An October Fright

Haunted HouseI suppose that not all fear is irrational. If you are facing a genuine threat to your safety or well-being, fear could be a perfectly rational response. Still, I think it is fair to say that much of the fear we experience is irrational. Even though we may be aware of this at the time, it does not always help. The fear sometimes wins out. Here's an example I remember from my childhood.

When I was growing up, my parents did quite a bit of entertaining. They belonged to several groups of couples that would take turns hosting various dinners. It was one of their many social outlets and one that did not have anything to do with church. Because children were never invited, it really didn't do much for me. The nights they hosted, I generally stayed in my room.

On one particular October evening while my parents were hosting one of these things, another opportunity presented itself. My family was house-sitting for our neighbors across the street, which meant picking up their mail, watering their plants, and feeding their dog while they were away. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and it was decided that this should be my responsibility. On this particular night, I had been complaining about how I was going to miss the horror movie I wanted to watch on TV (I think it was Friday the 13th Part 3, but it could have been any of the first few films in that series) because I'd be banished to my room where there was no TV. It was suggested that I go watch it at our neighbors' house. They wouldn't care, and their dog would almost certainly enjoy the company. Sounded good to me.

I knew the movie was not going to be scary, so I decided to do what I could to amplify the impact. I turned off all the lights and watched it alone (with the neighbor's dog) in the dark. I suppose I was cocky. As it turned out, I was right to predict that the movie was not scary. I almost never find this type of slasher to be scary, and this one was no exception. What I was not prepared for, however, was just how terrifying the experience of sitting alone in the dark in that house was going to be.

I'd been in this house many times before, but there were always plenty of other people there and lights on. It was completely different to be there by myself at night. Every old house makes noises, and I was not at all familiar with the noises of this particular house. I found myself jumping with every creak, especially those that sounded like they had to be caused by someone moving around upstairs. My rational side knew that the family who lived there was out of town and that it was not possible that any of them could have returned home early without letting my family know. And yet, it sounded an awful lot like there was someone upstairs. Who the hell was it?

Part of the problem was that I'd had an odd experience a few months earlier while I was picking up mail, watering plants, and feeding the dog of another neighbor. What had happened in that case was that someone else had in fact been in and out of the house without me knowing about it. I'd come over and find that things I had put various places had been moved. I wasn't sure what was going on, but it really freaked me out. It turned out that the homeowner had given another key to someone else and not bothered to mention it. Even with that explanation, I suspect that this having happened so recently was not helping on this particular night.

The dog, who did indeed seem happy to have some company, was not reacting to the noises with the sort of alarm I'd expect if there really had been someone in the house who shouldn't have been there. I told myself that proved it was nothing to worry about, and I tried to focus on the movie. But there was that sound again. It might have been my imagination, but I swear the dog turned her head that time in the direction of the noise. She'd heard it too. I realized my heart was racing. I am not sure how long I lasted before deciding that the lights needed to be on, but it wasn't long. It helped a bit, but I could not shake the feeling that someone was in that house with me.

On the next commercial break, I made a point of getting up and moving around to make enough noise that anybody who might have been in the house would have known I was there. I threw the ball for the dog a few times, tossing it up the stairs more than once. I knew I was being silly. There was nobody in the house. I knew that what I had been hearing were just the sort of sounds old houses make. I told myself I was being stupid, turned off the lights again, and settled back down for the rest of the movie.

I'm ashamed to admit that I did not make it all the way through the movie. The noises did not stop, and they overcame me in the end. I got out of there as fast as I could. I vividly recall running across the street. I felt incredibly stupid, but that no longer mattered. The irrational fear had finally won out.