The Devil in the Dark – The Story of David Gregg, part 1
After brushing my teeth, I walk out of the bathroom and cautiously peer down the dark hallway. Peeking out from around the corner, I see a huge butcher knife, gleaming in the darkness. A hand wearing a black glove holds the weapon tightly aloft, slowly twisting the knife so I will see the glimmer in the reflected light. I catch my breath and step into the hall, but before I can act I hear a maniacal laugh freezing me in my steps. A voice echoes through the rooms of the house as it creaks, “You’re going to diiiie tonight!”
I nervously attempt to short circuit the game, “Okay, David… enough already.”
The game will continue until he gets bored and we decide to flip through our old comics again, see what late-night movie is on TV, or settle down to work on our own drawings. It is a game where I am terrified, not that I’d die, because that wasn’t his goal, but that one of us would end up genuinely hurt. That danger is part of the game. It’s an adrenaline rush that David will be seeking for the next 25 years.
Long before then I had realized that the worst thing I could do was panic. David would feed off of any fear; increasing his intensity as his tall, skeletal frame chased me through his house. Spending the night at a friend’s house was always fraught with both tension and adventure, but none of my other friends pretended to be a psycho; chasing me through their homes while their parents peacefully slumbered away.
Later in my life, I’d hear stories of similar games between brothers and sisters. Stories where kids would end up hurt, sometimes being rushed to the hospital, but nothing ever fatal aside from scars.
Faces of Death #1: RUNNING WITH A SHARP OBJECT, FALLING AND DYING
My sister and I didn’t play such games. We were raised in a climate where we understood that the possible repercussions weren’t worth the risk. These reservations both helped and hindered me later in life. My mom attempted to ingrain a respect for limitations by warning us about the perils of strangers, unrestricted horseplay, venturing out of the neighborhood, promiscuity, and untamed wildlife. These lessons were often accompanied by stories where the inevitable result was death or permanent disability. I’d lay awake at night, tempted like most kids to break the rules, but also terrified that I might end up as another example on the list.
David Gregg always had masochistic tendencies. He was born late in his parent’s marriage, leaving him convinced that he was an unwanted surprise. We spent endless hours sitting in his room discussing Star Trek, comics, or Dungeons and Dragons, but he’d occasionally bring up the topic. “Think about it. My brother and sister are MUCH older, which means that my parents thought they were done. Then I come along and they have to start again.” It was a compelling argument that helped justify Dave’s well-honed disdain for humanity. I’d laugh and say, “Sounds about right to me,” before changing the subject. He certainly wasn’t obsessed with it, but even then I was aware of how uninvolved his parents were in his life, especially in comparison to how over-involved I felt that my parents were.When my mom discovered that I’d been stealthily taking blocks from my kindergarten, she made me return them as she marched me into the school office for me to hand them over, red-faced in shame. David had similar incidents, except after his parent’s initial anger, they’d fail to follow through by having him apologize for the theft. I’m not suggesting that his parents didn’t love him, nor were they completely uninvolved. They just seemed tired and distracted by their own lives, leaving him to himself, far away on the opposite side of their sprawling, four-bedroom ranch house.
My parents could sense his disdain for authority, which made them increasingly leery of me spending time with him, but they never tried to put an end to our friendship. In spite of my awareness of David’s anti-social tendencies, I always knew that the things we discussed were limited to our imaginations. There were many aspects to our friendship which in today’s world would send red flags and school warnings, but back then, school shootings were unusual. We spent hours on the phone compiling imaginary lists of enemies from school, including bullies who’d abused us and jocks and girls we deemed as too popular. It was our imaginary “kill list” inspired by James Bond’s license to kill.
David’s first job was working as a stock boy at the Minimax on Southmore Boulevard. It was close enough to his house so that he could ride his 10-speed Schwinn bicycle there. I can still picture David on the bicycle with his absurdly long, skinny legs pedaling away furiously. My family seldom shopped there, but one evening my mom was alone at the store buying a few last minute groceries. Suddenly without warning, an empty cardboard box flew across the aisle, hitting her in the head. My dazed mom looked up to see David, laughing hysterically as he half-heartedly apologized by noting that she was wearing a red sweater and from his peripheral vision he thought she was a fellow stock boy wearing the required red smocks. My mom wasn’t convinced that he hadn’t done it on purpose, nor was I, but to me it didn’t matter. Any time the subject was raised later, David would remain defiantly unapologetic and laughingly say, “I can’t help it that she was wearing red!”During our Junior year in high school, our good friend Steve had a Halloween costume party co-organized by our nerdy group. We decided that since we weren’t being invited to any parties we should throw our own. Steve played trombone in band, lending him access to another nerdy subculture in the school, which most importantly included girls. At this point I was still ridiculously shy around women, although during church camp the previous summer before I had briefly been kissed by Shelly, a girl from my church. The party was our attempt to socialize and get closer to girls, however, due to my shyness I didn’t invite any of the girls I liked at school.
I prepped for a few weeks, planning to dress as Kings of the Wild Frontier-era Adam Ant, which included a white stripe across my face. For weeks I’d asked David what he was dressing as, but he was vague and noncommittal with his answers.On the night of the party, we gathered early at Steve’s house, anxiously noting everyone as they arrived. I secretly held out hope that some beautiful, dark-haired mystery girl would arrive and be smitten by me in my Adam Ant garb. Eventually the living room filled up with everyone standing around chatting excitedly, aside from David, who was still missing.
