I think I was near 20 years old at the time. This is about a decade ago. I was taking the Amtrak from Chicago to go see my parents in Southern Illinois. The train was empty enough, and I was thankful for that. I sat alone; had both seats to myself. In the pair of seats in front me sat a young girl – probably 16 – and a guy maybe about my age. I couldn’t see their faces at the time, but I could hear them quietly bickering pretty much from the get go. You know, young love.
Night fell and I spent my time completely zoned out, headphones on, staring out into the absolute darkness that sped by. I don’t know how it caught my attention, but as I faced the window my focus shifted. Reflected by the glass, I could see the girl who sat in front of me. She was facing the window, staring directly back at my reflection, and she was mouthing the words, “Help me.”
I sat there dumbfounded for a few seconds before I fully processed what was really happening. It takes awhile when there’s no tense string score to punctuate how you should be reacting. When it hit me that this girl could actually be in real trouble, and that the guy she was with was possibly bad news, I went cold. I hate to use such a trite phrase, but it’s true: I felt an actual rush of icy numbness.
Seemingly by luck, the guy who was sitting with her got up right then and either went to the bathroom or to go get food. Regardless, it was just enough time for this girl to look over the back of her seat at me and start frantically spilling her story: she didn’t know who this guy was; he had snuggled up to her as soon as she got on the train; he was being too forward, too touchy, too aggressive; he was drunk; she was afraid. She didn’t know what to do.
Now, thinking on my toes has never necessarily been my greatest strong-point. I do best with a few hours, a couple beers, and a notepad. I could have said a million things to this girl, the easiest and most logical being, “Get a conductor”, or even just, “Move seats right now, sit next to me!” But under pressure for an immediate response — and yes, this whole story has been 100% true, including the next few lines — the first thing that came to my lips was: “Set him on fire?”
I’ll let the insanity of that bizarre suggestion set in for a second, but I won’t wait too long because this story somehow gets crazier, and quick. As if I’d just handed her a Christmas gift she had been begging 364 days for, this girl’s face lit up. Her eyes got big and her smile broadened. “Great idea!”, she enthused, without a single drop of sarcasm. Again, this all really did happen.
She plopped back down in her seat just as the mysterious aggressor returned, resuming his place saddled up next to her. I sat there, motionless, slack-jawed. Just as quickly as it had started, it was over – seemingly back to normal. And there was no one around who witnessed it, so I couldn’t actually be sure it really even happened. A part of me thought, “Is this it? Is this how these types of situations are handled in real life? Is everything okay now?” I must have accepted whatever conclusion came from my internal dialogue as an acceptable resolution, because I soon recommenced submerging myself in the vast darkness on the other side of my window.
But that’s when I heard it. The distinct “chk, chk” of a sparkwheel striking flint, from a lighter low on fluid. “Chk, chk”, again, only this time followed by a “Yeow! What the hell are you doing, you crazy bitch?” The creeper shot up from the seat in front of me, rubbing the side of his head. He continued mumbling to himself as he made his way down the row of seats, far away from the one he’d just been sitting in. I couldn’t believe the girl had taken my advice, but moreover I couldn’t believe it worked. But then again, if someone sitting next to me tried to set my head alight, I’d hightail it out of there, too.
Like a gopher, the girl popped back up, still grinning: “That was so awesome!” I asked if she was okay, she said she was, that it was just some unwarranted attention from a tipsy stranger. Before I could ask anything else, she spoke again, but in a weirder, more hushed voice: “You know, I think I’ve seen you before…” That icy, uneasy feeling I spoke of earlier? It returned in waves. I had no idea who this girl was, I had never seen her in my life. I smiled and shrugged. I asked where she lived.
“Oh, I live at Brookside. Have you heard of it?” I had heard of it. As I was aware of it, it was a boarding school where troubled kids were sent. And it was just a couple blocks away from my parents house. On the same street. I suddenly realized that there was a real chance this girl had seen me before, and that creeped me out even more. She was still smiling, her eyes wide and fixed. She asked how long I was going to be in town for. “Maybe we could hang out…” Her voice was soft and terrifying. I still hadn’t said anything in a few minutes, mostly because I was still reeling from how this whole thing had unfolded. I felt broadsided. I was sucked into a situation and thought I had helped, but now I just felt like the second fly on a spider’s web.
“I…I…”, was all I could manage. I probably sounded like a pirate.
“What’s your phone number?”, she pressed. Still smiling, eyes black and burning.
I blurted out ten random numbers. It was the first smart move I had made this whole time. She wrote them down on a piece of paper, which she tore a chunk from and handed to me. Her number was written down.
I looked behind me down the long row of seats for the unaccounted shady dude from earlier. I wondered if he had unwittingly been made the pawn in a game of loony lust, and if I had been the intended target the whole time. I felt weird, tense, confused. I turned back to the blackness outside and I looked out as far as I possibly could.
Terror Train is actually a lot like this anecdote, and not just because of its locomotive setting. It’s long – much longer than it needs to be – but the big reveal at the end is just satisfying enough to make it all worth it. Would you want to hear it again? No, of course not. But the first ride’s pretty fun.
The first time I saw Terror Train, I was honestly pretty blown away. Even if it was just to cash in on the burgeoning slasher craze at the time, it has a clever enough concept and a reveal at the end that’ll leave you braided as a pretzel. I don’t want to give too much away, especially if you’ve never seen it, because the less you know the better.
A graduating class of med students board a train on New Year’s Eve to celebrate their success, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s a costume party! As a mysterious killer makes their way through the iron horse, they take the costume of each successive victim, making the killer harder to track. It’s a fun flick – and the only film magician David Copperfield has had a starring role in – but repeated viewings will definitely make the holes in the plot more apparent. Still, I consider it to be a top contender to all of its early-80’s slasher ilk, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get more recognition – because it should.
Well, that’s all my prattling for now. Go watch Terror Train.
This has been Dr. Jose, saying: Happy Holidays, Hail Satan, and Cowabunga.