The Bel-Air Theater Horror

  When I was 19 I went through a weird transitional stage in my life, although I suppose most people are experiencing many changes during that period of their lives. In my case, I was living in an old house that my grandparents owned, with a revolving cast of my male friends that were staying there for one reason or another. I was also working at a movie theater in Houston and it was a very strange place.

  It had been built sometime in the 1940’s, and retained a lot of the architectural charm that theaters from that era often had. It was independently owned by a man that lived in the surrounding neighborhood, an affluent city called Bellaire, which was completely surrounded by Houston. You had to be careful when crossing into Bellaire, because they had their own over-enthusiastic police department. Despite that fact, the Bel-Air theater was a blast to work at.

  There were five screens in the place – several large rooms, and a couple of smaller screens, too. The ground floor had a bar, and the theater hosted a strange mix of mainstream movies, as well as foreign and independent films. With the exception of the owner, who never seemed to be around, everyone that worked there was pretty young – most of us were still in our teens or early twenties. As one can imagine, this combined with late hours (the theater played midnight movies on some nights) led to all sorts of fun times at the place.

  It was an ideal environment for a weird person perched between being a teen and an adult to work, but there was a catch –  the place was haunted.

  After a couple of shifts,  I noticed that I often felt like I was being watched, and that feeling increased in certain specific parts of the theater after my first week. Our manager noticed that I looked a little creeped out one evening, and said “Oh, you noticed this place is haunted.” He then explained that everyone noticed the creepy atmosphere the theater had after being there a while.

   What was really strange was that everyone seemed to have very similar experiences. Even trying to explain some of the stories away by reasoning that people will project stuff after they’re told a place is haunted didn’t explain the similarity in what people seemed to experience, and it didn’t explain why patrons with no prior knowledge of the haunting would occasionally report seeing the same things that the employees did. More than once I listened to a late night report from a moviegoer that a teenager wearing grey had followed them into or out of an otherwise abandoned part of the theater.

  And that’s what most people experienced – Seeing a teenaged blonde boy wearing grey, often seeing his image reflected in glass behind them, or seeing him walk by alone in an interior window. Items often went missing, or were found in another part of the building right after one of us had used it. The screen upstairs, number five, was particularly creepy. Some employees wouldn’t go up there alone. Another reported a large shadowy figure grabbing him when the house lights were abruptly turned on while he was in there. Number five was the only part of the theater that I felt uncomfortable in. I didn’t like it up there.

  As for the origin of the kid in grey, there was no smoking gun. No verifiable story about who that kid had been, or what had happened to him. The most convincing thing I heard was that he had been killed in the parking lot back in the 1970’s. Certainly possible, but never fully confirmed.

  My friend Joe spent a lot of time working and hanging out at the theater, and he has a really good personal account of the kind of phenomena that we all experienced at one time or another. I’ll include that, in his own words:

    “You feel like getting something to eat?”

    “Sure,” Vince replied, “This place is dead, so I’ll just close up a little early and we can hit Bibas or something. Just let me tell

Dox we’re closing up.”

    “Dox” was the nickname of Greg Dokzakis, an irrepressibly witty and charming young Greek guy who was one of our regulars.

He was at the bar with a date this night and the two of them were the only people left, even though it was only 12:30.

    The Bel-Air Bar was a unique place. It was a split-level floor plan inset into the lobby of a 1940s era movie theater. The lower

level contained the bar; the upper level had a kitchen and food bar. The food bar came off of the kitchen and was backed by a

long row of mirrors that extended off into the kitchen itself, ending about six feet in, with a set of double swinging porthole

kitchen doors at its base. From the right angle, the mirrors would reflect the entirety of the kitchen’s interior. At this time of

night it was dark and closed, so all that was reflected were silhouettes of kitchen equipment.

