14 Dec Better Watch Out, Better Not Cry
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"Better Watch Out, Better Not Cry"Written by Jameson Curnick
Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
My parents own a Santa animatronic. I think it tried to kill us.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. This story already sounds like a kid’s overactive imagination during a season that relies on the magic of imagination. I don’t mean to oversell it either, this wasn’t some decades long haunting where it terrorized us every Christmas. This was a single incident, but one that my brother and I would never forget. Let me give some backstory first to paint a better picture.
My parents have always owned a Santa animatronic that we kept inside our house during the Christmas season. I assume my mom inherited him from my grandparents, as they sold the home we grew up in to my mother and father. He stood just under six feet tall, and looked like a stereotypical Santa Claus. He was wide, with rosy red cheeks and a reserved smile underneath a massive beard reaching down to his belly. The traditional red and white attire was topped off with shiny black boots. To be honest there was nothing particularly creepy about him to me. Even through the years his color held well and he wasn’t like those dolls from the 1800’s that I find absolutely terrifying even today as an adult. I’ve included a picture of him in my parents’ current home, so you know this isn’t some oddity I just made up.
Calling him an animatronic was generous, but I guess that’s roughly what ‘it’ was. He had a single, way too short power chord that you plugged into a wall. There was no switch. When you plugged it in, Kris Kringle began his jolly little movements immediately. He had a super limited range of motion. His legs were motionless, and instead he swiveled back and forth at the hips. His right arm would raise up as if waving in greeting as he turned, and then it would lower back down as he returned to his starting position. His left arm stayed as motionless as his legs, and wasn’t even adjustable. There were no lights or sounds other than the sound of the moving parts. Having him plugged in didn’t make sense more often than not, considering we had all seen what he could do and the sounds of him moving were more annoying than anything else. He was mostly plugged in for about thirty seconds for the sake of guests who thought his little wave was cute before we unplugged him once more and he returned to a motionless festive space taker.
Over the years even his minimal use began to wear on him. His waist would still rotate but his waving arm would stutter as it struggled to raise. I remember that it sounded like a creaking door that just couldn’t finish opening. Eventually it stopped working altogether, and we stopped plugging him in entirely. Well that’s not completely true, my brother and I did it a few times to get a laugh out of watching Santa doing the Twist over the years. My father moved him closer to a window near the Christmas tree. It looked better that way, having Santa peeking out into the yard near our brightly decorated tree was an upgrade from him standing in a corner staring at us. Inevitably his side to side rotation quit working as well, probably the result of being moved up and down the stairs for over twenty years, the basement being his home during the other eleven months of the year. Our incident took place well before his rotating days were over.
My brother, Chase, was about ten years old at the time. I was twelve. I don’t remember exactly when my parents started putting out Santa, but as far back as I could recall celebrating Christmas he was always there. Personally, at that point the Santa animatronic barely caught the corner of my eye during December. He stood out at the beginning of the month, sure, but like all the other decorations my brain just became used to him being there. It didn’t come so easy for my brother. In later years we’d both come to laugh at his meager side to side twist, but the years where his arm started to fail were much less entertaining to my brother. Kids are afraid of a lot of things, so who could blame him from being spooked by a stuttering animatronic twice his size? His fear wasn’t limited to Santa’s jagged movement either. If you walked down the hall and forgot that Santa had been put out on display, his presence would catch you off guard and cause quite a scare. It happened to all of us, save our father, but it seemed to catch my brother unaware more often than the rest of us. That year, Chase decided he had quite enough of the already dated St.Nick, and let my parents know about it. It was still November, but now that Thanksgiving was over there wasn’t even a week before it was time for Christmas decorations.
“Can we just keep him in the basement this year? He doesn’t even work anymore!” protested my brother as I walked into the kitchen for breakfast.
“Chase, we bring him out every year! He’s almost as much of a tradition in this house as the REAL Santa,” my mother replied. She was busy packing our lunches while she argued with my clearly cranky little brother. My father was in the other room ironing his shirt for work, never really getting involved in morning chatter.
“But he’s old! Why can’t we just get normal decorations? None of my friends have a giant creepy Santa staring out the window,” he whined with all the energy only a ten year old could have at 7:30 in the morning.
“Doesn’t that make us unique then?” My mom mused. You could hear her beginning to relent. Packing lunch and getting her kids ready for school before heading to her own full time job was tough on only half a cup of coffee.
“No. It makes us weird.”
And that was the end of that. It was easier for my mom to give in than to stand there and argue about Christmas decorations with her ten year old son. Plus, it meant one less decoration they had to lug up from the basement. I had to admit I was impressed, as Chase had come up with a handful of reasons to keep the fat man stored away without ever admitting he was actually scared of our aging Santa. I think I was just so used to having that Santa around that I didn’t notice, but I guess I could see how someone might find him creepy. Thus, the old animatronic stayed downstairs when it came time to fill the house to the brim with decorations. It was weird to see the living room without Santa peeking out the window, but much like when he had been there I stopped noticing after a few days.
