To Sleepwalk in the Past Tense


The Previous Chapter in The Paranormal Memoirs is here.

I began profoundly Hearing Voices in 1978, in the fourth grade, when my family moved into a house that was... well, haunted.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Haunting

To this day, my brother and I need only say three words -- "The Green House" -- and they speak of a very specific time and place of paranormal phenomena we experienced together as children:

  • the feline ghost we called the White Cat that constantly darted across the hallway between our bedrooms
  • the chilling subterranean den where the carpets mysteriously unraveled themselves in an ever-growing hole that revealed the concrete floor
  • the closet under the stairs leading to a crawl space where we discovered an ancient skeleton key plastered into the wall
  • the sound of a basketball bounced off the exterior wall above the garage doors right outside my bedroom window
  • the inexplicable bite or bloody stab wound I received from no apparent source on the inside of my left calf just below the knee (the scar is still one of the most obvious anywhere on my body)
  • the residual noise of metal dragging and banging around the garage
  • the loud disembodied voice that would shout "Don't look in there!" when you walked past the door to the master bedroom
  • and, most disturbing of all, the puffy middle-aged man in a wife-beater tank top and sweat pants that appeared from time to time lying panting from illness on my parents' bed with a German Shepherd guarding his feet (a vision that was accompanied by the brief but over-powering stench of urine)

The Green House managed to appear older and shabbier than any of its neighbors in a late-Brady-Bunch-era subdivision called "Spanish Trails" where all the houses were relatively the same age and the same (or variations on four or five) designs.

The Green House was guilty of aesthetic violations more than any other abnormal energy -- it was supernaturally ugly. Scary ugly. A previous owner had gone to serious trouble to introduce fuglier than necessary elements into this split-level collision of styles and space.

The exterior siding was nominally olive-drab, while the lawn was gravel-encrusted sun-baked terra cotta with stubbly clumps of crab grass and one spindly Charley Brown Christmas Tree pine, its lower limbs amputated and black with resin above naked varicose roots and a smattering of bleached-orange needle straw.

The interior theme followed a jarring concept of garish, clashing wall-to-wall carpets -- an extremely different "decorating decision" from one room to the next; an over-commitment to the complete anti-thesis of "flow" that alluded even to the Crayola sensibilities of children as nothing short of mental illness... Each room was floored in the hides of various slain species of Muppet -- my little brother's bedroom was Cookie Monster blue shag; my parents padded around between furniture whose wooden ankles were buried in rust-brown Jim Henson Studios mastodon; while I was expected to achieve restful slumber on a red more likely to be associated with a Satanic church than with Elmo.

Which came first: the insanity of prior inhabitants or the bad juju invoked by their decor? One might expect Goth furnishings or Victorian architecture to hold on to traumatized energies, but, trust me, that cliche is picturesque compared with an angry, cheap, badly-executed 1960's reno crying out for an update and a truckload of sage smudge bundles.

My parents did not choose to renovate or invest in redecorating because the Green House was meant to be a temporary home for us; it was a rental. My father had started his own company building homes in new developments across town, and he wanted to shift his credit and mortgages into the houses he intended to sell. We had already lived in another home in this same neighborhood, the house on Barcelona Drive, the site of my previous memoir Send in the Skywalkers.

Visiting the construction sites of the beautiful new houses Daddy was building -- with their smell of new lumber, their ample light through new window glass, their hush of fresh virgin carpeting in tasteful neutral colors -- made a cruel contrast to the dank, gloomy, mildewy house we actually lived in. I hoped we could eventually move into one of his houses; but that was most likely to happen only if he failed to sell one (which was not desirable) or if he successfully sold so many so quickly that he could build a masterpiece just for us.

While my brother and I call it "the Green House" my parents refer to the places we lived by their street names (incidentally, the only thing noticeably Spanish about "Spanish Trails"). We sold the house on Barcelona and moved to the Green House on Granada, the last house at the end of a small cul de sac that reached into the center of the neighborhood. On a map (or viewed from space) the subdivision was oriented as a sketchy capital letter Q, with the long end of the tail corresponding with the street at the entrance, and the small end of the tail, that reached into the round center, was the street we moved to.

The Trails

This donut-hole center formed a scrubby, undeveloped park of woods surrounded on all sides by the backyards of houses along the loop of the main street. It was the In Between space left over once the lots had been carved out and cleared, a small suburban forest of mostly uncut pines and enormous patches of blackberry brambles. The kids in the neighborhood called this wood "The Trails" -- a more aptly named area that had nothing at all to do with the conceptual urban planning and cutesy street-naming of the developers.

