granite monument to Michael and Alex Smith and into the lake. It was found in 20 feet of water 80 feet from shore, turned over on its top. The four children and the driver inside were dead, as were two other adult passengers who were outside the car when it rolled but who dived after it trying to save the children. The ignition key was still on when it was found, but the gear shift was positioned in “Park.”
Much speculation surrounding the event focused on why the group was there in the first place. The simplest answer was to be the most logical. It was a pleasant summer evening, the party had been to a Saturday cookout, it was still early when it ended, and the lake was only 10 miles away from the cookout.
Curiosity and time to waste probably drew them there, as they will draw others to the place they died.
The nature of human beings is to be fascinated with death-places.
Battlefields at Gettysburg and Shiloh, Manassas and Antietam, Little Big Horn and the Alamo attract millions of visitors each year. So do cemeteries and monuments.
Thousands visit Ford’s Theater in Washington where Lincoln died, the Texas Depository in Dallas where John Kennedy died, the motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR died.
The altar of the chapel at Washington and Lee University is a full-sized recumbent statue of Lee, who actually rests with his family in a mausoleum beneath the chapel. Visitors to this tomb can also visit Lee’s horse, buried outside and next to the chapel after many years of being displayed downstairs as a skeleton, and Stonewall Jackson’s grave is only a few blocks away.
The waiting lines to walk by the shag-carpeted bathroom of Graceland where Elvis died are still long, decades after his death, as are the lines at the Roy Rogers museum in California wherein are displayed Roy’s stuffed horse, Trigger, Dale Evans’ stuffed horse, Buttermilk, and Roy’s stuffed dog, Bullet.
Over in merry Britain, a venerable university requires that a respected scholar, Jeremy Bentham, attend meetings of the governing board. Bentham died in 1832, but his preserved body duly makes an annual appearance — seated.
The most memorable Christmas Story, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” is actually a ghost story, in which Marley’s Ghost is followed by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet To Come into Scrooge’s bedroom and imagination, and the most riveting scene of all takes place at his imagined grave.
What is this attraction the macabre holds for us?
I have a theory that seems a plausible explanation. It is stimulated by having seen the Halloween merchandise being put out at the local stores during Labor Day weekend.
Most of us grew up hearing and telling ghost stories. Around the Cub Scout and Brownie and Sunday evening church youth group campfires of our impressionable youth, we heard of reappearing dead girls dressed in white graduation dresses on lonely nighttime highways and of headless horsemen chasing teachers out of town. We early become accustomed to death and to hooking it to hovering spirits and misty evenings.
Our early childhood linkages linger with us as we age, even when we have become educated and logical and skeptical, seemingly in control of our emotions. In adult days, spirits still beckon, their crooked fingers snaring us like fish drawn to hooks.
I have never visited Graceland, nor wanted to, but a few summers ago my wife and I drove 600 miles to Memphis to view the coffin of an Egyptian pharaoh. And we plan to drive it again to see relics dredged up from the Titanic.
There’s something haunting about being humanly curious.