I have always been terrified. Jumpy. Unsettled. Waiting. Expecting something to go wrong. The scariest place for me has always been my own mind—its ability to morph something ordinary into something terrifying.
As a child, these feelings arose in my parents’ house. Built in the late 1800’s, I never knew what kind of things could be hiding—trapped—inside. At night, the sound of the heater cracking, mice scurrying about, and the occasional squirrel rummaging around the attic kept me awake well past my bedtime. So, I would lay in bed, terrified that I was wrong about the source—that the noises might be something more this time.
As I grew up, my imagination grew with me, and I started having nightmares—nightmares that there was so much more to my already unsettling house than I assumed.
These nightmares transported me away, to this imaginary place within my house. At night, I entered the basement cellar, climbed through a hole in the old stone wall, through the cobwebs which reappeared night after night, regardless of how many times I had destroyed them previously, and started my journey down the hall. It was a long hall, hidden away—an unfinished addition filled with gaps in the carelessly laid stone walls.
My only indication to stop walking through what seemed like an infinite hallway was when I reached the end. Another wall of stone. This one fully finished, with no gaps in sight. I would stay there, stuck in the hallway between one stone wall and the next. Not even the sounds of scurrying mice or rummaging squirrels to keep me company. A gentle drip…drip…drip coming from the antique plumbing, which somehow extended to the furthest corner of my home, was the only noise left to keep me company.
Other nights, the dead end wasn’t there. Instead, a dimly-lit theater awaited me. Red, velvet seats spread in aisles. Always too many seats, as the only occupants would be me and one other. An obscured figure, but more masculine than feminine. In all the years I spent traveling to that theater, I never once asked his name, always too shy to approach him. He and I would sit on the plush velvet seats—never together but never too far apart, and look up at the vacant, black screen. Despite the theater’s size and quality, no films were ever playing. Never anything but silence.
Sometimes, I passed the theater by, even in the rare times it did appear. Pass by its plush velvet seats and its giant screen, absent of any show or movie. Some nights, it was easy to pass by the nearly-empty theater, not having to worry about the figure finally approaching me. Other nights, I felt I needed the silence; the peaceful hours filled with nothingness were a welcome break. On the nights I did pass it by, there was no dead end. If the theater was there, there was always a way out—an exit through the other side of the usually dead-end hallway. On these nights, when I was feeling particularly brave, I placed my hand against the slab of stone, this new second door, and pushed.
When I went through that second door, I found myself back in my house; back in a room I knew existed—my mother’s room. She was never present in the room, even though I would be entering in the middle of the night. Perhaps it was better she was absent from the room, as every night, I exited the hallway from behind one of her favorite paintings. A door, concealed by the work of art, too far off the ground for me to climb back through. When I looked back to the wall, nothing was ever out of the ordinary. Just a painting, hanging on the wall; the figure in it staring away from me, as though it was trying to not pay me any mind, to make me leave, warn me away from getting too curious and venturing back through the door.
So I walked down the hallway to my own room, climb into bed, and wait for morning. Usually, my journey took the whole night, so morning was never too far.
When I woke up, I waited until my mom left her room; then, and only then, did I gather the courage to enter her room, to confront the painting. I would stare at it, watch it, wait for something to happen. Pause until there was some indication I was missing something. Despite how brave I liked to consider myself, I never touched it. Never moved it aside, never searched for that door.
On the days I felt particularly courageous, I would walk down to the basement. Extend my hand towards the latch on the cellar door, hesitate, take a deep breath, remind myself it’s only a room, then open the door. Cautiously, I would descend the old stone steps, cowering inward and constantly checking my surroundings.
This may have been the origin of my jumpy, unsettled, nervous behaviors. Always expecting something to appear, whether it be a creature, or that same door from my dreams. Yet, the most frightening thing I ever encountered in the cellar was a piece of shed shake skin—this was a common find. Secret stone doors, mysterious figures, and mystical velvet theaters were not.
It was difficult accepting that the cellar was just a cellar, and the painting was just a painting. Because in my dreams, they were so much more.
Over a decade later, I still avoid that cellar; still feel a chill when I walk past the door. But I always turn my head in its direction, feel my eyes fixate on its small wooden door, find it difficult to pull my gaze away from the latch on it. Part of my mind reliving the dreams, trying to convince my body that if I walked all the way to the back of that small room, made a hole in the stone, and walked through, I’d find it—find the hallway that consumed my dreams for what felt like years; I’d find the velvet cushioned seats of the theater which never truly existed. And when I’d reach it, the figure would already be there, waiting for me, in the same seat after all these years.
To no one’s surprise, the velvet theater never appeared, never materialized. But a few years later, my parents added an addition to the house—a small home theater in the basement, complete with a wide-screen television. No velvet chairs, but plush red recliners, nearly the same red shade as the chairs that consumed my dreams. Since that addition, I have never had that dream again. But I did start thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was more to my dreams than I realized. That some of my imaginary theater was real, after all. Because when the basement walls were knocked aside—not by me, but by professional builders, a theater was revealed.
Catherine Kleindienst is a freelance writer with a BA in Asian Studies and Religious Studies, and a passion for languages. She studied Chinese and spent a year translating essays, before realizing she’d rather spend time writing her own stories. When she’s not writing or dreaming up crazy ideas, you can find her traveling, buying way too many books, or staying at home with her dogs. You can find her on Twitter @CDKleind