When I was growing up, we'd spend every major holiday with my uncle's family.
Okay, to be honest, we spent practically every day with my uncle's family. In fact we used to live with them.
Eventually we moved down the street, but our families were so tight knit my cousins, I'll call them Mari and Lisa, were like sisters to me. Mari was the oldest, I was the middle child, and Lisa was the youngest. While Lisa and I were closer in age and played together long after Mari was "too cool" for us, I would always do ANYTHING to find favor with Mari.
Usually finding favor with Mari involved torturing Lisa. "POOR LISA!" was a common cry in our household, Mari always throwing me under the bus when my mom or aunt confronted us. "But Louise wanted to!" was the second most common cry in our house.
Torturing poor Lisa aside, Mari was masterful at terrifying me.
After a big holiday dinner, the grown-ups would retire to the living room and either talk about the "old days" in Hong Kong, or cozy up with my uncle's favorite child -- his laser disc karaoke machine.
Yep, my family was karaoke-ing way before legions of drunk college students even knew that "Sweet Caroline" was "so good! so good! so good!"
While the grown-ups perfected their renditions of "Blue Bayou" and "My Way," Mari, Lisa and I would have several hours of unsupervised freedom. Most of the time, this meant Mari would tell Lisa and me we were "gross," and play Nirvana on her guitar with the neighbor boy.
But if Mari was feeling charitable (or bored), she'd allow Lisa and me into her inner sanctum: HER ROOM.
Mari's room was THE COOLEST. She had Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins posters on her walls. She had more Garbage Pail Kids cards than any other person I knew, and her room was ALWAYS messy cuz she didn't give a care.
And while I always relished hanging with Mari, a little part of me was always on guard. Mari had the uncanny ability to orchestrate some of the spookiest nights of my childhood. All it took was turning out the lights, grabbing her giant red flashlight, and maybe making a tent-fort with her sheets.
Whether it was daring us to walk through the basement with "the dark man" at our heels, or telling us about the old woman who would slowly...slowly...slowly come up the stairs at night, Lisa and I were hypnotized. I owe much of my residual fear of the dark to Mari's storytelling.
Like I've said before, my family is the one you least want tucking you in at night. So many of my Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chinese New Year, or just FRIDAY memories with my family involve negotiating between fear of the ghosts Mari was telling me about, and fear of seeming like "a baby" in front of Mari. Either way, Mari always won.
So to get you in the holiday uh, "spirit," here are some of the stories that bring back the some of the spine-tingling nostalgia of family gatherings for me.
The Dark Man in the Basement
He was the "Dark Man" or "the ghost guy in the basement." Either way I was POSITIVE he was down there at night.
Mari, Lisa and I would crouch at the top of the steep, black, basement stairs and Mari would dare us to walk down the stairs and around the basement without turning the lights on.
The catch was that the "Dark Man" was always waiting. As soon as you were out of the light leaking from the top of the stairs, he'd be at your back. He'd follow you around the room, just barely a step behind you. "Can you hear his breath? I can," Mari would whisper from the top of the stairs.
But no matter how scared you were, you should NEVER turn around, because if the Dark Man saw your face, he'd remember it and follow you home. Then every night he'd sit on your bed and watch you sleep. And you'd only have nightmares from then on.
I only made it two steps past the bottom of the basement stairs before FREAKING OUT and running so fast up the stairs I fell and bruised the shit out of my shins. Lisa made it around the basement, but was so terrified by the time she came up the stairs that she was crying and I got in trouble for "ganging up" on Poor Lisa.
The best/worst part of the Dark Man story was that Mari told us that once or twice she left the basement door open at night, and she saw the Dark Man smiling at her from the bathroom mirror. SMILING AT HER.
Step, Step, Step
"Do you know about the old woman who used to live in this house? Sometimes I hear her at night."
Mari claimed that before her family moved into their house, the former owner, an old spooky woman, died on the first floor.
"Haven't you seen that spot on the carpet? That's where they found her." The spot in question, was actually a bleach spot from when her babysitter spilled bleach on the orange shag carpet a few years ago, but at the time I didn't know how dead bodies worked. IT COULD HAPPEN.
Mari explained that every night, after everyone was asleep, the old lady would drag herself up the first flight of stairs to the landing. Then slowly, clawing her way to her feet, trudge up the stairs to the bedrooms. STEP...STEP...STEP.
"You can also hear her long fingernails scraping against the wall as she gets closer...and closer...and closer to your door. All dead people have really long fingernails."
When the old lady would get to your door, she'd tap, tap, tap with her long fingernails, every so lightly. "She wants her house back," Mari explained.
Mari said that if you were unlucky enough to hear the step, step, step and the tap, tap, tap, you HAD to stay awake until dawn or else the lady would sneak into your room and trade places with you. Then you'd be forced to walk the house at night waiting for a victim to take YOUR place.
I'll never forget the time I was trying to fall asleep in Lisa's room, when I heard a scraping on the wall and slow, heavy steps coming up the stairs. I was scared, but I had almost written it off when suddenly there was a tap, tap, tap at Lisa's door. Lisa was already asleep, and her digital clock read a little past 11 p.m. I WAS SO SCREWED.
Tap, tap, tap. Then the door started slowly opening. I cannot tell you the HORROR I felt in that moment.
"I'M AWAKE! I'M AWAKE!" I cried, and dove under the covers. I heard the door creak open a little more and someone step into the room. Tap, tap, tap on the wall. Silence.
The next thing I remember is Mari cackling and pulling the covers off my head. Laughing, she apologized and stayed with me until I fell asleep.
I'm not going to lie, a small part of me is still waiting to get her back.
That's Not Tomato Sauce
When I was around 10, I discovered spaghetti. What can I say? We were a Hong Kong Chinese immigrant family, spaghetti was never really a thing.
However, when I figured out what all the fuss was about, I was hooked. I asked for it for spaghetti, tomato sauce and meatballs every meal one summer.
Probably feeling a little irritated with her little cousin being in her hair all the time during summer vacation, Mari gave me this little pointer one evening.
"Are you eating spaghetti again?"
"Did you see my mom get the sauce from a can or from real tomatoes?"
"Well, sometimes our faucets pour really red water, and we think it might be BLOOD. Ketchup is made from blood anyway, so my mom will use our BLOODY WATER to make spaghetti. Just thought you should know."
In one fell swoop, Mari had me afraid of spaghetti and ketchup.
And there you have it, a few more insights as to why I am the way I am.
Mari, Lisa and I are still very close. Half the time when I ask her about the scary stories she told me, Mari looks at me wide-eyed, horrified that I remember such things and says something like, "You're crazy! I never said that!"
She may very well have forgotten, or it might all be part of her master plan. Like I said, Mari always wins.
What's the scariest story your sibling/cousin/spooky aunt, or whoever family member told you? Who is your "Step, step, step" lady?
The holidays are a very scary time of year (for various reasons). Tell us your tales!