I have a friend who compares North Park to the NES game Castlevania II. In the game, when night falls, enemies require more hits to kill. Things become more difficult for no reason. Life becomes harder at night. It was his funny way of addressing the troubles that the Gaslamp crowd brings—the drunkenness and fights. It was a joke. Then the North Park Attacker arrived.
"I just watched The Re-Animator for the first time," Craig Oliver says. "Shit was amazing. Funny, but surprisingly well-done."
The horror talk is fitting for our dark journey. We're driving north on Interstate 15. It's just a little after 5 p.m., but the sun is already dipping below the hills; a harsh yellow flickers between the peaks.
Craig was the first person I approached to show me genuinely scary places in San Diego. I'm not talking about touristy haunts like The Whaley House or the Hotel Del, but places of legend that don't require an admission fee, places that people go out of their way to avoid. Craig is a longtime San Diegan, and his similar interest in horror movies and dark stuff qualifies him as a spooktacular companion.
Escondido looms closer. The conversation dies. Craig turns the music up and looks at his phone for the directions to Questhaven.
Questhaven is a community near North County's Elfin Forest that's birthed every horrific speculation imaginable: cults, an abandoned insane asylum—there's even a legend of a giant ghost-owl that haunts the surrounding forest. It seems like a fear-junkie's ectoplasmic wet dream.
The city streets give way to an industrial park before spitting us onto the winding road that leads us through the Elfin Forest. Craig's phone illuminates his face like he's telling a ghost story. We're close, according to the GPS.
We turn onto Questhaven Road. There are no cults, no insane asylum, not even a g-g-ghost owl—just million-dollar estates, whose inhabitants, witnessing our creeping vehicle, are the only people scared tonight.
The fear deflates as hunger takes over. We collect ourselves at El Pollo Loco and investigate further. We discover that fire ravaged the area in 2003, and the resulting redevelopment has produced the considerably non-scary estates. The Questhaven of lore has been rebuilt as a Christian retreat, which is still plenty scary, but in a different way.
Between June 11 and Aug. 28, six women were attacked within a 10-block radius of my house. Victims were jumped from behind, sexually assaulted and/or beaten—details similar enough to suggest a single perpetrator. In informal company, we called him The North Park Attacker, an admittedly sensationalistic moniker that elevated his terror to that of a bogeyman. But, really, he had turned our neighborhood into an unfamiliar landscape. What was once safe now felt alien. We were afraid to go out at night. What else would you call something that makes adults afraid of the dark?
It's just a little past 10 a.m. on a Sunday and the temperature is already touching 100 in Lakeside. A man standing outside the 7-Eleven chugs a 5-Hour Energy and talks loudly about his good night at a casino and his plan to skip work as celebration. A crispy woman, dry as a piece of beef jerky, exposes her belly to the East County sun. Although it's still morning, there's a line of people buying cold beer inside, one of whom wears mismatched camouflage hat, shirt and pants. It's like looking at a walking Magic Eye.
But with a triple-pack of Tecate tall boys under my arm, I don't have any right to judge. I keep my head down, avoid eye contact, pay for the beer and get the hell out of there.
The tension from the heat and the unsettling convenience-store characters seem like a good prelude to finding some real scares at "5.5."
To heighten the chance of potential terror, I've brought my wife, Jessica, and insist on the beer because what couple canoodling and drinking in on a Satanic ritual site hasn't been murdered by monsters?
El Monte Road narrows as it snakes up to El Capitan Reservoir. The claustrophobia is promising. The mile markers stop after the fifth, so we drive a little farther until spotting a tagged rock overlooking the road. We scamper down the bank on the opposite side. Countless trails branch off through a gnarled forest, littered with shattered liquor bottles, baby wipes (?) and the beer cans of delinquents past and present. Every now and then, we encounter a mattress or a blanket. I scrape the weeds away from a rock and reveal an eye painted on it.
"Here's a pile of bird-feathers," Jessica says. "That's kind of gross."
The whole place is gross, but not scary—just a strip of wilderness for East County kids to drink and screw and create scary stories to keep people out of their garbage utopia.
The noontime sun beats down on us. I ask Jessica if she wants to drink one of the beers—at least? "No, let's get out of here," she says.
Police arrested David Angelo Drake on Sept. 8 on suspicion of the North Park attacks. Since then, there've been no victims. Found guilty or not, it's a reminder that there is no bogeyman and that the North Park Attacker was an actual person, nothing worth canonizing with monikers and spooky nicknames.
Still, it sucks when the scariest place in San Diego is your own neighborhood.
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