In the main bar, the décor was all uniform. A curving wall of glass brick served as a boundary with the theater lobby. Along the

entire base of the wall, built-in black booth-style benches followed the flow of the curve as it meandered along. Tables of

various sizes were placed neatly along the benches, as well as in the open space of the bar. Lush dark green low-pile carpeting

covered the floor.  Giant pink and green pillars rose at two points within the main seating area: one in the center and one by the

three steps that led up to the kitchen area that was on the lobby level. The glow of pink neon was everywhere. Three strips of

neon hung above the glass brick, and even more came in from the entrance to the theater lobby which was situated by the

grand old marquee.

Behind the bar were windows that looked out into the hallway running behind the main theater. Opposite the bar windows, the

projection booth was backed in glass so guests could see how the projector worked. Another smaller theater had been added at

the end of the hall, beginning about where the upper level of the bar began.

It was a magnificent place.

And it was haunted.

Most of us who worked there knew about “The Kid”. The Kid was a teenager with longish blond hair and a gray t-shirt. From

time to time this kid would run down the windowed hallway into the empty small theater. Many of us had looked for him when

it happened, thinking it was a real person. Despite hours of searching, nothing was ever found. The Kid’s nighttime runs weren’t

the only thing that happened in the theater. Around ninety percent of the people that worked there had some sort of strange

experience at one time or another, ranging from the mundane to the downright terrifying.

Oddly, our descriptions of the strange goings-on had little effect on some of our regulars, and two in particular. They were

professional stage hands and spent a good deal of time in local theaters building sets or erecting stages. They told us that every

night before they left, they set a “ghost light” out on the stage. According to them, the ghost light was put out at night so the

ghosts in the theater could “find their way around and not mess things up.” They told us stories of the few nights the ghost light

hadn’t been put on the stage, and said the day after each of these instances sets were falling and lights were popping. So it

came as little surprise to them that a movie house could have a ghost as well.

Despite the absence of our own ghost light, most nights The Kid wasn’t a problem. However, this wasn’t going to be most nights.

Dox and his date got their last drinks and closed out their tab. Vince started to do his paperwork on the liquor and count the

beer. I sat at the bar smoking and listening to the music being played. Things were tranquil and I looked forward to my usual

late-night meal at Bibas’ One’s a Meal, a small chain of coffee shops that had been in Houston for over sixty years.

As Dox finished his drink, he got up and headed towards the restroom, which was situated near the bar just up the stairs to the

kitchen level. He was gone for a few minutes, but when he came out he headed towards the bar instead of his date.

“Quit fucking with me,” he said to Vince.

“What?”

“I know you must have a switch back there that turns the lights on and off in the bathroom. Flashing the lights and banging on

the walls… c’mon, man. Quit fucking with me.”

“Dude, I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have a switch back here.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Actually he doesn’t,” I added, “I’ve worked here for three years and I know every switch in this place. There isn’t one back

there.”

“OK, whatever. I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” he said as he walked away to collect his date.

As they walked out, Vince gave me a worried look. The banging and flashing lights were new, but we had a pretty good idea

where it had come from.

He picked up speed as he started doing his closing duties. As he was cleaning his speed gun, he looked over my shoulder and

froze. With a flick of his head, he directed me towards the glass bricks. I turned and saw an unpleasant but familiar sight: there

was the shadow of a person pacing back and forth along the length of the wall. The shadow appeared to be coming from

someone on the other side. However, when it would reach a gap in the glass brick nothing would emerge and the shadow would

reappear in the next section.

The walking shadow was usually one of the first things to happen on nights when the ghost activity was unusually bad. I quickly

scanned the bar to look for the other usual signs. The windows behind the bar were gently moving in and out as if they were

breathing lightly.  The double doors of the kitchen were swinging back and forth about a half an inch.

“I’ll do your cleaning; you get your paperwork done, and let’s get the Hell out of here,” I said.

Vince nodded in agreement, and we nearly ran into each other as I headed behind the bar and he came out to sit down and do

his paperwork.
I washed dishes furiously, splashing soapy water and sanitizing bath all around the three basined sink. When that was done, I

plunged a bar mop into the soap and began wiping everything down.

