Episode 05: "Their Frozen Horrors" – The Sheridan Tapes
Tape 1-4-29-1-27: Crossing the Donner Pass, Anna Sheridan finds herself stranded when a sudden snowstorm blows in. Recounting the story of the Donner Party’s tragic passage, she begins to wonder if she’s really alone…
Starring Airen Neeley Chaconas as Anna Sheridan, Amitola Lomas as Maria Sol, Mike Van Winkle as the Commissioner, and Trevor Van Winkle as Sam Bailey, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters at patreon.com/homesteadcorner
For more information and additional content, visit thesheridantapes.com
CONTENT WARNINGS: Courtroom setting, claustrophobia, chionophobia, peril, references to cannibalism, ghostly voices
[Sound of voices]
Ah, Mister Bailey. Come in.
Right then, now let’s get started.
[Sam sits in a chair]
Please state your name and rank for the record.
Please speak clearly and into the microphone, if you can.
Samuel Isaac Bailey, Detective First Class. Oslow County Police Department, State of Nevada.
Very good. Now, Mister Bailey, I’m sure you know why you’re here…
…But I’m afraid I don’t have all of the details of your involvement with the… tragic events in Agate Shore. And I don’t think I’m the only one. So… If you wouldn’t mind, please — tell us what happened? In your own time, of course.
[Cassette player motor whirs, stops]
[A/C fan noise]
[Keyboard keys clicking]
It’s about 6 now — a few hours since I finished with the last tape. Bill’s wrapped up his shift and gone home, so it’s finally getting quiet — even if there are more people in the office now. The sun’s starting to come up too, but I figured I could do at least one more tape before the day really got started.
I actually didn’t want to do another tape this morning. I tried to leave it alone, too. Made it about two hours, but… I guess I can’t let go of what happened with Bill — him barging in and listening without me. Well, that, and the fact that I have bugger all else to do around here. The county’s still keeping me at arm’s length, so I’m basically blacklisted. No one knows if they can trust me with casework or not. As if it wasn’t hard enough already to get ahead in this department. Everyone around here looks at me like I’m some kind of leper… Except for Bill of course, but he’s, well — Bill.
God. I mean, he really pisses me off sometimes. That wasn’t the first time I’ve caught him in my office, going through my stuff. Seriously, what do I need to do to get a little privacy around here, a little dignity? Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door? Change all my locks? I mean, Allen was a pain in the ass, but at least he didn’t…
[He grabs a tape]
Let’s see… tape number 1-4-29-1-27. Oh, and… Detective Samuel Bailey, Oslow County Police Department — Homicide Division. Recording on April 11th, 2019 at 6:01 am.
[Cassette fed into the player]
[Hiss of static, then fades]
[Wind blowing outside]
I didn’t mean to get stuck out here. Seriously, if anyone finds this recorder clutched in my cold, dead hands, I just want to make that abundantly clear: this wasn’t the plan. I didn’t look at the forecast, see a chance of snow on Donner Pass, and think, “Gee, wouldn’t it be fun to reenact one of the greatest horrors of the old west?” No — I just had to get from Reno to Sacramento for a signing and didn’t give myself enough time to go the long way round. Maybe it was stupid, but I figured, “Hey, early December, not a cloud in the sky — should still be fine, right?”
I forgot how fast storms blow in up here. There were clouds on the horizon as I went through Truckee, but I thought I’d have more time before it started dumping like this. Made it all the way to Donner Lake before it turned into a complete whiteout. I kept going because I am nothing if not stubborn, but pretty soon it got so bad I couldn’t see the road two feet in front of me. Finally gave up and pulled over in the first turnout I could find. I’m not really sure where I ended up… I think it might be a day camp, but I really can’t see anything from inside the van. And there’s no way I’m going outside to check.
Okay, fine: I don’t actually think I’m going to die out here. I live in this van for most of the year anyway, and I’ve got enough blankets, gas, and food to hold out for a week at least. I doubt this storm will last more than a couple of days, and once it lets up I can sneak out of here and get going again — very, very carefully.
[A strong wind gusts into the van, rattling it]
God, I hate snowstorms like this. Not just getting caught in them, but the storms themselves. I know, I know, it’s one ski resort after another up here and they all need it to survive, but still… It feels like the Earth’s trying to bury me alive every time it locks in like this. Like nature’s rightly pissed off at all of us and doing its level best to crush us to death.
