I never went into the basement again after what I saw.
“A horror cave,” that’s what my dad called it. He is obsessed with scary movies—all the collectibles, posters, and DVDs. The entire basement is just riddled with horror paraphernalia. He even convinced my mom to name me after a famous movie character. My father spent all his free time down there, even adding a bathroom, so he rarely had to come upstairs. Despite my budding interest, he refused to let me join him.
“You’re too young,” he told me once. “You could break something.” He clearly knew nothing about fourteen-year-olds. On the rare occasion he left the house back then, I’d sneak downstairs, try on some of the monster masks he made, and watch scary movies on the little benchtop TV in the corner. I was trying to get closer to my dad, like what he liked. For a while, I did. The thing about horror movies is that you’re supposed to watch them, not the other way around.
One night, I snuck down through the basement door in the kitchen onto the top landing of the stairs, the thick carpet hiding my presence. I knew from experience that if I flattened my face down on the top step, I could make out my dad’s desk, where he would sit working on masks and writing his stories. Only, he wasn’t there.
Light flickered from somewhere unseen, bouncing off the concrete eerily like a lantern in a cave. I strained my head and saw him standing near the far wall wearing a hooded robe I’d never seen before, wearing one of his masks so his face was barely visible. A circular arrangement of black candles sat neatly before him on the floor. Inside the circle, a pile of horror collectibles was arranged into a human-like form. I had barely contained my laughter. I mean, it was my dad, right? Playing cosplay alone in the basement. Then, something that wasn’t my father moved.
The shape inside the circle began to tremble, its legs buckling at knee level as if attempting to stand. I swallowed a scream, the thick carpet burning my face as I jerked my head back instinctively. The wood beneath my legs groaned, the sound sliding down the narrow staircase and bouncing off the smooth walls like an echo in a great empty chamber. I ran on rubber legs to my bedroom, diving into bed and pulling the fake sleep trick I’d seen in all the movies. It worked, or at least I thought so. My father peeked in a moment later, whispered inaudibly, and then closed the door quietly as he left.
Later that night, it came.
I woke to find it standing beside the bed, the DVD cases which made up its limbs and torso displaying neat rows of animated monsters and scenes on their covers, like a living comic strip. Several of my dad’s grotesque masks floated above its broad shoulders like decapitated heads, each taking their turn watching me as they circled its body like a deviant midnight carousel. I tried to scream and cry for help, but the sound that escaped my lungs was reduced to a soft whimper as paralysis overcame me, my body betraying my mind.
Unable to escape, I sat helplessly as I began to float, moving toward the monster as if drawn by some magnetic force. The arteries and veins around my heart constricted and pulled in unison like reins, imploring it to beat faster. Terrified, I closed my eyes but still saw it in my mind: every scene from its movies, every detail, every kill. A moment later, everything went black.
My dad didn’t believe me and said it was a nightmare.
“I know you’ve been sneaking down to the basement,” I remember him growling the following day, his lips peeling away from his teeth like they always did when he was angry. He even grounded me for the trouble. From then on, I avoided the basement at all costs. I was too afraid of the masks, their dead faces and hollow black eyes, somehow full of life and watching. Too scared of the movies, their fictional scenes turning all too real again. My father sold his first horror story a week later; nothing life-changing, but enough to inspire him and further remove him from the outside world.
The monster returned soon after. I was lying alone in bed after an argument over my school grades when it came. At first, I couldn’t see it but felt its presence, its unrelenting gaze watching me intently from the dark depths of the bedroom closet, waiting quietly, patiently.
I felt betrayed by my father; felt like he brought this horror to our home in exchange for personal success. He never spoke of it, but I think that’s why my mom left; too much time spent on his obsessions meant no time for anything else. I hated him for not believing me, for leaving me with nobody to talk to or confide in. Home became a foreign land, a castle with high, unscalable walls.
