One morning last week, around 5:00 AM, George awoke and had a deeply weird experience in bed.
No, I was not involved. I was sleeping in Jack’s room to escape George’s snoring. Y’all have dirty minds, you know.
Anyway, George closed the master bedroom door at 5:00 AM. He didn’t want Nick’s 6:00 alarm waking him earlier than he needed to get up. After closing the door, he climbed back into bed and had almost fallen asleep when he felt a nudge on his shoulder. He sat up.
The door he’d just closed was half open.
No one was there.
Weird, eh? Who or what opened the door? Who or what nudged his shoulder? How much beer had he consumed the night before? I can’t answer the first two questions, but I can assure you alcohol was not a factor.
As weird as this nighttime nudge was, it’s not as weird as our experiences in our house in Boise, Idaho. We lived in Boise from 1996 to 2000, and we were convinced there was something odd—yet not at all threatening or scary—going on in that house.
One night shortly after we moved in, I was awakened by a knocking on the sliding glass door in the master bedroom. No one was there. George thought I was imagining things until we were both awakened by the same knocking one snowy night a few months later. No tracks marred the pristine dusting of snow, yet we both heard a couple of knocks quite clearly.
On another occasion, when George was home alone, a mysterious puppy gamboled through our master suite (and through George’s peripheral vision) while he was putting on his shoes…a puppy that looked nothing like our dog Shemya, who was at that moment in another room…a puppy who disappeared into our closet, never to be seen again…a puppy George knew could not possibly be real.
But then, gamboling puppies aren’t very scary, are they?
By far the weirdest event in Boise occurred one Friday night around 9:00 PM. I was teaching a Friday evening class at Boise State University. At the time, we had no children so our Fridays involved meeting friends in downtown Boise for dancing and drinks. I usually wanted to change clothes after class, so most nights, George waited for me to get home from school before heading out.
On this particular Friday, however, he told me he might go out with some friends for dinner before I got home, and he didn’t know if he would be driving or not.
When I pulled into the garage, his car was there, so when I walked in the house, I yelled, “George, are you here?”
He yelled back, “I’m in here!!”
His voice came from our guest room, clear as ever. I wandered in that direction.
No one was there.
Instead of feeling scared, I felt as though a practical joke had been played on me. Whether that joke was perpetrated by a puckish poltergeist or my own tired brain depends on your perspective.
I suspect all these odd experiences can be chalked up to brain hiccups, called sensory hallucinations, that result from a variety of causes, not just mental illness. People can have hallucinations they know better than to believe. One woman, for instance, saw a dozen or so dancing leprechauns on her dining room table but knew they couldn’t possibly be real.
Also, it’s actually fairly common to experience hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up. These hallucinations can be auditory, such as hearing a voice call your name, a phone ring, or a loud bang. Hallucinating a shove on your shoulder as you’re falling asleep is certainly weird, but hardly cause for fear or concern for one’s mental health.
Still, the open door definitely wasn’t a hallucination because I was lying awake at the time and definitely heard George close the door twice. He probably didn’t close the door all the way the first time, and drafts from open windows and the fans we run at night blew it open.
See? Reasonable explanations are fairly easy to come by.
Anyway, as long as these sensory hallucinations don’t lead you to believe that Satan wants you to strip naked, climb on the table at Olive Garden, and sing the Hokey Pokey to the dinner crowd, you’re probably not insane and certainly have no reason to be afraid. Your brain is just on overdrive, or tired, or medicated, or overly caffeinated. When you know you’re hallucinating, you’re not delusional, and that’s rather comforting, don’t you think?
Our experiences in the house in Boise show just how easy it was for early humans to ascribe supernatural, scary explanations to things that go bump in the night. Researchers have discovered that certain spaces thought of as haunted share common characteristics which may stimulate deeply primitive survival instincts. Dark, cold places made of stone with cavernous ceilings, for instance, cause people to react uneasily, even when those people don’t believe in ghosts and goblins. Other spaces, such as basements, attics, mazes, and dead end rooms can generate similar feelings of dread and danger.
George and I have both experienced being home alone with our dogs when they suddenly became alert, woofed or barked at something they heard, and then relaxed when they determined it was nothing. We generally credit these events with the dogs’ vastly superior hearing, but it is still deeply weird when they stare at a spot in the room intently, growl or woof, and then relax. What is that all about?
We seek out scientific explanations for such weirdness, but science can’t always explain it. At least not yet. So sometimes, when things go bump in the night, we get nervous. Maybe science has it wrong and zombies really are trying to catch us and eat our brains, but more likely, it’s a psychopathic serial killer.
Yeah, that’s comforting.