I never shouted, “Shut up, Murgatroyd!” in sixth grade after my family moved into a house in the northeast heights of Albuquerque that had a poltergeist. In retrospect, I should’ve approached it like an experiment. Could I replicate the outcome? The problem was that if I’d shouted, “Shut up, Murgatroyd!” it should’ve stopped. But that would’ve “proved” (in my mind at the time) that there was a poltergeist, something I didn’t wish to confirm. Plus, just suddenly shouting out while alone in my dark bedroom would suggest that I might really be crazy, another thing I didn’t want to be true. So I remained silent, pulled the sheet under my chin, and hid my fear. As hard as it was, I still preferred uncertainty in that situation.
I spent a lot of time alone in my creepy new house, enduring unfunny supernatural pranks. Nobody except me described that ranch-style house on the corner as creepy, though. Our house was a new build, so it wasn’t reasonable to suspect that murders, suicides, or grisly accidents had occurred before we arrived. Neither was there evidence of an ancient Indian burial ground on the site or that satanic sacrifices had taken place there. There was nothing gothic about it, no stairs to creak, and no mossy gables. Nothing suggested acts of gore or anyone stuck between heaven and hell who might haunt me. It was merely a tar-shingled house in the suburbs. Wood-framed, it was whitewashed stucco with a mottled redbrick facade, and Dad installed a basketball hoop for me over the double garage. No pentagrams served as decoration, and no cloven hoofprints ever appeared in the dirt-and-goat-head-weed backyard. So it wasn’t creepy to anybody except me. Still, how do you explain a knock on the bathroom door when nobody else was home; a large, red candle that moved and melted on the stove; pictures in Mom’s camera that nobody had taken; the replacement of a stash of pure silver dimes with newer “sandwich” dimes; and the disappearance of a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts pastries except for one with a single bite taken out? To a burgeoning adolescent, it seemed more likely to be pranks by a poltergeist than shenanigans by a troubled family member, all of whom denied culpability then and continue to deny it to this day.
When I finally got a room to myself, I filled it with fear. What would you do if, when you went to bed, you believed something watched you? I lay slippery with cold sweat. It didn’t even have to be dark; I only had to be alone. It was similar to when I felt observed while I sat on the curb and scratched my initials into the tar, afraid to go inside because nobody was home yet. But the presence in our new Apache Street house felt malevolent. It didn’t help to investigate, either. No blood dripped from the faucet. Kitchen cupboards didn’t bang unless helped by a huffy boy washing dishes for two dollars a month. It didn’t help to squint into the blackness; I couldn’t see anyway. If I found the courage to slide on my glasses, I saw only darkness between the ghostly white dresser and me. In my mind, something had just fled, and when I turned the light off again, it returned to hover high in the dark corner.
I suspect that I made up some of that poltergeist stuff. It is true that I played with a Ouija board, but every time it moved, I opened my eyes and saw some cousin grinning at me. Now I think that I misinterpreted normal house sounds as supernatural pranks. I can’t yet prove who melted the candle or took the coins, but rather than default to the supernatural, I merely shrug at just another thing I can’t know. This interpretation feels less stressful. At the time, however, I had no way to disconfirm my theory other than to ask my family if it could be true that we had a poltergeist. They only said, “Of course not,” and dished out more pig eyes because I wasn’t supposed to believe in the supernatural. I appeared loony and cowardly, so I kept it inside after that and acted brave, which was more important to me than the suffering I endured.
Wait! Did something tug my sheet? I panicked.
No, I’d just moved my feet.
Suppose the mattress depressed as something invisible yet heavy sat next to my legs? I imagined that if I closed my eyes to darkness, I might reopen them to a ghastly visage inches from my own. I held my breath and listened. There was only my heartbeat.
As I waited for the thing to return, the wall bones creaked. Then there were shuffles on my avocado shag carpet. It was back. There was a footfall; maybe there were two, a pause, and then a couple of steps that sounded closer to me. What would I do when it reached my bed, leaned over me, breathed hotly on my face? Sometimes I flicked on my reading lamp, but the entity always vanished before I could slip on my glasses. Nobody except me heard the scratches within the walls late at night. Only I heard the low breath in the darkness from a face close enough to touch. The mutts barked into empty rooms but raised no alarms for anyone else.
Finally, I cracked enough to approach my parents again. They allowed me to put a security chain on the front door. That was better than nothing—better than just awaiting the return of whatever evil stalked me—albeit, it was as effective as doing nothing was. Not handy, I placed the chain on the door instead of on the doorjamb, so it rattled like dishes as it knocked against the wood every time the door opened. It didn’t slow down the unexplained activity at all; it only reminded me of my powerlessness, something I wanted to hide, something I wanted to cover with tough chameleon skin.