There’s a museum in downtown Pittsburgh that has a very rich historical exhibit. When the city was first being built, it was home to countless immigrants trying to forge a life for themselves.
The exhibit at the H. J. Heinz museum is home to the memories of those days long past. But for some, those days long past are every bit as real as the present.
It was my junior year of high school, and our history teacher decided a trip to this historical museum would be of benefit. I was a trifle disappointed when we arrived. I had anticipated a grand, old building with sweeping ivory columns and a million steps leading up to sprawling, golden trim front doors. What I saw, however, was a run-down, red brick skyscraper sitting all by itself in a deserted lot of rubble and quickly growing weeds. The building itself appeared more antiquated than the contents I guessed were inside. Museum, indeed.
What little hope I had held out quickly faded as we stepped inside. Most of the building’s original interior had been replaced. New walls, new floors, new everything. It had a very artificial feel to it. After listening to some drabble from a tour guide, we were led up to the second floor of the museum, passing several mock- up, old-styled airplanes, cars, and trolleys.
We were brought into a large room, which was home to a wall-to-wall mural of Pittsburgh’s cultural history. All nationalities were represented somewhere in a vast sea of people that surrounded us on all four walls. They represented the men and woman who founded the city, the first settlers who laid every brick, stone, and wooden plank by hand. The mural was poorly done; it had a cartoon-like feel to it. It, like everything else thus far on the tour, was artificial.
I was more than bored. Surely, this sad excuse for a field trip could not be any better or worse than sitting in classrooms all day long. Instead of listening to the droning of several instructors, we stood listening to the droning of an uninspired tour guide…albeit, a very young, very attractive uninspired tour guide. I imagined she could have found work elsewhere, if for no other reason than the captivating smile she occasionally graced us with when one of us (me, usually) would crack a joke.
I had all but given up hope on anything interesting happening during this tour. We sat in a tiny, circular room and were ‘treated’ to a video of B-grade actors and actresses portraying the city’s founders. What nonsense. Being an amateur theater and film director myself, I found the narrative on the city’s early days to be poorly done, with a distinct lack of any kind of cohesiveness. My head pounded, as if it longed to separate itself from my body and flee the museum as quickly as possible. I pressed on, growing more irritable by the second. My endurance would soon pay off, however.
Our next stop: Hollywood. Or at least, it could have been. We arrived on a floor that could have easily been a movie set. All around, springing up from the ground like a great, brick and steel forest, was an exact recreation of the Pittsburgh of yesteryear. I marveled at the detail put into recreating the handful of old downtown streets and buildings that made up this floor’s display. The tops of the buildings rose up into a shroud of darkness that I could only assume was a tarp or curtain, designed to give the impression of late evening, or night.
This, in and of itself, would have been fantastic enough. Add to that a dozen or so actors and actresses portraying people straight out of the history books, and the illusion was complete. I was in awe, instantly thinking of a hundred different scenes and a hundred different stories that could have taken place on these very streets. There was something about the floor that drew me in, and I was hooked. My earlier chagrin was transformed into a deep respect and quiet awe for the mastermind behind this incredible piece of work. The exteriors were tremendous, but inside each building was an interior that was every bit as real and vivid as the house I lived in. Stores, law offices, and apartment buildings of all kinds were brought to life, both inside and out.
A house on the ‘street corner’ caught my eye, and I stepped inside. It was darker than the others, and an eerie light emanated from somewhere within. The air in the entry room was stale and warm, nothing like the cool, air-conditioned temperatures of the other rooms. The walls appeared to be genuine wood, and the ambience in the room was haunting. There was a thick silence about the place. I swear I could hear my heart beating at a steadily increasing rate.
When I turned the corner, I was somewhat startled to find a woman, sitting in a rocking chair next to an ancient coffin. She seemed to be sobbing silently. She looked up to me only briefly, dabbed her moist eyes with a towel, and then returned her gaze to the coffin. I moved to the coffin without much thought, inadvertently standing between the woman and the coffin. The thing was remarkably realistic. Every line, every nook and cranny was painstakingly crafted to historic perfection. A plaque was mounted next to the coffin that explained exactly what it was doing in someone’s living room. Apparently, in those days, funerals took place inside the deceased’s home. The body could be there for days, until funeral services had concluded and burial could be arranged.
The coffin lid was open, and inside rested the likeness of a young boy. The mannequin looked remarkably real; so great was the detail, I could have sworn I saw small marks in the plastic that looked like moles, scars, or some other skin deformities. I was racked with chills and surprised that such a disturbing image would be made public in a family museum such as this.
I turned and found myself staring into the face of the woman. I leapt back, startled. Her features were pale, her eyes sunken, and wrinkles creased her entire forehead. There was something about her that seemed different from the other actors, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It was as if some deep grief had permeated her every feature. I could only stare. A chill shot through the air that seemed to clutch my very soul.
Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. I could read the word she was trying to speak, and deep in my mind I swear I heard a rasping voice vomiting the word out. Move. Move. Move.
Her grief was so deep, so overwhelming, my own soul seemed to cry out for release from whatever burdened her so. I could only stare blankly, suffering from paralysis both mental and physical. When I regained control of my legs, I stepped aside, giving the woman a clear view of the coffin once again. She blinked and returned to her seat, resuming her earlier posture of dabbing her damp eyes with the wet towel. The woman looked at the child with such a deep, desperate longing, I nearly wept with her.
I could only turn and leave, unable to believe how amazing the actress was who portrayed this mourning woman. Surely, she deserved some kind of award. I slipped out of the building and quickly rejoined my group, my heart still beating quickly.
The rest of the tour went by in a blur. I could think of nothing else but the haunting woman in the house, and the eerily realistic child in the coffin. As the tour wrapped up a few hours later, we headed back down to the floor with all of the exhibits. The actors had left for the day, so the streets were empty. It truly seemed as if the city was asleep. I returned to the house with the coffin and was surprised to find it roped off. All of the lights were out.
The tour guide approached me and flashed her award-winning smile.
"Sorry; that one’s closed off."
"When did it close?" I asked, curious as to what could have happened in the short time we had been away. I tried to get a peek inside, but it was just too dark.
"Right after it opened. Care to see?"
Without waiting for an answer, she removed the rope and motioned for me to follow her. We entered the room I had been in only hours before. A layer of dust occupied virtually every surface, including the coffin and the old wooden chair. What’s more, the coffin was closed.
"Right after it opened today, you mean?" I queried. The girl gave me a puzzled look.
"This exhibit has been closed for months," she answered. "It was shut down the day after it opened."
"That’s impossible. I was just down here. I saw an actress sitting right there." I pointed to the chair. The towel the woman was using hung over the back of the chair. "There, that towel. She was using that towel."
I grabbed it and dropped it. The thing was dry and crisp. Obviously, it hadn't seen water in months. I stepped back. "What’s going on? This should be wet. And the coffin, it was open. There was a mannequin inside…"
"The coffin is nailed shut. It’s never been opened."
I examined the nails; sure enough, they were ancient and rusted in place. It would take a lot of work to get them out. But it had been open! I had seen it open! "Where did it come from?" That was all I could get out.
The girl moved to a table and picked an old, dusty picture and handed it to me. I looked in it and nearly dropped it. Staring back at me in the picture was the woman I had seen in there earlier. Also in the picture was a young boy, about four years old.
"What is this?"
"It came in with the rest of this stuff," she said. "They found an old cabin in Squirrel Hill. Almost everything in this room came from there."
"Even the coffin?"
She nodded. I was mortified. A real coffin that was found in an old cabin, and it hadn't been opened? My stomach churned at the implication of what really was in that box.
She went on to explain that the exhibit was closed because the workers were too terrified to complete the scene. She pointed out an incomplete wall above the rocking chair, a wall that I had seen completely intact only hours before. The exhibit had opened only about three- fourths complete, and the people were too terrified to even visit it. Many people reported something similar to what I had told her about: a middle-aged woman with sad features grieving over the open coffin of her departed child. The woman had grown quite violent when the first crowd of people gathered around the coffin. She never actually spoke, but her mouth moved. She shook her cloth at the people and frightened them enough to chase them away. The exhibit was shut down the very next day.
My mind reeled. This was impossible! Could it have been that the woman I saw in the chair was DEAD? That the child in the coffin was real? I asked the girl why the curators of the museum would put such a dreadful exhibit on display in the first place.
"Realism, I guess. Or maybe the shock-value of it all. I've never seen anything in here, so I really don't know if any of that stuff is true."
It’s true…it’s true, I thought, terrified beyond the capacity for words and inadvertently quoting Pittsburgh’s hometown wrestling superstar, Kurt Angle, in the process.
I felt dizzy and leaned against the closest thing I could find for support. Unfortunately, in this case, the closest thing was the coffin. It slid easily off its stand under my bulk, and landed sideways on the floor with a sickening crash.
The rusted nails broke under the shock of the fall, and the lid to the coffin tumbled open. Instantly, the lantern on the fireplace snapped to life, illuminating the room with dancing shadows. Hesitantly, Jenna and I peeked at the now-open coffin. What we saw, to this day, still fills me with sickening dread and chills my very soul. The grotesque, decomposed corpse of a small child stared at us through empty eye sockets. We screamed in terror and fled from the room.
She never went back to work there, and I never returned. The exhibit was quickly torn down and the staff was told never to speak of the goings- on. The few that had an inkling about what had happened eventually left, but publicly, the museum has denied that the coffin came from an actual cabin. Jenna and I know better, though. We know where the pieces of that exhibit came from. And we also know that next time, the museum will be a little more careful about where it gets its displays from.