DURHAM – In the spring of 2013, an event occurred in Durham that could “raise the hair on the back of your neck,” as one of the three people who witnessed it says.
Janet Smith, the town’s administrator at the time, was with Road Commissioner Shawn Bennett and a state building inspector. They were making their annual rounds to assess a town-owned building, the old West Durham Methodist Church on Runaround Pond Road, one of the earliest churches built in the area. It was built back in 1804 and has been closed for many years.
Smith, Bennett and the inspector didn’t go into the church together. They had looked around the yard, and made their way in one by one after Bennett unlocked the brand-new, dead-bolt lock.
They left the door open, but once all three were inside, it closed. And the lock locked.
“We couldn’t unlock the dead bolt from the inside,” Smith said. “I was thinking, I’m so glad I’m not in here myself. I watch too many horror movies, I think. It was a big, old, heavy door. None of us had cell phones with us. They were all in the vehicles. We could not get out. For me, it seemed like forever.”
“Well, yeah,” Smith said. “It’s a creepy old building.”
Eventually, Bennett pried open a window, and was able to unlock the dead bolt from the outside.
It’s a spooky enough story for Halloween. But there’s a creepier twist: The West Durham Methodist Church is next to the boyhood home of Maine’s famous horror author, Stephen King. And Smith was aware of that fact at the time.
“I thought, ‘No wonder he writes like he does,’” Smith said. “I won’t go back in, I’ll tell you that.”
King did not return calls for comment on the church story, but according to amctv.com, King, who was born in Portland in 1947, his mother and older brother David had lived in Durham earlier, and moved back there when Stephen was 11.
As a young child, King witnessed a horrifying accident when the family lived in town.
“According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house – a house that was near a railroad line,” King said in the amctv.com piece. “About an hour after I left, I came back, she said, ‘as white as a ghost.’ I would not speak for the rest of the day. I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home. I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back, but had allowed me to come home alone. It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks … My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened. But I have no memory of the incident at all, only of having been told about it some years after the fact.”
Meanwhile, Smith, now the town manager in Richmond, imagines that her experience in the old church could have been worse – much worse.
“I’m so glad I wasn’t by myself,” she said. “It was a brand-new dead bolt. The lock had actually turned, and locked. If this guy from the state hadn’t been there, there was no way I was going to stick around. I would have been the first one through that window.”
Smith said she dared look around the interior of the church just a little while the three were prisoners.
“It was set up for a Christmas service,” she said. “I saw a crawl space, but I didn’t dare peek in.”
Smith was hyped up, to say the least, by the time she made it back to the Town Office, to speak with co-workers Pauline Paradise and Shannon Plourde.
“I certainly was worse for the wear,” she said. “When we got back I could barely tell them about it.”
The West Durham Methodist Church was built in 1804. The Rev. Timothy Merritt, leader of a great revival, did the first christenings in 1809 when he baptized David Ferguson and John Davis. A year later, by a Massachusetts law, Durham and Pownal became active enough to be a separately incorporated circuit.
The interior of the church was remodeled in 1867. In 1934, the old horse sheds were torn down behind the church and much of the usable lumber was used to construct a parish hall adjacent to the parsonage. This new addition was dedicated in the 130th anniversary observance, during a month-long festival.
Tia Nadeau-Howe, a member of the town’s Cemetery Committee and of the Durham Historical Society, had heard other stories about the old church.
“I know there’s some scary things that have happened in that church,” Nadeau-Howe said. “It’s the second-oldest Methodist church in New England. Janet thought it would be a really good idea for me to go and check it out, but I’m not allowed to for insurance reasons. I would love to, but we can’t. It’s unsafe right now.”
Nadeau-Howe, who is documenting and photographing every gravestone in Durham’s 214 cemeteries, is accustomed to being in places that might bother the squeamish. But the church tale even has her wondering.
“I thought it was creepy,” she said. “We had a hard time closing that door once. The fact that the door shut and they could not get back out was creepy.”
Strange happenings have transpired at the old West Durham Methodist Church, which is near the boyhood home of Maine horror novelist Stephen King. The dead-bolt lock on the door of the West Durham Methodist Church, reportedly locked back up after the door shut itself last year, leaving three people inside wondering what was going on.