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“The Devil’s Toy Box” is an urban legend that savvier horror fans will recognize as the inspiration for the infamous Lament Configuration from Clive Barker’s seminal Hellraiser series. Though in reality the titular “box” is not a toy at all but rather a small room where the floor, the ceiling, and the walls are each composed of one giant mirror.
According to the legend, if you stood inside this mirror-room alone for too long, supposedly the devil would show up and steal your soul. In most versions of this story, he did so by flaying you alive.
I mention all of this because about two weeks ago, I got an email from an old friend (someone who was well-versed in my sordid past) asking if I could help out their younger sister, an 18-year-old girl who we’ll call “Erin” located in Northern Louisiana (the specific parish where Erin lived shall go unnamed for reasons that will soon become obvious.)
Like pretty much everywhere else, the place where Erin grew up had its own annual haunted-house attraction that went up every October. The attraction was called Farmer Grave’s Haunted Orchard and in years past, it had been every bit as thrilling as that name suggested; which is to say not very. So for the previous Halloween, the owners decided to spice things up by building several new interactive installations which included a windowless shack called The Devil’s Toy Box. This shack housed a small room composed of large wall-sized mirrors.
That’s how Erin heard it described anyway — she had never been inside the Toy Box herself. Farmer Grave’s closed less than a week after opening — a result of the numerous people who had to be hospitalized after going inside the Devil’s Toy Box attraction. Erin didn’t get a chance to try out the Box for herself before the closure, but she had heard countless stories about it from her classmates at school.
Apparently, no one could last longer than five minutes inside the room. There was even a large timer set up beside the building that showed the current occupant’s length of stay under a second clock displaying the longest recorded time up to that point, which maxed out at just over four minutes before the attraction finally closed. The man who managed to last that long (Roger Heltz, age 52, father of three) had been reduced to a wide-eyed mute. To this day, he still hasn’t said a word.
One woman suffered a heart attack after just 90 seconds inside the Box. A 17-year-old boy had to be dragged out, kicking and screaming. The boy was from a nearby parish and hadn’t gone to Erin's school, though her friend Celeste claimed her parents were friends with the boy’s mom. They went to his funeral when he killed himself two weeks later. Whatever the truth of the matter, town officials were quick to act in getting Farmer Grave’s shut down.
Of course, that didn't stop people from talking about the now infamous attraction, which they began to do almost immediately. For the next month or so, it seemed like the Toy Box was the only thing on anyone's mind. It had become the stuff of legend and of course, it didn’t take long for the local kids to start venturing out to the Orchard at night to see the Box for themselves.
Farmer Grave’s Haunted Orchard was owned by a middle-aged couple named Will and Darlene Sawyer. When the town council ordered the Sawyers to shut the place down, they were so pissed about the ruling, they left most of the attraction still standing, including the Devil’s Toy Box. The actual orchard was on a plot of land located at the rear of the Sawyer’s property and was only accessible by a narrow two-lane dirt road.
One night, several seniors at Erin’s school snuck out to the Sawyer’s property on a dare and claimed they found the Toy Box’s entrance padlocked, but then Will Sawyer showed up out of nowhere and asked them if they wanted to go inside. Will’s sudden arrival had startled the young men, but once they realized that he wasn’t mad at them for trespassing and in fact seemed genuinely happy to see them, the guys decided to take him up on his offer to have a go inside the box. Of course, they chickened out as soon as Will unlocked the door and it seemed to swing open on its own, like a hungry mouth at the sight of food.
That’s how the rumors about midnight screenings of the Devil’s Toy Box began to circulate. Most of the people who ventured out there afterwards claimed they encountered Will Sawyer after waiting beside the Toy Box for an unspecified length of time. A few even said that they went inside the box but these claims were always dismissed as bullshit. No one came out of that box that was coherent enough to talk about it.
Last week, Erin’s boyfriend Troy went out there with some of his idiot friends and Erin hadn’t seen him since. His parents reported him missing and Erin even told the cops about the rumors surrounding the Toy Box, but they barely seemed to be listening. Now, Erin was going crazy worrying about Troy and of course, she was hoping I would be intrigued enough by her story to come with her to investigate Farmer Grave’s because she was too scared to do so by herself.
Erin’s location was only a three-hour drive from New Orleans, so I asked my friend Jason and his girlfriend Gretchen to take the ride with me. This way, I wouldn’t feel so weird about driving all that way to see an 18-year-old girl I didn’t know.
