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Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
I have worked as a paranormal investigator for close to thirty years. I always had believed there was more to our world than what most think. Like the submerged section of an iceberg, there is something under our choppy waters of regular existence.
I suppose there is little other reason to take this job other than that belief — it certainly isn’t for the money or respect — but I would be lying if I said my early years in this profession didn’t test my faith in the existence of the paranormal world.
For the first four years of my work I found nothing; no evidence of even a single paranormal phenomenon in any of the cases I took. There were hordes of unconfirmable ghost sightings, ‘hauntings’ that were explained away by natural phenomenon, and even the odd prankster or two. I felt like I was floundering. I started to wonder if I had followed a road that led nowhere, my destination nothing but a hazy mirage perpetually on the horizon.
That was until I took a case in 1997. My most haunting case, still to this day.
The case of the Grinning Man.
* * * * * *
“Do you mind if I record this interview?” I asked.
“No, that’s okay,” Audrey said. We were in the living room of her small home. Audrey sat on the sofa across from me, a thirty-five-year-old woman that looked closer to fifty. She was small, hunched over, as if a weight pressed on her shoulders.
I placed the tape recorder on the coffee table and pressed the record button. Inside, the cassette tape whirred to life.
“Audrey, thank you for calling me to investigate your problem. I want you to know I’ll take your claims seriously, and investigate them as such. Whatever the outcome may be, if the phenomenon you are experiencing is paranormal or natural, I’ll seek to find the truth the best I can.”
“Please, start from the beginning.”
She sighed and brushed some stray, frazzled hair behind her ear with one hand. I could see she was at her wits end. Her face bore deep wrinkles beyond her age, her eyes contained within dark-purple sockets, and her nails chewed away to ragged edges. Whatever she was experiencing, paranormal or not, was certainly real to her.
“Okay,” she began. “I guess it all started when I was a baby.”
“That far back?”
“Yes. My first memories are of seeing him.”
“What I call the Grinning Man.” She shuddered when she said it. “The thing that’s been haunting me my entire life. I can even remember him as a baby. It’s burned into my memory. He dresses like someone from the ’40s or ’50s, with a tan trench coat and black fedora. I was laying in my crib when I first recall seeing him. He gripped the crib’s bars while he peered down at me through them, looming over a little, helpless me like an ominous mountain. Just thinking of it turns my stomach.”
“And he was grinning at you?”
“Yes. Like he always is. Have you ever heard people describe a psychopath’s grin, where their smile is there and looks friendly enough, but if you look closely you can see their eyes hold nothing?”
“I think I understand.”
“His smile is like that. It’s like he has reptilian eyes. Unfeeling, cold, predatory. . . Evil.”
“Must have had quite an impact on you, considering you remember it from that far back. Has he been cropping up your entire life?”
“Yes. It’s sporadic. Sometimes I’ll go years without seeing him, other times I’ll see him multiple times a month.”
“What’s a typical encounter like?”
“Well, he’ll appear out of nowhere, then he stands as still as a statue and watches me with that sick grin of his plastered on his face. He could show up anywhere, at any time. Among the trees as I walk through the park. From a random house’s window as I walk down the street. The shadows of my own home when I get a glass of water in the middle of the night.”
“Does this entity ever say or do anything?”
“No. Always silent. Always unmoving. Just tracking me with his eyes.”
“Interesting. . . Do you ever feel anything when you see this entity?”
“Yes, an intense sense of dread and a tightness in the chest. Almost like he’s reaching out with imaginary, brooding fingers to squeeze my heart. And sometimes, when I see him, something terrible happens soon after.”
“You mean that a sighting of the Grinning Man is a precursor to a traumatic event?”
“Yes. Not all the time, but enough that when I see him my nerves will be shot, and I’ll walk around with this dark cloud weighing on me as I wait for the worst to happen.”
“Could you give me an example?”
Audrey sighed and tears swelled at the corner of her eyes. She averted her gaze and looked out the window.
“If it’s too difficult, you don’t have to—”
“No, it’s okay.” She reached for the tissue box on the coffee table, took a couple, sniffled and dabbed her eyes. “The worst incident was in 1993. I had been married for three years and had just given birth to our first child — he was four months old at the time. I was back at work by then, and I was coming home very late one evening. The roads were dead. A bad storm had just passed through, and I still remember the long, colorful glow from the traffic lights and streetlamps across the wet roads.
