Image found at: https://imgur.com/gallery/y69io
Consequences - most of the time, when we take an action, we know precisely what the reaction will be. If you jump up in the air, you will fall back to earth. If you eat a dozen cupcakes in one sitting, you will cry when you step on the scale the next morning. If you hug your loved one, they'll more than likely return it. There are some actions, however, that you only thought that you had experienced the reaction to, only to learn that you were woefully mistaken.
It happened in the spring of 1991. I was your typical teenage boy. My hormones were in overdrive, I was doing well in school and I had just kissed my first girl. I lived with my family in a nice 4 bedroom apartment in the Allerton Avenue section of the Bronx, on Wallace Avenue. Even though I was relegated to the bottom bunk of the bunk bed that I shared with my little brother, Matthew, by a coin toss, I was happy as a clam. Life was good.
Then, one night, as I was falling asleep, I felt a strange sinking feeling in my gut. It came out of nowhere and I couldn't say why it was happening. Dread. Waves upon waves of dread crashed over me like a breaking wave. It took me a few moments to realize that I was feeling a presence, almost right on top of me. The hairs on my arms and neck stood straight up. I felt like I was being submerged in ice-cold water. I couldn't help myself; I opened my eyes, expecting to see something out of my worst nightmares. Though my vision swam as though I had been spun in a centrifuge, I saw... nothing. Only the darkness of our bedroom.
The feelings of dread and icy cold continued for a brief moment that seemed like forever. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it simply vanished. It was as if a switch had been flipped.
I found myself shaking like a leaf in my bunk, drawing ragged breaths while trying to steady my nerves through sheer force of will. I tried to make sense of what had happened. The human mind always attempts to seek answers. Maybe I had actually fallen asleep, and this was just a vivid nightmare. No, that didn't feel right. It wasn't a dream. I was awake. Horribly awake.
Fear set upon me even more strongly than when the presence had me in its thrall. What happened? What could have caused that? I hadn't done anything... to... cause...
Suddenly, a third-person image appeared in my mind: that of a slightly younger me, arms raised dramatically to the sky, that insanely reckless challenge issuing from my lips. That image then became the image of me doubled over in pain, desperately muttering prayers. Strangely, that image was closer, and from the perspective of someone standing over my right shoulder. The presence that I had felt back then had come back to find me. It was like a vanishingly thin, greasy layer of malevolence that had stained a part of my being, but I hadn't realized it. This attack brought it bubbling back up, like a gas pocket released from decaying detritus in a bog. That feeling settled into me, suffused me, and I knew I was in trouble.
I managed to fall asleep that night, though I can't say how. Exhaustion, both physical and mental, must have overcome me. I fancy myself an optimist, and even in the worst situations, I try to find the bright side. This attitude is exemplified by my futile hope that the incident that night was a one-time occurrence; that this entity had done well in frightening me half to death and considered us even. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The attack the next night was even more intense than the night before. It was as if the entity was only dipping its toe in the water, and now that it found it nice and warm, it jumped in gleefully. Images of inhumanly warped faces and contorted bodies sprang into my mind. Things that I don't want to even write about ran through my mind, scenes of torture and butchery, suffering and pain. Things that not even my worst enemy would deserve to experience. I could feel my sanity cracking like an egg shell.
These attacks lasted for three weeks. After the first few nights, the presence didn't go away. It became my constant companion. In school. At family dinner. At church. Everywhere.
I asked several members of my family if they remember these attacks. Almost none of them do Why do so few of them remember this period of torment? Well, as my sister Trish so sagely put it, “You were a teenager. Teenagers go through mood swings. Who wants to deal with moody teenagers?”. Fair enough, I suppose.
And so it was that in a very real sense, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped to save my life.
One of the only things that I found joy in during that time were cartoons. I don't know what it was about them, but when I was sitting in front of my T.V. watching shows like TMNT, Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, and other classics in that vein, that my fear abated. When I realized that, I decided to try an experiment. Anyone who was raised in the 70s through the 90s knows that after 5 P.M., cartoons end and grown-up shows start. After that, when the fear and anxiety would start back up, I tried to replay episodes of Ninja Turtles in my mind's eye.
Confusion. Frustration. Dismay.
It worked! An image of a decayed human head, half severed from a twisted body appeared in my mind. I immediately replayed a scene from Ninja Turtles in which Michelangelo was hitting on April O'Neil. The presence retreated briefly.
Two days later it returned, more grimly determined. I continued my technique, which I came to call a “media screen”. Sounds of torture were met with songs from Metallica's Black Album. Scenes of ghoulish torment were met with Disney cartoons. I managed to piss this thing off so much that after a week of media screening the worst of it, getting more sleep than I had been a week, that a change occurred.
I was in bed, eyes shut, playing a scene from Duck Tales into the void within my mind where it seemed to like to play. That too-familiar presence just kind of... swelled. If it was only inches away before, it was now less than a hair's breadth away. I heard something. Something that can only be described as a guttural growl. Right. Next. To. My. Ear.