We rolled into town at about 5:00PM that Saturday and met up with Erin at “the McDonald’s” as she called it. I laughed when I first heard her say that and immediately felt like an asshole for thinking it was funny that Erin’s town only had one McDonald’s. Our meet-and-greet started out a little awkward on account of all the stares we were getting from the rest of the restaurant. Then again, four strangers driving into town to meet a teenage girl at THE McDonald’s will do that.
Thankfully, Gretchen was there to defuse the situation with one simple question. “Did you make that?”
She was pointing at Erin’s backpack, which was actually a stuffed doll that I recognized as “Lumpy Space Princess” from the cartoon Adventure Time, only most of the stuffing had been removed and a purple pouch had been sown into it that sealed closed via a matching purple zipper. The straps were made out of old, retro-looking seatbelts.
Erin nodded and Gretchen’s jaw dropped.
“Oh my god, will you make me one? Will you make me TWO?” Gretchen asked.
“Sure, as long as you provide the supplies,” Erin said, laughing.
“Deal!” Gretchen was grinning ear-to-ear as she turned to face me. “You have to help this girl so she can make me tiny adorable backpacks.”
It was a little after 10PM when we neared the end of the narrow dirt road that lead to Farmer Grave’s Haunted Orchard. We parked beside a tall wooden archway that designated the orchard’s front entrance. I handed out flashlights from the small stash of them in my trunk and then we started inside.
The place looked about how I expected it to: a row of brightly-colored plywood shacks lined the vacant field beside several rows of Satsuma trees that had been covered in fake cobwebs and “scary” decorations. Each shack had a sign displaying the name of a different attraction.
There was “Horn Toss” which (judging from the illustration on its side) was a ring-toss game where you tried to throw halos onto a demon’s horns, “Werewolf Bowling,” which was anyone’s guess, and my personal favorite “The Exorcist,” which was a mounted squirt-gun game that had several wood cutouts of Linda Blair’s face as its targets. Cartoon water tanks were painted below each of the mounted squirt-guns that were labeled “HOLY WATER”.
The Devil’s Toy Box was the last shack in the row. It was painted a bright fire-engine red and the door, which made up one entire wall of the small structure, was padlocked shut. Someone had stacked a dozen or so rusted folding chairs against the side of the Toy Box. Erin grabbed one of the chairs and began to unfold it as she said, “Now we wait.”
“How long?” Gretchen asked.
“It varies…but hopefully not forever.” Erin motioned at the thick patch of wilderness to our left and I turned to see a window glowing out there in the distant darkness. “See it? That’s the Sawyer house. They must know we’re here.”
“And that’s a good thing?” Gretchen’s tone was tense and she had a look on her face that said she’d just realized how much she didn’t want to be doing any of this. Before Erin or I could answer, she turned to Jason and asked, “Baby, will you walk me back to the car?”
Jason gave her an irritated look. “What? Why?”
“Because… All of this just got too real.”
“You knew what we were coming out here to do. I explained it to you in VIVID detail.”
“No. It’s bullshit, Gretch. You do this every time…”
“This is the fucking Avengers sneak preview all over again… I miss everything cool!”
“I’m sorry.” She batted her eyes as she gave Jason an adorable frown Gretchen had honed over many years of getting her way. Jason let out an exasperated sigh and I handed him the keys to the car.
“I’ll be right back.” Jason muttered.
I pulled out a chair and took a seat next to Erin as we watched the beams from Jason and Gretchen’s flashlights shrink off into the darkness. A thought came to me just then: As if this didn’t already resemble an episode of Scooby Doo, now we’re splitting up. That’s just asking for it.
As soon as the words crossed my mind, we heard the crunch of approaching footsteps. Erin and I stood in unison and exchanged a panicked glance before turning to face the forest bordering the orchard. A middle-aged man with long scraggly hair emerged out of the darkness and into range of our flashlights. He was holding an electric lantern and wearing an open bathrobe over a dirty white undershirt and sweatpants.
Will Sawyer was basically Vincent Price if he had starred in the Big Lebowski. He smiled and gave us a thumbs up as he said, “You here for the box?”
“Sort of,” Erin responded and Will gave her a look like he had no idea what that could possibly mean.
“Have you seen this guy?” I held up the photo of Troy that Erin had texted to my phone as Will started to approach us. He squinted at the picture.
“Maybe…” he said.
“When was that?”