I’ve seen photos of the towns up here in the 60’s. Three or four story buildings barely poking up over gigantic snow drifts. Houses caved in beneath the snowload with people still stuck inside. Buildings burning to the ground because the fire department couldn’t reach them in time. Avalanches a quarter mile long, thundering down the mountain with enough force to…
[The wind picks up]
People forget how heavy water really is. We drink it, swim in it, build amusement parks with million gallon tanks like it’s nothing. We get comfortable around it. Complacent.
With miles and miles of atmosphere pressing down on us, there’s only about 14 pounds of pressure per square inch at sea level. Even less this high up.
But dive just 30 feet into the ocean, and that pressure doubles. Snow’s a little lighter — while it’s still falling. But then it melts, and compacts. Then more snow falls, and melts, and compacts. It might look light and happy and fun sitting on top of that ridge, but ask anyone who’s ever been caught in an avalanche, and they know: it’s one of nature’s simplest and most effective ways of killing you dead if you aren’t prepared for it.
I’ve only been parked here for about an hour, and the snow’s already up to the wheel-wells. I might have to crawl out of the skylight come morning to go get help. And before you ask, no, of course I don’t have signal out here, so I can’t just call triple A. Even if I had it.
[The wind continues to howl]
It’s not that odd to think that people ate each other out there. Maybe even right here, where I’m parked. More than a century and a half have passed, and this place is still just as dangerous as it was then. Maybe that just goes to show how small humans really are in the grand scheme of things: take away our tools and our toys and our technology, and we’re still just as vulnerable as we ever were. If I opened that door and walked out right now, I’d be lost in minutes and dead in hours.
The Donner party lasted a little longer than that. Then again, they were willing to eat each other to do it. A lot of people condemn them for that. We’re so sure we’d never resort to that — that we’d rather die than cross that unspoken boundary.
But no one really stops to think what it was like: to be freezing and snow-blind and slowly starving to death in the middle of nowhere, so far from help you might as well be on the moon. More than that: watching your family — your kids — wasting away. Because that’s what the Donner party was: just a couple of families, trying to make a better life for themselves somewhere new. People with people to take care of. It’s terrifying what we can do when we feel like we have no other option.
[The wind blows]
People think I write horror, but I don’t really think that’s true. I just write fiction with all of the comfortable little lies taken out of it.
[BANG. BANG. Something slams into the side of the van.]
He—hello? Is someone there?
[The wind blows. She pauses.]
Maybe it was just snow falling off the trees. The wind picked up, so maybe it blew into the side of the van…
I can’t see anything out there… And I mean, I can’t see anything. It’s a solid whiteout on the highway, and the windows keep fogging up the closer I look.
Whatever’s out there — if there is anything out there…
[BANG BANG! BANG BANG!]
Okay, okay, yes, there is definitely something outside. But what the hell is it? Ghost of the Donner party? Someone else stuck on the road? God, it could be a bear, for all I know. Maybe I could…
[She climbs over the seat]
Hold on, I’m opening the door!
[Anna attempts to jiggle the door handle]
…please… it burns my skin… please…
I’m trying, I’m trying! I can’t get it open! Hold on, I’m going to try the front door!
[She moves through the van, trying the front door]
…please.. They’re… my skin… it burns…
It’s stuck! I can’t… aah!
[The door opens, snow swirling in the wind]
Up here! Come on, get inside the—
What… the hell?
[Van door closes]
[She climbs to the back again, picks up the recorder]
So, um… There’s no one out there. The car’s half buried by now, which is probably why I couldn’t get the doors open in the first place, but…
It could have been a non-visible apparition, I guess. One of the lost members of Forlorn Hope: the members of the Donner party who left the camp to find help. Most of them didn’t make it. A lot of them died afraid and alone, too: ideal conditions for the making of poltergeists, in my experience.
[She pulls out her scanner, switches it on]
[One quiet pulse before it fades away]
One little blip on the scanner — and nothing else. It doesn’t do very well in the cold though, so it could just be a false positive. Or maybe whatever it was is just…
Gone. If it was ever really there to begin with.
