This Halloween, several friends and I will play the final chapter of Betrayal Legacy. Unlike the original game, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, where you are strangers exploring an abandoned building, Betrayal Legacy is the story of the house itself. Player-controlled families have spent 300 years fighting over the house, living in the house, dying in the house, and haunting the house. Items are turned into family heirlooms, and actions determine which events may come back to haunt the player. After our campaign is done, I won’t own just any copy of Betrayal, haunted by just any random spirit. The choices of the Harswyd, Sorzera, Ansfoot, and Clyde families have shaped my game. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, their family trees are the ghosts that haunt the house.
This is true for me, as well. Just like the Harswyd family tree (and another famous one), my own is “haunted” by the choices my ancestors made—choices I never want to face.
The Harswyd family, which I play in our current campaign, has a dark and twisted lineage. But even it has its bright spots. Some of the characters were outright heroes.
Take Jill Harswyd. Shortly after WWII, she survived attempted radiation poisoning with the help of her Wibbly-Wobbly Pocket Watch. Seventeen years later, she luckily found it again and used it to buy time and fend off an alien invasion. And Jill can look—literally—with pride at her Great-Aunt Miriam, who (in 1925) was turned into a living statue while fighting off petrifying bugs.
But Jill’s ancestry is increasingly grim the farther back you look. Dora, who found the Apothecary Kit of Healing and used it to cure a deadly disease, was also accused (falsely, she claimed) of murdering an innocent bride. The blood on the veil matched the blood on her hands.But as I look at my own heirlooms, like the cedar chest in my spare room or the table where I write this, I have to acknowledge that their sins have become my ghosts.
The first Harswyd was the worst. Accused of witchcraft in 1666, Ada used her family crossbow (the first heirloomed item of the game) to defend herself and purchase the deed of the house with her accusers’ blood. She lived there for years, her life unnaturally prolonged by the spirits in the house. That is, until the other families destroyed her baby (in reality, the demonic Hungry Doll omen) and she was driven, wailing, from the house.
These are the stories that surround my copy of the game. This is the legacy that still haunts my Jill Harswyd—a legacy she will carry to who-knows-what-fate on Halloween night.
A Legacy of Ghosts
My own family tree is perhaps somewhat less twisted. Sure, I have an ancestor who fought for the Union in the Civil War, but does that compensate for the ancestor who supposedly was among the men who bought Manhattan Island from the indigenous population for a bag of trinkets?
Unlike Jill Harswyd, who is haunted by ancient history, I am more troubled by recent sins. I personally knew and loved both my grandfathers. One earned a purple heart after being shot down over France. The other helped liberate a Concentration camp. And I personally believe both are now in Heaven with their Creator.It is a difficult truth to reconcile: that the same generation who fought the Nazis also fought to keep black children out of their schools
But I also know enough about them to be distressed by some of their choices. In particular, I know both were involved in at least one racist incident. I can still hear my mother’s tight voice as she recorded her beloved father, a godly man who raised his kids in the Lord, recount a particular racist incident in years long gone. I remember walking through a state fair with my uncle as I expressed my faith in his parents’ goodness. He countered with an account of another racist incident involving his father, my grandfather.
It is a difficult truth to reconcile: that the same generation who fought the Nazis also fought to keep black children out of their schools. It is a far more difficult truth to reconcile that my own grandfathers were not innocent—something I hesitate to mention for not knowing the pain it will cause. I want to remember nothing but their goodness. But as I look at my own heirlooms, like the cedar chest in my spare room or the table where I write this, I have to acknowledge that their sins have become my ghosts—a legacy of ghosts that is sometimes hard to bear.
Of Knaves and Reprobates
Perhaps the most surprising family tree of all belongs to Jesus. It’s listed right at the beginning of the book of Matthew, and is not pleasant. Sure, his mother Mary submitted joyfully to the angel’s news that she would bear the Messiah, but most of his lineage is dark.
King David was repentant, but he was repentant after demanding sex from the wife of one of his best soldiers. Rahab may have helped the Israelites, but she was most likely a prostitute, and helped foreign spies in exchange for the safety of her family. In other words, she was a traitor—a role Dante reserves for the lowest circle of Hell, next to Brutus and Judas Iscariot. And Abraham, who kids still sing about in Sunday School, offered his own wife sexually—twice—to foreign kings because he was scared. These are not “good” men and women.It was from the worst sinners that God gave us his greatest mercy: a perfect man.
And yet it is out of this band of “errant knaves and reprobates,” many of whom had blood on their hands, that the Messiah came. It was from the worst sinners that God gave us his greatest mercy: a perfect man, who would die to wash away their sins, and ours.
That is good news. It may not be good news for the fictional Jill Harswyd, facing down evil without the hope of a good and pure God on her side. But it is the good news that both my grandfathers ultimately relied on because of their sin, and it is the good news I cling to now as I wrestle through the dark parts of their legacies—and my own.