Keep My Eye on the Shadows by David Jacobs

I was a nervous kid. I guess part of it was my disposition, and also due to my parents being split up, a feeling of unease that followed me much of the time. It was weird to have two of the people you cared most about, on whom you depended upon for your very survival, often be at odds with each other. To be driven back and forth twice a month for a long weekend with Dad, and then back home with Mom, my older brother Joseph being the only constant between the two households. 

Joseph handled things by pouring his energy into sports and school, channeling his mind and body into a kind of constant motion. If he ever got tired of that, he had me to pal around with, to decide what games to play or what to do, and to inflict the kind of light physical torment only someone almost two years older than me could dish out.

I lived in my head a lot. I watched a lot of T.V.: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Sesame Street, He-Man, Fraggle Rock and anything else about cartoons or puppets (Muppet Babies was the best, because it somehow managed to be both at the same time). When I was outside playing, I'd turn our Wiffle Ball bat into a machine gun (that shot lazers) and mow down the legions of COBRA in my backyard. I'd see them crouching for cover behind trees, shooting at me from high atop our roof or fighting right in front of me like a waking dream projected onto my reality. What Mr. Rogers would call my imagination.

Walking home from school, I could even have a cartoon or comic book in my head, and work out all the details as I had it running through my mind, visualizing the same scenes over and over until I had them all figured out. Nothing very plot-driven; mostly well orchestrated fight scenes.

So I was used to seeing things that weren't there. And my head could get me out of that nervous feeling. Sometimes. Other times, it was so overwhelming I'd break down in a puddle of tears, or lay awake at night, watching the shadows rippling on my wall or the faces swirl in my posters. Pareidolia: the tendency for humans to form patterns out of randomness. I learned what the word meant as an adult, but back then I only knew that the faces of the SWAT team (the defensive secondary of the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals of the '88-'89 season) would become hollow-socketed skulls leering at me. Or I'd see faces in the wood grain of my bedroom's paneling. It was enough to keep me up well into the night.

I was told these kinds of things were only in my head, that ‘monsters aren’t real’, as friendly adults so loved to put it. I'd close my eyes and tell myself it wasn't real.

Then when I was about seven or eight, I saw something that was there (or wasn't), but that I didn't put there, that I didn't will into existence from the swirling stew inside my head.

One day, sitting in an armchair in our living room, I saw a solid silhouette, sitting with his ankle crossed over his knee. He didn't have eyes, but I could feel him looking at me. The terror was sudden, first the surprise of seeing someone in our living room that I didn’t expect to be there, and then the feeling that whatever this was, it wasn’t a person. I turned around and sped out of that room. I never saw him again 

* * * * *

I didn’t think much about seeing the strange solid shadow in my house after that. I didn’t tell anyone else about it in the moment. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, or even if I’d be believed. It melded into the collection of my other childhood anxieties, and felt like a more intense version of the creeping dread I often felt in my bedroom, trying to fall asleep.

When I became a teenager, these kinds of fears faded away. Fear of the dark. Faces in patterns no longer appeared (at least I had learned where not to look to keep them from forming). Instead, they were replaced by social anxieties and other kinds of teen angst. Joseph had become an All-American athlete, a star student and the kind of person you’d have seen in a Normal Rockwell painting fifty years before. I loved him, and he’d grown out of his habit of beating up on me sometimes, but there was no way I could compete with him, at least not in terms of athletic or academic achievement.

No, I followed the typical route of the second child, unconsciously forming my character in opposition to his. My grades were good but not great, and I’d grown out of any kind of organized athletics by the middle of my sophomore year. I finally found a group of friends, high school intellectuals, hip before there were hipsters, who mercilessly teased me but still exhibited a kind of love and loyalty I found solace in. We plunged ourselves into the same mindscapes: music, movies, books, video games and cartoons. I smoked my first joints with them, and we shared our first beers. In college, we scattered, but stayed in touch, especially in summer when we’d come back to the same hometown.

It was in college, that I met the woman who’d become my wife, Elizabeth. Liz. Liz was a couple years younger, and she charmed me right away. A cute blonde a few inches short than me, with a round face and long blonde hair sometimes tied in braids. At the university library we worked at, she’d come from tennis class in a skirt and polo, sometimes slightly sweaty from the walk over. Our paths at the library intersected, so I’d chat her up as often as I could. One year into our “professional” relationship, she broke up with the boyfriend she’d had since high school, and I finally got my chance. I told myself I’d give her time, but I didn’t. I chased after her right away, and we caught each other.

A few years later, we moved to Boston together so she could go to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. For a year, we lived together in a tiny studio apartment in a converted hotel. They were the only ones to return our calls when we still lived in Kentucky. After our lease ended, we moved to a two-bedroom apartment on Hampden Street. It was here that my relationship with the supernatural deepened. Not in a good way.

* * * * *

We were both in our mid-twenties by then. I worked and went to school. Liz worked too, and had to drop out of graduate school after losing her financial aid through no fault of her own. This next part is about what we experienced in this apartment on Hampden Street.

