By Chef Michael Whitehouse
Bedtime is supposed to be a happy event for a tired child; for me it was terrifying. While some children might complain about being put to bed before they have finished watching a film or playing their favourite video game, when I was a child, night time was something to truly fear. Somewhere in the back of my mind it still is.
As someone who is trained in the sciences, I cannot prove that what happened to me was objectively real, but I can swear that what I experienced was genuine horror. A fear which in my life, I’m glad to say, has never been equalled. I will relate it to you all now as best I can, make of it what you will, but I’ll be glad to just get it off of my chest.
I can’t remember exactly when it started, but my apprehension towards falling asleep seemed to correspond with my being moved into a room of my own. I was 8 years old at the time and until then I had shared a room, quite happily, with my older brother. As is perfectly understandable for a boy 5 years my senior, my brother eventually wished for a room of his own and as a result, I was given the room at the back of the house.
It was a small, narrow, yet oddly elongated room, large enough for a bed and a couple of chest of drawers, but not much else. I couldn’t really complain because, even at that age, I understood that we did not have a large house and I had no real cause to be disappointed, as my family was both loving and caring. It was a happy childhood, during the day.
A solitary window looked out onto our back garden, nothing out of the ordinary, but even during the day the light which crept into that room seemed almost hesitant.
As my brother was given a new bed, I was given the bunk beds which we used to share. While I was upset about sleeping on my own, I was excited at the thought of being able to sleep in the top bunk, which seemed far more adventurous to me.
From the very first night I remember a strange feeling of unease creeping slowly from the back of my mind. I lay on the top bunk, staring down at my action figures and cars strewn across the green-blue carpet. As imaginary battles and adventures took place between the toys on the floor, I couldn’t help but feel that my eyes were being slowly drawn towards the bottom bunk, as if something was moving in the corner of my eye. Something which did not wish to be seen.
The bunk was empty, impeccably made with a dark blue blanket tucked in neatly, partially covering two rather bland white pillows. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, I was a child, and the noise slipping under my door from my parent’s television, bathed me in a warm sense of safety and well-being.
I fell asleep.
When you awaken from a deep sleep to something moving, or stirring, it can take a few moments for you to truly understand what is happening. The fog of sleep hangs over your eyes and ears even when lucid.
Something was moving, there was no doubt about that.
At first I wasn’t sure what it was. Everything was dark, almost pitch black, but there was enough light creeping in from outside to outline that narrowly suffocating room. Two thoughts appeared in my mind almost simultaneously. The first was that my parents were in bed because the rest of the house lay both in darkness, and silence. The second thought turned to the noise. A noise which had obviously woken me.
As the last cob webs of sleep withered from my mind, the noise took on a more familiar form. Sometimes the simplest of sounds can be the most unnerving, a cold wind whistling through a tree outside, a neighbour’s footsteps uncomfortably close, or, in this case, the simple sound of bed sheets rustling in the dark.
That was it; bed sheets rustling in the dark as if some disturbed sleeper was attempting to get all too comfortable in the bottom bunk. I lay there in disbelief thinking that the noise was either my imagination, or perhaps just my pet cat finding somewhere comfortable to spend the night. It was then that I noticed my door, shut as it had been as I’d fallen asleep.
Perhaps my mum had checked in on me and the cat had sneaked in to my room then.
Yes, that must have been it. I turned to face the wall, closing my eyes in the vain hope that I could fall back to sleep. As I moved, the rustling noise from underneath me ceased. I thought that I must have disturbed my cat, but quickly I realised that the visitor in the bottom bunk was much less mundane than my pet trying to sleep, and much more sinister.
As if alerted to, and disgruntled by, my presence, the disturbed sleeper began to toss and turn violently, like a child having a tantrum in their bed. I could hear the sheets twist and turn with increasing ferocity. Fear then gripped me, not like the subtle sense of unease I had experienced earlier, but now potent and terrifying. My heart raced as my eyes panicked, scanning the almost impenetrable darkness.
I let out a cry.
As most young boys do, I instinctively shouted on my mother. I could hear something stir on the other side of the house, but as I began to breathe a sigh of relief that my parents were coming to save me, the bunk beds suddenly started to shake violently as if gripped by an earthquake, scraping against the wall. I could hear the sheets below me thrashing around as if tormented by malice. I did not want to jump down to safety as I feared the thing in the bottom bunk would reach out and grab me, pulling me into the darkness, so I stayed there, white knuckles clenching my own blanket like a shroud of protection. The wait seemed like an eternity.
