We spent holidays at my grandfather's house. There were freshly baked hams, gifts, laughter, and of course the whole family gathering around to watch my step-uncle’s self-produced ghost-hunting videos.
You know, the usual.
My uncle began making these "documentaries" in the 1980s, and by the time I was old enough to actually store memories that would haunt (can't help it) me for decades, he was relatively famous, at least to people in my small Ohio hometown.
Living in California, he had struck reality gold when he discovered a San Pedro woman who had supposedly been haunted for some time. He spent the next couple of years filming her, her family, and all the things that purportedly happened in their crazy house.
I grew up believing that ghosts were absolutely real, and that many of my family members had had legit experiences with them. I also grew up believing that my uncle’s videos were completely truthful. (They were actually anything but. Still, I should note that to this day he, his crew, and those who were filmed swear that what happened in those videos was completely real.)
See, I was raised in a heavily Catholic semi-rural part of Ohio, where a ton of otherwise educated people believed in the supernatural. I would even go as far as to say that there, NOT believing in the paranormal was considered … odd. We weren’t the kind of community that believed you could have a demon inside you, but if that house on Front Street was up for sale YET AGAIN, it was posited that a ghost could most definitely be the culprit.
My uncle's "documentaries" were grainy, haphazardly edited, and over-acted in a way that was even comical in the '80s. Thy had it all: blood leaking through wood cabinets in the shape of a devil face, objects flying through the air, people being lifted by invisible forces. I remember my relatives asking if the blood was real, but my uncle demurred, calling it a “blood-like substance.” I spent many nights wondering if there was a test out there to determine if the substance was blood and how much it would cost. It seemed like it would be worthwhile for him to do the test if it existed, but I assumed it must be far outside his financial means.
I could deal with the blood and the flying dishpans, but there were two things that happened in those videos that set my tiny psyche afire. The first was a scene of a man who was found hung -- but still alive -- in the attic, the “most haunted” part of the house. The second thing was the tiny lights that seemed to mysteriously follow the house residents through their everyday lives.
I shared a bedroom with my little sister, and there was a crawlspace right above our room. I was terrified that a poltergeist lived up there, just waiting for my father to check the insulation and then murder him.
Even worse than the idea of my father being being pulled into the attic, then murdered via hanging like I had seen in a video, was the idea that a poltergeist was actually masquerading as a small beam of light that could be following me around at any time. It could follow me undetected, so I constantly stared into the shadows around me, hoping to catch it.
At night I laid awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the little lights to appear in my view. In our rural area, it wasn't unusual for a bat to get into our house through our chimney, and there were several nights when I woke up to a bat circling around my room before flying back through the rest of the house. Of course I always thought it was a dark spirit.
My uncle got more and more renowned for his videos. Then he hit the big time: A primo slot on "Sally Jessy Raphael"! The videos he had created of the family in San Pedro had gotten big among his local southern California talk shows, then slowly started crossing over to national media like "Inside Edition."
"Sally Jessy Raphael" was his greatest achievement yet, with the entire program devoted to what he had recorded. In my hometown, this was quite the cause for celebration. My teacher at my Catholic grade school even allowed my entire class to watch it live the day it aired.
Suddenly I became the resident school expert for anything supernatural. I went to the Butler County Library and took out every book I could find to further educate myself. What color was the ghost you saw? Blue? Nothing to be worried about. Red, on the other hand, watch out!
I would also lecture, with all my incredible newfound knowledge, about how some spirits were just echoes, doing the same things over and over because their last moments had left a residual energy; others were nefarious, and seemed to still have a sort of consciousness that meant they could make decisions.
The more I educated myself about all that stuff, the more freaked out I became. By the time I was in my teens, I was absolutely terrified of the dark. I could only put my feet on the floor for an instant after getting out of bed, and I had to sleep with my closet door closed (in the morning I was still scared to open it.) I couldn’t look at mirrors in the dark and getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night made my heart beat through my chest. Watch a scary movie? Ha, I never made it through the opening credits.
My grandfather died when I was 12, and after that we didn’t have contact with my step-family. I never watched the videos after that, but my fear remained. By the time I got to college I was a full-fledged atheist, and even though I didn’t believe in God or the afterlife, I still harbored a fear of spirits and the dark. I am now 31, and while I don’t believe any of it was real, I still find myself scared at night.
So here’s the million-dollar question: What were my parents thinking when they let me watch those videos?!
To find out, I recently went straight to the source: my mother. When I asked her why she would let her young child who already spent way too much time talking to herself watch something so terrifying, she couldn’t stop laughing.
“YOU BELIEVED THOSE VIDEOS?” More laughter. “They were so fake! I mean, the whole thing with the lights was obviously a flashlight. And that guy in the attic with the noose? What baloney! I thought you kids knew it had to be fake.”
That’s when I reminded her that I had been seven.
“Huh,” she said, “I thought you were, like, ten.” Then she laughed some more. My revenge for her laughter is to tell the Internet that at the same time she was allowing my sisters and I to watch these videos, she was also dressing almost exclusively in puffy paint sweatshirts she made from patterns she bought at JoAnn Fabrics. They were hideous. I am surprised they didn’t give me nightmares.
Take that, Mom.
Unfortunately I was not able to find the "Sally Jessy Raphael" appearance online, but I was able to find one of the TV specials. Enjoy!