20 Apr Behind the Shadows
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"Behind the Shadows"Written by Peter O'Shamseign
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
This will not be a typical story. In fact, what I intend to share includes several different events, which I have only recently come to see as being linked. Despite this newfound clarity, however, I have been unable to adequately explain what occurred, and the continuing aftermath remains beyond the realm of my understanding. All I know for certain is that the lights cannot exist… and yet they do.
Before I continue, I need to make something clear: People who preface their tales by claiming to be skeptics are almost invariably lying. It has become something of a cliché, with an author first swearing that they don’t believe in the supernatural, then telling a heavy-handed anecdote about their encounter with some variety of specter or another. Should a rational interpretation of their experience be offered, this person will steadfastly refuse to consider anything other than the idea that they had a brush with the great beyond, rather than (as a real skeptic would) try to exhaust every other option.
This is frustrating to me because I am a real skeptic, and I have exhausted every other option.
If a mundane explanation for my story exists, then I have yet to find it. I’ve spoken with physicists, in the hopes of learning about some phenomenon that could help me understand my ordeal, and I’ve been examined by medical professionals, just in case there was something wrong with me. Even the existence of a tumor in my skull might have been a small relief, since it would have rendered my memories and perceptions invalid. As it stands, I am in perfect health, and I am quite literally haunted by what has transpired.
As such, I both welcome and encourage any doubt you may have, and I hope that it will remain when I’m done.
My brother and I had shared a bedroom for most of my childhood, but as I entered into adolescence, I decided that I wanted a little bit more privacy. In pursuit of that goal, my father suggested that I collaborate with him in turning an unfinished section of the house – which had previously been little more than a storage space – into an area of my own. It spawned a project that spanned almost the entirety of my summer vacation, with me doing the vast majority of the work (but still following whatever advice was offered). Throughout it all, I kept my mind’s eye focused on the finished product, which would ultimately be a brand-new bedroom with a window that overlooked the nearby creek bed.
Now, that aforementioned creek bed was something of a staple location for my childhood games, but it wasn’t without an oddly mysterious nature. Near its mouth, there was a large metal pipe that extended beneath a road… and although my brother and I often used the passage as a route to the opposite side of the street, we were never entirely comfortable making the journey. Strange sounds would often emanate from within the depths, like the ethereal whispers of some departed spirit. On less-common occasions – usually as the sun was setting – we’d even hear an ominous knocking echoing out of the shadows.
Sounds of this nature are often the result of sun-heated metal cooling in the evening air, but my brother and I decided, of course, that the pipe was legitimately haunted. We even developed an entire backstory for the ghost that supposedly resided there. (She was a twelve-year-old girl who had drowned in a flash flood, and who needed to make out with a twelve-year-old boy before she could pass on.) Sometimes as I lied awake in bed at night, I’d pretend that the tiny flickers on the wall – an optical illusion caused by passing cars’ headlights – were actually the struggles of her soul trying to manifest itself. They always faded before I could point them out to my brother, leading him to complain about my attempts at scaring him with a fiction that we’d invented together.
Anyway, as work progressed on my bedroom, I started to get a little bit impatient. Most of the interior framework had been finished, and although there was still quite a bit left to do, I decided that I wanted to “camp out” in the area that would become my private space. This led me to haul my sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a small stack of books through the hole that would eventually become my doorway, then try to envision what it would be like to finally have a room of my own. As I was contemplating this, those same glowing specks from a passing car appeared, prompting me to silently laugh at how some things would never change.
It was in that moment that I felt my blood run cold… because although the lights were intensely familiar to me, I hadn’t yet cut a hole for a window. My unfinished bedroom was completely isolated from the world outside.
For several seconds, I was truly petrified.
“Hello?” I finally managed to whisper.
As abruptly as they had appeared, the apparitions vanished.
You have likely heard of sleep paralysis, which occurs when a person’s mind is awake, but their body is locked in a state of slumber. Sufferers of the condition will often report feeling a malevolent presence, or being tormented in some way by a demon-like entity. This is a documented and well-understood sensation – being equal parts hallucination and self-induced panic – which I first learned about after telling my mother about my encounter with the glowing motes on my bedroom wall. For many years, I was content to dismiss my experience as being the result of a misfire in my brain, and I was even prompted to remember other occasions when I’d awoken to see inexplicable lights. Even so, some part of me still felt uneasy, as though I was intentionally avoiding some overlooked detail.
Time passed and I eventually forgot about the whole thing, particularly after the pressures of adulthood became the focus of my time and energy. I started doing a lot of work on film sets, and eventually got contracted to serve on an independent feature being shot in a town called Orinda. It was a small, upper-middle-class community with such landmarks as a 1940s movie theater, an artisanal cupcake shop, and a smattering of semi-expensive restaurants, all of which combined to create a suburban setting that was completely devoid of anything normally thought of as eerie or disturbing. In fact, the most remarkable thing I saw for the vast majority of the shoot was the hubbub caused when a homeless man decided to completely disrobe before going shopping at a local drug store.
