Ten years ago, on a Sunday night, I found myself walking the darkened streets of downtown Durbin, W.Va, dressed as an 1880’s train conductor, and looking for a bar. (What brought me there into that situation was an experience I decided to write about at the time. What follows is a revised edition of that writing. And if any of it seems familiar already, it’s probably because you read the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, because this experience informed that introduction.)
The day before that, I received a phone call from Jessica Viers, a friend of mine who worked for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg. She asked if I was interested in going up to Pocahontas County, to Durbin, to act in a Canadian basic-cable television series that would air on the Outdoor Living Network. The job only paid $50 and would probably be filming late into the night, but it was a paid acting gig and I’d get to ride on a vintage train and hang out with friends from the theatre. Sounded like a fun time to me, so I signed on.
We pulled into town around 3p and stopped at the depot where we were to meet our Canadian film-crew. Durbin, back then, was a little town of about 300 people with an amazingly picturesque main-street, complete with a general store, a little bed & breakfast and a working train depot that runs scenic train tours using classic locomotives of the past. It’s one of only three incorporated townships in Pocahontas County.
The crew we met worked for a company called Creepy Features, based out of Toronto, which produced a show called Creepy Canada. They were in Durbin to film segments of a story called The Ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. (Which we assumed must mean that they’d run out of creepy stuff to cover in Canada so they had to go south.) It was a legend I had never heard, but that might be because Silver Run Tunnel is nowhere near Pocahontas County. It’s 154 miles away from Durbin, in Cairo, W.Va. The reason Durbin and not Cairo was chosen as a film location, though, is because its tourist railroad depot is home to the oldest of two working Climax Model locomotive engines in the world, the very sort of engine that was part of the original legend. It’s a great black, smoke-belching, steam-spitting dinosaur of an engine and is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. This engine was attached to four cars around and within which we would be filming. Bob & Al, the engineer and conductor, were tuning it up as we arrived and we spent a half hour watching it as we waited for the crew.
The legend of the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel is pretty standard ghost story material: a young lady is murdered on a train in the 1880s, her ghost comes back to haunt the Silver Run Tunnel near the site of her murder, and has allegedly appeared to people traveling in the area, often including train engineers and other such folk.
After signing waiver forms granting rights to use my likeness for the show, in any form it might take, etc., I was hustled off for a costume fitting and before long was dressed in an honest-to-God conductor’s uniform, which had been graciously provided by the actual conductor, Al. I had the hat, the vest, the pocket watch and the big flappy gold-buttoned coat.
Now, from the script I’d been given, I didn’t think I would have much to do. The conductor was only mentioned twice in it and wasn’t necessarily the same conductor in both scenes. He certainly didn’t have any lines, nor did any of our parts since most of this action would be overdubbed later with narration. However, the director for the shoot had other ideas and soon I was in costume and being filmed assisting Jessica–our would-be ghost–in some pre-death scenes, the both of us improvising dialogue which was recorded by a boom mic over the roar of the train. I’m sure we looked atmospheric standing beside the enormous train-engine as it spat a steady stream of steam over us. After several different angles and close-ups, the director added the presence of the killer himself, played by my former local play director, Devin. He did look quite menacing coming through the steam and the atmosphere was lent additional creepiness by the overcast and rain-threatening weather.
We moved on for some filming in the caboose of the train, which we had to use for all the train interior shots as there were no passenger cars available. This filming wound up stretching on past sunset as the crew fought to get all their daylight shots done while they still had light, plus some day-for-night shots that would be darkened later in post-production.
As with any kind of project like this, a lot of our job as actors was to hurry up and wait, particularly after dark where every shot had to be lit, which was a complicated process as all the equipment had to be powered by a portable generator. I felt kind of bad for the others in our group who had to wait back at the depot doing nothing while Devin, Jessica and I filmed scenes in the train itself for a couple of hours, but I figured it would eventually be my turn to wait.
One of Devin’s scenes got to be a bit hazardous. Director Bill asked him to move along the side of the tanker car, which meant walking on a seven-inch wide grid of metal runner while holding onto a pipe for a railing, then step across into the caboose while the camera filmed. This was not an easy thing, as there’s a nice sized chasm between the two cars that’s constantly shifting length due to the jostling of the train. One wrong step meant potentially falling between the cars and getting ground up under the train’s wheels. Making matters even trickier was that the camera was set up blocking most of the way across. Devin did it just fine, though, and even looked menacing the whole while. We had several “Do your own stunts” occurrences throughout the evening, another of which was Jessica’s “death” scene at the hands of a knife-wielding Devin. It took a while to film and from my vantage point outside the caboose windows, looked pretty violent.