“A few weeks ago. He was the one that went in the box. Most won’t go inside anymore. Lasted almost three minutes. Then he ran off, screaming.”
Erin let out a sharp gasp. “Ran off? Ran off WHERE?”
Will pointed a thumb back at the dark patch of wilderness behind him and replied, “Into the fuckin’ woods! Where do you THINK? I opened that door and he came shootin’ out, dick flappin’ naked from the waist down. Had his boxers on his head and his pants wrapped around his neck like a scarf. It was honestly pretty funny.”
Erin covered her mouth with her hand as her eyes began to well with tears. Will grinned and said, “You wanna see inside?”
“We aren’t here for the box,” I said, stepping in front of Erin and glaring at Will.
“But it’s so breathtaking,” The man said as he gestured toward the Toy Box’s wide door, which slowly swung open. The interior was shrouded in darkness, but I could still see something vaguely human-shaped moving around inside the box. Yeah, fuck that.
“Run!” I grabbed Erin by the arm and pulled her along with me as I sprinted away from the Toy Box. I could hear something chasing after us as we ran back toward the orchard’s entrance and I say “something” because it certainly didn’t sound like a person. What I heard weren’t footsteps, but rather one long scraping sound, accompanied by a wet breathing that reminded me of a panting dog.
Thankfully, Jason heard me screaming just as he and Gretchen reached my car. They turned to spot me and Erin running towards them with identical expressions of pants-shitting terror. Jason must’ve caught a glimpse of the thing chasing after us too because his own face went pale.
He quickly unlocked my car and threw himself behind the wheel, screaming for Gretchen to get in. She hurried into the passenger seat and the moment she buckled her seatbelt, he started the engine and accelerated toward us, closing the gap in a matter of moments.
Jason slammed on the brakes as he neared and the car screeched to a halt inches away from us. I went to open the back passenger door but it was locked. So was Erin’s side. I banged my fist on the window and pointed down at the locking mechanism. Jason mouthed, “Oh SHIT!”
He turned and scanned the door controls on the driver’s side, looking for the master switch. The scraping sound was growing closer, but I refused to look back and banged on the window once more. A frustrated Jason finally leaned into the backseat and unlocked the door manually, but by then, it already had me.
I can remember something dragging me back through the woods. I wasn’t aware of much else, beyond the vague impression that I had been stung by an insect with some kind of paralytic venom.
I felt a rush of air hit my face as the door swung shut in front of me. Then the lights came on and I realized where I was. Inside the Devil’s Toy Box.
The room’s construction was actually pretty impressive. The floor was a thick sheet of transparent Plexiglas layered over a mirror identical to the ones that made up the ceiling and walls. With the door shut, the mirror on its other side was just as seamless as the rest. Thin fluorescent bulbs ran between the crevices where each mirror met the next, washing the room and its endless reflections in a pale yellow light.
I made the mistake of looking down at the chasm of reflections below me and almost fainted. I shut my eyes and held out my hands, feeling for the nearest wall. I leaned against it while trying to force my head to stop spinning. Someone was whispering my name.
“Joel…” I opened my eyes to see my reflection smiling at me as it said, “You’re his now.”
I let out a startled scream and backed away from the mirror I was leaning against. Something was moving around behind my reflection. It was hard to see what it was at first, but something was climbing up THROUGH the corridor of my reflections, making its way towards me.
As it got closer, I saw that the something was me. Well, not exactly. His features were too blurred, as if this reflection of me had been so far back that its face had been reduced to a distorted mess. THAT was the Joel that was coming for me.
I began to bang on the entrance-wall, which felt padlocked into place. I let out a frustrated scream and finally turned to face the thing coming for me, only to find that my reflections had returned to normal. There was no longer a blurry me in the mirror. I let out a reflexive sigh of relief. A beat later, it emerged from the mirror beneath me and grabbed onto my legs…
…I woke up screaming and Erin shot me a panicked look. We were still seated outside of the Toy Box.
“S-sorry…I must’ve nodded off.” I said.
Erin opened her mouth. She hesitated before replying, “I’m worried about your friends.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Why? How long have they been gone?”
“A while… Almost thirty minutes.”
I pulled out my phone to check the time, confirming what Erin had said, and I sighed. “Guess we should go check on them.”
As Erin and I started on the path back towards the entrance to the orchard, I nodded in the direction of the Sawyer house.
“You think he’s gonna show?” I asked.