A week later, our cousins Ben and Ty came over to stay the night. While most of our time was spent huddled around the N64 playing Mario Kart or GoldenEye, we liked to mix it up by playing hide and seek in the basement with the lights off. It’s not as freaky as it sounds. We had a large basement, and thanks to a few windows along with the light of the moon you could see pretty well once your eyes adjusted to the darkness. Once you walked down the stairs, on your right was an unfinished room filled with a freezer, fridge, and a mountain of boxes and plastic crates filled to the brim with decorations and nick knacks for other seasons. It lead to another smaller room that was filled with nothing more than our father’s outdated workout equipment surrounded by foundation concrete and drywall. On the left side of the staircase was a large furnished room that served as me and my brother’s hangout room. It lead to my Father’s workshop and our basement garage. Connecting the weight room to the workshop was a long, thin corridor that my parents kept cluttered with all sorts of rarely needed miscellaneous items. All in all,the basement was pretty well set up as a hide and seek arena.
I was the oldest of all the cousins, which of course naturally meant that I was never ‘it’ to begin the game. I wish I could say that I didn’t swing my weight and age around a lot as a kid, but I’d be lying. Ty, being the youngest, inevitably inherited that unfortunate title and the rest of us scattered throughout the basement. I quickly made my way into the corridor, hoping to slip back into my Dad’s workshop into a spot I had scouted out earlier. The corridor itself was actually a miserable hiding spot. There was so much junk that whoever was ‘it’ would naturally bump into anyone dumb enough to try and hide there. Still, it made for a good short cut and I figured it would keep Ben or Chase from seeing where my perfect hiding spot was located. About halfway down the corridor I came to an awful realization, something was blocking the rest of the path. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet so I reached out to see if it was something I could just push past. My hands found a large surface of fake hair, and I realized exactly what was blocking my way.
My parents had left Santa Claus stuffed into the corridor thanks to my brother’s persistent complaining. He wasn’t heavy per se, but I didn’t have the room to move him out of my way in the narrow hall. Before I could head back the way I came I heard a voice call out from the top of the stairs.
“Ready or not here I come!” yelled Ty, his feet stomping on the wooden stairs as he made his descent into the basement. Out of time, I tried to stand up as straight as possible and flatten myself against the wall next to Storage Claus. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best I had at the moment. As I waited for Ty to hopefully find Ben or my brother first, my eyes finally adjusted to the darkness. Slowly looking over to Santa I could see that he was facing me. His lifeless eyes were narrowed from the molded smile placed on his face. He had probably just swiveled after I ran into him, but it felt as if he had turned to stare at ME. I stood motionless, hoping that he would stay as still as he did when standing in our living room. I held my breath, feeling the pounding of my heart beating harder and faster.
“GOT YOU” screamed Ty as he grabbed my arm. I screamed too.
It was not my proudest moment. It didn’t help that it took a solid five minutes for Ty to stop his laughing fit set off by my reaction. Afterwards I sat on the couch in the main room while he hunted down Chase and Ben. When they were finally found, all three laughed themselves to tears as Ty did his best impression of my scream. Not only was it embarrassing, but the rules we played by dictated that the first person who was found was ‘it’ for the next round. Being the oldest, I felt my wounded pride take the place of my fear as I counted aloud at the top of the staircase. I resolved that I would find them all so rapidly that my hide and seek dominance would erase the squeak of puberty’s scream that I had shrieked out.
Counting to fifty, I bounded down the stairs and immediately headed back into Santa’s corridor. It was common for people to hide precisely where the first person had been caught in the round prior, so I was betting on some double reverse psychology. I grinned as I spotted Santa, my eyes still adjusted to the darkness. His body was turned away from me this time, meaning that one of them had obviously squeezed by in hopes that I couldn’t follow, turning Santa’s hips in the process. As I approached him, I grabbed him in an attempt to maneuver him out of the way so I could slip by. His body immediately swayed back to face me, and what I saw horrified me so much that nothing but panicked air escaped my throat.
Pinned between his wide body and his left, immovable arm, was my brother. His eyes bulged in a panic as they found my own, and I could see the cord wrapped tightly around his neck. Santa nearly leaned against walls when plugged in, since the power cord was so short. But it was long enough to wrap around the neck of a ten year-old boy. I was frozen in shock as my mind tried to process the scene in front of me, and I only broke from my spell when Chase’s one free arm reached out towards me for help. I instantly lunged to save him, but an arm shot up and caught me square in the jaw and sent me flying backwards. Dazed, I looked up to see the raised arm of Santa. The same arm that could no longer even move properly when he was plugged in. The rest of his frame slowly creaked away from me again, his swiveling frame carrying my brother out of sight. I had no idea what was happening. My legs were shaking and the rest of my body soon joined them in a tremble. What the hell WAS this thing?
I was so, so frightened.
But then I thought about Chase, being strangled on the other side of whatever this terror was. I thought about his bulging eyes, his face turning a deep purple that I could see even in the darkness.