The door finally, and thankfully, burst open, and I lay bathed in light while the bottom bunk, the resting place of my unwanted visitor, lay empty and peaceful.
I cried and my mother consoled me. Tears of fear, followed by relief, streamed down my face. Yet, through all of the horror and relief, I did not tell her why I was so upset. I cannot explain it, but it was as though whatever had been in that bunk would return if I even so much as spoke of it, or uttered a single syllable of its existence. Whether that was the truth, I do not know, but as a child I felt as if that unseen menace remained close, listening.
My mother lay in the empty bunk, promising to stay there until morning. Eventually my anxiety diminished, tiredness pushed me back towards sleep, but I remained restless, waking several times momentarily to the sound of rustling bed sheets.
I remember the next day wanting to go anywhere, be anywhere, but in that narrow suffocating room. It was a Saturday and I played outside, quite happily with my friends. Although our house was not large we were lucky to have a long sloping garden in the back. We played there often, as much of it was overgrown and we could hide in the bushes, climb in the huge sycamore tree which towered above all else, and easily imagine ourselves in the throws of a grand adventure, in some untamed exotic land.
As fun as it all was, occasionally my eye would turn to that small window; ordinary, slight, and innocuous. But for me, that thin boundary was a looking glass into a strange, cold pocket of dread. Outside, the lush green surroundings of our garden filled with the smiling faces of my friends could not extinguish the creeping feeling clawing its way up my spine; each hair standing on end. The feeling of something in that room, watching me play, waiting for the night when I would be alone; eagerly filled with hate.
It may sound strange to you, but by the time my parents ushered me back into that room for the night, I said nothing. I didn’t protest, I didn’t even make an excuse as to why I couldn’t sleep there. I simply and sullenly walked into that room, climbed the few steps into the top bunk and then waited. As an adult I would be telling everyone about my experience, but even at that age I felt almost silly to be talking about something which I really had no evidence for. I would be lying, however, if I said this was my primary reason; I still felt that this thing would be enraged if I so much as spoke of it.
It’s funny how certain words can remain hidden from your mind, no matter how blatant or obvious they are. One word came to me that second night, lying there in the darkness alone, frightened, aware of a rotten change in the atmosphere; a thickening of the air as if something had displaced it. As I heard the first casual twists of the bed sheets below, the first anxious increase of my heartbeat at the realisation that something was once again in the bottom bunk, that word, a word which had been sent into exile, filtered up through my consciousness, breaking free of all repression, gasping for air screaming, etching, and carving itself into my mind.
As this thought came to me, I noticed that my unwelcome visitor had ceased moving. The bed sheets lay calm and dormant, but they had been replaced by something far more hideous. A slow, rhythmic, rasping breath heaved and escaped from the thing below. I could imagine its chest rising and falling with each sordid, wheezing, and garbled breath. I shuddered, and hoped beyond all hope that it would leave without occurrence.
The house lay, as it had the previous night, in a thick blanket of darkness. Silence prevailed, all but for the perverted breath of my, as yet, unseen bunkmate. I lay there terrified. I just wanted this thing to go, to leave me alone.
What did it want?
Then something unmistakably chilling transpired; it moved. It moved in a way different from before. When it threw itself around in the bottom bunk it seemed, unrestrained, without purpose, almost animalistic. This movement, however, was driven by awareness, with purpose, with a goal in mind. For that thing lying there in the darkness, that thing which seemed intent on terrorizing a young boy, calmly and nonchalantly sat up. Its laboured breathing had become louder as now only a mattress and a few flimsy wooden slats separated my body from the unearthly breath below.
I lay there, my eyes filled with tears. A fear which mere words cannot relate to you or anyone else coursed through my veins. I would not have believed that this fear could have been heightened, but I was so wrong. I imagined what this thing would look like, sitting there listing from below my mattress, hoping to catch the slightest hint that I was awake. Imagination then turned to an unnerving reality. It began to touch the wooden slats which my mattress sat on. It seemed to caress them carefully, running what I imagined to be fingers and hands across the surface of the wood.
Then, with great force, it prodded angrily between two slats, into the mattress. Even through the padding, it felt as though someone had viciously stuck their fingers into my side. I let out an almighty cry and the wheezing, shaking, and moving thing in the bunk below replied in kind by violently vibrating the bunk as it had done the night before. Small flakes of paint powdered onto my blanket from the wall as the frame of the bed scraped along it, backwards and forwards.
