With the darkened wet roads and ominous, grey skies of the past couple of days, it’s finally beginning to feel like fall, and I’m finally in an October mood. As a Canadian, it’s hard to feel that Halloween buzz when you’re still running the A/C, but the days are cooling now — and the nights are definitely closing in — so it’s time to indulge my fetish for scary stuff.
On that note, I thought I’d recall a few snippets of my life that I remember being especially scary. These are personal experiences that, in one way or another, have left a lasting impression on my psyche and still creep me out when I think of them.
1. The time I fell down the basement stairs
Ouch, you’re thinking. In fact, I have no memory whatsoever of any pain or injury suffered from this accident. What I do remember is being about 8 or 9 years old, in our family home in Toronto’s west end. It was a big old house, with a dark, unfinished basement divided into a warren of rooms — laundry, furnace, work room, rec room, the “room under the stairs”, even the “room at the end of the hall”. The whole basement creeped me out with all the lights on; venturing down with lights off was unthinkable.
So imagine my stomach-lurching fear when, one day, before having a chance to flip the switch and turn on that bare bulb down at the bottom, I somehow slipped on the top step, and down I tumbled. I can still recall the thoughts racing through my mind as I went: “Oh God, oh God, it’s dark, it’s dark, it’s dark…” I hit the bottom and almost instantly managed to discombobulate myself and sit up — only to find myself staring through the dusty, smudged glass of the windowed doors going into the (very) dark rec room. I think even if I’d broken both legs, I somehow would have managed to pick myself up and get my ass up those stairs at lightning speed — which is exactly what I did, barely making the top step again before that gnarly hand grabbed my ankle. Whew.
2. The night I walked through the causeway at my cousin’s cottage
Growing up, I used to make regular summer visits to Smiths Falls, southwest of Ottawa. I had a motley crew of cousins there (my mom grew up in the Ottawa Valley), and in particular, I would hang out with my cousins Fay and Joanne. Aunt Fay (“Big Fay” — my cousin was “Little Fay”) and Uncle Bob had a cottage on Bass Lake, and Fay, Joanne and I spent many summer days and nights there swimming, exploring, blueberry picking, and just living a pretty all-around idyllic life. One of the things we liked to do was conduct seances (no, really), after which we’d scare ourselves more shitless by going out on night walks (in later years, it became an excuse to smoke).
I remember one night in particular when we decided to “walk up to the gate” — a.k.a. the gate belonging to the farmer who owned the surrounding fields, and whose cows grazed on them. It was probably about mile-long walk, on a road that wound through fields, trees and, at one stretch a causeway. The causeway cut through a swampy area of 6-foot cattails that, by day, had a kind of Southern gothic charm, but by night, with no moon, were black as hell. Approaching the causeway, the road took a dip. Descending that hill was a bit like Ichabod Crane approaching the covered bridge: you had to psyche yourself up to get through the 100 yards or so and out the other side.
So what happened? you’re wondering. Absolutely nothing. Fay, Joanne and I walked it — and we survived.
But we were 100 percent shit-scared every minute of it. It didn’t help that, walking down towards it, flashlights under chins, we’d worked ourselves into a tizzy. By the time we reached it, we were beside ourselves — literally: We spent the whole time fighting over who should be in the middle. We pushed and pulled each other backward and forward (“No, YOU go first!”), gnawed on each other’s hands, buried our heads in each other’s shoulders — all the while torturing ourselves with quick scans of our flashlights, certain we’d just caught a glimpse of something just off the gravel road, just close enough to reach out and pull us into those weeds…
At last leaving it behind us, we breathed a huge collective sigh of relief — until, of course, we had to walk through it again on the way back.
3. The time I heard a chair rolling up on the third floor
I think everyone has at least one ‘otherworldly’ experience in their life — something they just, for the life of them, can’t explain. For me, it’s the time I heard a chair rolling around the hardwood on the third floor of our house. Fyi, this is the same house where I fell down the basement stairs. It had a large third floor, with several rooms up there, one of which my dad used as a home office — he was a freelance writer.
His office was right above my bedroom, so if he was up there, I knew it.
Which is why I still to this day can’t figure out why, late one night when I knew my parents were both in bed, I heard the office chair up there rolling around. Not frantically, but sporadically, as if someone was sitting in it, going about their business, occasionally moving from desk, over to book shelf, and back to desk again…
4. The time I walked through a haunted house
I’m not sure what I was expecting when about 8 of us rolled up to a Halloween-themed haunted house just north of Toronto, but it wasn’t pitch blackness so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front your face.
That is essentially what the whole experience entailed: shuffling your way, ever so slowly, through a black-as-hell house while gripping your college buds for dear life. It was another case of “I want to be in the middle”, but worse.
“I felt something.”
“Something touched my hand!”
“The walls are moving!”
“Who’s behind me?”
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”
I distinctly recall that sense of panic, bubbling away behind my diaphragm, ready to erupt and spill out my ears at any moment. I’ve never been so glad to see a red EXIT sign in all my life.
5. The first time I saw The Exorcist
I have had many a debate with my 19-year-old son about the scariest movie ever made. He, understandably, is of the Insidious / It Follows / Get Out camp. While I appreciate his opinions, and agree that there are some pretty creepy scenes in those movies (the beach / boathouse scene in It Follows immediately comes to mind) the old-school in me wins out. As far as I’m concerned, nothing quite touches the storyline, acting and overall atmosphere of The Exorcist.
I’ve devoted an entire blog post to The Exorcist; here I will say simply that after seeing this movie, I was up all night (despite having my friend Mary sleeping beside me), and I walked around for months afterwards afraid that I was suddenly going to levitate, spew pea soup and push my dad out a window. (I did come close to pushing my dad out a window a few times in the years that followed, but that was more to do with breaking curfews than being the spawn of Satan.
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As I write this, soggy leaves are whipping across the the street below, and the clouds are racing across a stormy sky. Hats off once again to my favourite month, and the final countdown to the scariest day of the year.