People forget that most of the Donner party survived — at least, more than half of them did. When they started, it was almost entirely families. By the end, it was a party of orphans and widows who were rescued from the pass.
Some of the newspapers praised them at the time: saw them as heroes of exploration and paragons of pioneer courage. But, as always, the more lurid accounts sold better, and the Donner party slowly turned from a tale of heroes to a tale of tragedy and madness.
I don’t know if it was just the snow and the freezing cold that drove them to it, though. Two months after the last of the settlers were rescued, General Stephen Kearny was traveling the Donner Pass with members of the Mormon battalion — which, yes, was a real thing during the Mexican-American war. They found the bodies of the dead just lying out in the open, preserved by the cold. They’d been buried in the snow right where they died by the rest of the party — they had bigger concerns to deal with at the time than giving each other proper funerals. By then, the snow had thawed enough to show them mummified by the cold, dried and shriveled and black all over with frostbite.
He ordered his men to dig graves for the bodies. Of course he did. That much makes sense — he wanted to respect the dead, to give them a proper burial. But then he did something… kind of strange. The Donner Party built a series of cabins to try and survive the storm… Small, cramped, windowless things that leaked all winter long as the snow buried them deep. Maybe Kearney was just so horrified by what he saw that he wanted it erased from history. I doubt it, though: he’d been a soldier for more than 30 years at that point.
Seen too much death to be unnerved by a few dead bodies. But whatever the case — he went from cabin to cabin, and ordered his men to burn them down. I think he felt something about this place… Some influence or power that needed to be destroyed, so he tried to do it the only way he knew how.
Even so, people kept finding bones for a long time afterwards. I guess some things just… Don’t want to stay buried.
[The wind whistles outside]
[The wind is more intense]
…it’s back. Whatever or whoever it is, it’s back outside the van. It knocked on the door a few minutes ago, even louder than before. Only it couldn’t have, because the snow is up past the windows now. The storm is getting worse. I don’t know if anyone will hear this, but…
[BANG BANG. BANG BANG.]
[Rapid footsteps through snow]
…chasing me, whatever it is, it’s chasing me. I can hear it’s footsteps in the snow, I can hear it — the van’s buried, but it was still knocking. Had to get out of there… had to…
Well, that was certainly a night, wasn’t it?
The van’s gone. I don’t know if I’ll see it again before next spring. Apparently I was only a few yards from a cozy little ski hostel when I pulled off… I pretty much ran right into the side of it as I was running. Scared the bejeezus out of a bunch of skiers, but they were nice enough to let me in after deciding I probably wasn’t a ghost… Although I did look like death.
I gave Anthony a call on the land line, told him I wouldn’t make it to Sacramento. He understands — apparently the whole Eastern Sierra is snowed in right now.
Good news for skiers — not so much for writers on tour. Still, maybe I can get some writing done while I’m stuck here…. So long as this snow keeps whatever’s out there buried for good.
[The sounds of gentle breathing]
[The recorder is picked up]
…thank you… it burns no more… my skin… thank you… you are all so warm…
Thank you for letting me in.
What the hell was…?
[A quiet room]
End slate: Test edit for The Anna Sheridan Files podcast, episode 1. Taken from the recordings of Anna Sheridan, with audio engineering by Maria Sol.
Maria Sol (Female Voice)
Directed and produced by Anna Sheridan for consideration by Poultice Press, with additional voices by Maria Sol…
Oh, I just did the ghost, really — It was pretty much all Anna.
Duly noted. Effects and post- production by the amazing Maria Sol, mastered on 10 January, 2017. Let me know what you think, Anthony… There’s plenty more where this came from.
[Clack and clatter as tape ejects]
So. In addition to inane ramblings, drugged hallucinations, and blank goddamn cassette tapes, now I have to deal with Sheridan’s aspirations to write radio drama. Wonderful. Just… Wonderful.
I need to get more coffee. Or punch someone. Whichever’s more convenient.
[Chair scrapes backwards]
[Footsteps back to the phone]
Hello look, I’m sorry, but this really isn’t a good time for anything, so if you wouldn’t mind…
Doctor… Doctor Park, you said?
Yes, yes, this is — this is Detective Bailey. Hold on one second, let me put you on speaker…