The Old Bethel Church

The Old Bethel AME (African-American Episcopal) Church in McClellanville, SC. A historic landmark built in 1872, The site of my story. (Photo taken by me in February, 2022).

I selected the photo of the Old Bethel AME Church as the topic for the Monday, 3/13/23, meeting of the Chatham Writers Group. I tried my hand at writing creepy, horror type stories this week (see Philadelphia Alley). I started writing my story and got carried away. I had several characters, some deaths and more gore, a couple of different locations, etc, and was approaching 2000 words on a story that was supposed to be no more than 1000 words. I eliminated characters, body count and scenes to concentrate on events at the church. At the end of my story, there will be a brief history of the Old Bethel AME Church.

The Old Bethel Church

Sheriff’s  Deputy Claire Simmons shifted uncomfortably in her chair and glanced at the business card in her hand, “Bennett Sisters Consulting”.  There was a phone number, and a satanic symbol with a red X through it. 

She made a quick inventory of the two African-American women sitting opposite her.  Identical twins, they appeared to be in their early 50’s, and were dressed almost identically with light blue denim shirts, jeans and walking shoes.  The only difference was one sister wore a navy blue bandanna around her neck and the other wore a pink one.  “And what type of, um, consultation do you provide?”, she asked.

The sister who had identified herself as Mae answered, “My sister, Lena, and I consult on matters of the occult.  We provide a cleaning service of sorts in that we remove demons, phantoms, those sorts of things.  They sometimes take over abandoned places of worship.  What’s your story Deputy Simmons?”

Choking back her emotion, the Deputy described how her Dad and his friend were walking past Old Bethel Church on their way to the pond to fish.  Her Dad suddenly stopped and started acting strange.  He was looking at the church and told his friend he needed to talk to someone, said to go on, he’d meet him at the pond.  His friend looked to where my Dad had been looking and saw the back of a man wearing overalls go into the side door of the church.  When my Daddy didn’t show up at the Pond, his friend went to look for him and found him behind the church with his throat ripped open.  

“Coroner said it was a rabid dog, but I believe the man in overalls had something to do with it.  Something ain’t right with that church.” 

“And your father’s friend didn’t tell his story to anyone else?”

“He was terrified Miss Bennett, so he only told me.  The man in the overalls didn’t appear to be real, he kind of shimmered.  My Daddy is buried in cemetery alongside the church.  When I go to visit him, the church seems to be mocking me.  I hear laughing and whistling coming from the slats on the belfry.  I told my Aunt, my Dad’s sister,  she told me about the two of you, and here we are.”

“Well, let’s go have a look see then.”, declared Lena.

“Now?” Deputy Simmons was incredulous.

“No better time than now.”  The three of them piled into the Bennett’s old Range Rover and drove off.

A pine tree lay across the dirt road that led to the Old Bethel Church.   The Range Rover clattered to stop and the three women climbed out to look at the tree.

“The pine must have fallen during the night,” said Deputy Simmons, “the road was clear when I patrolled it yesterday.”

“It knows we’re here.”, said Mae.  

The Bennett sisters opened the tailgate of the Land Rover and removed a few items.  Deputy Simmons was startled to see Mae carrying a viola case and Lena with a guitar gig bag slung over her shoulder. 

Without a word, the Bennett sisters climbed over the tree, and trudged down the dirt road.  The Deputy scampered over the downed pine and followed behind the twins.  A gentle breeze picked up, the moss draping the oaks that lined the road began to sway, seeming to beckon the three women to the church. 

The dirt road ended at a clearing.  Confronting them was the Old Bethel Church.  Deputy Simmons shivered, the air had gotten noticeably cooler.  “I feel it,” she said, “that church is looking at us.”

Not only did she feel as though the church was staring at them, she swore she could see it breathing.  The red tin roof and sides of the old building appeared expand and contract.  She sensed movement to the right of the church, shook her head and rubbed her eyes.   “Did those headstones just turn to look at us?”  Deputy Simmons inhaled deeply, she could see her father’s grave, his old fishing cap resting on it’s headstone.