The Trails were an unofficial communal play space claimed and ruled in a Lord of the Flies political climate by the children and dogs that were naturally drawn to this No-Man's Land. The Trails were exempt from all claims and battles over Property Lines. The Trails were a pagan gathering ground for elementary school tribes, whose rituals were enacted in complex, unruly games of BB Gun War, tree climbing and fort building, dirt bike racing and ramp jumping, impromptu gang fights, and all other forms of relatively innocent and elementary human violence.

The Trails were just large enough and wild enough to get lost in (and hurt in) once in awhile... just wild enough for Adventure.

The neighborhood developers had originally intended the area we called the Trails to be a formal residential park, with an enormous swimming pool and basketball courts and baseball diamonds and such; but word on the street was that they'd run out of money to manifest that vision to completion. The only archaeological evidence of this grand design was the bulldozed pit of the abandoned pool, which had evolved into a semi-man-made, nature-eroded earthen half-pipe of dirt bike ramps. Two-wheeled rights of passage revolved around having the stones to dive down one side of this boxy pool-shaped canyon and across the bottom with enough speed to send your bike up and out the opposite side and through the air in a gravity-free wheelie (clearly, a collective reference to all witnesses that evoked Evel Knievel).

The Tunnels

One of the most magical features of the Trails was actually underground -- a network of concrete culverts and storm-drains that converged in a nexus of tunnels large enough for children to travel through upright and deliciously unseen to any far-reaching corner of the neighborhood and beyond. There were some tunnels that allowed safe passage beneath a highway into a foreign subdivision remarkably far outside the realm of where our parents would even imagine we might venture.

Indian arrowheads were a plentiful treasure consistently pulled from the few inches of sludge that remained in the center of these pipes. Additional motivation to play in these tunnels was the unintended consequence of our fathers' lectures on flash floods and how quickly these drains might fill with a rush of whitewater, trapping and drowning us all. We could only hope to escape while still witnessing the Atlantean destruction of our enemies -- some older, larger, dangerous kids stooped by their hulking growth spurts and therefore unable to effectively pursue us.

If I could identify any benefit to living in the wretched, haunted Green House, it was the proximity to the Trails that designated our yard as a Gateway -- all trails branched from a well-worn path across our driveway, through the corner of our yard, and into the trees (the high-traffic children's highway most likely responsible for the sorry inability of the lawn to produce actual grass). The location was strategic in monitoring the comings and goings of hostile tribes and in attracting friendly participants for the endless games of H-O-R-S-E that took place at the basketball goal above our garage. Inevitably, turf wars began, ended, or at least passed through this Gateway. My mother could simply hang out my bedroom window to referee the verbal skirmishes that frequently devolved into fist fights.

I led the only small tribe that was a refuge for tomboys, the few little brave Amazons who ventured into the wilderness overpowered by lost boys. In addition to myself, my brother, a fantasy bookworm named Darren, and an egg-head named Jeff who spoke obsessively of his plans to be a doctor when he grew up, there was an older fifth-grade girl named Kathy who reluctantly haunted The Trails on a mission from her mother to chase after, monitor, and report on the activities of her thuggish little brothers (and eventually corral and drag them home each evening). The other member of my tribe (and my closest companion) was a third-grade girl named Andrea, infamous for riding a boy's bicycle, wearing boy's sneakers, and generally looking and behaving outside the socially acceptable forms of her biological gender. Our canine mascot was Andrea's black cocker spaniel Petey, well-loved for his propensity to viciously snap and bark at anyone he identified as outside our tribe.

When bad weather drove us indoors, we spent hours in Andrea's family rec room playing the same 45 records on her dad's cabinet stereo -- on heavy rotation were Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" and Queen's "We Will Rock You" backed by the arguably more brilliant and anthemic b-side track "We Are the Champions."

Indoors or out, our plans inevitably turned to the ultimate expression of Tribal power among the Trails -- building, securing, and maintaining an enviable Treehouse of unprecedented height.