My concentration failed. Uncle Scrooge was replaced by a twisted abomination. I can't describe it, nor would I want to. Grim satisfaction flowed through the horrific bond that we seemed to share. Sleep escaped me again, and my sanity was starting to follow suit.
Salvation came from the most unlikely of sources – my brother Michael.
Michael had been a vocal critic of organized religion for years. Quite frankly, I agreed with him. I only continued to go to church because I was underage, and because my parents made me go. I suppose that, at that point in my life, I was on the fence about the existence of God as it was taught to me in the Catholic faith for my entire life. I was at my wit's end though, so even though I hadn't told anyone else exactly what had been happening to me, I told Michael. Maybe it was because of his staunch criticism of those institutions that I did so.
After he had listened to what I had to say, he asked me a simple question.
"You still believe in God, don't you?" he asked.
"Well, I guess so," I replied, a bit disconcerted by his question.
"There is no 'I guess so'. You either do or you don't." he chastised me.
"Then I do." I replied glumly.
"You look so down about that. Yeah, you're a real Catholic alright!" he chuckled.
"Why do you ask?" I inquired.
“Well, if you believe in God, then imagine that your faith is like a shining suit of armor that envelops you in its protection. Invoke your faith to push this thing out of your head or wherever it is."
It was so crazy that it might even work!
That same night, as I got into bed and prepared to try this experiment, I was almost knocked out by the malevolence pouring from this thing's now-customary position at my side. But that would have been too easy, the game over too soon. I shut my eyes tightly and concentrated with all my might on the image that Michael had suggested – a shining silver suit of armor covering me from head to toe, engraved with Christian icons all over it.
Again, that sense of confusion and frustration flowed from it. Sensing my advantage, I pushed on it with this image. I don't know how else to explain it. In my mind, I heard a pained yelp. It retreated. I felt the presence disappear for the first time in weeks. I couldn't even take the time to exult in my victory. I fell asleep like I'd been hit over the head.
It returned the next night, only to be pushed away again by my armor of faith. After one more attempt the next night after that, it seemed to give up, and this time, I somehow knew that it was actually gone. I had caught up on sleep somewhat over the previous two nights, but still had lingering doubt about the long-term effectiveness of this method. Unburdened by that doubt now, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. One of the best of my life.
Well, mostly dreamless. I seem to recall one about an unlikely team-up of the Ninja Turtles and Uncle Scrooge chasing away a cartoonish monster.
I'd love to tell you that all incidents of demonic oppression ended after this, that my faith in God had been restored and fortified, that I lived the rest of my days a devout Catholic and was untroubled by the supernatural again.
It didn't. I didn't. I wasn't.
It did give me a 12-year reprieve, though. Consequences always catch up to you.
The Spy House Museum
It was the summer of 1991. My Aunt Rose and Uncle Mike had moved to New Jersey several years before, and my family would go to spend a few days there every month during summer break. I got to hang out with my cousins, Kathleen and Bridget, along with their siblings. I had some amazing times hanging out with them, along with some of the other neighborhood kids, such as Charlie and Eddie. They seemed tough at first, but were pretty okay guys once you got to know them.
One weekend in August 1991, the group of us finished breakfast and were uncharacteristically bored. Usually we'd go to the nearby park, or just explore the neighborhood. Being from the Bronx, I'd had little experience with suburbia, and quite frankly, it intrigued me. That day, though, it had rained early in the morning, and left an oddly dense, chilly fog in its wake. Inspired by the gloom, we decided to take advantage of the chilly day and go for a long walk. Where to go, though?
Standing outside my Aunt and Uncle's house, Charlie suggested the Spy House museum. Most of us had never heard of it, not being from the area. Kathleen and Bridget both agreed, thereby convincing my sister Trish. She was the eldest and therefore unfortunately the shepherd of this most unruly flock.
Charlie knew where it was, so he headed the group up and we all followed. Our spirits were high, since Charlie had told us how awesome the place was. It was supposedly filled with oddities and knick-knacks from as far back as the Revolutionary War.
It took us the better part of an hour to walk the distance to the Spy House. In attendance were myself, my brothers Matthew and Andrew, my sister Trish, my cousins Kathleen and Bridget, and their two neighbors, Charlie and Eddie. I recall lots of horsing around during that walk, with Trish futilely trying to restrain us and doing her very best to be the "good big sister". Her failure wasn't really her fault, as managing five teenage boys is neither an easy nor enviable task for anyone.
I remember my first sight of the Spy House. It was a large, stark white house set near a beach. The breeze coming in off the water, which would have been welcome on any normal day in August, felt oddly cold, like Autumn couldn't wait to swallow us whole a month early.
