Sunday, November 7, 2010

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Loon Lake Cemetery: Part One

There is no longer a road, only a quarter mile trail carved into the Minnesota prairie between Robertson County Park and Loon Lake. The cemetery sits on a hill facing east. It was abandoned in 1926, after the last burial, and since has grown cluttered with pricker bushes, tall grass, and black maples. Over 90 bodies are buried at the Loon Lake Cemetery, but only about 20 markers remain. Replacing the damaged and missing headstones is a five-foot wide, three-foot tall, monument the color of red sandstone. Listed on the front and back are the dead. I search the monument for one name, Mary Jane Terwillegar.
Janine Porter states that her great aunt Mary Jane died of diphtheria at the age of eighteen. But the residents of Jackson County say that Mary Jane was beheaded on March 8th 1881 in Petersburg, MN for practicing witchcraft. She was later buried at Loon Lake Cemetery. They call it “The Witches’ Cemetery.” As with any urban legend, there are discrepancies and contradictions. Some say Mary Jane was not beheaded for being a witch, but killed by her father, John Terwillegar, because she was pregnant. Dave Ellefson, the bass player for the slash metal band Megadeth, grew up in Jackson County. He wrote the song “Mary Jane” that appeared on the album So Far, So Good… So What! The lyrics tell the story of a witch who was buried alive.

The details divide and overlap, but when you mention Mary Jane Terwillegar to a resident of Jackson one theme remains consistent. Loon Lake Cemetery is cursed. Some say if you jump across Mary Jane’s grave three times, you will die within a year. Others say Mary Jane is more sensitive, and that she does not allow for three passes, only one.

I asked Seth to accompany me to Loon Lake because I am afraid of getting lost. Loon Lake Cemetery does not have an address, at least not one that I could find. If I can’t put it in my GPS, I don’t go alone. I would like to say that this is because Southern Minnesota is still new to me. I moved to Mankato about a year ago for grad school, but I have always been like this, fearful of traveling alone. It seems strange that I fear becoming lost on some county highway more than exploring a haunted cemetery. But perhaps this is because I have been lost in a strange place, and I understand the fear and confusion that can come from it. Ghosts, on the other hand, are something I have yet to experience.

Seth wears thick-framed glasses, and has waist length dark hair. His beard is mostly neck. A graduate of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran College, Seth often reads from a pocket bible with a binding wrapped in duct tape. It may be a reflection of his job as a college instructor, but Seth always wears slacks and a collared shirt.

Most of our sources are blogs, which causes me to suspect that they are the new platform for urban legends. One in particular is the Paranormal Research & Investigative Studies Midwest, or P.R.I.S.M. The authors of this page performed an extensive study of Loon Lake Cemetery that included Hi-Fi Recordings, Magnetic Recordings, EVP Recordings, and many other “recordings” that I can only assume are used to detect paranormal activity. The results of their testing…inconclusive.

These findings sound so black and white, and I cannot help but think that if there is an inconclusive, there must be a conclusive. Accounts of free moving headstones and ghostly teenage girls in prairie dresses wandering through the cemetery have led me to wonder if the veil between life and death is thinner at Loon Lake. I don’t expect to see a witch, or a ghost, or to feel the disquietude of cold dead eyes, but I am hoping for it.

Seth does not share my logic. His clothing is in contradiction with his hair, much like how his skepticism about ghosts contradicts traveling 90 minutes along Minnesota 60 to visit a haunted cemetery. This trip is the first time we have hung out. Seth told me during the drive that he got in a fight with his girlfriend over Mary Jane’s curse. She thinks it’s something we should take seriously. I think it’s bogus. He said. I wonder why he came. The first time Seth and I spoke he asked, You’re Mormon, Right?

Yes, I said.

What’s up with your guy’s underwear?

This is generally the third or fourth question people ask me after they descover my faith. But Seth is not like that, he is direct and candid, and some people interpret him as tactless. I get the impression that Seth has difficulty making friends, and as he tells me about his skepticism, I wonder if he came because he hopes this trip will cause us to become better friends.

It is 11 AM on October 9th. The sun is shining, something that I believe to be an oddity this time of year in Southern Minnesota. Last year at this time it was a gloomy 20 degrees with a wind chill, but today it is a crisp, still air, 75. I stand about 5’ 7” and the prairie grass surrounding Loon Lake Cemetery comes to my neck. The grass is slim, dense, and rich green with faded brown tips the color of weak chocolate milk. The trail between the cemetery and the dirt parking lot is the width of a double blade lawn mower, and as we walk along it I am fearful that something could be lurking between the tall, heavy, lean blades of grass. Surrounding the cemetery is a weary and ragged chain link fence and as we pass through its opening, I ask Seth if he will challenge the curse and jump three times. He will not answer me.