A few months after I graduated from high school, I attended a birthday party for a casual acquaintance as a favor to her mother. She and I weren’t friends, barely acquaintances really, but she was new to the church and her mom wanted to create an opportunity for her to get to know teenagers her own age. Actually, she’d attended my party a couple months prior, a surprise for my 18th birthday. My friends took me to dinner, after which we stopped by Blockbuster to rent movies, and as we were about to pull into my neighborhood, they told me, “Let’s go through the alley. We’ve never seen the alley before.” I thought that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard and should’ve known something was up, but I was on a birthday cake high so I just did as I was told. When we walked in the back door, my friends and family yelled “surprise,” scaring the crap out of me while simultaneously filling me with joy.
Sometimes, surprise parties can swing the opposite direction of what’s intended, meaning the party is more about the someone who pulled off the surprise than it is about the someone for whom the surprise is happening. But my friends knew me well, plotted with my parents to fill the room with people I cared about and left the spotlight where it should be–on the birthday boy. Still, among the faces of the church friends I shared my life with sat this blonde girl with whom I’d never shared so much as a five minute conversation. She sat quietly on the fireplace ledge while I hugged my friends and when I got to her, I didn’t know exactly what to do so I just threw my arms around her. Why not? That night, we celebrated together, the birthday boy, his friends and the new girl.
Two months later when it was her birthday, I returned the favor. After we paid the check, someone suggested we go to a movie. I love movies, I’d see one every day if I had the time, but the movie they wanted to see was the ghost story of the moment, The Others. Even the commercials freaked me out, but that was what they wanted to see. I tried to renege and go home rather than put myself through it, but I felt peer pressured into attending. Sitting on the third row, I looked up at Nicole Kidman on the big screen wishing this was Moulin Rouge instead of a ghost movie. I jumped with the rest of the theater at the appropriate moments and early on, my racing heart raised a white flag declaring, I’m done. Get me out of here. I preferred the classic Universal monster movies like the Wolfman, Bride of Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. As a kid, those movies weren’t so much frightening as they were fun. I also spent copious amounts of time pretending I was the Creature and the swimming pool was my Black Lagoon. But this movie-going experience was the opposite of fun.
Today, such peer pressure tactics would not work on me. I know what I want to subject myself to and what I don’t. What we put before our eyes sinks into our spirit and sets up camp, so while some people find horror movies or haunted houses to be fun, that manufactured fright invades my spirit and I can’t shake it. I choose to sit out those events and not see those films as a way to safeguard myself. I’m a staunch defender of my spirit in that regard. I’m more of a TV person now anyway, but even there, the frightening and macabre are being celebrated in increasingly gory ways.
I don’t care for gory. The world can be such a gory place as it is; I don’t know why we need to fabricate more of it. There are even “real” ghost hunter shows that claim to bring you to the most haunted places on Earth, allowing you to discover the supernatural along with the hunters. The majority of those shows are cheeky and most of us are in on the joke that the reality of “Reality TV” is that it’s not real at all. Still, people watch those ghost shows anyway because movies have made interactions with apparitions seem like an adventure.
Ghost stories have never interested me. When I was a kid, the “Scary Stories for Sleepovers” series was popular at book fairs and Boy Scout camping trips, but I couldn’t be bothered with them. Even the illustrations on the covers freaked me out. I did read the “Goosebumps” books but those hardly qualify as fearsome. My favorite was “One Day at Horrorland,” which I read multiple times because it played into my fascination with exploring abandoned amusement parks. R.L. Stine’s books were the extent of my interest in macabre literature, but while I never spent time paying attention to ghost stories, I did spend a spring chasing demons around North Dallas.
For a season, I was a part of a mismatched group of Sunday friends. Too young to drive, I spent my post-church afternoons in the backseat of a frizzy-haired girl’s car. She was a handful of years older than I, already out of high school, had tiny lips and a big laugh. We’d struck up a friendship during a youth service where I was also introduced to her friend, a tall girl with big lips and a small personality. They, along with myself, an obese boy, the most popular guy I knew and a few rotating stragglers would eat lunch together then drive around our community praying and opening ourselves up to sensing the supernatural.
