The Old Man

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By Beth

I’ve always believed in ghosts… it’s hard not to when they turn up in your room at night, forcing you to hide under the covers. I was told it was all my overactive imagination. Absolutely. Good job, parents, dismiss your child’s fear and don’t double check just in case the ghost they see is actually an intruder…

I grew up in a house that had been built on a patch of land that used to be next to a reservoir in the UK. That house was very young, only built in the 60s, but freaky crap happened there on a regular basis. My current suspicion is that it’s been built on a ley line, or maybe I’m a bit of a beacon for supernatural beings. Either way, that damn house was always full of activity.

I regularly had the usual stuff happening to me, such as my belongings vanishing just when I needed them and reappearing in bizarre places. My mother’s voice would regularly call from upstairs whilst I was at home by myself, only for me to realise that of course she wasn’t there. My sister and I once had a stapler drop inexplicably from thin air, landing where we had just been sitting moments ago.

All of my protests to my parents resulted in my fears being dismissed. Kids make things up, right? Wrong. I’ve since taught children, and in my experience, they are transparent when not telling the truth. Children also do not lie about what scares them at night. If they hear thumping, see shadows, or feel a presence in their room, please… don’t stop them from trusting in you by ridiculing them. That only results in your child not learning to trust you.

I gave up asking for help as a very young child, and dealt with the apparitions I saw in the only way I knew how: I cried under my duvet at night as I heard and felt things that shouldn’t have been there. The worst apparition I had to deal with was what I came to call the Old Man.

The Old Man absolutely terrified the bejeezus out of me. I would dread bedtime and would read for hours so I didn’t have to see him. My nightlight was a magical barrier against seeing that thing in my room, but, eventually, some parent or other would come up the stairs and tell me I had to sleep now or I wouldn’t be able to get up for school. I would agree with a jumping heart and adrenaline spiking through my veins, and I would be tucked up, kissed, and left in a dark room to deal with the Old Man.

He would wait until the house was utterly silent. It would be very late by this point. I would shiver under the covers, hoping that tonight, he wouldn’t turn up. Sometimes, I was lucky enough not to see him and I would happily drift off to sleep. I was not so lucky most nights.

Picture this: me, a small frightened girl, lying in my bed long past midnight, awake, with tears in her eyes. Imagine the sound of the stairs beginning to creak. Deliberately, slowly, long footsteps would begin to sound and the stairs would groan a little as the Old Man climbed them. I would shiver in terror, making sure not to breathe too loudly. Maybe this time, he would leave me alone.

The steps would stop for a half second at the very top of the stairs, on a very squeaky floorboard that would only squeak in that particular way when weight was applied to it. Shivering, I would hear those slow footsteps, dreading the moment that they would arrive in front of my door.

I used to like having my door completely shut tight at night, but somehow, my door would creak open and long, dark, shadowy fingers would wrap themselves around the edge of the door. At this point, my blood would travel as ice in my veins. Fear that strong can and does make people freeze solid, and I was no exception. Eyes wide, I would watch as an ugly, bald, misshapen head would edge round my door and it would stay there.

I remember feeling almost sick with terror every time I saw this face. It was in silhouette, the lunpy head in absolute pitch black relief against my white door. In the morning, I would check to see if the trees outside could possibly make a shadow that grotesque, but no: they were too far from my window to cast anything but pretty, dancing leaf shadows. Not a pitch black, pointy fingered, crooked nosed, malicious shape of an old man.

Eventually I would be so terrified that I would hide right underneath my duvet and bury my head under the pillow, resigned to my fate. This thing watched me all night for all I knew, as the effort of sustaining all that fear would finally exhaust me and I’d pass out. In the morning, I would often try to tell my mother about what I would see at night, but she’d always dismiss it as nonsense.

Night after night, this spectre would creep up the stairs and watch me as I huddled in bed, terrified. I grew afraid of the spare bedroom, like a cavernous black hole at the top of the stairs, wondering if maybe he would jump out from there and hurt me. I grew afraid of what he might do to me, because I began to notice that the Old Man’s shadow was starting to get bigger. His clutching, greedy, pointed fingers absolutely horrified me. What did he want from me?!

Knowing my parents did not believe me, I began to believe that they wouldn’t believe me about anything. I knew, even as a small child, I would have to figure out how to get rid of him myself.

Night after night, he appeared in my room. Night after night, I shivered in terror, waiting to be dragged under my bed and into hell. The fear choked me and I remember feeling like fear was no longer just an emotion, but like a physical being that also wanted to drag me to hell.

I don’t know how I ended up with the bravery to do this, but I suspect it was born of anger. I had got so angry at my parents for not believing me, and I’m sure that sat in my little heart and boiled over one night. The steps, the dreaded, awful steps, began on the stairs. I shivered… and remembered that I had been told by my dad that if I had a nightmare and was scared, I had to tell myself I was in a bad dream and I had to wake up because it wasn’t real. I knew that wouldn’t work here: what I was experiencing was VERY real. However, as the landing floorboard squeaked, I realised that I had to try and get rid of it.

The Old Man’s ghastly fingers crept round my doorframe and I suddenly felt so angry. How dare he scare me! I wanted to sleep well without him in my room!

As that gnarly, misshapen head came round the door, I sat bolt upright in bed and hissed in fury, “Get out of my room and my house! I hate you! GET OUT OF MY ROOM!”

Just like that, the shadow slid back round the door and was gone. I sat there, shuddering and panting from fear and anger, rooted to the spot. I must have listened for about fifteen minutes before I realised that I really had done it! He was gone! I remember celebrating by deciding to finish reading a book I was reading before being told to go to sleep.

The best surprise came the next night: no Old Man ghost. He was gone, and I was free to read peacefully and sleep without fear. It turned out that my shouting technique has been useful in other situations with ghosts: if they’re in my way and they’re frightening or upsetting me and my loved ones, I will yell at them. If they still refuse to leave, that’s when I break out the salt and banish the bastards.

Although I beat my childhood terror, although I triumphed, I had to triumph alone. I was a small, scared, six or seven year old girl who was systematically told by her parents not to ask for help when scared. They meant well, I’m sure, especially my dad, but it left me to deal with a malicious supernatural entity alone. I learnt to deal with other, not so supernatural malicious people alone, and that has done a lot of damage.

Please, parents, don’t just assume your child is “imagining things”. If their imagination is so strong that they’re hallucinating, that’s not the time to send your kid back to bed with that awful “monsters don’t exist” spiel. That’s the time to whip them off to the doctor. If your child isn’t hallucinating, please accept that there might be things they can see that you can’t, and don’t shrug it off or dismiss it as “stupid kid stuff”.

Take your child by the hand, teach them that even if you can’t see something that they can, they’re not alone. Sit with your child and explain that they have the power to shout at the things that scare them and drive them away. Don’t just assume that imagination can create stuff out of thin air: unless you’re mentally ill, that’s impossible. As a child who grew up and had to learn what was a ghost and what was a hallucination, I beg you: don’t let your kid grow up fighting their demons alone. Sure, I can now learn which ghosts to talk to and which ones to tell to bugger off, but I learnt too late that some of the stuff I saw was not ghosts.

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Can’t believe it.