My siblings and I have always been light, fitful sleepers. We were all sleep talkers in childhood. I distinctly remember lying in a sleeping bag next to my brothers during a family trip and hearing my brother whisper urgently, “Admiral Gracie! They’re taking all your possessions!” I didn’t realize that I carried this quirk into adulthood until a boyfriend told me off-handedly that I talked in my sleep almost every night, which is a pretty surprising thing to find out about yourself from someone you’ve been dating for years. I always went to bed before him, and apparently, when he’d come into the room later, I’d almost always call out a nonsense phrase to greet him. In the most noteworthy of these instances, I apparently sat bolt upright and snapped “Wednesday!” Flummoxed but amused, he asked “What?” I replied, insistently slamming my fists down on the mattress, “WEDNESDAY!!” I then fell back on my pillow, fully asleep. He mentioned this months later. Relationships are full of surprises.
Our youngest brother is the family’s most prolific sleepwalker. As a small child, he once ran into my parents’ bedroom, sobbing, to scream that there was one piece of fudge left and they knew he wanted it. When my mother tried to comfort him and convince him that was dreaming, he shrieked that a flood was coming and would cover up her alarm clock. A similar incident occurred on one of the first nights my parents trusted me to babysit my younger brothers while they went out to some dinner. We were all, allegedly, sleeping, when my brother burst into my room and began flicking the lights on and off. When I woke up and questioned him, he let out a single scream — “AGH!” — and ran into the hallway, where he did the same thing. I followed him, he screamed again, and ran into the bathroom to turn the faucets on and off. When I made it to the bathroom, he screamed one final time. He then raced past me at top speed back to the room he shared with his concerned brother, whom he punched in the stomach before leaping back into his bed to commence slumbering peacefully.
My interactive dreams were never quite as dramatic. I only remember two specific instances. On the night before my first school dance, I was so anxious that I dreamt that my mom had burst into my room and was demanding that I give her my dance outfit right away. If I didn’t, she said, she wouldn’t be able to iron it in time and I would miss the dance completely. Panicking, I threw it at her. I woke up in confusion after hurling my pillow at the bedroom door. I don’t fully remember the other dream, but I believe it entailed my parents saying that my brother Glenn could have a pet lizard even though our house had a “no-pets” rule and I, the oldest, would be a better candidate for a pet lizard. I went to middle school, where we had lockers. I could keep a lizard there. I no longer remember how the dream escalated, but I woke up after punching my wall.
In college, my sleep was frequently interrupted by more sinister forces. One night, I woke up to the terrifying sound of what I was sure was a gunshot. It was so loud and so clear that I leapt out of bed and crouched in a ball on the floor, away from my window. There was no follow-up noise, so I cautiously crept back into bed after an excruciating waiting period. In the morning, I asked my roommate if he’d heard the noise, but he hadn’t. He was a heavy sleeper, though. In my Italian class, I asked a friend who lived in the same apartment complex if she’d heard it. She hadn’t, but suggested that it might have been someone slamming the door of the dumpster shut.
That wasn’t the only alarming instance in that apartment. I was also awakened in the middle of one night by a loud sound that registered as the front door swinging open and hitting the wall. My roommate was absent-minded and had left the door cracked open before, but never at night. Now our door was wide open, I realized, and anyone could walk in! Maybe someone had! Again, I made myself into a small ball on the floor, this time with my back against my bedroom door in case intruders were coming for me. Nothing ever happened. When I checked in the morning, the door was closed. I felt foolish. (In my defense, a dead body was found in the creek in front of that apartment complex my senior year, the second year I lived there.)
By far my most terrifying night came in my early 20s, though. My mom had asked me to dog-sit the family terrier, Sophie, for a few days while she’d be out of town. (The “no pets” rule that had once caused me to punch a wall in my sleep had been relaxed during my high school years.) I stayed at Mom’s house and slept each night in her bed, with Sophie curled up at my feet, until the night I heard actual intruders. My mom’s bedroom is right off the entrance of the house, and one night I was awakened by the vivid sound of the front door’s knob jiggling violently. As I sat up, holding my breath so as to not give my position away, I heard the creaky front door open. I was wide awake and listening intently, and I could hear every sound distinctly. Heavy men’s footsteps thudded against the wood floors. “Are you sure she’s not home?” a male voice asked.
I’ve never been more afraid in my entire life. These men had been waiting for my mom to go out of town, I thought, but soon they’d come into the room to look for valuables. They were going to kill me and Sophie. And that thought made me realize something. Sophie was right there with me, and yet she hadn’t barked. She hadn’t even woken up.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “Ghosts are real and they’re in my house.”
I could still hear their footsteps. I was wide awake, still struggling to hold my breath, but Sophie slumbered peacefully. I finally decided that ghosts couldn’t hurt me, and I cautiously laid back down. I thought through my options, and decided on what I had to do in the morning. I eventually fell back to sleep after a long, uneasy period of anticipation with no ghost interaction.
The next day, I nervously picked up my phone. I didn’t feel good about it, but I knew I needed to take action after the crisis I’d lived through. I had to share my secret with a ghost expert and talk through what to do if spirits visited me again. I texted my friend Morgan. As someone who hailed from the Great Dismal Swamp, he’d had the most haunted childhood of anyone I knew. He certainly seemed the most likely of any of my friends to believe me. I texted him the details of the incident and told him very frankly that I finally had to believe in ghosts.
“Maybe,” Morgan responded kindly, “but it sounds like it could be auditory hallucinations.”
Apparently those are a thing!! And you can just have them, for years, and not know that there’s a reason you occasionally get woken up by something terrifying that no one else seems to hear!
I remain grateful for Morgan’s wise counsel, because now I know that confusing noises in the night are probably just my half-awake ears getting Punk’d by my still-dreaming brain. It’s a tremendous comfort.