Around 8 p the train pulled back to the depot and we were told supper had been served. The crew had brought in around 8 huge pizzas and there was plenty to go around. It was good stuff too, particularly since it was not pizza from a major chain. After we ate, Bill announced that Devin was through filming as the killer and could change back to civilian clothes. Everyone else would be needed, but I wouldn’t be needed for a while as there were quite-a-few night scenes they wanted to get out of the way that didn’t involve me. Devin asked if there were any bars in the area and the crew mentioned that there was one across the street. He decided to give it at try and I decided to join him since it didn’t appear my services would be needed for hours yet. Downtown Durbin is a ghost town on a Sunday night. Not a single store or business was open including, as we later found out, the bar. But that didn’t stop us from walking its length in search of something open. Other than the sounds of the train and some cool wind breezing through, everything was perfectly quiet. If it weren’t for the sole Coca Cola machine, which looked quite out of place set against its backdrop, we could have convinced ourselves that we’d been hurled back in time to the 1940s.
Eventually, after walking all the way down to the end of town and then back up, Devin and I found the bar. It looked closed from the outside, but one of the two doors on its storefront was unlocked. We entered to find chairs on tables, the lights dim and not a soul to be seen.
“Hello?” Devin called.
“Meow,” a kitty voice answered. But no human voice returned our calls. There were some lights coming from beneath a door that appeared to be an office for the bar, but no noises came from within. We decided that they really were closed and that shotguns might become involved if we disturbed the place further, so we left, shutting the door firmly behind us. Only in a place like small town West Virginia could the bars leave their doors unlocked on a Sunday night.
Back at the depot, there was a family waiting on one of the benches. We’d had a few curious on-lookers throughout the day, but at 9 at night these folks were determined to stick around in case anything interesting happened. I believe they were related to Durbin’s mayor, who had welcomed us earlier and had been very gracious.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you the man who was filming over by the train earlier?” a little boy asked me. “You helped carry that woman’s bags?”
“Yeah, that was me,” I said. The kid beamed up at me as though I was the most famous person he’d ever met. (For all I know, I might very well have been at that point in his life.) His sisters and grandmother were soon talking to me about the filming process and seemed very eager to hear what I had to say.
“Do you know when they’re going to film the ghost on the front of the train?” the grandmother asked. She had heard that there was a scene in which the ghost, i.e. Jessica, was to ride on the front of the engine itself as it rolled down the track. Even then Jessica was getting into her ghost garb and was cinched up eight ways from Tuesday, not only in a corset so she could squeeze her thin frame into that even tinier wedding dress, (she was only able to eat one slice of pizza because she had no room for more in there), but also with a harness with which she was to be affixed to the front of the engine for her upcoming scenes. The harness was woefully uncomfortable, difficult to remove for bathroom-break purposes and her ghost costume was not the warmest either. But she was a trooper
I told the grandmother that from what I heard there were several scenes that had to be filmed elsewhere before they would get to the ghost on the train, so it would likely be a good wait. Then the grandmother surprised me.
“Would you mind, maybe, finding a piece of paper and signing it for us. Like an autograph?” she asked.
“Um, ma’am, none of us here are actually famous, or anything. We’re just from Lewisburg.”
“Well, I know. But you might get to be famous. You’re going to be on TV.”
Only then did it truly hit me how surreal yet oddly cool this situation was. Sure, I might think it was absurd for them to want our autographs, but I was seeing the matter from backstage, where we were just a bunch of community theater players. In front of the curtain, though, life was still glitzy and this little documentary program looked like the big time. I went and told the cast that their autographs had been requested. They thought it was cute too. Devin suggested we sign a copy of the script, so I volunteered mine (hey, I hadn’t used it so far, what were the chances I’d need it?) and we all signed our names and our character names. The family was overjoyed. (Now, it should be noted that Tonri Latham was then and continues to be a much-sought-after lighting designer who works all over the country on major projects, and Max Arnaud is a working actor in New York, who I’ve since worked with in other shows at GVT, so there was some degree of fame present.)