That changed when the final day of filming rolled around.
I’d arrived in Orinda at about four in the morning, ready to unload and set up all of the equipment that would be needed for the scheduled scenes. Unfortunately, the equipment truck had yet to show up, meaning that I was forced to wait. Despite this taking place in the middle of summer, the air was uncommonly cold, and I had to keep moving in order to stave off the nibbling numbness that was working its way through my jacket. I took to walking in tight circles, swinging my arms and bringing my knees almost all the way up to my chest, which probably made me look like I was rehearsing for some sort of bird-themed ballet. There was nobody else around to see me, though, so I just kept right at it… until I happened to glance across the street, where I spotted a woman who had seemingly materialized out of thin air.
If I told you to imagine a modern-day witch, you wouldn’t be far off from picturing this individual’s appearance. She was clad in several layers of too-large clothing, and while she might have been mistaken for someone who lived on the street, her impeccably clean white hair and gaudy jewelry suggested otherwise. This woman stared at me from about ten meters away, and although I couldn’t quite make out her facial expression, I somehow got the idea that she was scowling with disapproval. Since I’d been trying to keep warm by way of interpretive dance, I assumed that I’d given my one-person audience the impression that I was under the influence of some illicit substance or another, and as a means of (hopefully) proving otherwise, I put on a big smile and waved.
The woman responded by stalking toward me at a frighteningly fast pace.
Honestly, that situation had no right to be as unnerving as it was. This woman was maybe five feet tall, and although her figure was obscured by the many garments that she had on, I couldn’t imagine her weighing more than a hundred pounds. Even so, as the distance between us quickly closed, I felt an alarming compulsion to sprint in the opposite direction. That urge took too long to make its way to my feet, though, and within seconds, the crone was directly in front of me.
“What are you supposed to tell me?!” she demanded. Her voice – which was surprisingly smooth and melodic, if chillingly harsh – was colored by an accent that I’d never encountered. It seemed vaguely South American, but with some almost Russian elements, and it somehow had the quality of being both completely understandable and yet wholly alien at the same time.
“I’m, uh… I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
The same question was repeated: “What are you supposed to tell me?!”
Several thoughts went through my mind. As I said, I was in the area because of a film shoot, and while the individual didn’t look like one of our cast (nor had I ever encountered an actor who arrived before the crew), I couldn’t imagine anything else about which I might inform her. The idea that she was insane vanished almost as soon as it came up, given that the sharp clarity behind the woman’s gaze was far too focused and intent. Perhaps, I briefly considered, she was a foreign tourist who had never encountered the pre-dawn desertedness of a small American town… but her advanced years and perfect English seemed to suggest otherwise.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I really don’t know how to answer that.” I paused for a moment, and no response seemed forthcoming. “Is there something that you’re expecting me to tell you?”
For a few tense seconds, the woman glared up at me. Then, slowly enough that I almost didn’t notice the shift, her frown gave way to an expression of disappointed sympathy.
“You don’t know.” She exhaled through her nose and shook her head. “Maybe you will never know.”
“Could you explain it to me?” I asked. I had very little idea what I was actually requesting, but I hoped that the answer would clear up my increasing confusion.
Once again, the woman shook her head. “If you cannot see, you cannot help.”
It was an innocuous enough statement, but I felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. Without saying another word to me, the woman turned and walked back the way she had come, eventually disappearing around a corner. Even though I kept listening for the sound of her jangling jewelry or the rustle of her clothes, the streets stayed silent.
Adrenaline can play remarkable tricks on the human mind. Several times throughout the day, I imagined catching glimpses of that woman peering at me from around corners or from within darkened windows. Dark flickers of movement would dart through my peripheral vision, but whenever I’d turn to look, I would see nothing out of the ordinary. I discovered later – after doing a bit of online research – that images of that nature are the result of the brain trying to “fill in the gaps,” as it were, and that a heightened state of anxiety can make them seem more present and persistent than they actually are. As I had before, I dismissed the entire affair as being perfectly ordinary.
You may be wondering what that woman had in common with the apparitions from my childhood. In truth, I saw no link at first, nor did I even think back to that night in my unfinished bedroom. Several years passed before I put the pieces together, and it took a chance encounter with a young woman on a train before I gave the matter a second thought.
This girl had introduced herself as a shaman, which – given that we were commuting through the San Francisco Bay Area – was far from the wildest claim that I’d heard in recent memory. She was both friendly and attractive, though her demeanor seemed to suggest that she was perpetually lost in her own private musings. Still, there was a long ride ahead of us, and in an effort to be polite (and to amuse myself, if I’m honest), I asked the young woman to share some of her spiritual secrets.
The shock on my face must have been all too evident when she replied: “What are you supposed to tell me?”