Erin thought about it for a moment and nodded. “I hope so. If not, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
I glanced at her, worried that Erin was about to start crying, but the look on her face was one of stoic acceptance. Just as I realized that I was staring at her, Erin looked up at me and we exchanged a moment of awkward eye contact. I smiled to try and play it off as I quickly faced forward.
It was then that I realized we had lost our way in the dark and had somehow ended up in the dense patch of woods that bordered the orchard. “How the hell?”
I scanned the surrounding wilderness with my flashlight, trying to get my bearings, but I couldn’t locate the orchard or any of its accompanying structures in the darkness. Then, after a bit of what I thought had been backtracking, we found ourselves at the front steps of the Sawyer house.
It was a rustic white two-story; three if you counted its 6-foot elevated flood-proof foundation similar to a lot of the homes in the area. The space beneath the porch was unlit and pitch-black. Yet staring into it, I could’ve sworn I saw movement under there as Erin gestured at the house.
“Guess we might as well say hi,” she said.
Erin started up the front stairs before I could even begin to mention the many ways in which that might be a bad idea and, without hesitation, she knocked on the front door.
“Shit,” I muttered to myself and hurried up the stairs to stand beside her. There was a tense beat of silence and then from inside came the sound of footsteps across hardwood floor. The door was suddenly yanked open and a middle-aged woman with gray-streaked hair and the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen was standing there, glaring at us. This must’ve been Darlene.
“You here for the box?” she said, giving both of us a cursory scan.
I experienced a moment of intense déjà vu as Erin replied, “Sort of…”
Darlene leaned outside and glanced around. “You better come in then.”
Erin and I exchanged a cautious look as the woman turned and started back inside, leaving the front door open behind her. Erin responded with a shrug that said “fuck it” and then entered the house. As I followed her in and shut the door, I heard something rustling in the bushes outside.
“Lock it please. There’s shit all in these woods,” Darlene said.
The rustling sound grew louder as I turned the deadbolt and it slid home with an ominous THUNK. We followed Darlene into a den that reeked of weed as she gestured to a half-smoked blunt burning away in the ashtray.
“Help yourself,” she said, gesturing to the blunt. She took a seat on the sofa and muted the large flat screen TV mounted to the wall in front of her. “Now… how can I help you?”
I cleared my throat and replied, “We were told to expect a Will Sawyer. Is he coming?”
“He killed himself last night, so probably not.”
“Oh my god. I am so sorry…” I said.
“Yeah, SO… How can I help you?”
“Well…” I held up my phone and showed her Troy’s picture. “We were wondering if you remember seeing this guy out at the orchard recently,” I said.
Darlene examined the photo. “Not that I recall, but I never went out there much after the incident with the Toy Box. It’s my fault that godforsaken room got built in the first place and every time I see the thing, I wanna fucking cry,” she said.
Erin tilted her head, her tone curious when she asked, “It was your idea to build the Devil’s Toy Box?”
Darlene slowly shook her head. “No, I was sick. Like REALLY sick and that demon or whatever Willy summoned told him he would make me better if we built a room of mirrors and got people to go inside it. If your friend went in there, I can tell you one of three things happened. He’s either dead, catatonic in a hospital, or out in those woods. The one’s that end up out there, something happens to them… like when a pig gets loose and grows tusks. But if it’ll help, you’re welcome to look for him here.”
“Here as in your house?” Erin asked.
“Yeah.” Darlene stood, slid her coffee table out of the way, and pulled the rug aside to reveal a crude hatch cut into the hardwood floor. “Will brought a few of the ones that went in back home. I think he felt sorry for them. Anyway, he kept ‘em down here.”
The woman pulled open the trap-door and I was hit with a stench that was so potent, I don’t know how we didn’t notice it when we were outside. It was the smell of human filth en masse. Darlene nodded at me.
“You got a flashlight?” I returned the nod and handed it to her. She switched on the light and aimed it down at the open hatch, revealing the upturned faces of four naked emaciated men. “Any of them look familiar?”
One of the men hissed at us. There was more rustling sounds from outside and then something began to scratch at the living room window. Darlene glanced at the window as she said, “You’ve got them riled up tonight. How long were you two out there?”
Before I could respond, a filthy hand with impossibly long fingers reached up and yanked me down through the trapdoor…
…I woke up screaming. I was sitting outside of the Toy Box and Jason was seated beside me. He gave me a sideways look and said, “You okay?”