“NO!” I bellow, and vaulted up and into the animatronic with all of my weight. All three of us came crashing down onto the concrete floor, bringing down a cavalcade of other loosely stored items in a resounding crash. I immediately pushed up off of the now motionless Claus and grabbed for my brother. Finding his legs I pulled with all of my might, and to my relief I yanked him free of the arm that had pinned him. The power cord was no longer wrapped around his neck, but as he cough and wailed I could see the strangulating marks very clearly. Pulling him to his feet we ran towards the staircase, where we were met by our parents who had heard the loud crash and hurried to see what had happened. Our cousins quickly emerged from their hiding spots as our mother freaked out over my brother’s injuries and our Father shouted about our reckless behavior.
My parents listened to neither my brother’s nor my own frightened rendition of the events that had transpired. They assumed my brother had simply gotten tangled in the cord while trying to hide, getting stuck when his smaller frame was wedged between St.Nick’s arm. The resulting fear, panic, and pain were responsible for his story that he had been grabbed by the machine. My attempts to validate his story, even though I didn’t see everything, were dismissed as attempts to avoid punishment. Two weeks of grounding put a pin in that and the truth was stuck with Chase and I forever.
My father eventually brought Santa upstairs to see if he had taken any significant damage. Surprisingly, the archaic contraption was not broken or bent despite the force of my tackle and the unforgiving concrete floor. His only blemish was from some dust he picked up from his fall. My father cleaned him up and was going to take him back down into the basement when surprisingly, my brother protested.
“Can we put him in the living room? Not the basement, please.” he pleaded. He had wailed for hours after the incident, and fresh tears threatened the corner of his eyes. With his bandaged neck, he made quite the sad sight. Our Father relented, probably out of pity, and returned Santa to his spot looking out the window near our brightly lit tree.
He was brought out every year after that without so much as a peep from my brother. I’m nearing thirty now, and my parents still have him up every Christmas. That was the only incident we ever suffered at the hands of our odd animatronic. It only took my brother a few years to seemingly get over it. Most of our Christmases during High School involved laughing at the side to side rotation while The Beatles’ rendition of The Twist played in the background. It did, however, take nine years before we spoke to each other about what happened with Santa in the corridor that night.
My brother was a Senior in High School at that point, and I was visiting from College. I smuggled home some booze that I had bought with my fake and we were hanging out in the same basement that we had spent most of our childhood in. We joked about the old TV we used to watch, and laughed at how busted the joysticks on our N64 controllers were from skin peeling Mario Party games. We were pretty drunk when the topic finally switched to hide and seek and the Santa Incident.
“Mom and Dad never believed us,” Chase stated. “Hell, some days I’m not even sure what all I remember,” he finished with a laugh.
“I don’t think any adult would believe what we saw. I still remember how your face looked when it turned purple,” I replied, wincing as the image replayed in my mind.
“You know…I never told you ‘thank you’ for saving me.” He admitted, shaking his head as if ashamed for never doing so.
“Well, you’re welcome for me saving you from Santa Claus,” I quipped, and our drunken laughter filled the echoing basement. After a few moments, Chase’s face was serious again.
“There’s something else I never told you,” he said in a more solemn tone.
“What is it?” I inquired, not having realized my brother had held onto something else after all this time.
“When it…when He grabbed me, he whispered something in my ear before he started strangling me.” Chase confessed, his shoulders sinking as if he had just unloaded the heaviest of burdens.
“What? What the hell did he say?” I managed to sputter out, my surprise outpacing my words. Chase looked at me and shook his head.
“It was just a jumbled sentence, but I remember every single word. His voice was hollow, and each word came out like they were made by grinding metal.” My brother seemed to lose focus as he said this, as if remembering for the first time in years. I snapped my fingers a few times until his thousand yard stare refocused.
“Jesus Christ Chase, what did that thing say?” I insisted, having no idea how my brother held onto this for so long. He blinked at me a few times, and finally spoke.
“He said to me, Santa…decoration…Santa…upstairs…Santa…still works….plug.. Santa…IN” with that Chase covered his eyes with his hand, trying to hold the tears that came with the memories.
We didn’t talk about it anymore that night, and to this day we’ll only mention it briefly to assure each other we didn’t imagine it all. I also use those moments to make sure Chase is doing okay, because he probably never sought out the therapy he should have. You might be wondering why the hell we don’t take this thing out into the woods and just burn it to ashes. Well there’s a few reasons for that. First of all, I don’t want to have to explain to my parents that their twenty-nine year-old son burnt their Christmas decoration to a crisp because it scared him once when he was twelve. Second of all, it’s been seventeen years and not a single other incident has occurred with the now motionless animatronic.
Finally, I don’t know what my brother actually heard that night. But, if what Chase said is the truth, then all this Santa wanted was to be included alongside our other Christmas decorations during the holidays. I’ll probably never know what the hell this thing really is, but I do know that one day my parents will pass it down to me. When that day comes, you can bet he’ll be standing by the window in my living room for all the passing cars to see. If that spot in my home for one month a year is all I need to make sure I never see another purple, gasping face like my brother’s, then I’ll gladly give that gift every year as long as I live.
Tis the season.
Credit: Jameson Curnick
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