Finally we heard a stern knock on the front door, and the room grew silent as a menacingly tall, impossibly thin man paced into the house. He was wearing sunglasses over thick, flesh-colored ace bandages stretched entirely around his head; leaving only small openings for his eyes and nose. This figure also wore a common plaid bathrobe, which was even more unsettling since it was less like a costume. Ominously strapped around his calf was a huge diving knife in a sheath, which was clearly not a prop.The room remained quiet as the figure, cautiously took everyone into his oppressive gaze. After a long awkward silence someone nervously said, “Um..who are you? What are you?” The man said nothing, only turning to look at the partygoer before slowly unstrapping the knife and methodically slipping it out of the sheath. As the knife was raised, glimmering in the light, I stepped into the fray and said, “DAVID! Stop freaking everyone out! It’s David Gregg everyone. He’s just trying to scare you.” Sadly, many of the guests there just replied with, “David who?! Does he go to another school?” Finally, David broke out of his icy role and laughed before peeling away the sweaty bandages on his face. People remained apprehensive, while I fruitlessly attempted to ease everyone’s fears. During that time, David was seen as another anonymous nerd, but that would change during our final two years of high school.
One misguided aspect of the party was that it revolved around a scavenger hunt, which in hindsight is not what you arrange if you want to socialize. Being typical nerds, we became focused on winning the game, rather than actually use the event to get to know anyone better. In all honesty, I can’t even remember who showed up, but it felt successful because some girls actually did.
That night was the first time I’d worn makeup or a costume since my performance as Scrooge in 5th grade, but this felt refreshingly liberating. It was the start of my exploration to discover a new Jeff who wasn’t shy and self-consciously concerned with fitting in with his peers. More importantly, it was David’s first attempt at embracing his uncanny physique and utilizing it to make him stand out in a crowd. Until that night, we had both fruitlessly attempted to blend in with the average kids at school, but we soon learned the vital lesson that attempting to be like the others was a waste of time.
When MTV arrived during those years, David was my closest friend with cable. We’d sit in his dark living room watching music videos, hoping to discover something we connected to, anything outside of the mainstream. As we grew up, David was always willing to go farther, heedlessly ignoring any limits. This made him the most adventurous in our small group of nerds, but it also made him the most dangerous to be around. Once we discovered New Wave music, it was only a short time until we began changing our styles. David was typically unrestrained in developing his new appearance, such as shaving off his eyebrows or locking himself into the bathroom and numbing his nose with an ice cube before piercing it himself. We evolved at different rates since I was still overly-concerned with disappointing my mild-mannered, conservative parents. David quickly out-paced me, gaining new friends who were uninterested in any limitations, while I grew closer to our other nerdy friend, Mike.
David’s abrupt style changes quickly made him popular at Sam Rayburn High. He began calling himself Spike, and became an amusing court jester for our fellow students. He was still creepily tall and thin, which was too freakish for any girls at our school to consider attractive. Thankfully, there were plenty of more open-minded girls in Houston who were looking for someone unusual. For the first time in his life, David discovered that his cartoonish looks were attracting women, rather than scaring them away.Faces of Death #2: OVERDOSING ON DRUGS AND DYING
Faces of Death #3: DRINKING AND DRIVING, THEN DYING
We stayed close enough during that time, but I also began keeping my distance as our differences grew. I was leery of the teenage cliches of drinking and casual drug use, but secretly I was afraid of losing self-control. I worried that a substance-enhanced escape might sidetrack me from ever genuinely escaping from Texas. David, however, embraced any getaway, which included regularly swiping booze from his folk’s liquor cabinet, along with smoking weed and dropping acid.
After graduation, I only saw David sparingly, when he’d regale me with stories of his adventures, which were usually based on drunken escapades and responses to his crazy appearance. We slowly drifted apart as he began spending time with new friends, including a drag queen named Dot, and another artist, Lance.
Faces of Death #4: VISITING A NEW PLACE, GETTING KIDNAPPED AND DYING
During that time you could regularly find him at Numbers, or Lola’s, the gay biker bar. I was left behind, feeling too uncool to be a part of it. Yet Dave never treated me like that. I felt like a kid still figuring life out; spending my time drawing, watching old movies on VHS and trying to make out with girls. It appeared that David had skipped past that traditional teenage stuff, which was confirmed when I heard that he took a trip with his new friends to Los Angeles.
The following Halloween, 1986, a year after we graduated, Mike and I decided to go to a haunted house located in the Bellaire section of Houston. At this point, I hadn’t spoken with David for 6 months or more, and last I’d heard he had dropped out of the cosmetology classes he had been taking at San Jacinto Community College.
Waiting in line, Michael and I shuffled closer to the doors as distant screams and chainsaw roars kept us on edge. At the entrance, we were pushed into a dark room along with several strangers, accompanied by the blast of a fog machine and a burst of strobe light to further disorient us. It was an enveloping darkness in a black hallway with no glimmer of light. The only way forward was to feel our way along the walls, yet everyone could sense that something or someone was hiding within, waiting to pop out.
One of the strangers grew frustrated that his girlfriend kept pushing him forward into the darkness. He suddenly snapped, “Dammit, Cindy! Stop fuckin’ shoving me!” In response, rising from deep within the dark void of the room, I heard a maniacal high-pitched laugh followed by a familiar yet terrifying voice creaking out, “Stop fuckin’ shoooving him, Cindiiiie. There’s no neeeed to rushhh since you’re all going to diiiie tonight!”
In a blind panic I yelled out into the dark, “David Gregg?! Is that you?”
There was a lingering silence before I heard the reply, “Jeff Gauntt? What the hell are you doing here?!”
-to be continued.