There was nothing strange about that night that told me something was off, nothing in the air or in my surroundings to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. All my life, I’ve assumed anything strange I’ve seen or heard was just me being paranoid, the result of watching too much crime TV, or my dreams spilling into reality. I’ve always been skeptical, not just of ghosts and demon interaction, but of pretty much everything. It takes a lot of evidence and proof to make me believe someone.
I thought I had a pretty normal childhood. I didn’t have any strange imaginary friends, just one – a little boy with dark hair in khaki shorts, a button-up shirt, and a sweater vest. I had a weird and over-active imagination, along with a bunch of weirdly specific fears. For one, I was terrified that if I ever held a knife, I would accidentally stab someone. If there was even a knife within five feet of me, or if anyone asked me to hand them a knife, I would start crying. I know, it may seem crazy, unfounded, and bizarre, but it’s the way things were. I was terrified of going upstairs or into the basement of my house alone – which may seem normal, but not to the extent that I felt it. I would cry and have what I now know to be a panic attack whenever anyone asked me to go to either floor by myself. Being the youngest of my siblings, my bedtime was always earlier than anyone else’s. I would beg someone in my family to come with me, for anyone to stay with me. I tried to sleep in my parents’ room or my sisters’ room for years. Whenever anyone asked me about it, I would start crying and respond with,
“I don’t know, what if somebody’s there?”
I grew up feeling watched. Not by my parents, anyone else in my family, or any of my friends. By someone - or something – else. I always checked in closets, behind doors, and around every corner when I entered a room. In the air vent above my bed, in the abandoned house across the street, in the mirror of my great-aunt's vanity, I constantly saw eyes. I saw the Boy. After a while, I tried to shake off the fear. I would pretend to have conversations with him, I would make up scenarios with him, and then he started to actually interact with me. Whenever anyone asked me about my imaginary friend, I would get really defensive. I guess a part of me always knew something was off.
Call me paranoid if you want to; it's what I’ve called myself for years. Imaginative, delusional, crazy - I’ve heard it all before, all from myself.
The older I got, the more I swept my feelings and fears under the carpet. I ignored them and pretended they weren’t there. I tried to forget, and for a little while, it worked. I didn’t actively think about the Boy. For a while, I wrote him off as the product of an overactive imagination and some childhood loneliness. A small part of me never really believed that, though. There was always a little voice in the back of my mind warning me about it, but I pushed it to the back burner of my brain. For a few wonderful years, it was like the Boy had never existed.
Until my freshman year of high school.
I was in a film class and we were given the assignment to make a short film. My group decided to do a “camping trip gone wrong”. So, naturally, we filmed in the middle of the woods in pitch-black darkness. I didn’t really know or trust anyone in my group, and I’ve always been slow to warm up to people, so I kept to myself when we filmed. I stayed away from the fire they made, I stayed away from their conversations, and I isolated myself.
I had been pretty focused on reviewing my lines when something snapped me out of it. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a lot colder. Something strange too, in all the years of struggling with anxiety and panic disorders, I was eerily calm. I felt like I was being watched, just like when I was little. That’s when I heard it - a small, childlike singsong whisper.
I looked over at my group, and they were in the middle of exchanging “that’s what she said” jokes, and none of them were paying any sort of attention to me.
I looked into the woods, my eyes darting from tree to tree until I saw something that up until that moment I had completely forgotten about, something I had locked away in a drawer in my brain never to be seen again. I saw the Boy. My heart sank, and even though part of me told me to scream and run away, a strange and inexplicable peace invaded my senses.
My heart started beating harder and harder, almost as if it was trying to make noise to get someone’s attention when I couldn’t. All the little sounds I had heard all night, like snapping twigs and rustling leaves, started to make a bit more sense. I dropped the drink I had been holding and instinctually moved a little further into the grove toward my classmates.
Our director noticed first. “Persephone, you okay?”
I shook myself out of whatever stupor I was in and tried to convince myself that I was tired, paranoid, and I was experiencing a lot of panic. True, I had never hallucinated during a panic attack before, and I didn’t feel any other symptoms of panic that I typically felt, but I clung to any sort of scientific explanation that I could twist to make sense of everything. I told myself that I was hearing things, that it was my imagination, but I knew in my gut that was a lie.
