When I was a young child I savoured the chill and pounding heart in that disorienting moment right after I woke and realised that whatever had been threatening me was nothing but a fading receding nightmare. I enjoyed describing it and trying to recreate the feeling for others, as if I were telling a ghost story.
My mother claims to have seen a possessed woman on Cephalonia in 1966 and to have witnessed her exorcism outside the church of St Gerasimos. My grandfather captured it all on 8mm film, despite warnings that he shouldn’t film it. Somehow the reel disappeared before he could return to Canada and develop it. My mother told other stories she’d heard about the saint, how during a drought on the island he’d put his hand on the ground to show people where to dig and find water, and how they dug a well there, and how a tree eventually grew next to it in the shape of a hand. (I don’t know how historically “accurate” this is; I was just a kid when she told me.) I loved stories of religious miracles — saints or the Virgin Mary appearing to people in their sleep with a message — because they were not only eerie but supposedly true. I would tell my friends about them, but I don’t think they were impressed.
Once I spent a weekend at my cousin’s house near Bass Lake just outside of Orillia Ontario, and across the country road they lived on was a provincial park. My cousin and I found an old abandoned farm house there and went looking around in it. I wanted to go upstairs, but I didn’t trust the staircase, and I wanted to check out the basement, but it was too dark. I was sure the house had a history, of the people who had lived their lives in those rooms where there was now nothing but dirty floors and peeling wallpaper. But nobody knew anything, or was very impressed by what we’d found. By the end of the weekend I’d created my own story and when I returned to Toronto I had an elaborate experience to relate to my friends, whom I swore to secrecy. It was about the ghost that I had seen there. (I was the oldest kid in the group, and could often persuade them to believe ridiculous things.)
There are dreams I vividly remember waking terrified from even though thirty years have passed since then. One of them was a black and white film of a goaltender on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s or 40s. He was a figment of my imagination, but I can still remember his face. A distinctive feature of his appearance was that his oiled hair was parted in the middle. I had seen a lot of old footage of hockey games from that time on TV, and the film clip in my dream was full of realistic detail, down to the way the much skated-on ice seemed both black where it was smooth and white where the blades had scratched it.
The scene was very short. The goaltender was crouched in front of the net, poised behind his leather goalpads, right hand behind the square blocker holding the stick, his gloved left hand out to the side. The camera, my point of view, was right in front of him, near the blue line. Someone shot the puck at him, but weakly, so that it only dribbled towards him. Nevertheless, even though it probably would have petered out before it could go into the net, the goaltender feel dramatically on his side, stretching his goalpads flat along the ice. The crowds booed at this cheap display — they knew it had been an easy shot.
But something strange happened. The sound of crowds was slowed down and drawn out as if I were hearing thousands of cows lowing angrily. The sound terrified me and I woke up with my heart in my throat.
A lot of my night terrors were aural, and are almost impossible to describe. I have nothing but impressions, which I can remember only because they were recurrent. One of them is a fervent mental activity accompanied by an electric buzzing, the aural equivalent of TV snow. I was always partly awake during this. I seem to remember myself in bed experiencing it. (My mother told me once that I sometimes would wake up terrified of a fly I believed was somewhere in the room. I don’t know if there’s a connection between that and the buzzing.)
Another is of two voices perhaps arguing. Perhaps it was only one voice. I am not really aware of words being spoken, only of a certain tone of voice. Each “sentence” begins fairly normally, but increasing acquires an urgent hysterical tone of anger, over and over again, like someone trying to explain something, probably to me.
There was something trance-like about these terrors. My mother would come in and find me sitting up in bed, talking but not making sense. “Who am I?” she would ask me. At first the question would shock and embarrass me; I would laugh uncomfortably. “Who am I?” she would say again. The shock and embarrassment would gradually disappear as it dawned on my that I didn’t know the answer. “Who am I?” she would ask and I would become calmer and more serious. By the time I knew the answer, I was fully awake.
I enjoyed being afraid when I was young because there was always the moment when it turned out that the fear had been an illusion. I enjoyed the feeling of relief and safety that followed. I have lost that feeling. Fear is no longer something that visits my sleep and flees when I wake. It hovers over my bed and keeps me awake. It’s always before me, in the future, waiting and snickering, “Who are you?”