The Ghosts of Christmas Past
I can’t remember if I’ve brought it up on this particular forum, but I am a bit obsessed with Twin Peaks. For those of you who haven’t gotten in on this cult classic, either because you aren’t old enough to have been watching much evening TV back in 1991 or because you have been seriously deprived as an adult, Twin Peaks was a short-lived show from 1990-1991 that was partially written and directed by David Lynch and Mark Frost. It carries the Lynchian trademarks of having a surreal, dreamy quality, doppelgängers (a personal favorite theme of mine), and also of invoking the feeling that you want to laugh but know on some level that you really shouldn’t. It’s an odd show and was, in my humble opinion, groundbreaking for its time. Much emulated but never quite matched. And it’s coming back to Showtime in 2017. I will be unavailable during that time slot.
I’ve been a Lynch fan since I watched Lost Highway when I was 13 and didn’t know what the fuck just happened. Actually, every time I watch that movie, I still wonder what the fuck just happened. Twin Peaks leaves considerably less to the imagination than Lost Highway in that the plot is coherent and makes a modicum of sense, but make no mistake, it leaves plenty hanging up in the air. My favorite thing about Twin Peaks, however, is the varied occult themes that run through it.
I’m pretty sure you all know that I love a good conspiracy theory. I knew about the “ancient aliens” conspiracy about 10-12 years before it was actually popular. I stumbled down the David Icke rabbit hole when I was 17. (That was a night…!) This is not to say that I believe every kooky conspiracy that I read or hear about because I don’t. I remember, however, sitting and talking to my grandfather about some wild and wacky thing that I’d read once – something about planetary alignment and how there were sinister forces in the world conspiring to make things happen at certain times according to such things. He looked at me and said, “Margaret, it’s not important that you believe it. It’s only important that someone else believes it.” I have, obviously, never forgotten that.
But I recognized many of the themes in Twin Peaks: Glastonbury Grove, owls, Biblical references, alien visitations, synchronicities, wizards… In fact, truth be told, there were moments as I was watching the series through the first time that I had to pause it and come back later because it put the hook in me. It rang bells. And I have wondered more than one if David Lynch doesn’t know more about the universe than he’s letting on.
The stories I’m about to relay to you are true. They honestly occurred exactly as I’m telling them to you. One of them scared me so badly that I still dread the week before Christmas because of it. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons that I still believe in something beyond, something more than this. To loosely quote another creepy series, Penny Dreadful, “I believe in Heaven, but I believe in the other place more.”
If you’d like to add a nice little Twin Peaks effect while reading this, as I am while I’m writing, feel free to listen to Jimmy Scott sing “Under the Sycamore Trees,” as performed in the finale of TP during the Black Lodge scene.
It has been 12 years ago now that this first happened to me. I was 20 years old and living in Germany. It was the week before Christmas. I had broken up with my Hungarian boyfriend, been spurned by the beautiful German I so badly wanted, and had had my wallet lifted out of my bag while I was buying the makings for Mexican food in Karstadt. My uncle had put a flag on my Social Security number. I had lost all of my credit cards, my bus pass, and my Ferragamo wallet that I had bought myself for Christmas some years prior. In short, it was not the best Christmas season on record.
I woke up one night at 12:59 a.m. My room was dark and cold, and as I looked over at my clock, I felt a sense of relief that I didn’t have to be up for another five hours or so. Herr Schmidt’s class didn’t start until 9:00, which gave me plenty of time to sleep. I pulled the covers up over my head, and went back to sleep.
But then I woke up again with a start. Something was on top of me, and it was clutching on to the covers. For some reason, I glanced briefly over at the red numbers on my clock before yanking the duvet back over my head. 1:01 a.m.
Whatever was on my bed, it was moving up my torso and clutching at my throat, but it wasn’t especially heavy. Then out of nowhere, I heard this voice – not a human voice, I was sure of that immediately – begin whispering in my left ear that dark wizards were coming to take me to Hell.
That was enough for me. I threw the covers back and flipped on the light. Lying there on my bed, grasping blindly for me, was a severed arm. I screamed, picked it up, threw it aside, and started running for the door. My keys hung, as they always were, on the little mushroom-shaped hook in the kitchenette. I grabbed them and unlatched the deadbolt as quickly as I could. The arm began to grab me from behind just as I got the door open. I snatched it up again, threw it into the hallway, and slammed the door shut.
Then I woke up. I was 1:01 a.m.
I laid there, panting for a minute, staring into the darkness and wondering if I was alone. I finally reached tentatively over to my bedside light and flipped it on. There was nothing there – nothing out of the ordinary, anyway. My room, messy though it always was, looked completely normal.
