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Horror in real life doesn’t come suddenly, it’s not a shock, or a reactionary scream. Horror in real life is a slow realization that occurs over the course of years. It needs time to mold, decay, and spread. True horror is painful, often sad, and tragic. It’s a slow deterioration, separating you from all forms of comfort and happiness. It is this kind of horror that I have felt ever since I learned of my mothers passing.
The circumstances of her death did not make things any easier. It wasn’t a slow death with time to make amends, adjust or say goodbye. She hadn’t been fighting a disease or infection for years. She wasn’t old and nearing the end of her life. Her death came for her quickly and unexpectedly.
My mother who after divorce, and my brothers moving away, had been living alone. She kept herself busy by working for the church and caring for her parents. My last couple visits home I had noticed she seemed more fragile than she should for a woman her age. She had lost weight and seemed starved for visitors. There was also a look in her eyes that bothered me; they were sleepless, panicked and broken. It seemed as if she wanted to tell me something but couldn’t. Instead she would just smile sadly and change the subject. I was told that my brother found her late one night in October, locked in the downstairs bathroom naked lying in her own blood with her wrists sliced open. She was sixty three years old.
Knowing that suicide is a mortal sin in the catholic church, and my mother being a devote catholic, I couldn’t help but wonder if something else was involved in her passing. Not anything scandalous, or plotted but something queer and uncomfortable that had been with me and my thoughts since I was a child. It dealt with our family home and more particularly the old wooden doors.
It all began with trouble sleeping. For as long as I can remember I always had trouble falling asleep in my parents house. My grandmother told me that as a small child I was prone to sleep terrors. She would watch me during the day while my parents were at work, and in the evenings, when they went out to dinner. She told me that she was watching me the night a bad storm hit our neighborhood. A tornado had been spotted that night but never touched down. However the lightning did claim the house’s electricity. My grandmother raced to my bedroom worried the window facing my crib would break under the violent wind. There was something else she was afraid of as well. When my grandmother picked me up from my crib she said she felt something in the room, something new, different and dark. My grandmother who came to America from Italy as a child told my parents that she had felt a strange presence that night and begged them to allow her to do a prayer to remove the maloik, an old world superstition. But my parents who were religious, believed in angels and demons, not folklore. They didn’t want to dabble in curses and superstition.
As I got older the sleep terrors continued as nightmares. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up hours after going to bed only to be too afraid to fall back asleep. Later in high school I dealt with my insomnia by not sleeping for days until I could fall asleep quickly. It wasn’t until I went away for college that I was able to rest peacefully.
I attribute my difficulty sleeping all of those years to the doors in my parents house. They were big plain wood doors, simple with no additional furnishing or decoration. They seemed ominous never the less. I would spend hours looking at the patterns in the grain, finding shapes and images in them like one would do with clouds. The more I looked the more I saw, until the images seemed so clear to me. Strange famished figures, naked with one leg or half of a torso, rabid dogs, an old bearded man. I saw faces too, wide eyed, mouths open, sometimes made of knots in the wood. All suffering as if the spirits of these things had somehow become trapped in the wood.
The bathroom door on the first floor was the worst. It was positioned next to the door leading to the basement and the lock in the door knob was finicky. It would sometimes get stuck, or give way, locking or unlocking by itself. The bathroom door also had one of the strangest designs. In the center of the door there was what looked like a woman in intense pain as if she was in labor. Her face was contorted and blurred with vertical lines of grain. Taring its way out from what I could only imagine as her stomach, in my childlike imagination, was a wide eyed creature.
I would see the bathroom door in my dreams as well. I had terrible nightmares where I was floating and desperately trying to get away from the bathroom, but I was being pulled backwards by an invisible force unable to escape. It would suck me into the darkness of the room, the door would slam shut and lock before I would have a chance to wake up panicked and out of breath.
The nightmares and the lack of sleep only made my already active imagination worse. The strange images in the door weighed on me. There was a door for every room in the house. I could not escape them. They were a constant presence, staring out at me from the wooden veneers. As a child I began to see other things. Things that found a way out of the trappings of wooden frames. Not things I could look at directly but rather things that appeared in my peripheral vision. The kinds of things that always begged to be questioned. Was someone there or was my imagination getting the best of me? Overtime I got better at being watchful, and looking without shifting my gaze.
One night when I was six years old I went into my parents bedroom feeling guilty that I wasn’t yet asleep. I needed to be reassured and comforted because I had scared myself badly. My mother gave me a hug and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I see things out of the corners of my eyes. She asked me about their appearance. But I couldn’t get a good look at them, as soon as I turned my head they were gone. She asked me when the last time was that I had seen one. I told her that there is one with us now in the corner of the room. My mother looked over at what to her was an empty corner in her bedroom. She told me that maybe they were angels sent by God to watch and protect me. But they weren’t. Something in the pit of my stomach would turn and I would feel sick around them.
