True Horror: Author Recalls Philadelphia College Student Found Hung

Remembering the Philadelphia College Student Found Hung in His Dorm Room

Over the years, many readers have written to me, telling me how impressed they are with my ability to write scary stuff so believably. Whether it’s the baby Harp seals being butchered in Kronos Rising, Garm Braddock and his friend getting mangled by Xiphactinus fish in Kronos Rising: Kraken, or the general violence (child abuse, domestic brutality, etc.) that tends to pervade all the books (they are horror novels, after all), people feel like they’re getting firsthand glimpses into what’s happening. And they like it.
I’m very flattered by this. Occasionally, some of the more curious have asked if I’ve experienced these things myself, hence my ability to write them so well. I’m not a fan of such questions, but I will say for the record that I’ve never seen a seal roundup firsthand, nor have I ever been attacked by a prehistoric fish the size of a great white shark (does a seven-foot alligator count?). I have, however, had the misfortune of been exposed to many unpleasant things during my half-century on this planet, things I could well have done without.
Today, I’ve decided to share one – one I’ve kept to myself for over thirty years. It bored a hole in my soul back then, and maybe, just maybe, by sharing it I can shore that hole up a little.

 

It was 1987, and I was still in school and working at a certain college in center-city Philadelphia. It was a work-study job, and I was assigned to the campus police. Although it was the midnight-to-eight shift, a time when things in Philly are certainly at their most heinous, my job basically entailed fetching coffee, answering phones, and doing tours of the place at odd hours to make sure all was well. It certainly wasn’t a job one would consider dangerous or frightening.
Of course, that soon changed.
A few weeks before graduation, and despite the scalding temps, they had me stationed at the dormitories checking IDs. I was approached by a man whose name I don’t recall (nor do I care to), but he was the chief engineer of the place. We’ll call him “Joe”. Joe informed me that the freshmen had all moved out and asked me to do a sweep of the dorms. He wanted me to make sure all the dorm room doors were locked, and if I found one that wasn’t, I was to check the room to make sure it had been emptied, lock it, and report the room number.
I went about my assignment, starting on the third floor and working my way down. It was mindless stuff, because apart from the NTAs that still lived there (non-teaching assistants) the place was basically empty. So, there I was, door-door-door-door-door . . . working my way down a long hallway of utter monotony.
The third floor was uneventful, so I made my way to the second. It was just like the previous floor and I found nothing but locked door after locked door. Eventually, however, I came across one that wasn’t locked. I remember the clicking sound as I turned the handle and the lock mechanism snapped open.
Trust me when I tell you, if I’d known what Cenobite-worthy “delights” were waiting behind door number two, I’d have jumped off that game show on the spot and hauled ass the other way.
But of course, I didn’t know, and so I calmly opened the door and poked my head in. It was dark inside, but with the hallway light behind me, I could see well enough to make out the layout of the room.
The first thing I noticed was that it had been trashed. And when I say trashed, we’re talking ransacked. There were clothes, books, and belongings all over the place, and every drawer in every bureau was hanging open or ripped out. I remember thinking the room must’ve belonged to an NTA, and that this was how he maintained his quarters. I shook my head in disgust, muttered, “What a slob,” and turned to shut the door.
Then something stopped me in my tracks.

Finding the Body

As I was closing the door, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Or rather, someone. I jumped, realizing someone had been standing there, in the shadows to my right, the entire time. With the door being so close, I hadn’t seen them. It was fairly dark, but as I turned to see who it was, I could make out a very tall man with his head pulled up. He appeared to be rocking back on his heels.
I had a moment’s fright, more so when I saw the heavy electrical cord that was wrapped around the man’s neck and vanished up into the ceiling.
I remember it was taut. Very taut.
I drew in a fear-filled breath. My first thought was that I’d stumbled across someone who’d hung themselves, but then I remembered the guy’s feet were planted firmly on the floor. I figured it was a sick practical joke of some kind and remarked, “Very funny, asshole.”
Then multiple things happened. The man didn’t answer. I noticed his hands were tied in front of him and his knees were strangely bent, as if there was no real weight on them.
Then the smell hit me.
I’d never smelled death before, but it was a stench I will never forget.
I gaped at what I now realized was a rotting corpse. I realized the poor guy must’ve been hanging there in the heat for a long time. His spine had completely straightened from his own weight until he’d stretched to a full seven feet in height. A wave of absolute terror hit me, and I started thinking irrationally. I remember closing the door oh-so-quietly, terrified that, if I was too loud, he might wake up and come after me.
The next thing I knew, I was sprinting down the hallway toward the far stairwell, making for the security checkpoint I’d initially come from and radioing for my supervisor at the same time. I was in full panic mode, and the fact that the garbage radios they gave out didn’t work wasn’t helping any. I couldn’t get through, and seconds later burst into the dormitory security checkpoint like a madman.
I pushed the cop on duty out of the way, grabbed the phone, and frantically called across the street to “John”, the officer in charge. I blurted to him, “There’s-a-kid-in-the-dorms-and-he-hung-himself-and-I-think-he’s-dead!” John obviously thought I was pulling some sort of adolescent prank. His remark, “Nice try, asshole,” only served to send me into hysterics.
“I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING, GOD DAMN IT! HE’S FUCKING DEAD, AND YOU NEED TO DO SOMETHING!”
When John heard the sheer terror in my voice, he realized I was serious. He instructed me to have the officer on duty call 911 and for me to meet him out front; he’d be right over.
I rushed to the gate, waiting in adrenalized fear for John to get there. I remember seeing him round the corner and come loping in my direction, and it was the strangest thing: I was so freaked out that, in my eyes, he was moving in slow motion. I was standing there, waving for him to hurry, and hearing myself yell, also in slow motion, “Cooommmme ooooooonnnnn!”