I did another scan of the bar. The shadow was still walking. The windows were breathing more heavily. The doors were swinging

a little faster and harder.

“Hurry up…” I said

“Going as fast as I can…” he replied.

I turned around to wipe the area by the liquor bottles.  I looked up just in time to see The Kid run by the windows and into the

theater.

Goosebumps rose up on my arms. I turned to Vince and he was shaking his head.

“What?” I asked.

“I have to pee.”

“Just hold it and let’s get out of here.”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t… I just gotta go.”

He got up from his chair and headed towards the restroom. When he got to the second of the three steps, he stopped suddenly.

As he slowly turned back to face me, it appeared as if all the blood had drained from his face. Thick streams of tears were

pouring down his ashen cheeks. “Joe… look in the mirrors…” he whispered.

I took a look at the mirrors by the kitchen.

It was The Kid. He was standing looking at us in the mirror from inside the kitchen. His face was dull and expressionless. His

pale blue-gray eyes gave off a faint eerie glow.

“Oh Jesus Christ, man, hurry the fuck up. Piss yourself if you’ve got to. We have to get out of here.”

Vince came down the step and turned to use a trashcan instead of the restroom. He was visibly shaking.

I was shaking. I felt sick.

And I was confused.

Some people messed with The Kid. Mostly it was people who hadn’t had anything happen to them before trying to get him to

show himself, or it was an attempt to show some sort of bravado. I had never been one of these. In my mind, I should leave him

alone and he should leave me alone. Vince treated him the same way as I did.

So why was he doing this to us? It didn’t make sense.

Vince sat back down and frantically counted money. I began haphazardly tossing items he’d brought to work into his backpack.

He finished and went into the storeroom to lock up the money. I followed. I just wanted to get away from The Kid.

I glanced out and saw the kitchen doors swinging as frantically as I’d ever seen. It was generally a slight flutter, but now they

were moving about two inches back and forth. Mercifully my vantage point no longer permitted me to see into the kitchen

mirrors. I refused to look back at the bar windows. I didn’t care. I just wanted out.

We steeled our nerves to make our exit.

“Just run out as fast as you can. I’ll get the car started while you lock the door and let’s get as far away as possible,” I said.

With a nod of agreement, we ran towards the door as fast as we could. We bounded the three steps in one giant leap and ran

past the kitchen, looking at the ground the entire time.

I hit the door like I intended to take it off its hinges. I felt as if something was right on my tail.

As I ran to my car which was parked immediately alongside the exit, Vince turned to lock the door. As soon as he turned his key, 

a giant roar like that of a lion or tiger came directly out of the marquee.

I lept into my car and turned the ignition. As the big V8 in the old Ford Country Squire came to life I reached over and opened

 

the passenger door. Vince dove in yelling “Go! Go! Go!” and I did. We were exiting the theater parking lot before Vince even got

his door closed.

We sped off into the misty Houston night. The roads were wet and reflecting the streetlights. I didn’t care about that. I just had

to get as far away from there as I could, and do it as fast as possible.

As we drove across town we sat in silence. Both of us were musicians, but neither of us reached to turn on the radio or pop in a

cassette. The silence was both blessed and ghastly. Neither of us could understand any of it.

When we pulled into Bibas about ten minutes later, Vince slammed his backpack to the floorboard.

“FUCK!!” he screamed in exasperation.

I knew exactly what he meant and I agreed.

After about two weeks passed, I was out riding around with a girl named Ellen. We were in that awkward stage of getting to

know one another where we weren’t exactly sure if we were dating or buddies, but we did enjoy each other’s company. I

suggested we swing by the Bel-Air and get a drink, so I began telling her the story of what had happened to Vince and me. She

was very skeptical of the entire thing and thought I was making it up, but when we got to the theater Vince was standing

outside under the marquee.

Alone.

“Dude… I’m so glad you guys are here. It’s bad tonight and I’m the only one here.”