“Yeah, yeah I’m fine. I just thought I saw something.” I didn’t offer up any other information, and thankfully, he didn’t ask for any.
As time went on, and as we kept working on our project, I kept seeing the Boy. I kept hearing him. That eerie, singsong whisper calling my name. After we finished and turned it in, I thought the Boy would go away. I prayed he would leave.
The nightmares that I had fought for years got worse and so, so much more violent. I would feel cold breaths on the back of my neck and turn around to see nothing behind me. I found random bruises without any identifiable causes and random scratches all over my body. I would feel burning sensations and when I looked to see what was causing them, there was nothing. I felt like I was losing my mind, and quite frankly, I might have been.
I would wake up at three in the morning and see the Boy at the edge of my bed. I wrote it off as sleep paralysis, but there was something very wrong with that theory – I wasn’t paralyzed. I was completely calm and so, so very cold. It got to the point that I slept less and less, and never with the lights off. I started to pour myself into school and extra-curricular activities, trying to avoid the Boy or even having to think about him.
Then, after a couple of months, my group from film class decided to make a sequel to our “camping trip gone wrong” video. I loved our brainstorms and what we were going to do with my character, and I was excited to help write the script. I didn’t understand why there was a sinking feeling in my stomach about the new project.
Something in the back of my brain had reservations about the whole situation. My parents wanted me to drop the class because they thought it caused too much stress, and even though that was the last thing I wanted to do, I considered it for a little while. My gut told me something was off. Some part of my brain told me to run for the hills and never look back.
However, like the stupid character of any horror movie, I ignored my instincts. I stayed. Part of me wanted to see what would happen. Dear heavens above, did I have it coming.
It was the first night of filming, and it was just like the previous film. Dark, in the middle of the woods, but there was one thing different from before. We were in the middle of nowhere. Before, we had been in a neighborhood, and that was another thing I used to write off whatever I experienced. All night, I kept smelling something awful. It smelled like sulfur and rotting flesh, but I tried to call it “teenage boy” stench.
I stayed away from the people in my group, trying to focus on my lines and avoid the high school drama unfolding before me. I was trying to avoid having a panic attack and falling to pieces in front of my group, and then I was completely calm. In the middle of all the chaos, I had almost forgotten the Boy when I heard it.
That small, singsong whisper.
I turned my head to look at my group, and none of them were talking to me or at me. They were all at least fifteen feet away from me, and I had specifically tried to be out of earshot to avoid their conversations that made me wildly uncomfortable. Looking back on it, I wish I had stuck closer to them, even if their interactions made me want to pour acid into my ears.
I looked into the darkness, into the woods, and I saw him. A little boy with dark hair in khaki shorts, a button-up, and a sweater vest three feet away from me.
“Persephone, why don’t you come and play?”
I was silent, I was cold, but worst of all, I wanted to go with him. Everything within me felt wrong. I felt twisted and sick.
“Persephone, come play with me.”
He held out his little hand, and if the director hadn’t called me over to help with lighting, I would have taken it. Throughout the night and as we finished filming, he was in the woods, watching me. From that night on, he was in every mirror I looked in, every shadow, every dream.
I told myself everything was caused by stress. I told myself it was all just my imagination, that I was too tired, and my nightmares were spilling into my days. I tried with every fiber of my being to explain him away. I did research, I poured myself into convincing my mind that I had all these psychological conditions that when put together could have the rare side effect of hallucination. I thought maybe he was a little boy I had known when I was young that died, and I blocked the memory so that he was coming back as a grief hallucination. I did everything I could to find any explanation but the one I knew deep down in my gut was right.
The Boy was a demon.
I did everything I could to forget the Boy. My brain even let me, for a little while.
That feeling never went away, though - the feeling of being watched. The feeling of that little boy staring at me and whispering my name stuck within my bones. The fear of being upstairs or in the basement alone started to come back. All of a sudden I hated knives again. I avoided sleep for fear of what my brain would hold.
I swore to myself that everything was just in my head, not matter how real it felt or how much I felt like I was lying to myself. I didn’t care if I felt scared, I didn’t care if I felt like I was going crazy – I was not going to let the Boy be real. I was going to search and search until I found something else – something in science that could explain the Boy.
I convinced myself that the Boy wasn’t real, that there was no way that he could ever even exist...
Until my sister saw him too.