I sat up in my bed and just stared at the door, as though daring it to open, for maybe 15 minutes or so. Finally, I unfolded my legs, stood up, and walked over to flip the overhead light on. The switch was right next to the mushroom hook. I went and sat back down on my bed with my back to the wall, and I didn’t go back to sleep that night. In fact, I didn’t sleep all that well for about a week afterward.
Fast forward almost exactly one year – it may even have been a year to the day, though I couldn’t say that for certain. I was back home on U.S. soil. I had come back to Jacksonville a few days earlier than expected due to an unexpected and rather entertaining (for everyone else, anyway) allergic reaction to my Christmas tree. I was covered in hives and had been instructed to vacate my apartment immediately.
So I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom, which admittedly always creeped me out, from the first night I spent there. It had been my mother’s room growing up too, and the first night I spent in that room was with her, actually. There were two twin beds in the room back then. I was probably three years old – one of my earliest memories. I had gone to bed at my mom’s house, and someone called after tuck-in. My mom was yelling at whomever it was, and then suddenly she came into my room, dragged me out of bed, and instructed me to get my coat on, that we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I told her I couldn’t go because I didn’t have my underwear on, and she said not to worry about that.
As it turned out, my father had been on the other end of the line. He had called her drunk, saying that he’d bought a gun and that he was coming to our house to kill us both and that he was going to burn the house down. So my mom packed me into the car, we drove the few blocks to the folks’ house, and we spent the night there. I remember sitting tiredly at my mother’s feet in the living room, the gold shag carpet beneath me, but not really understanding what they were discussing. My mom snored, as does everyone in the Howe family (including yours truly), and the whole night, her snoring scared me. I knew that it was her, but it was still frightening somehow. Maybe that whole incident soured me on the room.
Whatever the case, there was no lead-in this time. No waking up and looking at the clock. It was just there, suddenly.
I was in a room with blank walls. My hands were tied overhead, and I was hanging from a meat hook, like in a butcher’s shop. I was observing myself, like in a movie, and whatever else was there was out of frame. But the voice was the same. And the warning it carried was the same: The dark wizards were coming to take me to Hell, but they were going to hurt me first.
I disagreed vehemently. My hung self told them that they couldn’t hurt me because I wouldn’t let them. I was terrified and also impressed that I had found the bravery to say no. That seemed to work, because the scene then transformed.
I was sitting at the breakfast bar at my friend’s house. She had her back to me, and she was making something at the counter. There was a black and white photo of the two of us sitting to my right on the bar. I picked it up and started looking at it, and as I looked, I knew immediately that something was wrong. Suddenly our eyes turned black and the faces started melting like wax figures.
Then I was standing behind her, and that same voice said, “Just kidding!” And she whipped around – her hair whipped my face – and she started to face me. And I knew then that it wasn’t her; it was the thing, whatever it was. But I never saw its face.
I was jarred from my sleep by hands on my throat. It felt like a weight pressing down on my chest. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t open my eyes, and I couldn’t have possibly been more terrified.
And I prayed. I almost never pray. I never have. But I prayed, and the only prayer I could think of was the Lord’s prayer. Just as quickly as I had been grabbed, it was gone.
I opened my eyes, and the room was dark. I was alone.
I immediately flipped my headboard light on. I stayed there for maybe a minute or two, and then I hurled myself out of bed and ran for the stairs. I went down to the kitchen, turned all the lights on, and sat at the table, staring down the hallway. It was about 4:30 in the morning, so Granny wasn’t long from getting up, and she came ambling out into the kitchen maybe 10-15 minutes later, asking me what in the world I was doing up.
I told her what had happened and how terrifying the dream was. She seemed concerned in the way that only mothers can, but I could tell that she thought I was overreacting. But she hadn’t heard the voice. Twice.
For the remainder of the time that I was home for Christmas, I slept downstairs on the couch with a light on and, in truth, I never slept more than a handful of nights in that room again. It also wasn’t the last spooky experience I had in there. I was awakened from my sleep once to a voice clearly whispering my name in my ear. In fact, that happened the last night I ever spent in that house, down on the sofa. It also said, “Fuck you!”
I have only had one similar experience since, and the dream took place in the living room of my grandparents’ house, although I was living in Korea at the time. There was an old man sitting in my grandfather’s chair, and he was talking to me about strange things that I can’t remember. He seemed kindly, but I kept getting the feeling that there was more to him than met the eye. He reached out to touch me, and I shocked him. In fact, it was visible; a blue light erupted around his hand. That angered him, and then something grabbed my ankle from behind and threw me violently to the ground.