I gave him a sympathetic nod as we walked in. Ellen rolled her eyes thinking she was being set up. We sat down at the bar and

Vince drew three Shiner Bocks from the tap. We all took drinks. Ellen and I lit cigarettes.

Then the whole thing happened again.

She believed me after that.”

  Joe’s story seems to capture the spirit (Almost literally) of the place when only a few people were still the, and the Bel-Air ghost felt frisky.

  Many others had encounters with “The Kid”, and sometimes those encounters were quite frightening. Other times he seemed content to let his presence be known – Minor activity that let us all know he was still around.

  I quit that job to go work at another foreign film theater. That one was an interesting place, but free of any otherworldly activity. Unfortunately the Bel-Air didn’t last very much longer. Apparently, a combo dollar theater/art house with a bar in it, with a bunch of young weirdos running the place proved to be a shaky business venture, and it closed down.

  It is now some kind of entertainment center for young children. I haven’t been inside since that transition took place, and it always makes me sad when I drive by. I have to suppress the urge to go in and ask people if they’ve seen a spooky looking blonde guy wearing grey hanging around the place…

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Comics, Fandon, and Existential Dread.

  Shortly after fleeing the Hell Kill trailer, me and my room mate Jeff moved into a comparatively swanky apartment in downtown Houston. The new place was hardly a palace, but it had a definite charm – It had originally been a hotel built 80 years previously, and although it was in a cruddy area or town, and was pretty dilapidated, the place was still impressive. It had very high ceilings, hard wood floors, and oozed a kind of tarnished grandeur that had been absent from our shabby trailer.

  The rent was almost nothing, and because this was long before the age of downtown Houston becoming hip and expensive, the whole building was inhabited by weird artists, musicians, and drug addicts – Our kind of people. Jeff and I felt immediately at home.

  I had continued working at the movie theater, but because I was growing sick of tearing tickets and cleaning up spilled soft drinks, I had begun to casually look at other job options. I had been going to a comic book store to buy underground comics, and jokingly asked if they were hiring one day. To my surprise, I was told that I could work a few days for store credit, and if it worked out, maybe they would hire me. I was not exactly a comic book nerd, but this sounded like a dream gig compared to the movie theater job – I had long lost my appreciation for that profession’s perks… Free screenings off movies, and lots of leftover popcorn. I was eager for a greener pasture.

  I worked for free  at the comic store for about a month, mostly bagging huge piles of comics and cleaning up the back store room. Finally, I was offered a job. I happened to have Jeff along that day, and they hired him on the spot too… A success for the two of us, but I was a little pissed off that I’d worked for free, and he was offered the job without the spending the time and hassle I’d had to. In any case, it was good that he’d be able to contribute to our rent at the new place.

  The comic shop was a weird place. It was owned by a guy in his 50s, that didn’t care about comics at all. The store had it’s original roots as a toy store at a mall back in the 1960s. Frank, the current owner, had managed that store for an older lady that owned it. Frank’s interest in the venture had been toy trains and old style war games , which were hobbies of his. The lady that owned the toy store eventually died, and somehow Frank ended up owning the place. By then, he had transitioned the place into a game store, and with the popularity of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the store had become very successful. A year or so earlier, the store had branched into comics, because that industry was booming at the time.

  In the 70s, Frank had hired a young guy named Dave… Sort of a drop out hippie kid, to work there. By the time Jeff and I got our jobs, Dave was a manager, and Frank’s daughter “Taysha” also worked at the store.

  Frank the owner was a nice man, but like a lot of small business owners I’ve known, he had a mercurial temperament, and was a little bit crazy. He was a good enough guy, but looked like the living embodiment of a comic store owner – Fat, in his 50s, balding but with long hair. He would bristle anytime a customer would complain about a store policy, taking it as a personal insult, and I saw him throw more than one person out of the store for uttering a mild profanity, even though hardly any kids frequented the place,  Frank himself would drop f bombs like it was going out of style, and we had an enormous selection of “adults only” material for sale.

