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October 7, 2016

The Thing that Scared our Cat

by Chris

It’s October, which means pumpkin spice lattes, candy corn, and Halloween. Gloomy weather looms (as well as autumn colors), and it couldn’t be a more perfect time for ghost stories and horror movies. I have my own favorites, including almost anything by Stephen King, and I’m sure there are staple books and films in your own autumn canon (let me know in the comments what your favorite scary stories are!).

The best horror stories, of course, are the ones that prey on your own fears—the ones that sneak into your subconscious and sink their teeth deep into the dark, frightening places of our psyches. I remember reading Pet Sematary a long time ago, and it disturbed me profoundly; without giving too much away, a small toddler dies partway through the story, and I read it right around the time that my own son was learning to walk. I had nightmares for days. As a young boy, I remember watching the Friday the 13th movies; I had nightmares for months!

And sometimes, these stories get so far under our skin that we start to see the unimaginable in the every day. I first watched the Japanese horror film Ringu, in which a demonic ghost is summoned by watching a VHS tape, late at night, on my own … on VHS. When the screen went static at the end of the movie, I began to imagine that the same terrifying presence was watching me, just waiting to crawl out of the black and white television screen.

Now, I’m not particularly a believer in the supernatural, although I do enjoy ghost stories, but I’d like to tell you about something that happened recently that might have made me question that belief. A little over a year ago, our family moved into a new house in rural New Jersey. It took us a long time to find this house—many failed attempts to buy other houses preceded it, all of which fell through for one reason or another. Prior to this, we had lived in six houses in the past ten years, so you can see that we were looking for somewhere to settle down once and for all.

And it’s a beautiful house. It was built in 1890, set back from the road with a carriage house behind it that once housed horses. The history of the house is evident in lots of small places, from the staircase banister with great, carved balustrades to the wiring in the basement which is at least a hundred years old. The electrics, in fact, are fascinating—there are at least three generations of wiring present in the house, and most of the outlets are only two-pronged.

As you can see, the history of the house goes back a long way, and it has only been in a few hands; the most recent family, from whom we bought the house, had lived and grown up in it since the 1960s. Prior to that, it had housed a couple of families, but certainly no more than three. We got to know the children of that family quite well during the buying process (the children are well into their fifties now), and they told us many stories of their time growing up. One I remember was hiding in the cabinets under the windows when they didn’t want to get punished for breaking a window; others involved the house across the street, which was owned by the local doctor. (That house is now abandoned, since the doctor refused to sell, and wouldn’t let his children live in it unless they, too, were doctors.)

Ultimately, the father died in the 1990s, and the mother lived alone in the house for quite some time. Eventually, she remarried, and her new husband came to live with her in the house as well. She died sometime around 2006, and he died a few years ago—prompting the children to finally sell the house.

From this long history, it becomes clear that numerous people have lived in this house—and at least some have died in it. Mrs. F, the lady who died in 2006, had been a school teacher in her day, and there is ample evidence of this throughout the house. In the kitchen, for example, is an old-fashioned chalkboard mounted on one wall, cut from the board of her old classroom. When we arrived in the house, the children had left some chalk and a lovely message, along with a large eraser that bore her name.

There’d be nothing strange about this, except that we invited the children over to a housewarming party not too long after. When we thanked them for the welcome message, none of them could remember who had written it. I thought nothing more of it, of course—after all, they’re in their fifties and sixties, and perhaps their memory isn’t quite what it used to be. We ultimately erased the message and forgot about it.

Then, not long after, we started finding doors open throughout the house. Being old, it doesn’t have the greatest insulation or heating system, and especially through the winter, it’s important to keep doors closed in order to keep the heat in as best as possible. Naturally, we blamed our twelve-year-old for this; he’s forgetful and oblivious, and certainly is the kind of person to leave doors open on his way to his room from the kitchen.

But then one day I found the kitchen door open when I knew I’d closed it—and he wasn’t at home. (It was my day off and he was still at school.) Had I been mistaken? I was fairly certain I heard the door click shut when I closed it; I didn’t see how even a gust of wind could have turned the handle and opened it again.

Sometimes we find lights on when they were meant to be off; sometimes off when they were meant to be on. Water left running in a sink. Again, nothing dramatic in a household of three, since there’s always the chance that someone else did it, but odd stuff nonetheless.