It was around this time that I had a very interesting conversation with a local man on the topic of ghosts and legends. As detailed by fictional radio host “Rik Winston” in the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, this gentleman, with fear in his eyes, told us about the time he encountered a mysterious figure on his family’s property, when he was young. As “Rik” says in the introduction: “He was hesitant to spell it out at first, but I could tell from his manner that whatever he’d seen had shaken him so badly that the very memory threatened to overcome him right then. I had to know his story. With some encouragement, he explained that, as a teenager, he had once heard some odd noises coming from atop the tin roof of his family’s barn. He crept out into the night, his daddy’s shotgun in hand, only to find that the noises were being made by the boot-clad heels of a figure standing atop the barn. And that figure, he told me in a whisper, was none other than a headless horseman.” When he finished, I don’t recall having much to say, other than “Wow,” cause the notion of someone claiming to have seen a headless horseman in this day and age, outside of a show on FOX, is simply ridiculous. Then again, how much more insane is the concept of a headless horseman than, say, a ghost haunting a tunnel?
Eventually, a flat-bed car was attached to the front of the engine, Jessica was attached to the engine itself and the cameras and lights set up on the flatbed for filming of her first ghostly scenes. The family loved that too, Jessica less-so, as she spent much of the time wearing a very non-ghostly jacket over her ghostly duds.
Around midnight I was starting to get sleepy and my remaining scenes—whatever they might be, as I wasn’t really sure myself—still didn’t look like they were any closer to being shot. I tried napping on one of the depot benches, but didn’t get any sleep. So mostly I just sat up talking to my castmates, Tonri and Max, who had played engineers and were just grinning from ear to ear that they’d actually been allowed to drive the train during their scenes.
Soon Devin came back to the depot and told us we’d missed out on all the fireworks. While the crew were filming near a small building just down the tracks from us, the wind whipped up and tipped over one of their $35,000 (Canadian dollars, mind you—probably about $10,000-$15,000 American) arc-lamps. It struck ground, went out and seemed a lost cause. Then, while rushing over to check on the lamp, the director caught his foot in the camera cable and down their expensive hi-def camera went too. If not for the barn-door shutters on the front of the camera, its lens would have likely smashed when it struck one of the rails. Instead it was mostly fine and so was the light.
Our next technical difficulty came when Bob, the Real Engineer, announced that his steam-powered locomotive was nearly empty of water and thus out of steam. It would take an hour to fill it back up. This put the the director, Bill, into fits, as there were still several shots of the train moving in the darkness that he needed. He moved on, though, and wound up filming some locomotive perspective shots using a tiny gas-powered service car. I can’t say enough good things about Bob and Al. They were fantastic and really seemed to enjoy the process.
Around 2 a.m. it was my turn before the cameras again. We set up several scenes on a boardwalk beside the stationary train, only to have Bob back the train out of our shot several times. By then the trains tanks were mostly full again and he was busy switching out the train cars we’d used onto side tracks in preparation for bringing on the more modern-looking cars and even a new engine which would be used for tours next weekend. So every time the Climax Engine backed up or came toward us, Bill would interrupt our shots to quickly get footage of the train passing. This helped him secure the shots he needed. Pretty smooth. We finished up our shots and Bill announced we were at a wrap.
Months passed before I heard anything more about the episode itself. By then it had already aired in Canada, but there was no word on a U.S. airing. Eventually, I received a DVD of the appearance. And when I watched it, I was shocked. Not at the quality of it, which was fine, but at the fact that my character, the innocent 1880s conductor, got pinned by a modern day Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic as the killer of the girl who became the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. I know!
Turns out, I actually know that Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic. Her name is Susan Sheppard and she’s a writer and paranormal investigator who lives in the Parkersburg area. I know her and her daughter through West Virginia Writers, Inc. Susan was actually the whole reason Creepy Canada came down to film in our state at all. She’d worked with the director and producer on a previous project and had pitched some legends in our state to them at the time. They bit. So Susan, who I was unaware was involved at all, got to be the on-camera talking head to speak about the case of the ghost and propose a few theories about it. She, unaware of who was playing the conductor, supposed that he may have been the guy to kill the girl who became the ghost and not the guy Devin was playing at all. The funny thing is, the producers took footage from the scene where I was leading Jessica to her seat in the train and were able to zoom in and freeze on a micro expression on my face that looked a little bit sinister in order to have visual record to help shore up Susan’s theory. I never made the expression intentionally, but for a second my face registered something dark all the same.
About a year ago, my friend Courtney at the theatre sent a note to me, Devin, Max and Tonri to say she’d seen us on Destination America. Evidently her mother had recorded a bunch of DA’s ghost shows for use as background in the Halloween season and Courtney had tucked into the second episode of their show Hauntings and Horrors, only to be shocked to find herself staring at me, Jessica, Max, Devin, and Tonri in our various roles. The Creepy Canada footage had been repurposed for a new show in 2014, which has now been replayed any number of times. That $50 they paid me has gone pretty far for them.