I wish I could land on what provoked this. There was a heavy fixation on the supernatural in our youth group for a time and conversations about angelic and demonic presences occurred often. I’ll admit I was fascinated by the war I was told raged above my head. More epic than Lord of the Rings, we’d been taught that angels both Heavenly and Fallen fought over the state of our eternal souls. Prayers included “Send your angels to protect them” and casting out demons was something I’d known to be matter-of-fact from an early age. We even saw it illustrated each year in the Easter production as Fake Jesus cast out fake demons from a fake crazy man usually played by one of the deacons. A couple years prior, I’d played a demon, Lucian, in the summer youth musical. My makeup was supposed to look like a skull with a pale grey base and black circles around my eyes, but it mostly looked like muddy charcoal—like a Putty Patroller from Power Rangers—so it was still sort of a win. I was the assistant demon, the Igor of the Hell set, and I had one song in which I sang about blinding humans with delusions so I could “watch their spirits die.” You know, heady, grounded material.
Beyond my fascination with the supernatural, the principle reason I spent my afternoons with those people was because I desperately wanted to be Josh’s friend. Whether it was at church, at the pool or at the mall, he was the guy people gravitated toward. His platinum blonde hair, athletic physique and personable smile made him a magnet. Girls wanted to date him, guys wanted to be him. He wasn’t as involved at church as we Super-Christians. He showed up on Wednesday nights, sporadic Sunday mornings, and took part in outside-of-church activities when they were interesting enough to keep his interest, i.e., paintball, laser tag, youth camp.
He had a different approach to life than I did. Where I was perpetually high-strung, focused on calendars and schedules, Josh went through life with the leisurely approach of Huckleberry Hound. He wasn’t lazy, but his personality was to roll with the punches, to be spontaneous and to not take the “things” of life too seriously. I envied that because I knew I could never mellow to that level without a prescription. He was a landlocked surfer dude in a state of perpetual summer breeziness. When the guys in the youth group would stay the night at his house, he might decide at 3:00 in the morning he wanted to walk to Walmart, so we would. Another night around the same early hour, we walked to a closed park in his neighborhood and subsequently spent a couple hours being chased-by and then hiding-from the cops. We watched the sun rise from perches in the trees that morning, like real life Lost Boys. His adventures were off-the-cuff, like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, and I thought he was the coolest guy in the known world.
He and I hung out alone only once. I had a photojournalism assignment at school to do a series of portraits, I asked if he was interested, and he obliged. That afternoon, I learned he was also in photojournalism at school and liked photography as I did. For a moment, it felt like we were equals, but a few minutes later I stepped wrong, rolled my ankle and toppled off the railroad tracks where we were shooting. That pretty much sucked the cool right out of me. Yet, he never let on that I was a dunce and on the Sunday afternoons we spent chasing demons, he and I held court in the backseat of the car listening to all that was said.
Those afternoons were fairly routine. We’d eat lunch at the same off-brand diner in a shopping center and then head toward someone’s house, usually the frizzy-haired woman’s. She had a poorly lit apartment where we’d talk by the tan glow of the sun coming through the closed blinds. On more than one occasion while driving through the streets near our church, she or her friend would begin praying aloud, claiming there was demonic oppression within that neighborhood. Then like the ghost hunters on TV, they would move toward the place they felt the “dark energy.” They’d pray louder, pull the car over and stand on street corners trying to feel where the satanic presence was coming from.
This behavior fascinated me for a few reasons. One: How were they feeling that energy? I didn’t feel a thing. Were they on a different spiritual playing field than me? Were they closer to God? That’s a dangerous rabbit hole to fall into. Two: If they actually did feel a demonic presence, why would they want to get closer to it? Every slasher flick in history has taught us you should never investigate; just get the hell out of there. I mostly spectated from the sidelines and my interest waned when they took to pointing at water towers and balconies all over the Metroplex claiming demons were squatting on them. “Can’t you see it? It’s just sitting there watching us!” Um, no.
Josh seemed fascinated by it for a while, but his interest dissipated around the same time mine did. During the last Sunday afternoon we spent “chasing demons,” he looked over at me while the others pleaded the blood of Jesus over the houses on Furneaux Lane and his eyes widened as if to say, “This shit is crazy.” I nodded in agreement and we sat in silence for the rest of the afternoon.
