In 1997, my family and I moved from a 1,600 square-foot house in a nice neighborhood near Eastchester Road in the Bronx to a 1,300 square-foot... I hesitate to call it a shack, but that term wouldn't be too far off. It was a structure located behind a restaurant in Patterson, New York. A mere few dozen yards away from us was a ski slope, which we never set foot on. Overly athletic, my family is not.
I got a job at the Record Town in the Jefferson Valley Mall in, you guessed it, Jefferson Valley, New York. While working there, I met and started to date a gal named Jennifer. She had a sharp wit, and we joked with each other constantly. Unfortunately, she lived 20 miles away from me, so seeing her was difficult. Therefore, we spent much of our time together on the phone.
The phone in question was situated in the kitchen. It was one of those old 1980s phones with the extra-long cords that kinked easily. This nice, long cord allowed me to lay on the kitchen floor and chat with Jennifer for hours, much to most of the rest of my family's chagrin.
One evening, I was on the phone with Jennifer, and we were talking about some banal topic. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle. I recall very clearly how Jennifer and I were laughing at something one moment, then the next, I felt very strange. All of a sudden, I felt like my consciousness was shunted to the side.
Sadness. Deep, mournful, unfathomable desolation hit me like a fist in the gut. The next thing I know, I was sobbing with this alien emotion reverberating through me like echoes in a cave full of despair.
"Doug? What's wrong?" Jennifer asked, concerned.
"I... I don't know." My voice felt even, almost flat, despite the tears forcing their way out of my eyes.
"Why are you crying?!" She asked, the concern giving way to alarm.
"I have no idea." I replied in the same flat tone.
The funny thing is, the division between my partially-suppressed consciousness and the invading emotions was so sharp that I felt like a passenger within my own mind. My face was even relaxed, not contorted into the usual grimace of a person ravaged by emotions. I was sobbing with a straight face.
The onslaught lasted for about five minutes. It felt like a much, much longer stretch of time. Jennifer was freaking out all the while as I tried futilely to comfort her while also attempting to explain what was going on. Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped.
All I know for sure is that after this all happened, I hung up with Jennifer, then stood up. My mother was still calmly sitting at the kitchen table, doing her crossword puzzle. I was so wrapped up in the strangeness of what had been happening that I'd forgotten that she was there.
"Mom? Did you hear what just happened?" I asked, relieved to have a witness.
She looked up from the crossword and gave me one of those patented mom looks over the rim of her glasses. "Something happened?"
Shocked, I briefly described what had happened to me five feet away from her.
"Oh, that. I thought she broke up with you or something. You need to find a reliable girl and settle down." She said pointedly.
I shook my head and went to my bedroom.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. I spoke with my brothers Andrew and Matthew, and Andrew said that it sounded like I was temporarily possessed by a tormented spirit. Wondering where one would have come from in this place, I asked my father if he knew anything at all about the prior residents. I was told that there was a house fire several years before we moved in. A family of migrant workers was living there at the time, and reportedly, two of them died in that fire. I don't know if that actually happened, but the feelings that had invaded my mind definitely seemed tortured enough to come from someone who had died such a violent, untimely death.
Why did this apparent lost soul choose me? I was happily engaged in conversation. My mental state was one of positivity and joy and contentment. Maybe this acted like a beacon. It hasn't happened to me again since then.
The Darkness Falls Effect
The strangest things can come from the most unlikely sources. In 2003, a series of odd occurrences in my life were precipitated by a ridiculous, mostly-forgettable horror film called Darkness Falls.
Typically, I don't really enjoy horror films. Blood and gore have never appealed to me, so films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the franchises Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th were more or less lost on me. Although, the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre starring Jessica Biel's derriere wasn't half bad, though it was mainly her features that made the film bearable.
Then along came two films, The Ring and The Grudge, and the horror movie genre changed forever for me. Gore and explicit violence were replaced by a creeping sense of dread and palpable tension. Without turning this post into an examination of the evolution of horror films, suffice to say that I became more interested in them from the release of those films onward.
The trailers for Darkness Falls looked decent. They were shrewd with the timing of their release in the winter. Back then, that was when the typical post-summer blockbuster, post-Halloween cash-grab lull tends to happen, and content-starved cinephiles will shell out their hard-earned cash for anything that looks halfway decent.
One Friday night, me and a buddy of mine, Rich, decided to go check it out. After some typically contrived set-up, the first appearance of the monster occurred. It was a bit schlockey, and I should have been chortling over it. However, something about the combination of the creature's movement coupled with the wheezing, creepy sounds it made came together perfectly to stab the primal fear center of my brain. I could barely breathe as the scene played itself out. After it had, I told Rich that I had to step outside.
It took me ten minutes to sort myself out. Rich came out of the theater to make sure that I was ok. He was puzzled by my reaction, and frankly, so was I. I went back in, though, and finished watching the movie. Nothing in the rest of the film had anywhere near the same effect on me that the opening sequence did, but I came out shaken all the same.
I was living in a dorm in Travis Air Force Base near Vacaville, California, where I was stationed. I couldn't sleep. I was in my late twenties, and all too cognizant of the fact that this silly movie should most definitely not have had the impact on me that it did. But it did. I would close my eyes and see the fluttering blackness of the creature in my mind's eye. I could still hear the wheezing, gurgling sound that it made as it stalked its prey.
As a grown man in the military, I had to sleep with a light on for two solid months after watching that silly, frivolous movie about the frickin' Tooth Fairy.
To me, California had been utterly lacking in paranormal activity during my time there. It felt dead, no pun intended. I never saw or felt anything. I suppose that I had filled my time with swing dancing and dating and being deployed overseas, and I just didn't leave room for supernatural things. They didn't seem to find me, either. My mental defenses held up just fine. Until I had watched that movie, that is.
Something was different. I felt more open, vulnerable to outside forces that I had put up fortified walls in my mind against ever since that emotional invasion five years prior (I'll discuss my method for doing so in another blog post). I felt a presence in my room on several occasions. It felt negative, bordering on malevolent.
One night a few weeks after seeing the movie, I'd fallen asleep with my desk lamp on. I woke to the feeling of someone standing next to me. I saw no one when I opened my eyes, but when I looked down, I saw the corner of the bed a foot or so away from my feet being pushed down as though a weight was on it.
I should have been scared out of my mind. I wasn't, though. It was as if my sleepy brain said, "I can't do anything about it. I'm tired, I'm going to sleep."
And I did.
The presence gradually faded away after that, as if my ambivalence towards its big reveal robbed it of its power. After a week or so, it vanished.
It would be replaced a few months later with something much, much worse. That, however, will be the subject for the next post.
* * *
As soon as I saw the DVD for Darkness Falls, incongruously, I bought it. I then watched it every night for a week, until I was no longer afraid of this absurd, ridiculous Hollywood machination. I'd be damned if I let such a thing beat me down. Back then, it took around three to four months for a movie to transition from the theater to DVD, so by the time I bought it, I had already passed the time where that apparent entity held any sway over me. Better late than never, though!