Filling the Void

Jumping the gun a little on Halloween, memories of strange stories shared with old friends inspire this week’s Star Chamber.

Why is it so much fun to exchange stories of the bizarre and unexplained? Why is there an almost cultic appeal of UFO and X-File mysteries in our current age? The answer, we suspect, is not so much in our stars as in our noggins. But that, it turns out, is good enough to terrify.

In the dark, a good imagination can be a bad companion.

Filling the Void

When Mike’s turn came, he admitted that the story was not his own. In fact, it had been told to him by someone he knew in Osaka, where he worked.

There were six of us arranged in a circle, perched in utter darkness on an ancient stone bridge. The bridge crossed a noisy stream in the middle of the mountain temple complex we were in town to visit. In the United States, the temple grounds would have been closed after hours, locked down for the night. They would likely have been brightly lit, too. But here there were no fences to exclude our midnight excursion. And there were no lights. Just twelve centuries worth of history piled around us in complete darkness.

I started to get the creeps almost immediately.

As we walked, our little group got closer together, walked more and more slowly, trying to make out the looming shrines and statues as they blotted stars from the sky. As luck would have it, this was the week of O-Bon, the Japanese festival in which the spirits of the departed return to earth for a quick visit, a sort of cross between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Of course there wasn’t REALLY anything to be scared of; Japan is the safest country on the planet. Tomorrow these temple grounds would be swarming with camera-toting tourists up from Tokyo and schoolkids eating fried squid snacks. But tonight it was absolutely deserted. What keeps all of them away at night? we wondered. Reverence for the shogun’s tomb, or something more palpable? So of course, we were scared.

It made me wonder then as I wonder now, scared of what? What does it mean to be scared of the dark? If you can sense the living presence of the past in a centuries-old pagoda, if you can feel the people in the wood they carved, is that something like seeing a ghost? When I was a kid, I used to try to close my eyes and see the darkness, really see it. Try it. Normally if you close your eyes, your brain simply doesn’t bother to process anything visual; there is nothing there. No-thing. It takes some time to see the thing, darkness, beyond the no-thing of lowered lids. This is where the scary stuff lives — because this empty screen must be filled with, can only be filled with the projections of our own demons. Darkness is smart that way; it always upgrades to the latest version.

And this darkness was cunning. What brought us to the spot on the bridge shortly after midnight was a morbid fascination with going to the creepiest inkiest corner of the whole complex. There we sat down and began a long discussion about history and the afterlife and the mysterious things that sometimes happen to people. Each of us took turns telling what might be called ghost stories, personal brushes with unexplained strangeness. As I listened, I confess I kept peeking into the blackness beyond the circle to see if anything was eavesdropping. When Mike’s turn came, his story went like this:

He worked with a man in Osaka who was, when he was younger, a wandering Buddhist monk. Once when the monk was traveling in Kyushu, he was having trouble finding a place to sleep. As it happened, he was near the city of Beppu during the big hot-spring festival, and the inns were crowded

for miles around. A storm came up, and so the monk trudged through the rain from

inn to inn, knocking on doors unsuccessfully until it was getting quite late. Finally he came to an old inn where the owner said that he did have one last room, but that he didn’t normally rent it because it was in bad shape. No problem there, replied the monk, who was, after all, a monk. The owner then took him to a somewhat dilapidated room, but it was more than adequate for the night. The monk thanked the owner for his compassion. Well it’s yours for the night, said the owner, and here he paused before saying, but don’t complain to me if there are any problems.

Though he was wet, and though the bed was lumpy, the monk slept peacefully, deep dreamless slumber. Then quickly: ice on ankles, an icy grip, bony fingers tightly circling his exposed ankles. He had been lying on his back, and now as he started awake with a muffled shout, he found he was looking directly into the eyes of a figure floating just over him. It was man-sized, and it had a fox-like face that stared at him intensely. The hands maintained their frigid vise-like grip on the monk’s ankles. After a long long minute of this, the fox demon (this was how the monk referred to him) let loose his grip, showing his palms to the monk and backing smoothly away, all the while maintaining the intense eye contact, never changing his expression.

It was only now that the monk saw that the demon did not have normal legs; as he floated backwards away from the bed, he saw it had long, impossibly long legs that went out the door and up the stairway out of sight. As it floated backwards out of the room, the legs telescoped slowly into its body.

And that was that. Once again, the monk was alone in the room. As is so often the case with these kinds of tales, that was the end of the story. What happened next? we all wanted to know. All Mike could remember was that the monk swore that A) it wasn’t a dream, and B) he was actually able to go back to sleep in that same bed that same night. Go figure.

I can tell you it was scary enough to be the best story we heard there on the old stone bridge in the blackness of Nikko. That achingly beautiful and eerie temple in the mountains of Japan, and that bizarre story told by a monk I never met are now etched into my memory. Maybe the monk was dreaming. Maybe he had some bad sushi that night. Does the demon exist or not? In a sense, it hardly matters.

Some nervous night in the future, I may well find myself face-to-face with that same creature. The fox demon now occupies part of my mind space. It’s made the leap from one mind to another and now it’s joined me for the ride.

And it’s just possible it’s joined you, too.