When our family lived in England, we had a cat. His name was Shelby, and he was smart, funny, and, like most cats, didn’t care what you thought. However, he was getting old, and when we moved to New Jersey six years ago we made the difficult decision to leave him behind. We left him with good friends that we knew would take good care of him and bid him farewell.

A few years later, we got a phone call from our friends—Shelby had passed away. He was sixteen and had been in poor health for the past few years of his life. Ultimately they had taken him to the vet one day, and the vet’s recommendation was, sadly, to put him out of his misery.

Our son was, of course, devastated at the news, and cried for days. But when the grief wore off, the talks came of getting another cat. Not one to replace Shelby, because of course, he was irreplaceable, but another companion for the family. However, this wasn’t really practical while we were still renting, so it wasn’t until we bought and moved into our current house—the one in which people have died—that it became something we could genuinely contemplate. And so, a few months back, we got Pia.

Pia is crazy. She hangs from windows, attacks nothing at all on a whim, and only gives affection on her terms. In other words, she’s a typical cat. She’s certainly no Shelby, but she definitely has a personality of her own. She’s a little black and white thing, cute as a button, but feisty.

And she’s loud. She meows like no cat I’ve ever known, and it’s purely to get human attention. One night, we were sitting around the kitchen table eating dinner when she started howling like a madwoman. We normally keep her in a small porch (where her cat things are), so we let her out and into the kitchen.

That’s when she started acting like I’ve never seen her before. Cats have this funny way of arching their back and puffing out their fur when they’re scared of something—a kind of defense mechanism to make themselves look bigger—and she was doing this times ten. And while it was dark out and the back door leads into the kitchen, it wasn’t the back door that she seemed to be afraid of. It was the living room.

While my son tried to calm Pia down, I went to investigate. The living room was dark, so I flipped on the lights—nothing. Took a look behind the couch, under the coffee table—still nothing. Looked out the window, to nothing but an empty street. There didn’t seem to be anything the matter at all.

So what was terrifying poor little Pia so much? It took nearly an hour before she would even think of going into the living room, long after we had finished dinner and retired there to watch TV. At first, I thought it might just be an odd cat thing, but later that night, when I was lying in bed staring into the darkness, I started to wonder: what if she had genuinely sensed something? A presence, as it were, of something in the house?

One of the things my wife did soon after we moved into the house was to set up security cameras around the house. They’re the cheap, plasticky kind you get online, and they work with your phone so you can monitor the house when you're away. It’s not like we live in a bad area by any means, but I think it helps her sleep easier at night.

Well, that night I wasn’t sleeping easy at all. So I took my phone off charge, turned it on and opened up the security app. It’s pretty neat, because it automatically records any motion detected in front of the camera, and you can watch through those recordings later to see what was going on. I tracked the timeline back to around 7:00 PM when we had been having dinner … and there it was. A brief, thirty-second recording of activity in the room, when none of us had been in it.

I hesitated, afraid to tap on it. What would I see? Was it a burglar that had bolted at the cat’s howl? A mouse or rat? Or something stranger? But I knew I had to see, and so I tapped on the recording and watched it.

At first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The living room, being dark, was being recorded in night-vision mode, everything in clear black and white. And then, about ten seconds into the recording, it all went black. It looked like it had switched into day mode without any provocation, and of course in the dark nothing was visible. Just vague, pixellated shadows of furniture and the windows behind the sofa. And being so dark, it was hard to tell, but it almost looked like something was moving in the shadows. Something darker than the night. Something stealthily creeping across the room.

You could hear in the recording, too—you could hear Pia howl, you could hear our reaction from the kitchen—but no other sound. Nothing. And then, after thirty seconds, it cut out. The recording stopped. Whatever the camera had sensed was gone.

Do I believe in ghosts? No. Is it more likely that the technology of the camera suffered an ill-timed glitch? Of course. But the coincidence of it all—the cat, the camera, the inexplicable switch from night mode to day mode, obscuring whatever was happening—seems, if anything, more than natural. Possibly … supernatural.

So far, it hasn’t happened again. But I’ll be keeping a watch out for it. And if our house is, in fact, being haunted by the ghost of Mrs. F, I sincerely hope she’s happy with us living in her house. Her children like us, and I’m sure we’d have liked her. But just knowing that she died, possibly in the very room from which I’m writing this … it’s sometimes a little more than I’m willing to think about.

Chris, features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of ErĂ¢th. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at

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  1. IT by Stephen King is a wonderfully frightening story. My daughter has threatened to leave home if I ever watch the video again. Hmmm.