As time passed, it appeared more often, even waiting for me to come home from school each day, watching from the upstairs window like an expectant mother. I never spoke of it to anyone for fear of ridicule and judgment, hoping each day would be the day it left for good. But there it was each day like a piece of unmovable furniture.
On my seventeenth birthday, I moved out of my father’s house; I figured if the monster wouldn’t leave me, maybe I could leave it. It worked for a while. I graduated high school and found a job at a factory outside the city. Things almost seemed normal.
Then, one night, after a call from home, I saw it staring at me in the bathroom mirror and realized I could never escape it. Where does the body run to when the mind is haunted? In our heads, there’s no bed to hide under like in the movies, no stairs to run up, or closed closet doors to peek through to avoid attack, just wide-open spaces.
I can feel it inside me now as It Follows my every move. It has invaded my thoughts, its bloody claws picking at the seams of my mind until it found a way in, like some brain-eating amoeba. I play its movies of mayhem and carnage in my head, speak their words and titles like a fluent language, my brain highlighting each one like binary code. All The Howling and screams are but a soundtrack. Maybe The Thing has been with me since the night of The Ritual, passing itself to me in the Dead Silence of the night like something Hereditary. Perhaps I was just the mask or painted face that IT wore this whole time.
A sense of peace comes over me as I study the creature, the eyes of the masks no longer hollow but hauntingly familiar. They remind me of my father’s eyes, of my own eyes. I realize it has no ill will toward me, no Grudge or Sinister intention. It simply wants to make things better, right the Wrong Turn my life has taken and the damage it has caused me. It wants freedom from Misery.
A Smile forms on my face as I stare silently at the floating masks, their lips unfurling to reveal angry rows of teeth. A serene feeling of clarity fills my mind. I understand it now, realize its full intentions, and why it had never left. It had chosen me for a reason, and finally, I knew what must be done.
A cold autumn chill drapes the night sky like a heavy blanket as I walk along the narrow, cracked sidewalk. Halloween will be here soon, children in costumes laughing as they make their way to well-lit houses, their parents waiting impatiently in cars out front. But for now, the neighborhood is quiet, sleeping peacefully in twilight’s sweet embrace.
I hum a movie’s theme song as I navigate past house after house, guided by childhood memories until my home stands before me. Once warm and inviting, the place looks like a hollow shell of itself, its tattered shingles and faded wood rotting away in the darkness like a decaying jack-o-lantern.
I retrieve an old, rusted key from under a rock in the mulch bed and let myself in through the garage’s side door. Inside the garage, I pass my father’s four-door Chevy pickup, its red paint rusted and faded, stopping briefly to collect some things from the industrial shelf behind it. I walk past dark, cluttered rooms to the kitchen, its sink full of crusted dishes, its appliances caked with dust from years of neglect. Tiptoeing, I open the basement door, careful not to agitate its old metal hinges.
From the top steps, I can see the desk is empty. The Omen, one of my favorite childhood movies, plays on the tiny television in the corner as I make The Descent down the dark staircase, the old wooden stairs my accomplice, not revealing my presence. The bathroom door is closed, and I watch as The Shining light from inside illuminates a moving shadow in the small gap beneath it. I grab my father’s favorite mask from a nearby shelf and put it on, taking a moment to admire myself in the mirror on the wall. Insidious thoughts overcome my mind as I move to the bathroom door.
Tonight, we are The Boogeyman, a deranged Psycho hellbent on Conjuring up real-life horror and fear. I drop a Saw from my left hand onto the concrete floor, a tool for a later game, then use the heavy end of the axe in my other hand to knock loudly on the door. The toilet flushes as my father moves inside, startled.
“Jacqueline, is that you, sweetie?” he asks uneasily. “Jack?”
Smiling, I raise the axe over my head and swing away. “This is my favorite horror story,” I say as a Scream rings out from behind the splintering door. I used to hate horror movies. But finally, I think I understand them.