Once again I was bathed in light, and there stood my mother, loving, caring as she always was, with a comforting hug and calming words which eventually subdued my hysteria. Of course she asked what was wrong, but I could not say, I dared not say. I simply said one word over and over and over again.
This pattern of events continued for weeks, if not months. Night after night I would awaken to the sound of rustling sheets. Each time I would scream so as to not provide this abomination with time to prod and ‘feel’ for me. With each cry the bed would shake violently, stopping with the arrival of my mother who would spend the rest of the night in the bottom bunk, seemingly unaware of the sinister force torturing her son nightly.
Along the way I managed to feign illness a few times and come up with other less-than-truthful reasons for sleeping in my parents’ bed, but more often than not I would be alone for the first few hours of each night in that place. The room where the light from outside did not sit right. Alone with that thing.
With time you can become desensitized to almost anything, no matter how horrific. I had come to realise that, for whatever reason, this thing could not harm me when my mother was present. I am sure the same would have been said for my father, but as loving as he was, waking him from sleep was almost impossible.
After a few months I had grown accustomed to my nightly visitor. Do not mistake this for some unearthly friendship, I detested the thing. I still feared it greatly as I could almost sense its desires and its personality, if you could call it that; one filled with a perverted and twisted hatred yet longing for me, of perhaps all things.
My greatest fears were realised in the winter. The days grew short, and the longer nights merely provided this wretch with more opportunities. It was a difficult time for my family. My Grandmother, a wonderfully kind and gentle woman, had deteriorated greatly since the death of my Grandfather. My mother was trying her best to keep her in the community as long as possible, however, dementia is a cruel and degenerative illness, robbing a person of their memories one day at a time. Soon she recognised none of us, and it became clear that she would need to be moved from her house to a nursing home.
Before she could be moved, my Grandmother had a particularly difficult few nights and my mother decided that she would stay with her. As much as I loved my Grandmother and felt nothing but anguish at her illness, to this day I feel guilty that my first thoughts were not of her, but of what my nightly visitor may do should it become aware of my mother’s absence; her presence being the one thing which I was sure was protecting me from the full horror of this thing’s reach.
I rushed home from school that day and immediately wrenched the bed sheets and mattress from the lower bunk, removing all of the slats and placing an old desk, a chest of drawers, and some chairs which we kept in a cupboard where the bottom bunk used to be. I told my father I was ‘making an office’ which he found adorable, but I would be damned if I’d give that thing a place to sleep for one more night.
As darkness approached, I lay there knowing my mother was not in the house. I did not know what to do. My only impulse was to sneak into her jewellery box and take a small family crucifix which I had seen there before. While my family were not very religious, at that age I still believed in God and hoped that somehow this would protect me. Although fearful and anxious, while gripping the crucifix under my pillow tightly in one hand, sleep eventually came and as I drifted off to dream, I hoped that I would awaken in the morning without incidence. Unfortunately that night was the most terrifying of all.
I woke gradually. The room was once again dark. As my eyes adjusted I could gradually make out the window and the door, and the walls, some toys on a shelf and…Even to this day I shudder to think of it, for there was no noise. No rustling of sheets. No movement at all. The room felt lifeless. Lifeless, yet not empty.
The nightly visitor, that unwelcome, wheezing, hate-filled thing which had terrorized me night after night, was not in the bottom bunk, it was in my bed! I opened my mouth to scream, but nothing came out. Utter terror had shaken the very sound from my voice. I lay motionless. If I could not scream, I did not want to let it know I was awake.
I had not yet seen it, I could only feel it. It was obscured under my blanket. I could see its outline, and I could feel its presence, but I dared not look. The weight of it pressed down on top of me, a sensation I will never forget. When I say that hours passed, I do not exaggerate. Laying there motionless, in the darkness, I was every bit a scared and frightened young boy.
If it had been during the summer months it would have been light by then, but the grasp of winter is long and unrelenting, and I knew it would be hours before sunrise; a sunrise which I yearned for. I was a timid child by nature, but I reached a breaking point, a moment where I could wait no more, where I could survive under this intimately deviant abomination no longer.
Fear can sometimes wear you out, make you threadbare, a shell of nerves leaving only the slightest trace of you behind. I had to get out of that bed! Then I remembered, the crucifix! My hand still lay underneath the pillow, but it was empty! I slowly moved my wrist around to find it, minimising as best I could the sound and vibrations caused, but it could not be found. I had either knocked it off of the top bunk, or it had…I could not even bear to think of it, been taken from my hand.