  Frank would occasionally get hopped up on something…. Maybe speed… Not sure… And he would stay up for days at a time growing increasingly nuts. It was during these manic periods that he would write his strange store policy handbooks. These were crazy and very lengthy in nature, composed mainly of rambling nutso drug babble, but with weird new store rules mixed in.The whole concept of an “employee handbook” fora tiny business with four employees including himself, was a little crazy anyway, but. Frank used these late night amphetamine driven sessions to take on his own personal list of work irritations.

  One such irritation was our restroom policy. Frank didn’t want the customers to be able to use the store’s restroom. The only exception was for pregnant women, but Jeff and I would generally let regular customers use it if they wanted to. There was no really reason not to, and Franks mandate to tell inquiring customers that there wasn’t a restroom in the store was obvious bullshit that no one believed.

  One morning Jeff and I showed up for our shift, to find a ten page manuscript forbidding us from allowing customers to use the bathroom for any reason. One page in the middle simply read:

“You two continually let people use the John, and some filthy motherfucker blew shit all in the toilet that no amount of scrubbing would remove!”

  While we questioned the concept of indestructible blown shit, we had to give Frank credit for his determination to keep customers from using the restroom. We also both knew that the individual most likely to have created the blown shit episode was almost  assuredly his right hand man Dave…. In any case, we continued to let regular customers use the facilities when asked.

  Taysha, Frank’s daughter was also quite a character. I never figured out what the story was, but she’d been raised somewhere In Mississippi, and was very Southern, and also not very smart. She was probably thirty or so, and not attractive at all. We got along fine for the most part, but there was a weird disconnect there -She was nice to Jeff and I, and we were both strange looking weirdos, but when people came in that dressed similarly to us, she was rude and would follow them around the store to make sure they didn’t steal anything. She did this even if they were regular customers, or if Jeff or I were friends with them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also had the same reaction to minorities that came in.

  Taysha was very prim and proper, and one of those women that would openly call another woman a whore for dressing in any way attractively. She wouldn’t venture into the “adults only” section of comics and magazines, and would look at anyone buying that stuff like they were unclean, but her prudery didn’t prevent her from working at the store. One day Dave told me that Taysha would go back to Mississippi once a year for some sort of local county fair, and would hang around until she could hook up with a strange guy for a yearly sexual encounter. The idea of her actually having a sex life had never crossed my mind, and pretty much horrified me, as well as the “hanging out at a fair until a drunk carny took her back to his trailer” aspect of the whole scenario. It still creeps me out all of these years later.

  The main character in the store was Dave. I say “main” because  Frank was in and out a lot, Taysha only worked a couple days a week, but Dave was there seemingly all of the time.

  Dave was probably in his late thirties when I met him, although he looked much much older. He was very tall and thin, with long stringy blond hair and an even longer beard. He was always dirty looking, and could have easily been confused for a homeless person. Dave was a serious alcoholic and drug abuser, and had the reddish complexion that years of serious drinking will give a person. He was also moody and irritable, prone to lashing out at people. Despite these characteristics, Dave was relatively intelligent, and had a lot of street smarts from years of living dangerously. He also seemed to have a developed hatred of women, although he also let many of them walk all over him.  Both of those tendencies seemed intimately related.

  Dave had a million stories about women fucking him over, and there were rumors that some coke addled stripper was sponging off of him and living at his dingy apartment for free… Or for whatever revolting domestic arrangement they’d agreed to… He seems to take in a lot of young runaways and women that had dropped out of mainstream society because of various personal issues. He would rant endlessly about these relationships while we were all at work. Dave distrusted just about everyone, including me and Jeff, so our work relationship was strained to say the least. In my case, he was also especially an asshole because he was jealous that most of the attractive young women that ventured into the store were friendlier to me than him, but there was nothing I could do about that… He looked like a scary old ex con, who could blame them?

