Dreams have a funny way of capitalizing on reality.
Last night I dreamt that myself, my sister, and my former roommate Greta had gathered at my mom’s old condo for a home alone slumber party for adults. While my compadres prepared a wholesome movie night, I crept away to my bedroom to concoct what my dream-self must have considered a pretty slick prank, and doused myself in the menthol-flavored fake blood left over from PROD 150 Makeup Design. When I entered my sister’s room smelling like candy canes and looking like Sissy Spacek in Carrie, all I received were pity chuckles, and I quickly discovered the brunt of my failed trickery when it occurred to me that cleaning this gunk was going to put movie night on hiatus.
Fortunately, the time frame of a dream is malleable and the next thing I knew I was standing in the bathroom, immaculately bloodless save for my hair. Moving to the shower to finish the job, I was met by a strange scene: the bathtub was filled to the brim, and standing in the midst of the water was an ironing board. But as usual, the surrealism of the dreamscape was lost on its participant, and instead of pondering the ironing board’s strange location, I was distracted by one of our cats as she attempted to leap from one side of the bathtub to the opposite, undershot it, and landed in the mysteriously drawn water, instantly clawing her way back to arid freedom. Laughing at the sodden cat’s expense, I left to rejoin my friends, and was stopped in the hallway by what my dream-self could have sworn was a figure framed within my bedroom doorway. I brushed this off as myopic deception, however, and reentered my sister’s room where faulty electricity was further hampering their movie plans. All around us, the lights were dimming, and to investigate we walked out into the hallway, where the lights rapidly dwindled out.
At this point, the mood of the dream changed dramatically.
“Is that a bird?” my sister asked, staring up at the dark ceiling. With no inkling of what she was observing, I stared around wildly and noticed another one of the cats and our dog had convened beside us, their eyes fixated upward as well. Suddenly I could hear it, something beating against the ceiling, as if moving erratically, but my eyes couldn’t seek the source in this dark room–perhaps it was coming from the room down the narrow hallway, shut behind a closed door: my mom’s room.
Anxiety beginning to heighten, I ushered everyone back into the bedroom where I suppose my bravado meant to shield them from harm. Moments later, perhaps via a noise forgotten since waking, I was drawn into the hallway again, this time attracted to my bedroom. Framed by the doorway and backlit by a blue glow from my window was a silhouette of what I thought was a little girl, a girl that clearly lacked the cheery disposition of most children. I opened my mouth and tried to scream as that silhouette seemed to draw closer to me, but the inhibitory nature of dreams caught my scream in my throat, allowing me to emit only an alto note that sounded as if I was screaming under water. My sister and Greta would never hear that yell, but my boyfriend certainly did and prodded me awake as I made that same drowning moan in reality.
If this were the concept for a horror film, it would receive scathing reviews, tank at the box office, and join the same cinematic leper list as Mama and White Noise. However, because it was a dream that fused elements of reality with the surrealism of my imagination, it was terrifying. While my boyfriend returned to sleep immediately after prodding me (evidence that his dream-self must have been KO-ing a moaning adversary), I stayed up with post-nightmare jitters, reliving not only the sense of panic that pervaded my dream but the honest memories that undeniably inspired it.
In reality, my mom’s old condo resided in a complex that would have been beautiful if all the edifices weren’t inspired by oversized gray boxes. Fortunately, the surrounding manicured landscape suggested a tranquil park, cut off from the bustling thoroughfares of Tanasbourne by an enclave of trees, and partitioned into rolling slopes that convened at a large, nutria-filled lake. With winding pathways, a recreation center, tennis courts, and a large pool, it was the perfect place to walk your dog, raise your children, and establish a relaxing homestead. But like any seemingly impeccable suburban neighborhood, cracks began to mar the wholesome visage and reveal a seedier interior than one would expect from a neighborhood filled with old people and children. On the block over, neighbors were evicted for erecting a meth lab in their condo and smashing out their windows, robbers hit numerous houses, including our own, and on one very frightening occasion my sister was followed by an eerie man who stood at the head of our street and stared at our unit for an unnervingly long time after she’d arrived safely behind our locked door.
But beyond the unseen thing encountered on an evening walk that made my dog bolt in the opposite direction, dragging my mom to safety with the power of a much younger pup, and the strange noises that once emanated through our floor from the crawlspace under the house, one of the most unnerving incidents we experienced on Midlake Lane occurred halfway through our nine-year occupancy.
It began one night while I was sitting against my wall-length closet, reading a book for freshman Lit while my mom and sister watched NBC primetime downstairs. Despite all the bizarre occurrences that plagued my otherwise peaceful neighborhood, my room was a place I always felt safe. It was my pristine refuge from the pet hair that had infiltrated the rest of the house, and better yet, it was far from the downstairs windows that burglars might peek through and the crawlspace that something had once inhabited. My room was a peaceful sanctuary, a place where I conducted photo shoots by the natural light of my enormous window, designed the interior décor to differentiate from the chili pepper color palette downstairs, and entertained guests on a futon that folded into a couch. So while sitting on the floor beside my closet in the midst of cleanliness and soft, ambient lighting, I felt totally at ease.
Until someone started breathing in my ear.
Prone to methodical conduct, I’m an individual who seeks reason and verification for the unexplainable, and as an older sister, machismo instinctively kicks in when faced with fear. So instead of reacting to the hairs that prickled on the back of my neck and running for the hills, I continued to sit there, listening intently to make certain I wasn’t hearing things. When the labored breathing didn’t desist, I pulled the dumb stunt that always offs the investigative characters in horror films and opened the closet doors, throwing caution to the wind despite the fact that I was inspecting a space that comfortably fits six grown men in a neighborhood prone to break-ins.
But there was nothing there.