Without the crucifix I lost any sense of hope. Even at such a young age, you can be acutely aware of what death is, and intensely frightened of it. I knew I was going to die in that bed if I lay there, dormant, passive, doing nothing. I had to leave that room behind, but how? Should I leap from the bed and hope that I make it to the door? What if it is faster than me? Or should I slowly slip out of that top bunk, hoping to not disturb my uncanny bedfellow?
Realising that it had not stirred when I moved, trying to find the crucifix, I began to have the strangest of thoughts.
What if it was asleep?
It hadn’t so much as breathed since I had woken up. Perhaps it was resting, believing that it had finally got me. That I was finally in its grasp. Or perhaps it was toying with me, after all it had been doing just that for countless nights, and now with me under it, pinned against my mattress with no mother to protect me, maybe it was holding off, savouring its victory until the last possible moment. Like a wild animal savouring its prey.
I tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, and mustering every ounce of courage I could, I reached over slowly with my right hand and began to peel the blanket off of me. What I found under those covers almost stopped my heart. I did not see it, but as my hand moved the blanket, it brushed against something. Something smooth and cold. Something which felt unmistakably like a gaunt hand.
I held my breath in terror as I was sure it must now have known that I was awake.
It did not stir, it felt, dead. After a few moments I placed my hand carefully further down the blanket and felt a thin, poorly formed forearm, my confidence and almost twisted sense of curiosity grew as I moved down further to a disproportionately larger bicep muscle. The arm was outstretched lying across my chest, with the hand resting on my left shoulder as if it had grabbed me in my sleep. I realised that I would have to move this cadaverous appendage if I even so much as hoped to escape its grasp.
For some reason, the feeling of torn, ragged clothing on the shoulder of this night-time invader stopped me in my tracks. Fear once again swelled in my stomach and in my chest as I recoiled my hand in disgust at the touch of straggled, oily hair.
I could not bring myself to touch its face, although I wonder to this very day what it would have felt like.
Dear God it moved.
It moved. It was subtle, but its grip on my shoulder and across my body strengthened. No tears came, but God how I wanted to cry. As its hand and arm slowly coiled around me, my right leg brushed along the cool wall which the bed lay against. Of all that happened to me in that room, this was the strangest. I realised that this clutching, rancid thing which drew great delight from violating a young boy’s bed, was not entirely on top of me. It was sticking out from the wall, like a spider striking from its lair.
Suddenly its grip moved from a slow tightening to a sudden squeeze, it pulled and clawed at my clothes as if frightened that the opportunity would soon pass. I fought against it, but its emaciated arm was too strong for me. Its head rose up writhing and contorting under the blanket. I now realised where it was taking me, into the wall! I fought for my dear life, I cried and suddenly my voice returned to me, yelling, screaming, but no one came.
Then I realised why it was so eager to suddenly strike, why this thing had to have me now. Through my window, that window which seemed to represent so much malice from outside, streaked hope; the first rays of sunshine. I struggled further knowing that if I could just hold on, it would soon be gone. As I fought for my life, the unearthly parasite shifted, slowly pulling itself up my chest, its head now poking out from under the blanket, wheezing, coughing, rasping. I do not remember its features, I simply remember its breath against my face, foul and as cold as ice.
As the sun broke over the horizon, that dark place, that suffocating room of contempt was washed, bathed in sunlight.
I passed out as its scrawny fingers encircled my neck, squeezing the very life from me.
I awoke to my father offering to make me some breakfast, a wonderful sight indeed! I had survived the most horrible experience of my life until then, and now. I moved the bed away from the wall, leaving behind the furniture I had believed would stop that thing from taking a bed. Little did I think that it would try to take mine…and me.
Weeks passed without incidence, yet on one cold, frost bitten night I awoke to the sound of the furniture where the bunk beds used to be, vibrating violently. In a moment it passed, I lay there sure I could hear a distant wheezing coming from deep within the wall, finally fading into the distance.
I have never told anyone this story before. To this day I still break out in a cold sweat at the sound of bed sheets rustling in the night, or a wheeze brought on by a common cold, and I certainly never sleep with my bed against a wall. Call it superstition if you will but as I said, I cannot discount conventional explanations such as sleep paralysis, hallucination, or that of an over-active imagination, but what I can say is this: The following year I was given a larger room on the other side of the house and my parents took that strangely suffocating, elongated place as their bedroom. They said they didn’t need a large room, just one big enough for a bed and a few things.
They lasted 10 days. We moved on the 11th.