I saw him sitting in the back of the sanctuary the following Sunday morning and I asked him if he was going to lunch. He said he wasn’t feeling it because they freaked him out. I agreed with him and since I was kicking off a new season of drama team rehearsals, I wasn’t able to go anyway. It was a natural break from their supernatural hunt. They went on demon-chasing and I went back to my regular life.
A few weeks later, my parents sat me down to tell me that at the youth leader retreat, our Sunday afternoon demon-hunting had become a sore subject. The frizzy-haired woman and her friend came under fire for bringing teenagers on their fetishistic quest for the supernatural and they were excused from leadership. My parents were unaware of our spiritual hunts, something I hadn’t mentioned mostly because it was weird and embarrassing at that point. They were concerned I was messing with something I shouldn’t be and I told them I’d long since moved on, which I had. Still, if it was something worth bringing up and making a big deal about, maybe there was some truth to all of it?
The next time I was at church, I asked my favorite youth leader about it. She gave me a hug, patted me on the back and said with an inflection reminiscent of Don Corleone, “We took care of it.” There was such assurance in her voice, so calm and steady. I asked what the “it” was that they took care of, but she brushed it off and said they wouldn’t be a problem anymore. I felt a slight sigh of relief in the word “problem” because that meant I wasn’t crazy for thinking this was not normal. She asked if I was okay and I told her I was. I wasn’t interested in conjuring any demons.
I never saw the woman with the frizzy hair again. Her tall friend stayed at the church for a while, but we never spoke to each other. It was apparent she felt damaged by what happened, something I likely contributed to by keeping my distance and by inadvertently staring, but I didn’t want to be associated with something that felt so icky. The few times I saw her, she looked wilted and alone. I felt terrible for her but my feeling spooked overrode my feeling terrible and she too ended up leaving our church.
That icky, dark feeling lingered for a bit. It dissipated eventually, as most icky feelings do, and it became a past tense issue. But from that sticky icky feeling, I learned that my spirit is not something to play around with. Either real or fabricated, I’d been witness to people who were tampering with something that stuck to them and to me. I can still recall sitting on a couch covered in laundry in a dark room while they prayed in tongues to exorcise the “demonic presence” in the house of the frizzy-haired woman’s father. I didn’t want to be anywhere near any demons or anyone who had a desire to call them forth, yet that notion, that icky notion of a dark presence, got stuck in my system and took weeks to work out.
Josh and I weren’t the forever friends I’d imagined we might be. We saw each other from time to time and I always enjoyed being around him, but post-graduation, we fell out of touch like people do. The last time I saw him was at one of the Sunday evening services where our drama teams and youth choir performed. He sat by himself in a chair against the back wall, directly under the exit sign so even with the stage lights in our eyes, I could see his silhouette. After the service ended, I stood in a small circle of people of which he was a part, talking about this or that. He didn’t say much, but in the middle of the conversation, he looked over at me and asked, “You remember those people who thought there were demons sitting on tops of houses?”
I smirked and said, “Why did we ride around town with them?”
“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head. “All of that scared me more than I’ve ever been scared in my life.”
“Yeah, to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night. I mean, I would wake up sweating.”
“I get it. It was really messed up.”
He then got an almost comically inquisitive look on his face. “Whatever happened to those girls?”
I relayed the story about how the leadership had stepped in and removed them. He looked relieved and in what would be the last time I saw him, he said, “Good. They were the ones that scared me.”
Josh taught me something permanent and lasting that day: I don’t need the images of frizzy-haired women conjuring suburban demons causing me to wake up in a sweaty panic. I began consciously choosing not watch those things—the movies and shows that made me feel icky—and the singular time I bent to peer pressure at that birthday party, I paid the price for doing so. It further underscored the importance of guarding what I put in front of my eyes. I know that in the realm of scary movies, The Others hardly qualifies, but I don’t care. Those images and sounds and the palpable feeling of fear lingered with me like a haze. I decided if the eyes are the window to the soul, I don’t want my soul filled with fear.
On a recent visit to my parent’s house, while rifling through my plastic bin of high school memorabilia, I came upon the stack of photos I took of Josh on the train tracks. He’s wearing an ill-fitting beige sweater, his short platinum hair blending with the silver skies above, and his arms outstretched in unencumbered freedom; not a trace of fear to be found.