This week’s Freaky Friday is “ghost-written” 🙂 by my very own sister – Maureen Tan. It freaked me out! I hope you enjoy it too!!!
As much as I hate to admit (because it sounds silly, doesn’t it?) I can’t fall asleep in my bedroom if the closet door is open.
It’s not like I don’t know what’s in my closet. Of course I do.
For almost four decades, I’ve hung my clothing and tucked my shoes into that narrow old closet with its single bare bulb, and I’ve muttered under my breath (and occasionally to my husband) about the inconvenience of a space that is much deeper than it is wide. Early on, I mastered the art of closing the old, oft-painted wood door so that it doesn’t swing open on its own, propelled by nothing more mysterious than the settling of an old farmhouse. And I can say with confidence that there’s never been anything more threatening lurking inside than a child playing hide-and-seek or a pair of irresistibly cute and utterly painful shoes or a threadbare flannel shirt that should no longer be worn in public.
So I don’t have any reason to be afraid, do I?
But if I turn off the light, crawl into bed, and only then realize the closet door is open, I have to get up to close it. It doesn’t matter how tired I am or how cold the house is or how much my husband complains or how comfortably a cat has settled itself across my legs. Sometimes, I stubbornly resist the urge to leap from my bed, just to prove to myself that I’m a rational adult. But, try as I will, I can’t keep my eyes away from the open closet door. It’s at those times—when the lights are off and the closet is open and I glimpse the shadows within—that I remember why I am so afraid.
I’ve been afraid of open closets for a long, long time.
Fear began in my early childhood, inspired by a ‘50s horror movie, my mother’s bad timing, and a too-vivid imagination. I was sitting on the floor in front of a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears and a grainy picture, transfixed by the sight of a giant black spider slowly emerging from the depths of a closet. The spider’s multitude of tiny eyes glittered eerily and the heroine cowered and screamed as long, spindly black legs reached out toward her from the darkness and—
And then my mother came into the room, saw what I was watching, and switched off the TV. That spider lived on in my imagination, terrifying and immortal, always ready to emerge from the shadows of my closet at night.
But we outgrow our childish fears, don’t we?
By the time I was 12, closing my closet door at night was more habit than fear, and the state of my closet—which made it difficult to close—was the opening volley of a rather tame teenage rebellion. For a time, my bedroom closet was haunted by nothing more terrifying than random piles of clothing, books, and magazines that should have been hung up or put on shelves, but weren’t.
And there my fear and this tale would have ended. Except…
The summer before my first year of high school, our family moved into a cavernous, third-floor apartment in a Chicago tenement whose stairwell always smelled of damp plaster, mildewy carpet, and cigarette smoke. Thanks to my mother, the inside of our apartment smelled mostly of bleach and lemon cleaner. Because I was 14—old enough to need some privacy from my younger brothers and sisters—I was given the tiny front bedroom. The bedroom closet was narrow and very shallow—little more than a hanger-width deep. But it reached up to a 12-foot ceiling behind the bedroom wall. There were two clothing bars. One was an old, iron bar placed well beyond my reach, just a foot or two below the closet ceiling. The other bar, where I hung my clothes, was a thick wood dowel mounted at my shoulder level. Although the closet was empty above the lower bar, its interior was always dark and shadowy. And the closet was cold—refrigerator cold—even in the middle of a hot summer without air conditioning.
That autumn, I discovered boys—at least, in theory—and wanted to go to school well-dressed and unwrinkled. But hanging up my clothes in that closet quickly had become an act of courage. By October, my courage had failed. Some things, I still put in the closet, like my boots and smelly gym shoes and hand-me-down clothes that I hated but sometimes had to wear. But mostly, I hung my clothes over the backs of chairs or along my headboard or on hangers at the ends of the curtain rods. Anywhere besides that closet. Because, by then, I knew that something lurked inside that narrow space and, if the closet door was left open, it prowled the room.
It grew bolder as fall turned to winter.
For all its faults, the apartment building’s old boiler provided plenty of heat to our apartment. But, late one evening, as I was finishing up my homework, a sudden icy draft cut through the warmth of the room, chilling the back of my neck, ruffling my hair, and turning the skin on my bare arms to gooseflesh. My desk faced the window, so I swung around in my chair and found nothing (nothing!) there. My bedroom door was closed, so there was nowhere that the draft could have come from. Except from the closet. No matter that I distinctly remembered closing it, it now hung open. After that, I turned my desk to face the closet.
By mid-December, I began hearing it at night, almost every night. I would be awakened by the slow, rhythmic thumping coming from inside the closet. I tried to tell myself that my prankster brothers were playing tricks on me, but the floors creaked so loudly that I would have heard them coming into my bedroom. Anyway, I heard the sounds only in the wee hours of the night, when my brothers were sound asleep in their bunks. And there was a smell that accompanied the sounds that reminded me of the filthy alley adjacent to the local tavern: a waft of cigarettes, booze, urine, and decay. During those times, I was never brave enough to investigate the closet. Instead, I cowered beneath my blankets, willing myself to go back to sleep. In the morning—and no matter that I’d closed the closet the night before and sometimes even put a chair beneath the knob—the door would always be open.
Then, one night, I saw it. And I wish, even now, that I hadn’t.
I must have been very tired that night, because the thumping didn’t awaken me, didn’t warn me to press my eyes shut and pull my blankets over my head. Instead I woke up shivering from the cold, caught a whiff of terrible odor as I opened my eyes, and looked into a closet that was wide open. A shaft of moonlight coming in through the big front window illuminated what was inside.
I think it was a man. At least, it was the torso, arms, and legs of a man. The head and shoulders—if it had a head and shoulders—were out of sight behind the bedroom wall. It wore an untucked shirt that was a muddy shade of brown. Where my clothing should have been hanging, there were dangling legs clothed in baggy trousers that were loose and stained. The feet, encased in battered work boots, dangled a couple feet off the floor. As the body swung slowly back and forth, the boots hit the closet walls. Thump. Thump. Thump.
I remember screaming.
After that, I slept on the sofa in the living room. My mother emptied the closet and sealed it shut with a strip of wood and a couple of big nails. The tiny front bedroom remained unoccupied until the day we moved away. I found out much later (amazing the things that you find out much later) that, years earlier, a man had hanged himself from the top bar in the bedroom closet. And that previous tenants had complained about odd happenings and a terrible odor. The family who’d lived in the apartment just before we did had, in fact, fled in the middle of the night. Some said they left to avoid paying rent. Others said they were terrified when they left. All this, my mother had heard from the neighbors after we moved in, but she didn’t want to scare her children—or herself—by believing such gossip. Until there was no choice.
Comfort yourself, if you like, by thinking that what I saw was the product of a teenager’s hormones or a vivid nightmare or simply wild imaginings. Tell yourself that the old Chicago tenement is long gone—replaced by luxury condos—and whatever lurked in the closet vanished with the first strike of a wrecker’s ball. And, if you can, keep on sleeping securely in your own bed with the closet door wide open.