Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (Part 1)

To endure is the first thing that a child ought to learn and that which he will have the most need to know. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

When the hideous, pint-size imps materialized out of the darkness, I froze. My heart skipped a beat as they drew nearer, relentless in their malicious intent. My first instinct was not to turn and run. (One should never turn their back on danger, unless they have eyes in the back of their head.) Instead, I stood defiantly, expectantly. Here we go again. For a long moment, I stopped breathing. Jaw clenched determinedly, I stared wide-eyed and unblinking at the beings that were hell-bent on pulling me apart limb from limb with the sheer power of their minds. I knew they wouldn’t lay an actual hand on me. They didn’t have to. They accomplished their malice through mental prowess, not by physical means. We had done this dance before, and we would surely do it again.

The trio of unsightly trolls paused when they were about four feet away—one to my left, one to the right, and the third one facing me directly. Grotesque little things. Holding my palms out defensively, as if to raise a shield, I could feel their scorching fury on my fingertips… Six unflinching eyes locked their gaze on me, intent on harnessing my body in place with sheer will before reigning me in. Never had I seen nor felt anything so dark—so utterly soulless. Mentally they tugged and pulled at me from three different directions, like powerful vacuums suctioning me toward them—a concerted effort to draw me into their black hole of oblivion. I’m sure they would have loved that. Of course, I would never allow it. You’d be surprised how much power the human mind can activate in times of great distress. In a practiced manner, I summoned every ounce of my own mental strength, and focused it on my adversaries in a single, spectacular, psychical shove, effectively dissolving their hold on me. As I startled awake, they vanished. But once again I had denied them success; and for that, I knew they would be back, in one form or another.

Although it has been quite a few years (knock on wood), I’ve had several nightmares of a similar nature as an adult. While writing Alphabet Killer: The True Story of the Double Initial Murders, I had two, in fact. In one, just as I blurted out to someone in my dream that the killer(s) couldn’t hurt anyone anymore, because they were probably dead, I was lifted all the way up to the ceiling by powerful, invisible hands around my neck. I woke up gasping for air and staring at the spot on the ceiling that I’d just been dangling from. I’ve been pulled, pushed, choked, and lifted by unearthly malicious energies in my sleep; but I’ve always survived, perhaps because it’s been going on so long. Practice makes perfect, right? Practice, and a prayer or two, chanted by my sisters and I in the shadow of our praying boy night light.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me through the starry night, and wake me up in morning’s light.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Even as a toddler, I was having night terrors every single night (terrors differing from nightmares primarily in that terrors are mercifully not remembered). It wasn’t until I was older that I began to draw a connection between what may have been happening in my childhood night terrors and what has occasionally occurred in my adult nightmares. There is something disturbingly familiar about the nocturnal invaders that have been my nemeses time and again throughout my life.

I was primed from an early age to acknowledge that there are dark forces, both seen and unseen, that could do us harm. I’ve had a lifetime to think about the little Cape Cod in the hamlet of Racket River where my young mind was shaped and fortified for what lie ahead. I’ve written about this place before, using assumed names and omitting the actual street address to protect the privacy of the endless stream of residents, but I’ll recap here. The house at the Racket, simply put, packs a powerhouse of inexplicable phenomena from within. Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of good times there, as well. In fact, some of my most cherished early childhood memories were made there. After my father bought the house as a “surprise” for Mom, we lived there from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies.

In hindsight, the first indication that there was something wrong with that house was how markedly my father’s mood changed whenever he went upstairs. He had to finish off that area of the Cape Cod, so my two older sisters and I could share the attic space—an open room with a window at each end and a closet in the middle. Whenever he was up there, he became unreasonably agitated. Anywhere else in the house, he was fine—happy and playful and normal.

The second indication that something was amiss was the perpetual cold draft in the stairway leading to the upstairs, be it winter, spring, summer or fall. Several years ago, when the house was vacant and being shown by a realtor to potential buyers, the door at the bottom of the staircase would not open, no matter how hard the realtor tugged at it. She and her clients left to find a crowbar or something similar. When they returned a few moments later, the realtor merely placed her hand lightly on the knob, when the door opened effortlessly. No tools were needed, after all.  One moment, entrance to the attic was vehemently denied; the next, access was eagerly and mysteriously granted—all by unseen measures.