“We’ll take it from here Deputy Simmons. You need to walk a ways back down the road,” ordered Mae.  

“You’re kidding!”, exclaimed the Deputy.  Mae stood holding a Super Soaker.  From her gig bag, Lena had assembled a 5 foot chrome rod with a cross on top and a spear point at the bottom.  Reaching for her pistol, Deputy Simmons said, “You’re gonna need more than a damn Super Soaker and a steel bar.  I’m going with you.”

“Suit yourself,” said Mae calmly, “You can figure out later how to explain what ya’ll will see.  And put that away, it won’t work,”  she added, pointing at the officer’s pistols. “ This Super Soaker has a mix of Holy Water and salts blessed in the Holy Land.  Lena’s rod is pure silver.  These things are demon killers.”

The side door flew open and slammed against the building, momentarily startling them. 

A figure wearing blue overalls appeared in the door.  Two bright, yellow orbs glittered in the shade cast by the wide brim hat on its head.  Waving a dismissive hand, the figure went back into the church.  The women looked at each other, then stepped through the door.  They stood for a few moments waiting for their eyes to adjust to the gloom.  Deputy Simmons thought the inside of the church had a metallic smell similar to that of a dead deer found along the side of the road.  Snapping on their on their flashlights, they circled the pews.  Lena broke away and began to move up the center aisle, holding the cross topped staff in front of her.  Mae and Deputy Simmons continued along the wall.  A shuffling noise came from behind them.  Simmons turned her beam in the direction of  of the sound.  She gasped.  The form shuffling towards them was her father, or what used to be her father.  A gaping, raw wound ran from his throat to just under his ear.  The dried blood from the wound had left a huge brown splotch on his fishing jacket.  His fishing hat, laced with lures, sat tilted on his head.

“Daddy?”, her voice choked with emotion.

“Claire! You’ve come to help me! Help me…” the apparition groaned and extended its arms.

Mae shouted, “No!”, and yanked the Deputy back.   The father/demon opened its mouth to reveal jaws lined with long piranha teeth, and began snapping at them.  Releasing a high pitched, fiendish giggle, it rapidly approached them.  The spear end of Lena’s silver staff jabbed through the front of its shirt, cutting off the laugh.  The demon looked down in surprise at the spear.  It turned a parchment brown color, broke apart and fluttered to the floor like tree leaves.  

A long howl ripped the air.  Lena aimed her flashlight toward the front of the church.  Caught in the beam of light, the yellow-eyed thing in bib overalls howled again, exposing a line of those piranha teeth..  It jumped from the pulpit and raced towards them, bounding along the backs of the pews, snarling.  Mae let loose a stream of the Holy Water concoction from her Super Soaker and stitched a line across the creature from right hip to left shoulder.  Without another sound, the thing fell apart in two pieces,  dissolving into a pile of parchment leaves as well.  Except for the sounds of their rapid breathing, the church was silent.

Two days later, Deputy Simmons and the Bennett sisters visited her father’s grave in the Old Bethel Church Cemetery.  The church was silent, the cemetery peaceful. Her father’s fishing hat rested on his headstone.  They were not certain if it was because of a sudden puff of wind, but it seemed as though the hat tipped, grateful for what they had done. 

Fishing hat on headstone in the Old Bethel AME Church cemetery. Photo taken by my wife in February 2023.

The Old Bethel AME (African-American Episcopal) Church is the first AME Church created in McClellanville. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, former slaves were now allowed to build their own places of worship and the first congregation met under an oak tree in MClellanville in 1867. The Church was constructed in 1872, damaged by a hurricane in 1916, repaired and continued to host services until 1979, when a new Church was built for the growing congregation. In 1986, the Old Bethel Church was lifted off its foundation by Hurricane Hugo and almost all of its stained glass windows were shattered. It was supposed to be converted to a community center in 2002, but for some unexplained reason, it never happened. Old Bethel Church was used as a backdrop for a 2019 min-series called “Lowcountry”, but then was vandalized. The remaining windows were boarded up and it has remained vacant.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

March 13, 2023

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