When I was a kid my Dad worked nights. Which was really a huge inconvenience for me because my Mom forced us all to eat dinner together before he left at 4:00, just as the neighborhood games were getting warmed up. Before my lunch even had a chance to digest.
It was the summer of 1983 - the year after the movie Poltergeist was released. At 7 years old I was too young to see the movie but the glimpses I saw on TV gave me my first introduction to what a real-life ghost might look like.
Sometimes when I think back to that night I wonder if those previews had some sort of influence on me, and perhaps tricked my mind into thinking it was seeing something it didn't. But then I remember the sheer terror I felt and know that it was nothing someone so young could have fabricated.
Like usual, that night my Dad left for work after dinner.
At 3:30am I was awakened by a noise downstairs. It sounded like someone shuffling around. Though he was usually in bed by 1:30, I assumed it was my Dad and I laid awake for a moment as a formality - hoping to put my mind at ease. My ears strained as I desperately listened for another noise like the refrigerator door shutting or a familiar sounding muffled cough to make sure it wasn't a burglar.
But I heard nothing more for several minutes.
Just as I convinced myself that it was the cat and started to drift back off to sleep, I heard a creak on the stairs that jerked me back awake. We lived in a split level house, three bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floor. My room was at the end of the hall. Again I laid in bed, a little frightened now, but still telling myself that it was just my Dad, up later than usual.
Then I heard what sounded like someone slowly dragging their feet down the hall. The noise was so quiet that I had to hold my breath to hear it.
Like any good horror movie I couldn't just pull the covers up over my head and go back to sleep. Though the thousands of times I've thought about this night I wish I would have.
I sat up in bed and flipped on the lamp sitting on my headboard. Listening once again, I called out to the hallway, "Dad?"
For a moment I heard the shuffling stop, then after a couple of seconds resume again, my ears barely able to make out the sound. My heart was hammering in my chest as I prayed that my Dad would just pop his head in my doorway and tell me to go to sleep.
But what came through my doorway wasn't my Dad.
What came through my doorway had the appearance of an old man, but I knew it wasn't human. I could see through it and it looked as if it was being projected into the air by an old movie projector, flashing the image on and off so quickly that it appeared to be moving in slow motion.
It was dressed in a gray jogging suit, and was jogging through my door right toward me. When we made eye contact it smiled and its mouth opened slightly as if it was trying to tell me something.
Of course I'd be damned if I was going to wait around to see what that something was. I dove under my covers, pulling every stuffed animal I had close, hoping they would offer some sort of protection.
I don't know how long I laid under my covers awake; it seemed like forever. I was terrified that if I pulled them back the ghost would be hovering above me and eat my face.
I must have fallen asleep because I remember waking up and being ever so thankful that I saw a crack of sunlight through the blanket. My mind replayed the events which happened a few hours before, and before I removed the covers from my head I told myself that it was probably just a dream. A horrible nightmare that I was happy to escape.
I knew that when I pulled the covers back if my bedside light was still on that it was real. Slowly I peeled them back, willing the light to be off. Please let the light be off.
But it wasn't off. It shone brighter than ever, cheerily greeting me with, "Well good mornin', there missy! What do you think about that? Not so scary now that it's light out but guess what? It's going to be dark again before you know it! What are you going to do then?"
I didn't know. Seven years old is around the same time that you start questioning things that you had previously held as truth, like Santa Claus and if babies really came from magical fairies (what? Isn't that what everybody's parents tell them?) so I wondered if this was one of those things about the world that adults would eventually disclose when you were old enough to handle it. Was every kid visited by a jogging spirit in the night? Would he bring me presents some day? Would he eat my brain?
Of course when I tried to tell my Mom about it the next morning she brushed it off.
"Oh Hannah, it was probably just a dream."
"No, my light was on... it was real."
"Mmm hmmm, right."
I wasn't surprised that she didn't believe me. Besides, what was she supposed to do even if she did? Call Ghostbusters?
A few months later it was time to pick Halloween costumes.
"What do you want to be this year?" My Mom asked.
"I don't know."
"Well, what's the scariest thing you can think of?"
And so it was.
We lived in that house for 13 more years, and I never again saw anything like that, either in the house or since we moved.
However, I kept a secret stash of cotton balls hidden in my jewelry box and put them in my ears every night because the faint yet persistent sound of feet shuffling across my carpet became maddening.