I was actually looking at writing prompts today, hoping to find something story-worthy. Like most of you, I have millions of thoughts swirling all day, but none of them have manifested into a useful bit of prose. I came across a few ghost story ideas that were fun, and that pushed me to think about a few of my own strange experiences growing up.
Every year I tell scary stories to fourth grade. And I start by saying that everyone has a scary story. Honestly, the minute I start, hands are everywhere.
“So this one time, my uncle…”
“My mom saw a ghost once.”
“My little brother sees them all the time.”
I actually have to interrupt them. I ask them to write them down so I can read them. Otherwise, I’ll never get through it.
Ghost stories draw most of us in, even if we don’t like them. There is a genuinely emotional reaction. Fascination. Excitement. Panic. Apprehension. Laughter. Yes, even laughter. Something about the fact that ghost stories exist across all cultures grabs me. Like folk tales, all cultures carry with them their stories of the supernatural. And I also genuinely like that rush of fear. Around Halloween I’ll watch scary films (and I mean scary, not the newer slasher films that tend to have a sickening fascination with dismemberment and creative ways to kill people) until I give myself nightmares. The ‘Chicago Haunts’ book series by Ursula Bielski is one of my absolute favorites to sample chapters with older kids, and if you like ‘real’ ghost stories, I’d highly recommend it.
Every year I tell the same handful of stories to my fourth graders, and I always get a few screams. And I think it’s because I start off telling them about one of my own experiences. This really happened. No, really. No embellishments. And while I know it won’t have the same effect here, the shivers I get whenever I tell it are still every bit as real.
While I’d never been scared of our house before this story, every home has its memories. Nothing about the place said ‘spooky.’ It was a single-story ranch home with four bedrooms and a modest backyard. My parents even had the basement finished about the time I was 8, so I can’t hide behind the creepy basement illusions like most kids. The stories my sisters told me when I was young, about the family of magicians who lived in the house before we did, later confirmed by my father, always made me wonder about the occasional weird noise or random door that was left open. And with an overactive imagination, I found myself fearing things mostly at night when I was little. For a year or two I remember distinctly believing that my closet was some sort of portal to the world in The Wizard of Oz. I would lie there in bed staring at it until I’d convinced myself that the sliding door had moved an inch, and that the muffled, awful laugh of that witch was coming next. God, it was torture. Several times I slept under the bed, just to trick that ugly old witch. My apologies to my mother, who went frantically from room to room when she found my bed empty the next morning.
The other frightening thing for me was turning off the light at the bottom of the stairs in the basement when leaving the room, which cut light to the entire basement. I couldn’t get up those stairs fast enough, feeling like something might reach out and grab my ankle if I wasn’t fast enough.
But this story isn’t from my youngest days. This was when I was a senior in high school, and springtime was settling into place. It was sometime in April, late on a Friday night, and I’d been out to a movie with friends. The house was quiet, and, as it was common for me on weekends, I headed down to the basement to watch a little television before heading up to bed. There were sports to recap. News to watch. Perhaps even a spooky movie to find. I settled on sports, in the glow of a single end table lamp, and watched for about an hour before it happened.
The television was an old box tv, a Zenith, with a little green digital readout showing which channel you were watching. Suddenly the tv switched to a channel with only the snowstorm visible. That’s what we called it when we were young, when you changed channels and lost reception, suddenly assaulted by that horrible static noise and those flickering black and white dots or “snow,” as lots of us called it. It always seemed to be so friggin’ loud, and that’s what I remember thinking when the channel changed. I jumped up, scrambling to find the remote I must have sat upon, not wanting to wake anyone upstairs. But I hadn’t sat on it. There it was right next to me. I turned the volume down, and looked at the screen, puzzled.
“Damn thing must be going bad,” I told myself. And I tried switching it back to my sports program.
I sat back down and continued to watch for another minute or so before it happened again. This time I noticed the green numbers changing before the channel switched.