I woke up face-down on my stomach, a position I literally never sleep in – the position I had landed in during the dream. My ankle hurt, and I was a little bit weirded out, but I wasn’t afraid.
Fast forward another few years. I’m divorced with three kids, and I decide to start watching Twin Peaks one night. I get a few episodes into the first season, and I hear the little chant from Mike, the one-armed man: “Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds, ‘Fire walk with me.'” It immediately reminded me of the voice, and it scared me a little. I can identify with the weirdness inherent to having dreams that come true, hearing frightening voices while you sleep, etc.
You would think that this would deter me from watching Twin Peaks, but I love it, doppelgängers and all. I believe in the Dweller on the Threshold. In fact, I’m not entirely unsure that the faceless thing I have encountered in my sleep isn’t my own Dweller – the dark side of myself too frightening to look upon. We all have a dark side, and it is scary to contemplate such things. Invoking a bit of the conversation from the season two episode that killed Twin Peaks, does it really matter whether or not the darkness comes from within you or from somewhere else? The effect is ultimately the same: it makes men do terrible things. I would tend to side in with the argument, by the way, that it does matter whether it comes from within or without.
Interestingly one of my uncles had a similar experience in college. He was living in a basement apartment in Bemidji, Minnesota with his best friend. He experienced the choking sensation and all of that. But instead of the dream and all that, he told me he heard a horror movie laugh, like something out of a Vincent Price movie. He said it scared him to death, and as soon as he could move, he literally went running for his friend’s room.
This same uncle has had a lot of interesting dealings with a lot of interesting people and organizations, and one such dealing with a client who happened to be Mormon. This Mormon friend had done at least part of his service to the church in Peru. I guess he saw some shit. Levitating objects kind of shit. He told my uncle that the Mormons believe that everyone encounters the devil once in their life, and that sensation that I have described is, in their opinion, an otherworldly encounter.
This phenomenon is actually more commonly known as the “old hag,” and it appears in most all cultures around the world. Modern medicine calls it sleep paralysis. I don’t know what to make of it. I would prefer it to have a perfectly rational explanation, frankly. My problem is that dreams I have like that… Well… I’m not sure I’d call them dreams as much as visions, and if you buy into what Major Briggs says, there’s a difference between a dream and a vision. I have seen some shit.
To be entirely truthful though, I don’t know what happened to me. I must concede that it could have been a bad dream with a side of sleep paralysis. I must concede that. However, the feelings it evokes, even now, are such that part of me does believe a little bit that there was more vision to it than I would like. But ultimately… I don’t know.
I do know that I was frightened. More frightened than I’ve ever been in my life. It scares me to think too long on it now. These two events happened when I was 20 and 21 years old, respectively – over a decade ago now. And I can see them as clearly as yesterday. These things that stay with us, be they a naturally occurring part of life, supernatural, or something else entirely, cannot be dismissed as unimportant. Anything that retains some hold over you and influences your thoughts and conclusions cannot be deemed anything but.
So that is my ghost of Christmas past. It is a ghost that I’m afraid will haunt me for all my days. I will always feel just a little bit uneasy in the few days leading up to Christmas. And I still sleep with my headboard light on. In fact, I have never changed the bulb. I got the headboard when I was probably 15 years old – it was before I could drive – and I have been burning that light all night for many a long year. Stalwart sentinel, it has been keeping the watch the whole while.
The spookier ghosts of Christmases past are not the only ones that now haunt my thoughts, though. Since my teenage years, I haven’t been especially fond of Christmas. I do not know why this is, but I just don’t find that I enjoy it too much. I enjoy it less now that the folks are gone. My grandmother, when she was in charge of it, always did it right. She set a fine table with silver, full china sets, crystal, a centerpiece, and great food. There was a sense of occasion about the occasion. Now that my folks are gone, it feels like nobody gives a fuck.
I personally don’t have the house to host a lot of people and, more to the point, I wouldn’t have anyone to host if I did. My cousin and his wife split the holiday between our family and hers. My aunt and uncle don’t particularly care about doing all that much, and everyone else is out of town. It’s really just down to my own family, in that case, and the girls are still pretty young. As much as Christmas isn’t really my thing, part of me longs for a day when perhaps there will be someone by my side, and we’ll have a nice table to set – I have the silver and the china and the glasses – and the kids will come home and it will be a little bit like it was before. Where there was a sense of occasion, and the ghosts of Christmas past that come to the table are friendly shades.
I hope this eerie tale ended with a note of nostalgia finds all of you warm, healthy, and happy this holiday season, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, or the solstice. Don’t wander too far into Glastonbury Grove, and remember… The owls are not what they seem.