  As noted before, the guy was a little unstable and  really weird. Once he announced that he’d been feeling “sickly” (A steady diet of whiskey and cocaine will do that to you) and needed to “power up”. This consisted of him walking down to a nearby grocery store and buying a raw steak, which he then devoured in our parking lot like an animal. Another time, he came to work looking dazed with a bunch of dirt, sticks, and dead bird pieces stuck in his beard. He had passed out during his nightly bender, and collapsed outside of his apartment, crushing a bird to death… And then come straight to work with parts of its carcass still in his facial hair. On yet another occasion, one of his live in coke head strippers had found a squirrel, and wanted Dave to take it for her as a pet. In trying to accommodate the ridiculous request, the squirrel bit his finger, and it got infected. Somehow he managed to keep it from falling off, but the wound festered uncared for for days.

  At least a couple of times a week, I would go to a nearby drive through pizza place to grab lunch. I was a struggling vegetarian at the time, so I always got a slice of cheese pizza. Dave began demanding that I pick up a large meat lovers pie for him – He would eat half of it at work for lunch, and then take the other half home for dinner that night. One day I got him his pizza, and as usual he devoured half for lunch. When he came to work the next day he was angry with me… I couldn’t figure out why… And finally he told us that when he’d started to eat the second half late the previous night, he discovered halfway through that maggots had hatched – The meat was spoiled, and his pizza was teaming with the wriggling creatures. He had undoubtedly eaten many of the things by the time he discovered what was happening… He was shit faced drunk and in the dark at the time… And so Dave was convinced that I had somehow caused his horrible fate, and that he was going to die as a result. I told him it was extra protein and to get over it, but I half expected hum to burst open at some point so thousands of angry maggots could pour out of his carcass.

  There are a lot of things that I learned working at that place. First and foremost was the sad realization that it was hard to relate to many of our customers. I been into comics as a kid, and I had played role playing games. Working in a comic store seemed like a dream job back then, and that had only been eight years earlier. I still read comics, but at that point only underground stuff… Nothing involving superheroes or typical fandom things. I was always friendly to our customers, but some of them made it really hard – like a drug dealer, the comic store provided those people’s “fix”, and it was hard to relate to people in their thirties that were really passionate about “Ritchie Rich” or “The X Men”. Nowadays, lots of adults are into comics and fantasy, but back then you were venturing into the land of “Never gets laid again” if you went to a comic store five times a week.

  And that was another horrible aspect to the job. Occasionally… Really occasionally… A female would venture into the store. It wasn’t like it is now, where it’s relatively common for women to be into nerdy fan stuff as much as males. So this only happened a handful of times each week. Many times if the female was fairly attractive, she’d come in with a guy… She being the much suffering significant other to some lucky fanboy that wasn’t completely repulsive to women. Rarer still, were the attractive women that would come in ALONE, either to buy a nerdy gift for a boyfriend or because she herself was a fangirl.

  Woe be to those sad females, for the minute they entered the store, half of the males shopping there would suddenly stop what they were doing and stare straight at her. In some particularly creepy cases, they would follow her around or try (And almost always fail) to chat her up. One regular customer did this often enough that we had to warn him to knock it off, as he was making the female shoppers nervous.

  I spent a lot of time watching the social interactions of those folks. It was interesting, but also kind of yucky… There was one regular customer that was a cop. He would always try to talk to Jeff and I late in the evening… It was weird, because he wanted us to be his comic store buddies, but the same guy would probably have loved to pull two guys that looked like us over under different circumstances. He had this… “Opinion” that the comic store was a sanctuary of masculinity, and that we should ban women from coming in… He seemed to think our comic store was a mans club, not realizing that his desire was most likely illegal.

  Then there were the super fans that wanted to open their own comic store. Sometimes these were father and son duos, other times just a couple of friends or a single fan with some money to burn… And burn it would, as comic stores were notoriously risky business ventures. Guys like that opened them all the time, only to shutter the windows within a year. Those folks always made me a little sad.

  After a year of enduring my weird coworkers and watching our customers, I decided it was time to move on. The reality was that I’d decided to move from Houston to Austin, and I just didn’t see my future being as a comic book and role playing game salesman.

Some did though.  Jeff still works there.