There was nothing outwardly strange about the apartment itself. It was inside an apartment building, but not part of an apartment complex. It was probably built in the fifties or sixties. Very typical for an apartment: gray carpet, a sliding door to our balcony, and a small kitchen. We had a view of our neighbors’ backyard, and I loved to watch raccoons climbing up and down the trees. Many of the memories we formed there were good, but the dark side of this apartment became so overwhelming, Liz was desperate to leave by the time we moved out.

The peculiarities started out small. Our soap and shampoo bottles would suddenly fall off their shelves from time to time and clatter in our shower. I know, this doesn’t seem supernatural in the least. And I would not link it to anything else if it weren’t for the other experiences we had. The strange part of it was that this didn’t happen five minutes after someone got out of the shower. It happened randomly, and in clusters. Sometimes often, then long stretches when it didn’t happen at all.

One day, I took a long, hot shower. We had an exhaust fan, but it still got steamy. I was in the apartment by myself and when I got out, someone had drawn a zig-zag on the mirror with their finger. I could see it clearly. A part of the mirror didn’t have any steam condensed on it at all. No one else was home, so I couldn’t explain it. Had I drawn that zig-zag myself? Perhaps the oil on my finger had kept steam from condensing in that spot. Yes, that had to be it. At least, that’s what I told myself. This was the first experience I had in that apartment I couldn’t quite explain. It was like a joke being played on me. A punchline with no set-up. I told my friends about it, but no one suspected it was a ghost.

* * * * *

Eventually, Liz began to see things. She had always been able to see beyond the veil more clearly than most people, but I didn’t know this at the time. Liz is able to see a red three-dimensional grid that encompasses everything. She can turn this sight on and off, at least most of the time. When she was a kid, it helped her see benevolent entities, what people refer to as “imaginary friends”. As she got older, she was able to see other things within the grid too. Entities she later began to think of as ghosts. Things that felt human, more or less.

In our apartment in Boston, she began to see and feel other things too. The most common kind of entity she began to see was a shadow person. These appeared to her like the strange silhouette I had seen in my living room when I was a little boy. There were even different kinds. One of them appeared as if it wore a long black cape. On its head was a tall, wide brimmed hat. Often, its eyes appeared red and glowing.

Liz kept these visions to herself in the beginning. She didn’t know what they were called. That came later. Back then, they were things that appeared to her out of the grid, that made its lines ripple as they moved through them. To paraphrase John Keel, “they noticed her noticing them”.

Eventually, she did tell me. They began to take an interest in me. Perhaps to provoke her. Liz told me they would follow me around sometimes.

The frightening aspects of these encounters reached a crescendo one night after we had gone to bed. One of the shadow people was sitting on the end of the bed. Liz could even feel its weight. I suggested that we ask what it wanted. I was still operating under the assumption that it was some kind of ghost, that if we gave it what it was seeking, then it would leave us alone. That’s when Liz told me the entity definitely wasn’t human. I spoke aloud then, and told it to leave us alone. Liz said that that’s when it began to laugh, like the mere suggestion that we could order it around was some kind of joke.

When I finally fell asleep that night, I had a kind of nightmare that I’d never experienced before. I didn’t see anything in my mind’s eye. Instead, I felt an intense kind of dread suddenly grip my emotions. I had never felt anything like it. It was the most frightening feeling I’d ever had, before or since. In my mind, I reached out to Liz, and she woke me up realizing I was having some kind of nightmare.

* * * * *

After that night, I never felt anything else so intense. That was the hardest time we had. Once when I was awake but still in bed, I saw a swirling shadow go out from the door frame into the hallway like it was peeking inside. Liz still saw things, but I was spared, not being as sensitive as she is to that world.

Instead, I began to research what we were experiencing. That’s when I learned about shadow people. As much as a person can learn from a Wikipedia entry and a few websites: that they’re considered non-human, they’re tied to hypnogogic states and old-hag syndrome, that people have been seeing them for as long as people have been around. I also learned that they’re attracted to negative energy, including addiction. We lived on the same block as a half-way home, and there were a few vehicles permanently parked on our street that housed addicts. Needles regularly littered the sidewalk.

Since Liz was so close and could sense them, she acted like a beacon attracting the shadow people to her. The nightmares and anxiety we were experiencing created the negative energy that fed them. This dynamic gave us the armor we formed to protect ourselves. Instead of being overcome by fear, we would invoke words of power or call upon a force that made us feel protected. Since I was raised Catholic, I called upon Saint Michael the Archangel and quoted a phrase with biblical origins: “My loins are girded in the Word of the Lord”. This is still what I do when I feel a frightening anxiety that feels like it comes from a paranormal source.

Eventually, we left that apartment in Boston to return home to Kentucky. Liz had had enough. The stress and anxiety tied up in that experience was one of the main catalysts for us leaving. She couldn’t tolerate it any more.

The shadow people didn’t follow us, and we haven’t had any of those kinds of encounters since then. At least, I haven’t. If Liz has, she doesn’t talk about it. She’s told me she still sees them passing through every once in a while, but they don’t try to engage her any more.

I’ve learned to keep my guard up since then. To have words of power ready in my mind and on my lips if they ever become necessary. And to keep my eyes on the shadows.