I never could be certain if it was real or not afterwards. I would fumble through the events of a typical day on auto pilot, as if my mind was still trying to figure out if it could trust the sights and sounds most take for granted. It wasn’t fear; perhaps shock, but not fear. My mind simply didn’t want to let down its guard or give in too easily if we went to that place again. It wasn’t a specific place or thing that brought on the lingering hesitancy. It was a sensation. Dread? No, not quite… It didn’t capture the edges of the blurriness. At one time dread was the only descriptor I could think of, but not now. Every time I felt like I was close to pinning it down, I’d feel this panic in the back of my stomach that would quickly ascend into my chest. It was suffocating. Whenever I’d get close to squeezing the feeling of that place into something I could make sense of, it would fight back. I’d be right back where I started. The day after was the same every time. The light would eventually struggle to hold on, and dark would creep in to replace it with a menacing presence that heightened all of my senses in unison. The insignificance of those second nights would taunt me with their grip on logic and reason. “You know this isn’t real. Dreams are a product of your subconscious categorizing information in your brain. Forget about this and let down your guard. The real world, the one that can be tested and analyzed…well, that’s where sanity lives.” Regardless of the pacing in my mind, I didn’t believe the hush of normalcy that whispered on the periphery of what I could see and touch. This “other world” had visited too many times for me to dismiss it outright as a mere consequence of something I ate before bed, or a show I watched on TV. In fact, this world had long blurred the lines of my waking reality.
I was around five or six when the corners and lines first frayed along the grainier portions of the brief existence I had embraced as normal. I’m convinced everyone sees objects and shapes in the dark and manifests creatures and dangers from lore in their mind. What kid hasn’t seen a coat and hat hanging on the coat rack and startled in fear as their imagination convinces them it’s an eight foot tall ghoul who will bear down on them with some misshapen, distended mouth? Those frayed lines would begin to split and tear into something darker and more horrifying, but for now they were a figment of my imagination; at least that’s what the grown ups said. When someone says you’re imagining things, you’re at the mercy of the crowd. Majority rules, and monsters aren’t real. All of the scary stuff we put in movies and books are for entertainment, and kids manifest their fears through their developing imaginations. This is what people need to say; to believe. The movies have never captured the terror in the reality of what lies beyond the spatial plane of the seen and unseen; the moving parts that crawl and bleed through the frayed lines and into the shaky reality of our dreams. The feeling of being completely alone, isolated, and of course, the dizzying terror that stiffens your limbs and freezes your lungs in place while the dark crawls into the blackness and blots out hope. Such things were foreign to me, but I was to start my journey very soon thanks to the man on the wall.
I’m told they picked it up at a flea market. It was a simple wall hanging of a man with a silly face, contorted to look like he was smiling, but the smile seemed to slide off his face with apprehension; like candle wax after it’s melted in contorted runs from the heat. The portrait wasn’t even intended for me. It was to be given to my brother, but he didn’t like it, so they hung it in my room reflexively without even asking me. After all, I was too young to have an opinion. I can’t recall the specific moment I first felt it staring at me. I do recall the sensation of not being alone in the house, but at the same time being completely alone in the world. It would be quiet, the upstairs of our two story house completely empty, and my body would freeze while a slight dizzying buzz would engulf my thoughts; prodding me to acknowledge my singularity in the room was anything but; a presence I would become familiar with but never make sense of or understand. The sensation was akin to feelings of anxiety; like being at a party with new people while the initial awkwardness gives you chills and makes your teeth start chattering, though you purse your lips tightly to avoid appearing out of sorts. I would spin around abruptly, heart immediately increasing in rhythm, with certainty I was about to confront something horrid. This simply wasn’t the case though. It would just be myself and the man on the wall, listlessly smiling with that expression of regret, or apprehension, or maybe the way an animal at the shelter feigns happiness and joy as you approach while its eyes tell the truth about the accepted reality of its fate.
Something the movies miss on is the feeling of isolation and dread. The good ones can deliver apprehension, fear and shock, but I’ve never seen a movie that could replicate the feeling of pure dread the darkness ushers in. The closest thing I found was a short story by Stephen King called The Monkey. I remember thinking that another person in the world definitely knew what it was to feel what I did, and they tried to put it into words; though I’ll still concede it misses the mark when completely describing the feeling itself. It grips you like a powerful stimulant of raw terror, immediately convincing you there is true evil in the world. You are assured there is something beyond your comprehension that aims to cause you pain and destruction. Any valiant thoughts of fighting back that may embolden you when you’re in good company with friends, and feeling enthusiastic, are gone. There is no thought beyond the immediate dread which has leaked into reality and is somehow not bound by the same limits the rest of life as we know it is subject to. If you were teleported to another dimension, and colors existed that don’t exist in our own world, how would you describe them to someone? The same limits of explanation apply to things which exist elsewhere yet have brought their reality to us through the cracks and frays we choose to ignore.
Something I’ve reflected on as an adult was the patience and seemingly deliberate approach to kindling a small flame, that would eventually grow into a raging fire, the darkness undertook throughout my childhood. It wasn’t enough to convince others I was a highly imaginative kid, or a boy seeking attention; it tried to convince me that I was crazy. The same events played out over and over, with differing degrees of severity as I grew in age, but they were always followed by periods of nothing that would enlist the logical portion of my brain to fit my experience into a box and make sense of it. I’m getting ahead of myself, however. Let’s go back.
My nights as a child were awful. During the day I felt I could keep an eye on the man hanging high on my wall whose true nature everyone else in the home readily dismissed. Night brought silence, and it made me an defenseless target as I lay in my bed, parallel to the picture, which meant I couldn’t see his face and determine his motives. Crawling under my sheets and breathing the hot, trapped air was my only recourse. I’d lay very still and hope he’d ignore me and go on about his business. The rules I made were effective in giving me confidence, but rules only exist for those imagined creatures who can do us no harm other than what we invent in our own mind. The man on the wall was real, and I’d be reminded often how my rules had no bearing on my eventual outcome.
Most nights were nothing more than the lingering fear of a night some time in the past, but like a homeowner who maintains his property and retouches the paint on the trim every few years to keep things looking pristine, so to would the man maintain its presence and remind me I wasn’t alone. The dreams came first. They were vivid in their depiction, ensuring I’d remember the haunting details when I awoke. Regardless of what the dream consisted of, I was always isolated and alone. There might be friends and family in the dream, but I was still alone; cut off from help or rescue. This theme echoed over and over and over. Like a captor who slowly brainwashes their captive, you are reminded you will never be free of them, and running for help will do no good. His presence, and my awareness of him, was the only thing I sensed in my dreams for a long time. ‘Was this my imagination? Were my parents right all along? I swear something is there, but what? I can’t pin anything down. That feeling though… I know I’m not crazy; at least I think so. A crazy person probably wouldn’t know if they were crazy though, would they?’ I would go back and forth with my thoughts, while the face of the man would live right on the edge of my reality. He’d allow me to sense his presence, fill my days and nights with dread, but never allow me to definitively pin him down with some action I could ascribe to his doing.
That would all change when the face took form in my mind…