Every year when Halloween starts to creep up, I find myself craving a good scare. The air outside is crisp, the leaves colorful and scattered on the ground like confetti. There’s no better time of year to turn out the lights and curl up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn while watching: a) a ghost possess a pair of bright-eyed, new homeowners b) an unfortunate hitchhiker plead for his life while losing appendages to a homicidal maniac or c) that go-getter FBI agent who’s been roped back into hunting down the real serial killer while fighting for justice for the person she mistakenly arrested ten years ago.
I recognize that these cheap thrills do very little for my ability to experience a good night’s rest. But they’re guilty pleasures that I can’t just abandon. My scary movie ritual is a part of my life – and it has seeped into other aspects of daily living. Any time we go on a ski weekend with friends, I’m fairly certain there’s an escaped mental patient lurking by the pines, ready to mutilate anyone who dares to part from the group for a cigarette or something. When kayaking in Alaska, the beautiful serene landscape made me think, “there’s nobody in a ten mile radius who would ever be able to save me if a ‘lumberjack with a vengeance’ emerges from the woods.” Forget bears, moose and other more probable fears. Whenever the phone stops ringing, text messages stop buzzing, and other background noises go eerily quiet to provide a brief moment of peace, I can’t help but think the stage is set for some sort of horror.
Where did this inclination come from? When I was a child, let’s just say my babysitters were not about to watch Sesame Street. Their geographic preferences skewed toward Elm Street. But I don’t think that’s quite what piqued my fascination with the macabre.
A few weeks after moving into our new house, my stay-at-home mom and I spent a summer morning crafting in the kitchen. It was a soggy day outside, the rain steady and gray. We sat at the kitchen table making pompoms or woven potholders or whatever it was that was en vogue for Girl Scouts that particular week.
The new house was bigger than our last house. I think that in itself was a bit unsettling for my mom. New houses also bring new noises.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
My mom straightened up, setting her pompom/potholder on the table.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
There it was again. A very distinct foreign noise emerging from…the basement. Of course.
I’ll never forget the speed with which my mom reacted. Within seconds she was up from the table, lodging one of the kitchen chairs under the door handle to lock the intruder in the basement. All 5’4” and 100 pounds of her nervously trembled as she lit a cigarette, considering what to do next.
I’m not sure if 911 wasn’t a thing yet, or if she was just embarrassed call 911 at 10am on a Tuesday because she heard a noise in the basement. I’ll never know, but given what happened next, I’m pretty sure it was probably the former.
After stubbing out her Merit cigarette in the ashtray I’d made her in pre-school, my mom calmly walked over to the other side of the kitchen. I couldn’t see what she was doing, mostly because I was unable to remove my eyes from the doorknob of the basement door, which I was certain was slowly rattling.
My mom walked slowly toward the basement door, pulled the chair away from the door and held a butcher knife in front of her. A butcher knife.
Along with my horror movie fascination, maybe – just maybe – this is where my fear of knives stems from. Seriously, I would try to carve a roast beast with a butter knife if I ate meat.
The image of my mom standing there armed with a knife that she intended to use to hack up an intruder, while craft supplies and a coffee mug stand abandoned on the table behind her, remains one of the most startling things I’ve seen in my life.
“Stay here,” she said.
No need to tell me twice. I was frozen in place, neither the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ reflexes kicking in.
She descended into the basement and I saw her turn the corner. It was only a moment before she came bounding back up the stairs, slamming the door and shoving the chair back under the handle. She put the knife on the table and called my dad.
“Jim, you’d better come home – there’s someone in the basement,” she said.
Her face was white with fear, and we waited in a stony silence for the 25 minutes it took my dad to get home. As soon as she extinguished a cigarette, she lit another. I didn’t ask her what the intruder looked like. Neither of us mentioned how odd it was that he wasn’t trying to get out of the basement. The door handle hadn’t moved since she came upstairs.
My dad got home and walked into the kitchen already carrying his weapon of preference – a metal baseball bat – which he grabbed from the garage on the way into the house.
There my parents stood: one armed with an aluminum stick of destruction and the other with a shiny knife, steady by her side. Norman Rockwell would be proud. The two of them slowly crept down the steps, and I quietly followed. Curiosity got the best of me.
They walked to the far back of the basement.
“There,” my mom said, pointing at two wet footprints on the cement. Proof that some intruder had trudged from the rainy weather outside into our
warm and cozy damp and creepy basement.
“I bet he’s in the crawl space,” she continued, as both she and my dad looked up at the tiny hole in the cinder blocks that led to a space underneath our house.
A silent moment passed as we all gaped at the hole in the wall, undoubtedly filled with spiders, cobwebs, and a homicidal maniac.
“Or,” my dad began, “maybe you didn’t look at the footprints close enough.”
“What do you mean?” my mom asked.
“Those aren’t wet footprints,” my dad said, resting the head of the baseball bat on the ground. He smirked (out of relief, not condescension) and nudged her closer to the footprints.
Sure enough, the soles of those giant men’s shoes were permanently carved into the basement floor. Apparently one of the contractors had stepped in the wet cement when they were building the house. The basement was intruder-free.
After that, we went back to the kitchen. Weapons were stowed, crafts were continued, and alarm systems were installed so that my dad wouldn’t have to run out of the office every time a stair creaked the wrong way.