It was New Years Eve and I was nine or ten. That afternoon, my mom made a big announcement: she and dad would be going to a New Years Eve party. My kid brother would be spending the evening at grandma’s house… but my cousin and I, we insisted we wanted to spend our New Year’s Eve home alone, like big kids; it would be my parents first party in over a decade, and it would be my first night alone in the dark.
That afternoon, my mom drove my cousin and I to the local video store. We wanted to pick out a movie to help us celebrate our first night alone–no parents, no rules, and there was no better genre to kick things off than horror. It was my fault. I was the one who ran to the horror section in search of the scariest VHS box I could find. Sometimes I wonder how I ended up holding The Exorcist in my sweaty little hands. The Exorcist cover is particularly scary, and yet there I was, clutching it to my chest; this was the one, the movie that would keep us company and ring in the new year. For no real reason, I was drawn to it. I had to see it. It rang in more than the new year; it marked the beginning of a lifelong obsession–one that may not be as of-this-world as I’d like to think.
My cousin and I spent all day waiting for my parents to hurry up and leave. As the longest day in kid history, it seemed that night would never come. But eventually, mom stepped out of her peach-colored bathroom looking saucy, and dad, wearing his tie and fancy blazer, looked ready to cut a rug. Mom told us to ‘be good’, and they left the house in a haze of perfume and cologne.
The first ten minutes my parents were gone, we lost our minds. We ran from room to room making as much noise as possible. We jumped on couches and beds. After raiding the pantry for all the soda’s and candy we could handle, we popped in our movie and settled onto my mom’s Victorian-styled couch (it was an odd choice for a double-wide trailer).
What happened next: well… I was like little Danny Torrance, my butt glued to the Big Wheel, my eyes as round as half-dollars; but instead of staring down a hallway of the Overlook at twin girls, I was staring at my living room television while Reagan MacNeil hissed and thrashed and stabbed herself with a cross. I clutched one of mom’s decorative pillows to my chest, high enough to hide my mouth and nose, low enough to continue watching the horror that was searing itself into the very makeup of my brain. I told myself to look away, to stop watching, but something held me there, something made me watch.
We spent the next two hours watching really bad standup comedy on basic cable, our eyes still huge with terror, our tiny child-brains screaming inside our skulls.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. We left my bedroom TV on infomercials and made sure our hands and feet were nowhere near the edge of the bed. Two girls on a twin mattress, I tried to take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone–that my cousin was right next to me, and sleeping soundly at that. I squeezed my eyes shut and forced myself into unconsciousness.
I remember waking up because I couldn’t stop shaking. I was shaking so hard that when I finally managed to crawl out of bed I couldn’t stand up to run to my parent’s bedroom. In a dark and sleeping house, I crawled across the floor like a creeping animal. All I needed was a wicked grin spread across my face to make it a real-life Hollywood thriller. But I wasn’t smiling; I was terrified. Shaking hard enough to convince myself something terrible was happening, I eventually reached my parent’s room and scurried across the floor to mom’s side of the bed. My fingers grasped the side of the mattress, pulling myself up, I whimpered until she heard me. When she finally peeled her eyes open, I was overwhelmed with relief. It was going to be okay. She’d see that I was collapsed on the floor, shuddering as though I’d seen a ghost. My hope of rescue were shattered when she focused on me through the darkness and told me “you shouldn’t have watched that stupid movie.”
When I was nine or ten, on a particularly dark New Years Eve, my sleeping habits were forever altered. I still listen for noises in the dark, I have to sleep with doors closed and with my arms and legs clear of the edge of the bed. Two decades later, I still feel myself begin to shake when I hear Captain Howdy hiss through the mouth of a little girl. But now, older and wiser, I’ve graduated from William Peter Blatty’s nightmare to my own. Now, instead of Reagan MacNeil, it’s Charlie Winter who grins at me from the darkest corners of my room…
Charlie Winter grins at all of us, the ones who love horror despite the terror it brings… the ones who can’t turn off the lights yet keep reading and keep watching, wondering if demons are real.