For an incredibly long few seconds, I considered what had just occurred. Again, I had rarely thought about my first time hearing those words, but the phrase was unique enough to be unforgettable. “Does that mean something?” I finally asked. “Is it a quote from somewhere?”
The girl’s lips tightened as she looked at me. “Why do you ask?”
In answer, I shared a brief retelling of my encounter with the old woman. My conversational partner stayed silent throughout the whole thing, though subtle flashes of horror crossed her face when I described the shadows that I’d seen. When I finally finished speaking, the girl turned away, and several moments passed with no sound between us besides that of the train’s wheels on the track.
“Have you ever seen the lights?”
My first thought was to state that I didn’t know what the question meant. As I opened my mouth, though, I remembered watching my bedroom wall. The girl looked back at me, and my hesitation must have been answer enough for her.
“What I’m about to tell you,” she said, “you can never share with anyone else. There’s a kind of web beneath the world that we can see, and people travel along its threads. I don’t know who that woman was, but you met me because you met her, and you met her because you’ve seen them.” I wanted to scoff, but something kept me from it. “Everyone notices the shadows,” the girl continued. “Some people think it’s their mind playing tricks on them. Other people think they’re seeing dead relatives or pets or something. They’re just shadows, though. Nobody ever thinks about what that means.”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
There was a deep, intimidating coldness to the young woman’s voice as she answered. “What causes shadows?”
“… Things blocking the sun?”
Never before nor since have I heard a word uttered in such an unearthly way. It was like being thrust into a waking nightmare, with the single syllable echoing up from a bottomless chasm. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but remembering the moment still makes me feel like I’m falling backward into an endless abyss, watching as the world above me disappears from sight.
“I don’t understand,” I stammered. It was true enough, but I still felt like I was lying.
“Everyone thinks light keeps them safe,” the girl murmured. “They always say our ancestors built fires to keep predators away. We’re afraid of the dark because of what it might hide. Think about it, though: How many legends have you heard about lights?”
She wasn’t wrong. I’d been told stories of will-o-wisps drawing travelers away from safe paths at night, or of eerily glowing shapes calling sailors toward deadly rocks. I even remembered a horrible night during my early childhood, when a suffocating fever dream resulted in me begging my father to extinguish every light in my room… including ones that only I could see.
I had to swallow twice before I could speak again. “What are they?”
“Something.” The young woman took a tense breath. “We know what they are, but we can’t describe it to ourselves. Someone else has to. We can tell when people have seen them, but we can’t ever ask about it directly.”
Another tense breath started the girl’s next sentence. “Once you know they’re there, it’s too late. You’ll start to see them behind the shadows, and you’ll feel them watching you when you’re alone. It doesn’t matter what you tell yourself: You’ll know, and you’ll try to hide. You’ll never be able to say what they are.”
I could almost hear the whisper behind her words. “What are you supposed to tell me?”
At around the same time when I was building my bedroom, I was in a Boy Scout troop. We once took a weekend trip to a remote campsite, and after awaking in the middle of the night to an urgent pressure in my bladder, I left my tent and walked toward the edge of a dense forest. I don’t know if it was a quiet rustle or a scent in the still air, but something drew my attention deeper into the woods… and I’ll never forget the tiny, pinprick embers that I saw staring back at me. I thought of that moment as I parted ways with the young woman on the train, and I told myself that some primal instinct – some semi-dormant survival trait from a time when humans first sat around their fires – was responsible for the sheer terror that two motes of light could invoke.
It was, after all, the rational perspective.
Something changed that day… or perhaps more accurately, a much older change was undone. That evening, after I had turned off my bedside lamp and put my book aside, I happened to gaze through the gap in my curtains, and I felt my heart jump. My skeptical side insisted that I was seeing a pair of particularly bright stars, and that their pale yellow hue was the result of my dirty window, but a panicked inner voice reminded me of how overcast the sky had been before sunset. A long-forgotten habit from my childhood prompted me to get up and huddle in my closet, shutting the door against any light that might disturb me.
Even then, though, with a crumpled-up robe blocking the crack beneath the door, they were there.
There are times, particularly when we can see nothing, that slowly shifting shapes appear in our fields of vision. Sensory deprivation chambers have been known to cause this effect, even heightening the experience to the point where fractal images seem to dominate the entire world. That was not what I saw. There were no tendrils of color, and no visions produced by my brain; only blackness, and glowing from a distance made impossible by the walls that surrounded me, two harsh points of light.
Since that night, I have been different. I still catch sight of the shadows, but I find it difficult to dismiss their presence as artifacts of my mind. Something, I now feel, is lurking behind them. The lights seem to follow me, waiting until I start to relax, then peering out to watch as the panic sets in. Their effect has never lessened, and although I have sought every other explanation that I can find, only one conclusion has ever remained.
There are eyes in the dark.
Credit: Peter O’Shamseign
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