Upon entry, I noticed that they had their air conditioners on high. As if they didn't realize the temperature outside. It was almost too cold in there, and I shivered. I felt the hairs on my neck prickle, almost like I was standing right underneath one of the vents. I looked around, but didn't see any. I shrugged and chalked it up to an errant air current.
The clerk in charge of collecting admission fees seemed like the kind of woman who would brook no nonsense from anyone, much less a group of adolescents and a twenty-something woman. She seemed the kind that chewed iron nails for fun.
From there we split up, Charlie and Eddie, the spiritual predecessors to Beavis and Butthead, went one way. Kathleen, Bridget, Trish and Matthew went another. Andrew and I went upstairs and entered a room full of what to this day has become one of my least favorite objects; mannequins.
What is it about mannequins that freak me out so much? There are many stories in cultures all around the world about how figures like dolls and mannequins can house spirits. Spirits of dead people, animals, demigods, gods, angels, demons and elementals, to name but a few. The larger the figure, and/or the more accurately they are represented, the more likely it is that they can be inhabited. There was even a movie made in the 80's that took a comical look at this concept (along with a far worse sequel). There's also the famous case of Annabelle as investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the details of which have now been made into a major motion picture.
Here is a good article about the place of dolls in history.
To summarize, mannequins seem like receptacles. And so when Andrew and I walked into one of the rooms to peruse the tableau of 18th century life that it was meant to represent, that the chill on the back of my neck from earlier returned. I remember pausing at the door to the room while Andrew walked in. After a couple of steps, he too froze. He slowly turned to me. He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. The look on his face said it all.
There was an oppressiveness to the room that I still can't fully describe to this day. The best I can do is to say is that it was as if we were interlopers, that we had disturbed some scene of intense sorrow. I took a deep breath and stepped into the room. Nothing changed. I walked further in, past Andrew. I looked at several of the mannequins, waiting for one to jump up or grab me or move its head. None of them did, but I could have sworn that one of their eyes followed me all across its field of view. After a few more moments, I hastily departed the room with Andrew in tow. I couldn't shake the feeling that we were being scrutinized, instead of the other way around.
Once in the hallway, I let out a breath that I didn't realize that I was holding. I looked at my brother, and he was paler than normal. Still, for some reason, I grinned excitedly at him, and he kind of smirked back.
"Wanna go back in?" I asked.
"Nah, let's check out another room", he replied.
Slightly disappointed, I agreed, and after checking out a couple more rooms, and crossing paths with Charlie and Eddie, we came to the last room. It depicted a seamstress' chamber, and had a mannequin looking out the window, representing a woman watching for a spy boat to arrive so that she could see to its disposition. It wasn't that interesting to me, and I didn't feel the chill anymore, so I left Andrew in the room and walked into the hallway.
To the right were the rooms that we had already checked out. To the left was the end of the hallway, and a barricaded door that had a barely legible "under renovation" sign hanging on it. Being the curious lad that I was, I approached the door. It was made of old, grey wood and there were large cracks between some of the planks. The chill returned. The closer I got to the door, the stronger that feeling became. I was near panic by the time I arrived in front of the door. Something in my mind was telling me to run away as fast as I could. Something else in my mind told me to ignore that and to see if I could determine what it was that was making me so afraid. So I did the only logical thing that I could think of.
I leaned forward, pressing my eye to a large space between two door boards. For a moment, I only saw sunlight filtering through a boarded-up window. Then I felt... something. A force, a pressure, as if something rushed toward the door but was brought up short at the last instant. And with that pressure came a malevolence that I had never felt before. Well, maybe I had once. Either way, I got the message loud and clear:
And so I did. Andrew had just come out of that last room, and looked at me standing several feet away from the abandoned door. I must have looked quite scared, because he asked what was wrong. I told him, and he went to have a look for himself. We McMillans are either quite brave or very dumb. After having an almost identical experience, he backed off very quickly. Naturally, instead of leaving the building like sane people, we went looking for the rest of our group to tell them what had happened.
Trish and Matthew were eager to go have a look. Matthew reported the same feeling of foreboding, but by the time Trish took a look, it seemed as if whatever it was had worn itself out. She only reported feeling a minor sense of dread.
After these experiences, I had the idea of talking to the clerk downstairs, to see if she could corroborate any of our stories. Remember what I said earlier about brooking no nonsense? Well, she didn't. Apparently, Monmouth county was not happy about the fact that the ghost stories were being given more attention than the actual history of the place. As such, she was furious as soon as I mentioned what had happened. She ejected us from the premises forthwith, and threatened that if we ever returned, there would be hell to pay.
I always thought that the threat seemed rather ironic, given where she worked.
In 2011, my brothers Andrew and Kenny, along with my sister Sue and a woman that I was dating, Jennifer, attempted to go back to the Spy House. However, at that time, they were closed for renovations. We wound up going to historic Philipsburg Manor and Sleepy Hollow instead.
Several other paranormal groups have checked the place out, including New Jersey Paranormal, and it sits comfortably on many "top haunted places in America" lists.