They were motionless beings, staring blankly at me, only moving when I wasn’t looking. Slowly getting closer to me every time I looked away. I’d first discovered them in my peripheral vision outside my bedroom on the stairs late at night when I couldn’t sleep. I would notice a dark shape peaking over the top stair, eyes glistening, where nothing should be. I would try to quickly shift my gaze, to refocus on them, but they were always gone. I’d eventually look away and then find them again at my bedroom door, and then even closer at my desk. Ever present, just outside of sight.
I decided that they must be demons, not the red horned demons from cartoons but something else. They seemed old as if they were somehow misplaced, out of time. At night when I would see them I would be too afraid to move, or do anything but stare blankly, not giving them a chance to move in closer.
Sometimes I would hear them talk to me in my head. They would tell me to do things like to wait in the corner of the room, or flood my mind with images of strange exotic places. I would sometimes do what they said, though nothing ever came of it. My mother panicked one afternoon when she couldn’t find me. She searched the entire house eventually finding me in the bedroom closet, facing the wall, where the voices had told me to wait. She was in tears when I told her about the voices. She bought me a rosary and asked if the demons were the reason I was having trouble sleeping.
Eventually my father blessed the house with holy water, room by room as part of the celebration of the Epiphany, recommended every year by the church. It was after this, when I was still seeing them, that my mother became bothered by my demons and their doors. It began to weigh on her as well.
I grew up in a suburb just outside of Cleveland in a working class neighborhood predominately made up of Irish, Italians and Slovenians where religion was very much a part of life. My parents were passionately involved in the church as well and it was through them that I learned to take the sightings I was having very seriously. Instead of denouncing my demons as part of my imagination, my fears were reinforced and their existence confirmed through the power of faith and community.
One night we had a priest who was new to the parish over to our house to meet the family. After dinner he asked me if there was anything I wanted to ask God for. I told him that there are demons in this house that hide in the doors and I wanted them to go away. My parents shared a look of concern as my mother tried to explain. The priest looked at the doors before he left and assured me everything was okay. Later that evening he spoke with my parents and something was settled between adults.
A couple of months later my father did a small home renovation which included replacing all of the doors with white ones. It was relieving for the doors to finally be gone, and I thought I would now be rid of the strange creatures and be able to sleep. But it was too late. My mother told me that she was having the nightmares now as well. Something about the doors she would say.
As I got older I read about the possession of objects like the Annabelle doll, and how the native americans believed in evil wood spirits called Wakąčųna; but I mostly ignored the demons and I eventually stopped seeing them. Despite my mothers wishes I no longer went to church and I refused to talk about religious matters or anything involving the strange things I had seen and felt in the house. I told myself that the horrors I faced as a child were due to my overactive imagination and strict religious upbringing. By the time I left for college there had been no talk of doors, demons, or nightmares for a long time, although I would still occasionally get that sick feeling in my stomach late at night when I was near the downstairs bathroom door.
My parents would later divorce, my mom keeping the house and working at the church. I moved away for work to Twin Falls. It wasn’t until my Dad called to tell me about the circumstances of my mother’s passing that I began to wonder if something more had happened to my mother.
I made the trip home to find that my childhood neighborhood had been hit hard by the recession. It was now only a faded memory of the town I grew up in. The corner ice cream parlor was now a get-cash-fast lender, and the streets were relatively empty and bleak. Houses were boarded up and my old high school had closed. Parked at a red light I watched the traffic lights signal to empty streets. My parents house even looked different, old and not as well kept as it was when my father had lived there. The grass had been overrun with weeds and the siding was dirty.
We stood in font of the house that afternoon after the funeral, my brothers, father and I. My brothers explained to me how my mom had been stressed. Her mood swings had been violent and her sleeping pattern was erratic. She would go for long periods of time without sleeping and then fall into a deep sleep for days. My brother told me how late one evening after work he had gone over our mother’s house to check on her. It had been two or three in the morning by the time he had arrived and let himself in, finding our mother in the kitchen making breakfast. He told me she had become confused about the time and had thought that it was morning. He explained that she was trying different medications to help with the insomnia, and the doctors had thought the mood swings and suicide could have been a side effect. I told them about how I used to have trouble sleeping in her house and about the demons and the doors. They laughed, they were too young to remember. I told them that I thought I was going to sleep better after Dad had replaced the doors but it wasn’t until college that I slept well. My Dad stopped me and told me that he never replaced the doors, he just had them painted white.
Credit: Matt Mascia