You look down a spiral stair,
hear nothing, see nothing,
but feel it breathing there…
In Hitchcock houses – that’s what my Aunt Eleanor called them – you always feel as though something could go terribly wrong, at least once, but maybe only in several generations – so you hope it’s not yours that finds the heads in the freezer or has that Norman Bates weekend. A Hitchcock house is one with several features you’d find in that director’s films. A 13th something, a foreboding staircase of course, and an accessible high place that makes you feel like you’ll fall. These are the things you usually can’t remove without destroying the home’s value, so you leave them be. You risk your life or your sanity for a little equity. A lot of people do that, now.
Taken by themselves, these minor architectural features are nothings. 13 rungs on the antique cellar ladder. A veranda off the attic with an inadequate guard rail. We had things like that. You can count them up in your own house, if it’s old and somewhat vast, and you’ll catalogue more than you’d prefer. We also had the great spiral staircase that was such an impressive architectural feature. People would stand and gawk at it, when they visited. Even if they had pressing business elsewhere, they stopped to stare up the dress of the lady of the house, and that lady was the staircase – our center. The spiral lady, I called her – the one who listens – the inner ear of our house. Staircases are like that – they hear everything. If you stand on them in the center of a big house, you can often hear everything that happens on each floor. The stairs transmit the information about our lives from one plane to another. They’re the winding umbilicus of the domicile. The source of domestic flow.
You’ve heard that expression, “if these walls could speak”. That implies they could hear, too, and think, and process what they’re receiving enough to sort out the scandalous from the mundane. It’s not so far-fetched. When did you stop talking to your teddy bear, or that stuffed unicorn you have? You gave it a name, didn’t you? And why talk to him or her? It might seem rationally dubious, but we feel, at least, that the output of our own consciousness is so powerful, the quantity of our souls to expansive, that we can just about lend life, so much is the life that’s in us, to the things that surround us. That we do – regardless of intending it. And somehow, those things receive, along with that life, knowledge of us, in our unguarded moments. An awareness of the lies we’ve told in front of them. A perspective on the illicit features of our private passions. Perhaps, too, we *need* to feel less alone in our human frailties, even if we’re vulnerable and exposed. We need someone or some thing to know. And if they do know, if they did, then we await our exoneration, with gentle understanding – the cuddly fur of our stuffed friends – or the catharsis of their rage – their disapproval building up and culminating in their removal, or ours, or a confrontation – real or imagined.
I was alone in the house, and I stood at the top of those stairs, thinking about Hitchcock movies and what happens next. And the reason was quite simple. My imagination is no more winding or tormented than anyone else’s. But we have this finely tuned sense of predation, this primal consciousness that tells us not to “go into the basement alone” so to speak, and not to call out “hello” in the woods at night. It comes from the danger inherent in our earliest homes – in caves, in the wild – from when the sound of something snuffling in the dark really needed to light up all our nerves and prime us into alertness. Beware. Be wary. Be careful walking there. Etcetera. In those earliest homes, you didn’t grab a broom and see if it was a mouse. You reached for the spear you kept close, and the torch you had ready, and you prayed for a quick arm and that your fickle pin of light didn’t go out. I was not one to pray, not then. And there was no special reason for concern over being alone in the house – I was often there alone. It was what I heard, or thought I heard, on the stairs.
What is the one activity that tells you, undeniably, that a thing is alive? At least the things that might consider you a source of food? Even in the wild, which you expect is full of live things, you can see eyes in the dark, and maybe they’re distant headlights, or the reflection from wet leaves. You can hear movement, and it’s the wind moving a branch against another tree. Even if something is alive, a feral tom cat sounds like a mountain lion in the brush. But one thing tells you that something is alive and that it’s big enough to concern you. Respiration. Breathing. You hear something breathing, and you are past asking whether it’s your imagination. You hear it breathing loudly enough, and you’re no longer thinking a broom is enough. I’m a thoughtful sort, but I have to admit that I went straight to frozen apprehension at the top of my own stairs in my own house, and I wished I had a spear or a torch instead of a Pez dispenser in my jeans and a Bic lighter.
I stayed at the top a while. I went back to my room, and got a flashlight. I did not turn it on. I did not call out “who’s there?” I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like you were in a scripted moment – a scene written for you, and the actions you are expected to take, are going to result in your own destruction, and that’s the point – you’re entertainment for something that delights in your downfall – but that’s how I felt. And I confess I also felt something like outrage. I was supposed to go back to my room and barricade myself in until the door came off its hinges or the lights went out, or I was expected to creep down the stairs to my doom. I wasn’t going to do either. If I’m going, it’s not by anyone’s rehashed plotline. So I did the other thing remaining, at least the only other thing I could think of then – I marched down the stairs normally, to be eaten with my dignity intact, at least. Only, there was nothing there – or at least nothing that I could see. And when I made it most of the way down the stairs, I could hear the breathing, but it was above me.
