One night a little girl goes to bed. She falls asleep in a dress she’s worn for three days, sharing a bed with four other people, all sleeping on it sideways. She’s glad they’re there because she needs the protection of good people, pure people who are not at risk. She has a horrible secret. She is catnip for demons. Because she doubts God, she is known to them and they wait for her, for a moment of vulnerability, a lack of watchfulness. If she looks into the darkness around the room, the dark takes shape. It turns into a crowd of impish beady-eyed little creatures that if they were fish, would be these fish. It morphs into a big shaggy wolfman, le loup garou, or a specter of death, all tall, powerful and just about to move closer, to dig into her, to capture her soul, to bite her with razor sharp teeth, tear her limb from limb, or burrow deep into her heart. Sometimes they get close enough to breathe on her in the dark. She worries that one will maybe even run it’s wormlike fingers up the wall and over onto her pillow, probing into her ear, her brain, or strangling her around the neck. She must remain vigilant, pull the blanket up near her face before falling asleep, as this thin covering is all she has providing any hope of prevention, protection from being exposed to violence.
As she gets older, this girl, who has now said out loud that she does not believe in God (or at least not the angry God threatening eternal hellfire that was described to her), based on a perspective she developed in the clear daytime, at night still thinks that the devil and hell might exist. After all, she is still visited by demons and monsters every night. She has grown tall enough for her feet to hang way off the portion of the bed that is hers, making her fearful she will lose her legs to them, get them grabbed and pulled off. She can’t sleep curled up all night. There is no room in the cramped space. The other children are getting bigger, and Mom often sleeps there too.
Finally the girl gets her own bed, a bottom bunk to herself, so she’s a bit more at risk due to sleeping alone, but she can stretch out fully, and tuck her bottom sheets in really tight. She’s in a roomful of other children sleeping in their bunk beds so she figures it’s still mostly safe. She can see the scary things waiting in the dark, but the only time the demons and ghosts still terrify her is when she’s walking through a dim hallway by herself (something that obviously shouldn’t be done) or on the rare occasions when everyone else but her is out of the house.
She decides that being alone in the house is a scenario to truly be avoided because when the house is totally quiet and empty, weird things start. Sometimes it sounds like the walls are breathing, sighing maybe. There are little disconcerting whispers, like two otherworldly children conspiring to make something bad happen, to play a mean joke, to tell a secret of some forgotten horror. Whichever room she goes in, the whispers are there, sometimes sounding like they come from the walls, always behind her or just out of her field of vision. Maybe the place is haunted, she thinks. She certainly feels haunted. The only antidote is using the radio, loud, but being at home alone is still nerve-wracking, vulnerable, panic-inducing. If they got her, dragged her away, if she disappeared, people would be confused, not knowing how or why she was inexplicably gone. She tells no one though, tries to pretend this secret risk doesn’t exist. Admitting to it would be ill advised for a number of reasons. It would sound crazy or at the least just confirm that she was courting evil spirits with her nonbelief.
One day, as a teenager, she feels possessed, compelled to do something extreme. She grabs her clothes up in plastic bags, leaves this house in tears, moves to an apartment, gets her own room. The first night there is horrifying. The whispers, the scary figures in the dark, they all close in on her now. She’s alone. They’re gonna get her. Somehow she survives the night but wakes up tense from fright. The next night and the night after she makes sure that when she goes to bed, she’s either reading something, listening to music on headphones, or on the phone, to take her mind off of it, to push the silent evil darkness away. Thankfully this helps a bit, so this becomes what she always does, but she’s still secretly scared.
She lives her adult life this way, so when she can avoid it, she never sleeps in a room alone by herself. It’s nicer that way, to have a living creature nearby. Her boyfriend is always asked to stay over, practically begged to, even when he has other plans. She discovers that having a small pet in her room, a hamster, a rabbit, can be irritating in a good way. It can dig, drink water, chew on bits of wood, make actual real noise in the night, helping to break the spell. Cute fuzzy animal by day, talisman against evil by night.
She grows up and gets married, makes a nice home for herself, gets a routine, one where she hardly notices this stuff anymore, except every now and then when she forgets, gets careless about the lights, or her blanket falls off of her in the night, and one of these ghosts in the dark looks like something inexplicably awful for just a second, and it absolutely horrifies her, makes her body tense and her heart lose a beat. She clings to her husband like a little child, a frightened little girl looking for comfort. “I saw a monster in the dark. It was bad,” she says, grateful she is close enough to him not to worry, not to feel too much shame about expressing something so childish. He holds her until she falls asleep.
She does this on and off for years, telling herself it is her “overactive imagination” and she needs to just stop. She does all the responsible things, never discussing it, never watching horror movies, strategically placing lamps in a room so they can be turned on and off near the doorways if she needs to walk through in the night.
One night when the nine year old pet rabbit, her own grumpy and much adored little gargoyle, was arthritic and on the verge of death, the power was out, and her husband was out of town, the woman felt terrorized again, like she had when she was a little kid. She called her husband and said she didn’t believe in demons, hadn’t for years, but her overactive imagination was disturbing her. She asked for him to just talk to her as she went to sleep. He did. The power came back on in the night but after she turned out the lights again, the monsters were still there in full force. For the next two nights her husband was busy and only texted. One of those she cried herself to sleep, she was so scared. She wondered if it would be like this for the rest of her life, if she would always feel so vulnerable, if on her deathbed it would be like the story of that king and the nightingale, except there would be no nightingale to make it go away.
Now this is where the story takes a turn, where it gets really weird. Half a year later, the woman had something quite unexpected happen. She was in bed by herself. She was in the house all alone. She suddenly realized that she was not afraid, that her fear had been diminishing for a while. She looked around the room in the dark and nothing was there. It was just a simple, empty curtain of darkness. She had never seen anything like it. It was fascinating and kind of beautiful, like being enveloped by a womb, a safe space, surrounded by a sense of peace and comfort she had never known existed. She looked for her familiar enemies to appear, but they were nowhere to be found. She walked through a dark hallway and they weren’t there either. She found that she could sit in a quiet room and feel peace, maybe even boredom, with nothing leaving goosebumps on her arms. She was overjoyed and intrigued yet also confused. How and why, after all these years of plaguing her, a lifetime of sniffing her out everywhere she went and terrorizing her most vulnerable moments alone, had these menacing creatures suddenly gone?
The answer is that girl was me, and I’d been in therapy eight months for PTSD. I’d been journaling, writing down every bad memory as it played in my head in order to set it free. In doing so, I had accidentally, inadvertently, also exorcized my demons. These ghosts were not terrors from another world, evil spirits sent to drive me to hell or back to what I’d been told was God. These monsters were from my own world. They were shadows of my own life experiences. My demons were nothing more than unresolved childhood trauma.