9 (pause) 9
Again, the tv erupted into static as the channel switched to 99. There were only two digits available on that machine, this being well before cable went over 100. Again, I turned down the volume. No one was awake, and we didn’t have a second remote that would have allowed for a practical joke. A tinge of fear prickled down my back, but I shrugged it away.
I was, however, sitting up straight now. I turned the channel back to my sports program again, and waited.
I finally exhaled and went back to watching the top 10 plays of the day. And then it happened again.
9 (pause) 9
Again, that crackling blizzard screen appeared, and I mashed the volume button. This time, however, something else happened, too.
It started a countdown.
99 (pause) 98 (pause) 97 (pause) 96…
The numbers started dropping about a second or two between each change.
92 (pause) 91 (pause) 90…
My stomach clenched, and I started arguing with myself. The tv had obviously gone berserk. It was old anyway. There went my late night tv watching.
81 (pause) 80 (pause) 79…
Part of me thought about just turning the thing off and making my way upstairs, but I was frozen to my seat, whether I liked it or not.
65 (pause) 64 (pause) 63…
By the time it hit 50, I was torn. Part of me really wanted to see what happened when it hit 0. Honestly, I was amused. Just like I am by scary movies in general. The other part of me just wanted to get the hell out of there. Is that when “it” would get me?
45 (pause) 44 (pause) 43…
It started getting reception at that point, so the channels were lingering just long enough to get a bit of dialogue or sound before it changed.
“I can’t believe you, Jake…” (pause) “You won’t believe this product” (pause) “I mean, before Bill Clinton…”
I was really arguing with myself now. My stomach was screaming at me, “Get out of there, now!” But my 18 year-old brain was saying, “C’mon. There’s an explanation for this. It’s just broken.”
25 (pause) 24 (pause) 23…
My pulse was fast now, hands a little shaky. I’m pretty sure I even rose off the couch a little, just in case I had to run. Whipping my head in different directions around the room. Still, the argument continued in my head.
“Run and scream like a 5 year old, dude!” said my gut.
“Be a man, dude,” said my head. “It’s nothing.”
12 (pause) 11 (pause) 10…
In those final ten channels I had to make up my mind. Fight or flee. I had goosebumps on my arms now, the hair standing up. Eyes wide. Shoulders tense. The five year-old was winning.
5 (pause) 4 (pause) 3 (pause) 2 (pause) 1…
When the number hit zero, the tv flashed and went off, and I waited while those cold shivers ran from my neck to my toes. And then, the table lamp shut off, too.
I’m telling you, I’m not making this up. And the worst part about that was there wasn’t even the familiar click of the switch that was necessary to shut it off. It just went completely dark.
There was a good twenty feet to the stairs, which I fled for completely on muscle memory in the pitch dark. I felt that familiar fear icing through me, that something was going to grab my ankle as I reached the stairs. I took them three or four at a time, missing, and crashing my shin hard into the edge of one stair. Carpeted or not, it hurt like hell. Fear shot through my body and I scrambled up the rest of the way on my hands and knees like that 5 year-old. I sprinted and closed my bedroom door, and even thought about putting the dresser in front of it until I talked some sense into myself.
And then I saw myself in the mirror on my dresser and laughed. Because I looked ridiculous. Wide-eyed and wild. Mouth open. And because that’s what I do when I’m scared. I find myself laughing to try to deal with it. I didn’t sleep much that night, nor did I go into that basement again for some time, especially alone. The tv worked fine for a while longer, and simply ended up being replaced by a newer one, as tvs often are, but I never had issues with it again after that.
It’s really a terrible ghost story I understand that. I could embellish it and make it such a grand tale, I suppose. But just writing it tonight gave me shivers again, and that’s what I’m truly after when I tell scary stories, or watch them. I want to feel uncomfortable. I want something that can maybe be explained away, until it can’t. The stuff that makes you just uneasy enough to have that argument inside yourself. The stuff that makes you say it was probably just a dying television. Some part of the electronics I wouldn’t understand anyway. That’s probably all it was.