“The” stairway behind the divider.

Whether you were in the stairway or under it (walking down the cellar steps below), those stairs caused a lot of grief until the day my mother entered the house for the very last time. Still, the uncomfortable dread often felt in the icy stairway was trivial compared to the thought of what might lie in wait in the attic or basement.  The stairs were merely a prelude to something far more sinister.

The plywood storage box-turned-bed attached to the makeshift closet.

At the center of the attic, a makeshift closet jutted out about seven feet from the wall. A sheet of plywood blocked further access into the crawl space.  Something about what lie on the other side of that piece of plywood frightened my sisters and I to no end, as if it harbored a legion of bloodthirsty monsters that would come out at night to feed on us. Attached to the left side of the closet was a storage box crudely made of plywood which happened to be just the right size to lay a twin-size mattress on top of. One of my sisters claimed it as hers. One night as she was drifting off to sleep on the improvised bed, she heard a voice in her ear and thought that our cat, who was curled up beside her, was somehow talking to her. But then the voice said menacingly, “I’m going to pull your hair,” just before her hair was yanked.

My other sister also recalls lying in bed one night when she, too, felt a massive hand grab the top of her head and squeeze, as if to crush her skull. She screamed, of course, but then kept the incident to herself. Regardless of whether these attacks were caused by actual supernatural entities infesting the property or psychological imaginings during certain stages of sleep, it was bizarre and disturbing, to say the least. I don’t recall being manhandled the way my sisters were, but I do remember being affected by sleep paralysis, where I woke from nightmares unable to open my eyes or call out for help. For me, this only happened while living in the house at the Racket. Never since. Eventually, after it had happened enough times, I realized that my voice would return and I would be alright, if I just gave it a moment or two. As I said earlier, practice makes perfect.

Sleep paralysis, aka “Old Hag Syndrome” or “Night hag,” occurs when you are unable to speak or move just as you fall asleep or begin to awaken. Scientific thought is that, when we fall asleep, our body puts itself neatly into a tidy, little state of paralysis, so we are not acting out the dreams we have during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. We stay safely put. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we begin to wake up while still in the deep sleep state; hence, the feeling of paralysis, as the brain struggles to catch up and get the message to the body that we are indeed awake and can now move safely again. If only the symptoms of sleep paralysis had been left at that, I would have said it made perfect sense. Instead, all kinds of unusual nocturnal phenomena—hearing voices and footsteps, seeing hag-like intruders approaching in the dark, feeling as if one is being smothered or sat upon, etc.—were thrown into the mix of symptoms of Old Hag Syndrome and sleep paralysis. The same nocturnal phenomena are often reported in cases of true hauntings, as any paranormal expert will tell you. So which is it? Sleep paralysis with all the fixings or actual paranormal activity?

I’m the little one in-between my protective older sisters (except for the time they put me in the dryer to see what would happen…thankfully, they didn’t turn it on).

I’m going to vent a little bit here. The fact is, less than half of the general population has ever experienced sleep paralysis, according to most sources. Of those, only five percent…five percent…experience that little something extra—the accompanying so-called “hallucinations” described above. The risk factors for sleep paralysis include narcolepsy, sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, and alcohol use, none of which were present with my sisters and I (we were all younger than ten at the time, happy and carefree, and went to bed at the same time each night, whether it was still light out or not). Treatment historically has consisted of improving sleep conditions, therapy, and antidepressants. And, while I don’t know how effective those treatments are or were, I do know for certain what worked in my case:  moving away from the environment from which the condition originated, resulting in an immediate and complete cure. For a condition of which only five percent of people suffer regular episodes, what are the odds that three young children with no risk factors, sharing the same sleeping quarters, would find themselves within that five percent of the population—and only during the time they lived in that particular residence?

To be continued….