Going Back Up There

John finally got there, and we rushed up to the second floor. I was hardly enthusiastic about going back into that room, and hung back a bit as John opened the door and hit the lights. He couldn’t see the dead student, however, because, as it had been for me, the door was in his way. He turned and gave me a pissed-off look.
“Where is he, jerkoff?”
“Right there!” I said with huge eyes.
I hadn’t seen the poor freshman’s corpse in the light before, and he was infinitely more horrifying to look upon now. His face was green and he wore a hellish look, like someone who’d died an agonizing death. His eyes were rolled up inside his head and he had dried blood and other stuff that had oozed out of his ears, nose, mouth and even eyes. I remember seeing his hands, tied tightly in front of him with some sort of cord; they were swollen like balloons and a sick, mottled kind of purple, as if the blood had all collected and congealed inside them.
Then there was that smell again. The sickening stench seemed even stronger now, if that was possible.
John’s eyes bugged out as he saw the sagging body and a profound, “Holy shit!” came out of his mouth. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Nothing we can do for him. Let’s wait for the ambulance guys.”
I was pretty numb at this point. I’d never seen a “stiff” before, as John put it, and I just sort of stood there in a daze, staggering around impotently as regular PD and EMTs swarmed the scene.
You could see these guys were used to these sorts of horrors, as they really took things in stride. I remember this one EMT looking up at the still-hanging body and saying, “Well . . . I don’t see any point in taking readings off this guy.” He turned to a nearby cop and asked him if it was alright to close the door. The guy grinned, shook his head and said, “Sure, he’s not going anywhere!”
At this point, the callused lack of humanity became too much for me and I left the scene. I recall walking back downstairs with my supervisor as the professionals continued to do their jobs. John was busy puffing away on a cigarette, and at one point asked me if I wanted one. When I told him I didn’t smoke, he chuckled and said, “After this, you might start!”
As bad as things were at that point, for me, the worst part came when the city cops started trying to grill me over the freshman’s death. I told them what happened in garish detail, then told them again. After a while, I could see they were looking at me as if I had something to do with it! Just the notion was insane – a rotten black cherry, topping an already festering sundae of insanity. When I told the one cop, “Look, I already told you what happened, twice,” he snarled at me and said, “And now you’re going to tell me again, and you’re gonna keep telling me until we get it right.”
As he said that I felt this intense, burning pain in my stomach start to build – the initial onset of a stomach ulcer that would end up plaguing me for years. I was sorely tempted to tell the cop to go have relations with his mother, but settled on saying, “Look, if you’re looking for someone to interrogate over this, you should be talking to “Joe”, the head engineer. He’s the one that sent me to check all the damn doors anyway, so if there’s someone that wanted that kid to be found it’s him, not me!”
That was the end of the interrogation, thank God.

What Happened Next

Things were pretty hairy after that. I found out through the grapevine that the dead kid was a freshman named “Reeve”, and that he’d supposedly killed himself to get back at his parents (not a good idea). They’d apparently found out that he was gay and rented out his room, telling him he was cut off and out of the house. I was told he’d scrawled “There is no excuse for failure” on his mirror as a final message to them. Frankly, when I agreed to sit down with them, Reeve’s parents seemed more distraught over my state of mind after I’d come face-to-face with their son’s corpse than his actual death. Meeting them was so surreal, almost bizarre.
I never understood the ransacked room, which seemed quite a bit odd to me. The campus cops said they’d found his diary, and in it he’d written about lusting after his roommate, and how he used to masturbate under his blanket while watching him sleep. Supposedly, he’d tricked said roommate into tying his hands in front of him as a stunt of some kind, with the other guy not knowing that it was in preparation for hanging himself. How that worked, I have no idea.
I do know that the EMTs told me that, based on all the kick marks on a nearby wall, Reeve tried to change his mind about killing himself. Unfortunately, he was unable to save himself. They said it took him 45 minutes to die. A horrible, tragic way to go.

The Fallout

I didn’t hear much about things after that. I don’t think Reeve’s suicide ever made the papers or the news, which was odd. I expected to see “Philadelphia College Student Suicide by Hanging” or “Suicide on Campus: Philadelphia College Student Found Hung” all over the place. There was nothing, and after a few days everyone at work seemed disinclined to talk about it. That was, except for the jerk-off campus cops from another shift, who liked to leave little nooses hanging in dark places for me to find while doing late-night patrols. Real sweethearts, those guys.
Of course, the piece de resistance had to be those couple of times when I opened a door at work and imagined (hopefully) I saw Reeve out of the corner of my eye, just . . . hanging there. Or maybe the time I woke up in the middle of the night and found him strung up in my bedroom.
Good times, let me tell you.
People have asked me what I did about this wonderful experience. My response was simply, what was I to do? I was a kid. I had no guidance and I was on my own. If I knew then the things I know now, I might well have sued that school. But I didn’t, so I did not. My stomach ulcer lasted a good five years. Eventually, it healed. At least I think it did. I mean, it’s like that tired, old platitude: “Time heals all wounds.”
And it does, doesn’t it?
Doesn’t it?

Max Hawthorne

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