“I came to a stop at a red. I just happened to glance to my right. He was there, half-covered in shadows. He stood on the pavement by the crosswalk, the walk signal glowing green as if he had meant to cross. That grin he had sunk my heart as if it had turned it to stone. I don’t know exactly how long I stayed there, locked in his gaze, but when my light turned green again I got out of there as fast as I could. When I looked in the rearview, I saw his silhouette in the street, watching me as I fled.
“I knew I’d struggle to sleep that night. I was shaking and felt like throwing up. I had to take a valium, and that helped. I plopped into bed and passed out more than fell asleep. I was awoken by my husband frantically shaking me in the morning. His face was pale, a look of sheer, terror-filled panic I had never seen before. Our son had passed away in the night. The death was ruled a SIDS case.”
I sat in silence, giving Audrey a moment as she let her emotions out.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what to think. Her story was unique, far from the standard ghostly apparitions others saw. I was intrigued.
I did wonder if it was a mental condition. I had encountered a schizophrenic who had believed their hallucinations were a result of paranormal phenomena on a previous case, though their condition had been more apparent, even to me. If Audrey was ill, it was not obvious.
“Audrey, have you seen any medical professionals? It is possible that your sightings could be hallucinations.”
“Yes, I have. I had kept the Grinning Man a secret my entire life. After all, who would believe me? I even kept it from my husband. But after our son had died, I had to tell him. I don’t know why, but I just did. He was obviously concerned for me, my mental health. He wanted me to see a therapist. I refused at first. We had a lot of fights about it, and eventually he forced me to go see someone.”
“What did they say?”
“Well, I was put through the ringer. Eventually, I was diagnosed with psychosis. I was put on meds, went to therapy twice a week, and none of it helped. He would still show up. Eventually, I quit the meds, quit the therapy. Waste of time and money, as far as I was concerned. But my husband thought different. He didn’t like that I had quit all of it, and our marriage kind of fell apart from there. But I was — still am — convinced what I was experiencing is real. That’s why I came to you. I figured someone like you would at least take my story seriously.”
I nodded. “I do.”
“And there’s another reason I sought you out.”
“Well, I need help. I’ve been seeing the Grinning Man a lot more lately. He’s been appearing more frequently than ever before.”
“Every few nights for the past two or three months. He only shows up at night, now. Usually outside my bedroom window, and I did see him in the hallway last week. I never used to sleep with my bedroom door closed, but I do now. I don’t know if I can take it much longer. My nerves are shot. Dread suffocates my chest all the time. I think something terrible is going to happen soon. I’m scared of what he might do to me. . . but you can prove it, right? You can prove he’s real? You can help me get rid of it, right?”
“I’ll try, Audrey. I’ll try.”
* * * * * *
After the interview, I tested her home for Electromagnetic Fields. Strong EMFs can often be responsible for hallucinations of apparitions, or that creepy feeling that elicits goosebumps on the back of your neck. It often causes people to believe they are experiencing a haunting. In reality, it’s usually just poor electrical wiring, or old and dirty wall sockets bleeding electricity into the environment. Those EMFs can mess with people’s senses.
Though Audrey’s sightings of the Grinning Man were not tied to a particular location, I figured EMFs may be responsible for her latest string of sightings that occurred primarily in her bedroom. But after a sweep of the house, I detected nothing abnormal.
I then set up a camera on a tripod in her bedroom. It sat beside the head of the bed and had a complete shot of her room, including the window on the opposite wall, and the door on the right that lead into the hallway — both places she had seen the Grinning Man previously.
I showed her how to record and instructed her to do so when she went to bed. I also gave her a nightlight to plug into an outlet, so the camera could see (night-vision and thermal imaging cameras were well out of my budget back then).
I swung by her house the next two mornings to collect and review the tape. Those nights were uneventful. On the third night, I got a frenzied call from Audrey.
* * * * * *
The ringing jarred me awake. The clock on my nightstand read 2:08 am. I trudged to the phone, and as soon as I answered, Audrey’s frantic voice came over the line.
“He was here!” she cried. “He was here! He tried to hurt me!”
I arrived at Audrey’s a little over half-an-hour later. She paced back and forth in the living room, a neglected cigarette burning in her hand, the ash tip growing long and pale as bone. She muttered one thing over and over:
“No escape. No escape. No escape.”