You know when curiosity kicks in, and probably shouldn’t? But I had just survived the harrowing ordeal of the stairs, the spiral Hitchcockian stairs. I was tough, I had some swagger left in me, and I wanted to know what that sound was. So I went back up, until once again, it seemed to come from below me, with no discernible transition between. That’s when you skip past Hitchcock and go straight to Amityville or Hell House, isn’t it? Don’t tell me you’ve never had one of those horror film moments at any time in your life. You know the one I mean – where you’ve seen the movie for what’s happening to you, and you’re not sure whether you’d rather not have seen it, so you aren’t afraid, or are glad that you have so you know what to expect, unpleasant as it is. Hell, I even thought of Juon – I’m an Asian horror film buff. We’ve been haunting the houses of our imagination since we started building them, I suspect. Ancient villages would have huts where “you just don’t go there”. We know, in our feelings if not our rational minds, that places keep the imprint of our crimes, whether petty or prodigious. It’s not a question of real – it’s one of *self-awareness – of conscience and compunction. Our faults need a place to go, and we often store them in closets or under the bed. We pack them in suitcases, or they crawl in, despite our attempts to leave them behind. In the end, we have to face the breathing.
I stood there on the stairs, and I did what any rational twenty-something would do. I decided to go out for a latte. Or a smoothie. It didn’t really matter. You’re not going to stay home and get any homework done with breathing stairs, and you’re not going to get drunk by yourself, dipping into that bottle you keep around, even if it’s not down in the cellar. So I went back up to my room, got my keys, and of course had to walk down the stairs once more to the front door. This is where I’m going to bore you. “And he walked to the door uneventfully, and nothing ate him.” Yeah, nothing did. I told you, it’s not a Hollywood story. Now I’ll tell you the rest.
I’ve done things that don’t sit well with me. Not at all. I feel guilt. I feel shame. And I feel that complete absence of a confessional in my life that those of us who didn’t grow up Catholic probably all do – I don’t have a way to let it out, a meaningful way that isn’t shrugging it off or waving it away, while it collects like invisible and deadly natural gas around the base of my mind. This won’t make a lot of sense without explaining the breathing, and my answer to that will probably be less than satisfying – but I think maybe being unsatisfied is the point. I’m going to tell you that I acted, later, solely on feeling, and not on an intellectual framework that provides yet another script.
I continued to hear breathing on the stairs several times that I was alone. Sometimes softly, sometimes louder and more seemingly menacing. Sometimes it was like before, always out of reach, and sometimes it seemed to follow me. Those are the times I know I have to do something really soon. You see, I think what I hear is not from something living on the stairs, but is coming *from* the stairs. Sometimes, I am in the house with other people, and they hear nothing. It’s always the private moments in my mind. So you can say it comes from me, or that it’s the woodwork settling, or whatever you want. I don’t know if it’s real in the usual sense, or just a real feeling. But I know what works, or at least what helps.
I’ve taken to writing down the offences I’ve given other people. Not the wounds on their pride, or the petty grievances because I swore at an inopportune moment. I mean the transgressions against them as human beings. No, I’m not particularly absorbed with guilt. I’m thoughtful, as I told you, and I think, from what I see, that we all trod on one another quite a bit more than we like to admit. And that stuff builds up, and we shove it in the cellar, and it becomes the thing that lives under the stairs. And I really do think the staircase, in my case, is the central nervous system of my own particular abode.
So when I’ve written what I’ve done, I do a couple of things usually. If I can, I go and say it to the person. And sometimes that’s enough, and I don’t have to do anything else about it. And the stairs grow quiet then. But if I can’t – if I’ve offended the dead – those I can’t reach anymore, like my Aunt Eleanor – or those who won’t speak to me, like my ex-girlfriend, Susan, then I put the writing in a space behind one of the risers, where I can just slide it in. It’s not like shoving the words into an old trunk or something, that later opens its jaws and pulls in small children. This is deliberate, a ritual, and it’s acknowledges that I want to reconcile the things that shattered when we break in that way with another person.
I don’t look again to see if the stairs have eaten the words, or if they’re still there. If I have another slip of paper, I push it into the crevice in the stairs without trying to see where it goes. I trust that the part of me that holds myself accountable is there, somewhere, keeping those words safe, and breathing over them. Since I started doing this, I’ve had no more moments of fear as I start to descend the spine of my dwelling place and go into the world.
Some monsters we meet with spears. Some ghosts we drive back with torches. And some we don’t commit more violence against or intimidate with our greater fear. Instead, we appease them, not because we entertain spirits from beyond, but because the creatures in the dark are really ourselves. And they hold us to our lives, not try to take life away. We live among welcoming fiends who are the contortions of our own monstrosity. This kind goes away only with honesty. Only with candor. Only with finally telling the whole truth of what it is we feel. It can’t be scripted. It has to be authentic. And then they calm down, and we can live again without creaks and bumps in the night.