Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hell Hounds of the Abandoned Cemetery

As I hunch through the underbrush while keeping my cameras from falling into the snow, I’m trying to visualize, then compose, creepy photographs within this inner circle of abandoned mausoleums. Death beneath the permafrost is not as unnerving as the relatively close barking of wild dogs. After half an hour, I hear Veronika call out “Ed!” Then silence. Shit. I call her cell phone—no answer. What the—then my phone rings. It’s her. Christ. I tell her, “Let’s stay close to each other, okay? YOU’RE the one with the tazer!

How did I get myself into this? The question is, how could I NOT get myself into this? The cemetery is so overgrown that it’s essentially a forest. A forest punctuated with monuments, tombstones, and mausoleums—so bizarre, you'd half expect you were on a movie set. The thrill of urban exploration notwithstanding, think of the photographs! In other seasons, the dense foliage of trees and bushware obscure the statuary and granite memorials, to the degree that you must hack your way through the graveyard. Thorns and brambles, full of life, rip your skin right through your clothing. In winter, however, when the foliage is as dead as the bodies below, one finally gets a clear view (through the trees) of all the freakishness of this abandoned 380-acre cemetery.

Ed, as BatBoy
Yesterday morning, as I waited for the Snow Demons to unleash their fury, I pondered whether or not to take my lovely Nikon F3 out into the elements. On most cemetery photographic excursions, the main questions are: which camera(s) to bring? Film or digital? If the former, what kind of film? Tripod? For this visit, my main concern was a different type of equipment—weapons. When I make a trip to one of Philadelphia’s abandoned cemeteries, my concern is more about PPE—Personal Protective Equipment, in healthcare parlance. My own arsenal of PPE consists of an antique ice hook and an aluminum baseball bat. Since I don’t have a license to carry, I usually leave Grandma’s Winchester at home. For the upcoming excursion I didn’t expect to run into any people, what with the snow and lack of hiding places, so I just took the bat. However, as the resident wild pit bulls of Mt. Moriah have definitely NOT gone south for the winter, I asked along a friend with a tazer.

Honestly, I thought they would’ve gone to Lauderdale or something, but last week I saw one of the little scamps trot up the steps and around the back of one of the old mausoleums. Same area, in fact, where this little beauty of a pit bull skull greeted me! So in planning my visit following the storm, I thought a tazer might be in order. If one of the little beasties goes for your leg in the underbrush, you really have no room to swing a bat.

Veronika’s boyfriend gave her the tazer for Christmas—quite the sentimental gift! Part of the reason actually was so that she would have reasonable protection for visits to Mount Moriah Cemetery! Apparently on her last visit, she was alone and exploring the back wooded area when she heard some noises ahead. As she continued to push her way through the thicket, she came upon a shovel, some rope, and bag of lye! Not wishing to be part of some unhappy event, she beat a hasty retreat and hadn’t been back since. Today there is snow—so forgiving, it hides the fact that this cemetery has been degraded to base uses.

So there I was, clambering out from inside the circle of grafittied, blocked-up mausoleums so I could meet back up with her. Almost stepped in a huge groundhog hole, that was burrowed under some granite coping. Its dining area padded down outside the hole, the eerie remains of its dinner scattered on the packed snow. A woodpecker perched strangely close tapping at a small tree. We rejoined and went off in a seemingly rudderless fashion, yet going deeper into the cemetery. Stepping into 2-foot drifts, beautiful blue sky, great light, 35 degrees, packs of wild dogs. What’s not to like? We decided to head off toward the area where she had seen the shovel and other implements of destruction. Then we heard the dogs again—deep, throaty barking—only this time they were closer. We wondered if it would be more dangerous to be attacked in the open or in the woods, but then we figured we’d risk it for the good of photography.

Tunneling under dead vines and pickers, we soon came to what had once been a dynasty (family) plot with a 15-foot high cast iron monumental funerary urn, listing to port in the uneven ground, rusted to the point where little of its original green paint remained. As we were swooning over this find, Veronika looked over my shoulder and froze, saying, “Look….” I turned slowly around to see a pair of small dog-sized creatures turn tail and disappear deeper into the woods. At first glance I thought they were a couple of the pit bull puppies I had seen a few months before, trotting back to alert their over-protective mother. However, Veronika pointed out that these had bushy tails. Hmmm, yeah, couldn't be pit bulls. I tried to convince myself that they were really cute furry red foxes, a scene right out of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.” We joked about the “pit bull foxes” for a half a moment, when we heard the barking again … I had a visceral hallucination of a wild dog clamping its jaws around my ankle. You get distracted from the dangers of this place when you come across some interesting monument to photograph. Then abruptly, all your little nightmares bring you back to reality. Steady, old soldier.

Tracks of attack dogs (right) following Veronika's
Veronika with Taser
Having second thoughts about our second thoughts, we decided it would be safer out in the open. As we plodded up the long snowdrift-filled road around the center wooded area of the grounds, Veronika noticed her footprints from her earlier walk. I humorously noted the three sets of dog tracks alongside hers, and asked if they were there when she entered the area. She said, “No…you think they were…following me?” I intimated that that was a distinct possibility, and asked her if she could keep her tazer out and ready. When she almost lost her balance in a drift, she pointed out that if she dropped the weapon in the snow, it might short out. Even to a pair of intrepid explorers, this scenario lacked appeal.

As we ventured out into the wider open spaces, it became obvious that the dogs were circling us and periodically asserting themselves. At first we would hear the barking chorus. At one point we saw them all together, watching and barking at us from across an open patch of desolate graveyard. Soon after, their relatively close barking startled us—we turned to find them facing us at the end of a snow-filled road. Too far to photograph, but close enough to make out the three of them, different shapes and sizes—junkyard dogs! We were being circled by the Hounds of Hell, Philadelphia branch! Probably got loose from one of those reclamation sites behind the Auto Mall. These were definitely NOT pit bulls, but that did nothing to ease the tension—legend has it that staring into a Hound's eyes causes you to, uh...die.

After the stand-off, we were kind of rattled and were about to call it a day when I realized my Holga (cheap 120mm plastic toy camera) was no longer hanging from my arm. Damn. Must back-track to where we just were, back toward the dogs. I found the lowly Holga mostly buried in the powder (better it than the Nikon). For a camera that allows prodigious light leaks, it seemed to block the snow fairly well! It was getting late. Tired, we plodded through drifts down to my car, loaded the weapons and photo gear in the trunk, and said goodbye to no one. I drove up Cemetery Road past the crumbling gatehouse and off to find some alcohol to steady our nerves.

Gatehouse, Mount Moriah Cemetery
Do I really need this? Why do I keep coming back here? Surely not for the photo ops, which are only marginally interesting, at best. Do I just do it for the thrill of it all, or is there some deep-seated psychological reason? I keep thinking how people continually buy more books than they can possibly read in a lifetime with the subconscious purpose of prolonging that lifetime. Obviously, my obsession has something to do with death—maybe its this: If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be forgotten after you die, visit Mt. Moriah Cemetery.