It took a minute to calm her down. At first, she looked right through me as if I weren’t there, her eyes distant and fear-stricken as she continued to mutter can’t escape until the words burned in my ears. I eventually ushered her into the kitchen and sat her down. I found some cocoa in the cupboards and made her a warm cup. It seemed to help a little; her trembling stopped.
“I’m going to watch the tape,” I said. “Do you want to watch it with me?”
She shook her head adamantly.
She waited in the kitchen while I watched. She had a VCR player hooked up to a CRT television in her living room. I sat on the edge of the coffee table, rather than the sofa, for a closer view. I inserted the tape and the TV came to life with a view of Audrey’s room bathed in dim orange from the nightlight, and the window at the far end shined with a pale glow from the moon.
The footage wasn’t great, being comparatively rudimentary for what we have today. The picture quality was grainy, and sometimes wavered in the way those VCR tapes did, but it was enough to see what I needed to.
I fast-forwarded the tape until the text on the bottom right corner read 1:30 am. I sat with a pen and notepad in hand, and I still have my notes from what I saw on that tape:
1:30 am–Audrey asleep in bed. Nothing untoward.
1:35 am–Audrey becoming visibly restless. Flipping and turning violently in her sleep.
1:38 am–Audrey settled.
1:40 am–Dark figure crossed window on opposite wall.
1:42 am–Dark figure crossed window again, in opposite direction.
1:44 am–Dark figure standing in front of window. Figure looks like a person. Possibly wearing a hat. Figure too dark to make out features.
1:46 am–Static intermittently breaking up picture. Figure still standing at window.
1:50 am–The figure disappeared. Did not walk or move away. Simply vanished.
1:51 am–Audrey becoming restless again.
1:52 am–Bedroom door opened.
That was the last note I took.
My heart was pounding in my ears by this point. A few seconds after the door had opened — seemingly by itself — the man appeared from the darkness in the hallway, like a demon emerging from the depths of hell. I dropped my notepad and gawked at the television screen.
Even through the grainy footage and the worsening bursts of static, I could make out the grin plastered across the figure’s face.
The Grinning Man.
The nightlight suddenly went out, and the screen went black. It took a few moments for the lens to adjust to the dimmer moonlight coming through the window, and when it did, the Grinning Man was a dark silhouette just inside the doorway.
I stood and approached the television, bent over at the waist, face inches from the screen to get a closer look. The tape wavered badly, making everything unrecognizable. When the picture cleared, the Grinning Man had teleported from the doorway to the bedside, just in front of the camera. He peered down at Audrey.
My heartbeat thumped steadily in my ears.
The picture wavered again, for longer. When it steadied the Grinning Man had his arms extended downward, toward Audrey. She was now kicking and thrashing in bed, the Grinning Man’s hands appearing to be clasped around her throat. The blanket was flung from the bed suddenly, a big dark cloud moving across the screen.
Audrey thrashed, and the Grinning Man held on. The moonlight glanced off his teeth, making that diabolic grin a glimmering, silver blemish at the base of his darkened face. Like his grin, his eyes shined palely with manic glee.
A prolonged burst of static. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. The picture came back. The nightlight was on and Audrey sat upright in bed, grasping at her neck. The Grinning Man was gone.
I felt something in the air then, heavy like humidity. A powerful feeling that pervaded the house. . . a feeling of anger.
The VCR tape paused by itself, then began to rewind. The tape whined frantically inside the player with a high pitch. The picture on the screen sheered then went black. Smoke seeped from the vents of the player and around the edges of the opening flap. I mashed the eject button, hoping to save the tape, but the crinkling noise — that sounded like crumpling cellophane — left me with little confidence.
The flap turned back and the tape flew out as if shot from a cannon. The mess of cracked casing and wadded, tangled tape hit me in the chest and fell to the floor. The television flew off the cabinet suddenly, pushed from an unseen force, and landed before my feet with the screen shattering.
Audrey came in from the kitchen alarmed. She glanced at the TV laying busted on the floor, then at the tape next to it, and then at me. “What happened?”
“He’s real,” I said breathlessly. “I saw it. . . on the tape. He’s real.”
* * * * * *
Perhaps it was foolish to believe simply leaving the home would have helped, but it was the only thing I could think to do.
I took Audrey to a nearby motel and booked us into neighboring rooms. I sat on the edge of my bed, at a loss. I had completely underestimated what we were dealing with. Until watching that tape, I wasn’t even sure the entity was real. But not only was it real; it was dangerous.