The Tree

There was an enormous pine that towered over all others on a hill in the wooded section of the Trails. Its first branches met the bole at least ten feet above the ground; we had never known anyone to successfully scramble up into the lowest part of it, let alone scaled the top. Nailing a ladder of scrap two-by-fours onto the base of the trunk was undesirable as it would give access not only to us but to anyone who came along and wanted to claim it. Darren and Jeff suggested a method of secure access we came to call "squirrel style" -- going out along the lower horizontal branches to the ends that drooped under their own weight, we could swing a jump rope to catch and pull the needly tip all the way to the ground, then use the branch as a ramp to scoot up and across to the bole.

Once able to climb the Tree, we still spent days (a few of us weeks; some never managed at all) working up the courage to achieve the elbow of the top-most branches. The incredible view came with a terrifying exposure -- no overhead handholds to cling to, it was like sitting on a horse or a nightmarish unicycle -- and the slow, undulating sway you could feel was greatly exaggerated at the Tree's crown.

Sleepwalking and Speaking in Tongues

At this time, and only during the two years we lived in the Green House, I began to sleepwalk.

(Writing this I'm confronted with a linguistic quandary -- what is the past tense of the verb to sleepwalk? Is it sleepwalked or slept-walked? Is it hyphenated or separate words or run together? A little online research finds people arguing for slept walked or to avoid the awkwardness entirely with somnambulated.)

The sleepwalking marked the beginning of the later (escalating) paranormal activity. I don't remember how I first became aware that this was happening -- I had no way of knowing until my parents told me.

I was anxious to find out every detail about my behavior while unconscious. The possibilities of what I might do disturbed me. I quizzed my parents about it every morning "Did I do it last night? What did I do? What did I say?"

My parents calmly described the episodes from their perspective -- which sounded terrifying! Like scenes out of some Omen-child or Exorcist horror film. My mother said that she would wake up in the night to find me standing over her bed, trying to communicate in the choked fragmented speech of bad dreams.

"What did you do?" I would demand.

"Oh, I just told you to go pee and go back to bed. And you did," she said, clearly untroubled or unwilling to feed my anxiety.

My dad reported that while up late watching television in the downstairs den, he discovered me sitting at the bottom of the stairs "speaking in tongues."

"What does that mean?" I was horrified.

My dad was typically intellectual and philosophical about the episode, and amused at my panic. He explained to me that I was speaking in a language that he could not understand; that it was an altered state of consciousness associated with religious experience and possession.


He chuckled at the expression on my face.

I imagined myself in their position -- waking up in the night with one of them, or my brother, wandering about in the dark like a zombie, eyes open but unseeing, gurgling nonsense... Why weren't they concerned -- alarmed -- as I knew I would be?

Perhaps my parents' Earth-sign-heavy astrological charts explain their reactions -- they have always been unflappable in the face of my strangeness and tendency toward hysteria. To their credit, they've always acknowledged my magical perceptions with unemotional detachment and just enough curiosity... They never insisted that "It's just your imagination" or "There's no such thing as..."

My parents are consistently potential Believers -- somewhat agnostic; with an appropriate dash of delight and wonder, if and when it's called for. When I was younger, I was more incredulous and demanding about their responses -- needing them to match my drama; as I've matured, I've come to appreciate their open-minded yet even-keeled resolution to having given life to this Alien Mystic. They are neither disturbed by or invested in my strangeness.

"Why is this happening? What if I go outside? What if I wander off and no one can find me? Shouldn't you wake me up? Shouldn't you make me stop?"

They seemed to share a conventional wisdom that you don't awaken sleepwalkers. They waved away my fears in soothing reassurances. "You're not going to wander off and get lost..." they insisted.

My brother was not so convinced. With the hall light on and his door cracked, he witnessed my night-time wanderings and could not help but associate the behavior with all the other scary things that he sensed in that house after dark.

He knew that I was in potential danger of traveling somewhere undesirable. He saw me wake up one morning in the bathtub; another morning I was curled up under the coffee table in the living room. We shuddered at the thought that I might visit the den in my altered state -- alone, at night -- it was a space we religiously avoided in broad daylight.

One morning I awoke from a vivid dream of climbing the Tree out in the Trails in my pajamas, without shoes; the bark scraped my toes. The Moon had seemed close enough to reach out and pet, but I was afraid to release my hands from their grip on the branch beneath me.

When I made my bed the next morning, I shook needles out of the sheets all over the crimson carpet. My mother made me vacuum. My brother agreed that the sticky pine tar tracks on my hands and feet were undeniable evidence.

The Next Chapter in The Paranormal Memoirs is here.