With no sister to act courageous in front of, I let perturbation prevail and quickly made to join my family downstairs, allowing sitcom hilarity to pacify the situation.
I’m not quite positive of the order in which the rest of the events occurred, or even how spread out in time they were, but unfold they did and at an exponential rate. One day I was sitting downstairs, home alone, engaging in some leisurely couch-potatoing when suddenly the stereo in my upstairs bedroom blasted at full volume. After what might have been the closest I’ve ever come to a heart attack, I hurried upstairs to quell the noise, and found the stereo behind my closed door, playing on its own volition at a volume that I’d never amped it up to. The first time my sister was inducted into the unusual happenings, we were again seated on the downstairs couch, all four pets accounted for around us and my mom in transit from work, when something began to run back and forth across the upstairs hallway. The footfalls were so audible that there was no mistaking the sound, and I finally had someone to verify that what I was experiencing couldn’t be chalked up to schizophrenia.
Say what you will about veracity or fiction, but these experiences, whether paranormal or strangely logical, were very real, and ever since witnessing an old woman through a lighthouse keeper’s window and successively taking a tour that asserted the keeper’s wife had died years ago but was occasionally witnessed flitting through the house, I’ve erred more on the side of belief. So when all these occurrences began amassing in the Midlake condo, I decided the best and only course of action was to relax and embrace it. I took to personifying whatever was causing all the upstairs ruckus, calling it Joseph of all things and acting as if it was a devious but lovable uncle keen on spooking the family. Thus, whenever I was downstairs and all the pets eerily convened at the bottom of the stairwell, standing rigidly and staring up at the top landing, I would venture over to the staircase, look up at the hallway that was vacant to my human eyes, and say in joking patronization, “Oh Joseph, you mesmerizing the pets with that juggling act of yours again?”
If I were a ghost attempting to reek havoc in a household of women, I’m sure being ascribed a random name and being brushed off by the increasing use of, “Ohhh Joseph,” would irk me to the point of amplifying my scare tactics well beyond those of that pesky Paranormal Activity demon. But the newly christened Joseph just continued his old rambling shackles routine as if that was all he was capable of or as if the attention I was doting upon him was actually appeasing.
For some reason, my mom never experienced the pattering feet, slamming doors, and animal beguilement, but she was the only person who received outside verification that strange things were afoot. Apparently, our very grounded, businessman neighbor came to her with the question, “Have you been experiencing… things, in your house lately?” only to elaborate that alongside unexplainable noises, belongings were actually being thrown off his shelves. Apparently he wasn’t employing the “befriend your ghost” tactic. Soon it came out that the neighbor on the other side of our house was also enduring the occasional slammed door and petrified pet, and if it hadn’t been for the clarifying news that followed, I would have ventured to guess that we lived in a new physics-defying Mystery Spot. Thankfully, revelatory news traveled down the gray condo grapevine from the house on the end of the block, two doors down from ours. Apparently, a great uncle had come to visit the residents and actually died in the night during his stay. His unfortunate death in the midst of vacation occurred shortly before unexplainable phenomena began plaguing four houses on our block, and I suddenly felt lucky to have chosen “Joseph” instead of “Josefina.”
Eventually, the experiences dissipated entirely. I lost my newfound, clamorous friend, the pets went back to lazily idling about instead of standing on tenterhooks half the time, and my room was returned to a labored-respiration-free sanctuary. Years went by without incident, and all was blissfully quiet. After an nine-year relationship with old Midlake, we began making arrangements to fly our condominium coop as my mom prepared to move in with her new husband and my sister and I prepared for a monotonous summer of grocery store customer service. It was around this time that a second wave of uncanniness struck.
My mom’s room–the only room through which you could see the dark underbelly of her bed from the stairwell–seemed to emanate an increasing sense of wariness, and despite my lifelong tough guy act, I started feeling noticeably uncomfortable whenever my eyes were drawn to that bed on my way up the stairs. Around this same time, my mom started coming home to a situation that her daughters initially found hilarious: every day after work, my mom would enter her bathroom and find the toilet seat up, as if a man had used it. In a house full of women and two other bathrooms that my sister and I would choose over my mom’s in a heartbeat, this phenomenon was ridiculously strange, and unless my sister was the culprit, I honestly have no explanation.
With each plea of, “Girls, stop leaving the toilet seat open, it’s not funny anymore!” my mom became more nervous, and when she voiced her fear that maybe some stranger was holing up in our house while we were gone each day, we realized that we shouldn’t be laughing so heartily at her expense. The evening we made a breakthrough in the mystery of the upturned toilet seat, was when my sister was reading on my mom’s bed and heard the same audible breathing that first introduced me to Joseph, alluding to the hopeful idea that there was no living man squatting in our home when we were at work, but rather another attention-seeking presence that I felt certain wouldn’t harm us.
Although this one didn’t feel as innocent as Joseph.
Our final Midlake experience occurred very shortly before moving out. We were all bonding in my sister’s doorway, enjoying each other’s company amidst laughter and good conversation, when my sister’s pleasant demeanor dropped and she stared wide-eyed at my mom’s bedroom, illuminated down the hall. In her shock, she explained that she’d just witnessed a shadow move human-like across the drawn curtains, and for this shadowy, toilet-using fiend, we had no cheerful juggling banter.
Besides the occasional unpleasant vibe I got from my mom’s room, I serve only as a secondary narrator to these later incidents, and have no way of claiming their actuality. I’m only relieved that we didn’t endure whatever else this mouth-breathing, ill-mannered toilet user had in store for us, and beyond a couple questionable experiences in Savannah, Georgia–haunted capital of the US–my paranormal experiences have been reserved for occasional dreams that take actual memories and twist them until I’m left trying to scream through nonexistent water.