I phoned a close acquaintance — one that wasn’t so happy to be woken at three in the morning — who worked for another paranormal investigation team. He was happy to help once I explained the seriousness of the situation.
He gave me the number of a good medium that could help give a reading, perhaps to identify what we were dealing with. I was also hoping she might have known methods to banish the entity from Audrey’s life, if it were at all possible. I decided to call the medium first thing in the morning, but it would be too late for her to do anything by then.
I lay down on the bed, my thoughts swimming in a fuzzy haze of fatigue and the comedown off an adrenaline spike.
I realized that, for the first time with true conviction, I had encountered something under the surface of the normal world; something sinister hiding in those deep and dark, murky waters below. You can live your life pretending that world is not real — many do — and sure, chances are you’ll never be affected by it. But you should know, that world is real. And it’s there, lurking in the darkest of shadows around us.
With some difficulty, I eventually fell asleep.
The short doze from three to dawn was restless. I had a nightmare I was drowning in black sludge as dark as the starless night sky above me. My arms and legs struggled through thick and oily liquid as I fought to keep my head above the surface. My breath cut short, and my chest squeezed tight. Panic flooded in through every pore on my body as the presence of evil prickled my skin. And then. . .
I awoke to sunlight glowing around the edges of the grimy motel curtain. The bedsheets were a scrunched-up mess, and my blanket lay strewn over the floor. With a sick feeling creeping up in my gut, I realized how this scene closely mirrored what I saw in the aftermath of the attack on Audrey.
I rushed out of my room to Audrey’s next door. She didn’t answer the first few knocks, so I knocked louder. No answer. I called her name and pounded on the door. Still no answer. I rushed to the motel’s front desk, convincing them to let me into the room.
When we entered, Audrey was in the bed. Her pale face poked out from the blanket. Her lips were blue. Her eyes, vacant and lifeless, stared at nothing. My heart plummeted.
She was dead.
* * * * * *
I dream of that morning often; the moment we walked into that Godforsaken room to see Audrey drained of life. I’ll never forget that.
The case has stuck with me all these years. I’ve pored over the details many times. I relive my actions and question if there was more I could have done. I try not to blame myself — I know it’s not healthy — but I just can’t lift the weight of guilt that still sits on my shoulders (or perhaps it’s my liver that takes the brunt). Fact is, as I see it, she came to me for help, and I did not do enough.
I wish I could tell you I got revenge on this thing, that I tracked the entity down and vanquished it like a hero at the end of a Hollywood action movie. But life doesn’t tend to work like that. Besides my experience with Audrey, and that close brush I had that night in the dingy motel room, I’ve yet to cross the path of the Grinning Man ever again.
But that’s the nature of this line of work. Things don’t get wrapped up and topped off with a neatly tied bow. We deal with things that are on the edge, things that straddle the line between the world we know and the one we don’t. Things are hazy, transient, and often unknowable. Neat resolutions don’t find their way to us easily.
I can tell you that Audrey’s death was eventually ruled a case of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome, or SADS. As you can probably guess, I have some doubts that that was all there was to it.
I still called the medium. We met a couple of weeks after Audrey’s passing. We went to the motel and booked the same room Audrey had died in (the worker at the desk was certainly curious as to why I insisted on that room, but I refused to say).
The medium’s face drained of color the second she stepped inside. She walked around the room in silence for ten minutes. She moved slowly, intently, closing her eyes and breathing deeply as she tapped into a strange, ominous world. Can’t say I envy her talents.
“Something incredibly powerful,” she eventually said. “It’s not here now, but I can still feel its vestiges. How long ago did this happen?”
“A little over two weeks.”
A grave expression crossed the medium’s face. “Yes, very powerful.”
“Do you know what the entity is?”
“Not precisely, but I can say that its soul is black and twisted.”
“That thing has a soul?”
“All intelligent forces do.”
“And what do you mean by ‘black and twisted’?”
“I mean the entity is a corrupted agent of Death itself.”
I was speechless for a moment as the weight of her words robbed me of breath. A drip coming from the sink in the bathroom was the only thing to break the crushing silence.
“What can we do about it?” I asked.
The medium smiled wistfully. At my naivety, I assume. I was young and inexperienced and ready for a fight; she knew that. Then her expression grew dark as she took one last look over the room.
“Not a thing,” she said.