“Yeah… Bad dream. Sorry.” I was still reeling from my nightmare-within-a-nightmare as I glanced around. Something felt off. “Where are the girls?”
“THE girls… One of them being your girlfriend, Gretchen.”
“Dude, Gretchen broke up with me like a month ago. Remember? Or is this something you’re doing for your story?”
“The story you’re going to write about this. You’re fudging the details, which you probably should. You gonna make up some fake reason why we’re out here too? Some damsel-in-distress who needs you to investigate a derelict Halloween attraction? It’s definitely a lot better than saying your depressed friend asked you to drive three hours to see some rundown shack in the middle of the night where nothing whatsoever happened and then your friend shot himself.”
Jason slid the barrel of a handgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. I was sitting close enough that the shot rendered me temporarily deaf. I stood and slowly backed away, my gaze fixed on the crater of blood and viscera that had been my friend’s head mere moments ago, my own head ringing like a goddamn church bell from the large-caliber handgun going off next to it. Still, I couldn’t look away.
Finally, I forced myself to turn and watch where I was going so that I could hurry up and get the fuck out of there. As I started toward the entrance I glanced back once more to give my dead friend a final parting glance and halted when I saw that he wasn’t there.
Jason’s blood and brains were still splattered across the front of the Toy Box (so I assumed that meant I hadn’t imagined the whole thing), but the folding chair where he had been sitting was now void of his slumped, lifeless body. As I stood there, trying to figure out where Jason’s corpse could’ve gone, a stream of stagnant-smelling water splattered against the side of my face.
I turned to see Jason’s (mostly) headless body draped over one of the Exorcist game’s mounted water guns. I’m not exactly proud to admit this but I froze when I saw him, thinking that Jason had gone full-on undead zombie. Though, after almost a minute of me standing there waiting for him to make the next move, I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen.
What I was seeing was nothing more than a dead body lying on a mounted water-gun. Which meant that someone or something was out there in the darkness, moving around a 160-pound corpse and propping it up on shit simply to fuck with me. This was the realization that finally sent me running.
I was in my ’91 Jeep Cherokee and halfway down the unpaved dirt road back to the highway when the Cherokee hit a bump that dislodged something from its undercarriage. I pulled over and started to get out so I could take a look at what it had been and that’s when I realized I was once again looking at Jason’s mangled body. Moving a grown man’s corpse is one thing, but moving it and then wedging it up into a car’s undercarriage in the time it took me to get back to my jeep? That’s crazy talk.
I really don’t like to give this part much thought because the truth of it is kind of depressing. Real Life Jason HAD been really depressed about the breakup with Gretchen and I guess I should’ve seen it coming, but I didn’t.
And so I went back home and started to write it all down, just as Jason knew I would. I got about this far when I was interrupted by a knock on the door to my apartment. I opened the door and saw there was a note taped to the outside.
THERE’S A PACKAGE FOR YOU IN THE LOBBY
It was about 11PM and I was pretty sure the management at my complex had long since gone home for the evening, but I headed toward the lobby anyway out of sheer curiosity. I started down the steps leading to the first floor of my complex to see Jason’s mutilated body leaning against a coke machine at the bottom of the stairwell. Somehow, they had found me.
I vaulted back up the stairs, seeing everything in slow-motion as I sprinted to my apartment and locked the door. A moment later, the knob began to rattle as someone tried to turn it from outside. I was slowly backing away from the door when something big crashed through it…
…Though, “it” was no longer my front door but rather the inside wall of the Toy Box that suddenly buckled inward to reveal a familiar set of headlights. Jason had crashed my Cherokee into the side of the Toy Box.
I spent 25 seconds inside the Devil’s Toy Box. That’s how long it took for Jason to run my car into it. Thankfully, the Cherokee was still drivable afterward and we promptly got the fuck out of there.
I dropped Erin off at her house with an apology, explaining that there was nothing else I could do. Honestly, I don’t know what she expected from me. This isn’t Supernatural. If your boyfriend is missing, you call the cops. I’m going home. Do I feel bad that I couldn’t help her?
Sure, but for what it’s worth, we disabled the Toy Box and probably saved countless generations of dumb kids from making the same mistake as Erin’s boyfriend. The bad news is that doing so has almost certainly scarred me for life. Even as I sit here days later, writing this all down for the second time, I’m still worried that it’s not over. I’m worried that when I wake up tomorrow, it’s going to be in front of that goddamned box.