Things That Go Bump in the Night

During my childhood I had recurring nightmares about little red and green elves climbing over my bed and hanging from the ceiling. Their unintelligible chatter and ghoulish laughter were akin to the buzz of a marauding mosquito circling one’s head at night. The frequency and severity of the their intrusion was probably in proportion to the number of green apples, or red stalks of rhubarb or other unconventional things I had consumed during the day.

When the nightmares occurred, I would cry out for Momma and as soon as she came, my tormentors would make a hasty retreat. She would either take me to her bed, or place me in bed with my older sisters. When I grew too old for babyish reactions to nightmares I found my own way to deal with them. I could focus on the window if it was a moonlit night and that little bit of light would drive the gremlins away, or at least keep them at bay until I could go back to sleep.

A night light would have been a great help, but we didn’t have electricity. In fact, I knew nothing of electricity and lights that come on with the flip of a switch until I studied in school about Benjamin Franklin’s daring experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm. He was followed by a young man named Thomas Edison whose obsessive experimentation eventually produced a practical incandescent bulb. As interesting as these accounts were, they would remain only in the pages of the books I read until electricity finally reached Flatridge several years later. The miracle of electricity in our remote area was one of the good things that came out of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Authorized by Congress in 1933, its purpose was to control the flooding of the Tennessee River by building dams and to use the water to bring industry and to improve living conditions in Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina.

Today’s generation knows little of real darkness. One is seldom out of the range of some form of generated light, be it street lights, security lights or even the glow on the horizon from city lights. This is to our disadvantage because darkness, though sometimes frightening, can often be intriguing. After all, when my imagination ran rampant there was always a safe refuge beneath the quilts at night, or in the presence of parents, or in the glow of the kerosene lamp. These were my safety zones and they were impenetrable.

On a dark night, with the right setting, the line that divides fantasy from reality can become blurred or may even disappear. One Halloween when I was perhaps seven or eight my older sister, Mildred, managed to convince me that we were being visited by a witch. That afternoon after school we had raked the leaves into a large mound the yard. After supper, Dad decided it would be appropriate to burn the them that night rather than to wait until the next day. Soon a large bonfire transformed the front yard into a magical place where anything was possible.

I was caught up in the excitement of watching the flames make strange shadows in the landscape. Then Mildred took me aside and whispered to me that she had just seen a witch land her broom in the road, about 100 yards from where we were. Miss Owen, my teacher, had told us Halloween stories that day. She was a skillful storyteller and could make even the tallest of tales come alive. However, she had been careful to explain to us that they were only stories, and that witches and goblins are not real.

But I trusted Mildred, and she said a witch was out there! I peered through the darkness and I, too, saw shadowy motion that just might be a witch. To be safe, I stayed near Dad and the light of the fire. And just in case, I pulled the quilts over my head when I went to bed that night. The next morning as we left for school, Mildred pointed out the tracks in the dirt road. It certainly looked like broom tracks to me! Incidentally, when I asked Mildred a few years later how the broom tracks got there, she only grinned and shrugged.

Often, remembering stories the adults told could trigger my imagination and add excitement to an ordinary event. One evening Mildred and I were returning home from Aunt Ella’s. It was early October and the daylight hours were becoming noticeably shorter. Darkness came quickly. The way home led through a thick pine forest, then past the entrance to the cemetery. A soft wind made whispery sounds in the pine trees and animated the shadows that the rising harvest moon created in the road ahead of us.

We walked rapidly, taking no time for conversation. The sounds our feet made on the gravel road seemed inappropriately loud. The occasional rustling of a small animal scampering in the underbrush reminded us that we were intruders in a world that belonged to night creatures. I was perhaps ten and old enough now to believe in the virtue of bravery, even if it had to be feigned.

Once, for assurance, I asked Mildred, “You scared?”

“Of course not!” she replied. I was glad to hear that, although I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth.

“Me neither!” I replied with as much conviction as I could muster.

But I was thinking of the story Uncle Fred often told about meeting the ghost of our Great-Grandmother on that very road one night. He was walking home after he and his friends had spent most of the night reveling when suddenly, there she was, pointing an accusing finger at him. The fact that daylight and sobering up proved that his phantom was only a clump of tall, white blooming weeds was of little significance to me at that time.

Although I had been told that ghosts, like witches, are not real, any of the sights and sounds of the road past the cemetery might have materialized into a stalking terror that evening. It was a relief when we made it to the open road and could continue our way home in the bright light of the autumn moon.

But there was one thing that always sent me scurrying and it was not imaginary. It was the call of an owl coming from the woods near the house. Sometimes the calls were the characteristic baritone “Whoo, whoo” of the Great Horned Owl and at other times the falsetto witch-laughter sounds made by screech owls. Their calls usually began at twilight when the friendly woods in which we played during the day were transformed into an ominous place to be avoided.

My family often walked home across the ridge and through the woods from Baptist Union Church after revival meetings. I always stayed close to my Dad. There was security in the circle of light from the kerosene lantern and in the strong hand that held it.

Occasionally I would be awakened at night by an owl calling from the oak tree beside the house. That was a spine-tingling sound, and I would cover my head with my pillow and pull the covers closer around myself. There was safety in my bed under a stack of quilts.

I remember one especially frightening experience when I had no place to run for cover. Mildred and I had gone to bring the cows in for the evening milking. The shadows were lengthening but the sun had not yet gone down. We emerged from the woods and found the cattle leisurely drinking from a spring near a thicket of locust trees. Tall clumps of purple-headed Iron Weed and pink Joe-Pye Weed intermingled with white puffs of Boneset in the marshy run-off from the spring. These flowers captured my attention, and I started toward them to gather some to take home.

It was not late enough for owls to be on the wing, but as we came near the marsh, an unmistakable hoot at close proximity sent me into a panic. My big sister, always my protector, shielded me in front of her as we hurried back home, leaving the cows as they were. It was late when our parents came home that evening to find them still in the fields and unmilked. Mildred was convinced that the sound we had heard was not, in fact, an owl but someone hiding in the tall weeds trying to scare us. Our parents didn’t scold us for our negligence. Perhaps they agreed that the cause of our fright was something other than a bird, and therefore it was justifiable.

Fears may come easily, but often they are hard to leave behind. A few years ago, I was working in the yard near the wild-life habitat our neighbor had created. It was getting dark and I was rushing to get through with my project when I heard the flutter of large wings over my head, and a dark form settled on a branch of a dead tree across the fence. His distinct “Whoo, whoo” brought back all my childhood panic. I dropped my rake and started to run toward the house. Then suddenly it occurred to me that I was running from a bird! I felt quite silly.

This beautiful creature that had no interest in harming me. Feeling foolish, I returned and picked up my tools but I decided against testing my bravery by remaining outside longer. After all, this time belongs to nocturnal creatures such as he. Far be it from me to intrude. I belong in the warmth and light made possible by the discoveries and inventions of Franklin and Edison.

February, 2000


The title comes from a Cornish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties / And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!”