Fear of the Dark: My Date with the Shadowman

Posted on May 22, 2011

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Did you ever watch the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”? That film is on my mind much tonight as I try once again to lay my head to sleep. The film opens in a nineteenth-century shtetl, in the midst of a blizzard—a husband returns, joyous, to his wife recounting that he had a mishap on the way home, but was helped by a tzadik, a wise and righteous man known throughout the region, who he has invited home. His wife counters that the man is dead and her husband has invited a dybbuk, a displaced and malevolent soul displaced from Sheol, into their home. Enter the tzadik/dybbuk.

The husband, a man of reason, refuses to accept that the wise, old man, so helpful and kind, can be a cruel ghost. But the wife is insistent. After a row over the merits of faith and reason, tradition and progress, punctuated by the cryptic and unconvincing answers to both by the tzadik/dybbuk, the wife stabs the visitor in the chest.

At first there is no blood. Then the redness spills out and the visitor wanders laughing into the snowstorm, never to be seen again. In death throes of shock or in twisted joy at his trick—never revealing his true identity. Unseen and unknown, the visitor and the nature of his visitation gnaw upon the viewer for the next two hours. And apparently well into the next two years.

Two Stories

One: My stay in Ghana in 2006 was not a quiet one. Every morning at the crack of dawn I would wake to a gospel choir rehearsing in the fields behind the house. Late into the night, the crackle and cackle from the cart of the kelewele vendor down the road was answered in turn by the dogs living outside the house. But every night, just before midnight, all would fall dead silent.

Not one to question small miracles too readily, I usually took the silence as I could—for deep sleep. But after noticing the same pattern night after night, I asked by friend Dauda to tell me why this was. Dauda’s story was as follows:

There is a spirit in this area—he is a tall man, blacker than the night, a shadow rippling over shadows, but solid and dread. Only in the blackest hours can he visit the earth, a bell around his neck to tell of his coming. No, we do not know what he wants, only that if he catches you, he will take you. The witching hour is his hour. That is why no one travels outside at that time.

Yes, you can outrun him. Yes, if you see him, run, run as fast as you can. But never say a word, never dare you breathe a word of his shape, his sound. So much as speak of him and he will curse you—a horrible sickness will fall upon you, and you may not recover. This is why we fall silent; this is why we do not go out at night.

I am a serious man, and Dauda was a superstitious fellow, eager to believe in ghasts and ghouls. Couldn’t this just be a nice tale to instill order? Had he heard the bells? Yes, of course. Well, couldn’t it be a cabal of neighborhood elders, perpetuating the legend for the sake of imagination, community, and structure? To scare the kids? Dauda found my lack of faith disturbing. Didn’t I believe in ghosts? No, no I did not.

“Listen, Dauda,” I said. “We don’t believe in that sort of thing back home. It’s for children. Magic, it isn’t real.”

Dauda shook his head.

“Maybe in America magic and spirits, they are not real. But here, they are.”

The next night I awoke just after midnight, defiant and in desperate need of a piss. Silently I rose from the mattress on the floor, climbed over Dauda and past Moro, and felt my way to the door in the darkness. I undid the three deadbolts on the door and stepped outside, bound for the latrine down the street.

I paused when I realized there were no dogs snarling at my heels as in the past. Asleep, I assumed. But as my foot hit the ground, I heard a whimper. Turning, I saw two dogs under the raised foundation of the house, their eyes wet and fixed on me. Another whimper. I turned and walked down the road, desolate.

But I reached the latrine unmolested by any manner of ethereal visitation, and as I relieved my bladder I smiled at the silliness of Dauda’s story. Then I heard a bell.

A bell and footsteps coming closer—slow and heavy. Zipping my pants I stopped to listen for a moment. And the footsteps came closer, the bell grew louder. Until they stopped just beyond the door to the latrine.

I stood for some time. At first I just wanted to hear the sound again, to gauge the distance and know for sure that it wasn’t in my head. But as time passed without a sound, I started to sweat, my breath sped up, and my eyes began to water. I wanted to scream, but part of me felt it would sound foolish. The other part worried it would reawaken the footsteps and the bell.

Minutes passed—longer in my mind. I decided I had to move. Closing my eyes, I threw my shoulder into the door, launching out sideways and stumbling into a dead bolt towards the house, my eyes scrunched up the whole time. And through the clop of my own feet, I could not tell if the footsteps I heard behind me were real or not.

When I reached the door, a hand shot out and grabbed me by the scruff. Moro’s eyes, bloodshot and wide, bore into me. He admonished me for wandering out at this hour, bolting the door shut behind me. I nodded my acknowledgment and lay down upon the mattress, silent and shaking. Beneath the house, I thought I heard a dog whimper.

Two: Six months later, I sat reading by the wood stove at my mother’s home in Chewelah, WA. The home isn’t isolated, but in the dead of winter, with a long stretch between us and our absent neighbors, a vast and vacant field down the road, the loneliness is magnified by the empty and bitter air, by the blinding stretches of snow.

I was alone that night, as I was so often. Mid-sentence, a scraping noise caught my attention, but fell away as quickly. Houses make noises, and the snow falling from old gutters sometimes grinds awfully against chipping wood and paint. But the scraping continued, moving slow and steady along the wall.

An injured animal, perhaps a porcupine come down from the hills—it had happened once or twice before. But at the corner of the house, the scraping paused, only to continue along the next wall. And the next, and the next, and then back around to the wall it had started on.

I followed the scraping sound, straight and steady, around the house for one more circuit. As it began its third circuit, I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I checked every lock in the house and sat in the dead center, listening to the scraping move round and round.  Sometime during the night I dozed off, knife to my side. I woke cold and embarrassed.

All of these stories I can rationalize—boys playing a prank or my tired mind filling in gaps in sensory perception with the most accessible recent emotion or concept. There’s nothing supernatural to these stories, just something a little foolish in my subconscious gullibility to consider for a moment such farfetched explanations for half-dream experiences. But I can’t shake the dread.

I never turned around to see if the shadowman followed me. I never looked out the window to see the neighborhood boy or the animal crawling around the house. I want to tell myself that I know I didn’t need the assurance of seeing nothing behind me, that at my core I knew I was safe and that all was well. But the truth is this: I am horrified by the idea that, if I did turn around, if I did look outside, I might, just maybe, see something I did not expect. And it would shatter me completely.

At night, in strange and empty places—in the woods more often than not—where there are strange sounds and blind turns, I refuse in the dead of night to turn around too suddenly. When I catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, hear a sound I cannot immediately account for, I refuse to follow it. I mash my eyes shut so hard a tear usually spills forth.

But the dybbuk disappears into the snow. Without a trace of bravery in my soul, without enough conviction in reason and my understanding of the world around me, I can never exercise full faith in the mundane. And superstition, though I cast it off as a nothing more than funny habit, hangs heavy over me.

It’s a reptilian fear, the fear of the dark, of the strange noises of strange houses. Its primal logic is sound, but so out of place. Fear evolves too, though. Fear digs deeper into your soul. And, the more vested you become in normalcy and reason, though you may never admit it, deep in your early brain, more than ever you did as a child, you fear the dark.

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