As a teenager growing up in the late 90's, one of my favorite hobbies was renting videos over the weekends. There was Blockbuster, of course, but I got most of my tapes from a local "Mom and Pop" store that was only a few blocks away from my house. They tended to have more of the classic horror films that I was after. There were slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, but my favorites were always the ancient silent ones.
Movies like Nosferatu and the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera were at the top of my list. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a tape that I rented so many times that I'm surprised my parents didn't just save their money and buy the damn thing.
Repeated viewings of these films resulted in completely bizarre dreams. I won't call them nightmares because they weren't particularly scary, but they had a similar atmosphere to what was shown in the films. Some of these dreams were my brain remembering specific scenes, while others were completely original. These dreams influenced me to watch more and more of these films, just to see what kind of surreal images my brain would conjure up next.
Unfortunately, I never documented what I envisioned. Over time, these dreams have blurred together, and I can only remember bits and pieces. Only one occasion is crystal clear in my mind. It's probably the clearest recollection of any nightmare that I've ever had. Notice that I refer to it as a "nightmare". It didn't scare me at the time, but it does now.
It started with the ending of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. For those unfamiliar with the story, let me give you a brief rundown. It's about a twisted magician named Caligari that uses a sleepwalker named Cesare to kill anyone he chooses. At the end (spoiler alert), it's revealed that the character telling the story is insane, and that Caligari represents the director of a sanitarium. This is where my brain, or whatever force behind the nightmare, picked up the story.
With silent films, they're usually accompanied by orchestral scores or piano compositions. The only music that came with these dreams were random mixes of bells and piano notes without any rhyme or reason to their structure. This is the same kind of music that played over the nightmare, but it had a much more harsh and demanding tone than any dream I had had before.
The scene began with Dr. Caligari descending a flight of stairs. These stairs were completely jagged and unproportional, much like the stairs seen in the film. He walked down them for what felt like minutes before arriving at a floor with mangled shadows stretching over it, despite having no visible light source. He approached a triangular table. Laying on the table was the seemingly deceased body of Cesare. It then cut to an extreme close up on Cesare's face, forcing you to stare into his lifeless eyes. The sound of TV static became louder and louder, before it completely drowned out the "music".
That's when my alarm for school rang as usual. I remember being only slightly creeped out by it, especially by how vivid it felt. Nevertheless, I prepared for school and eventually forgot about it. It wasn't until that weekend that it began creeping its way back into my conscious. That weekend, my cousin, Jacob, spent the night at our house. He was my age, and since my aunt was OK with it, my mom encouraged me to rent a movie from the video store for us to watch.
Upon arriving to the store, I wasn't sure if he'd be into the same kind of movies as me, so we picked out A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since our parents had made plans for him to spend the night the next weekend as well, I thought it wouldn't hurt to at least try to introduce him to the silent films. He seemed open to the idea, so I strolled over to the shelf where the usual copy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was available.
What caught me off guard was a completely different version. Most silent films, including Caligari, are in the public domain, meaning that any company can put out their own copy without facing legal trouble. This copy didn't look too out of the ordinary when compared to the other silent films, so I just assumed that the owners of the store replaced the old copy with a newer one. However, this theory felt incorrect, as the new tape had a much more ragged sleeve. My dad was getting impatient, so I hurried to check out the tape.
The employee at the counter, who I had seen a million times before, did a quick double-take when picking up the movie. It was obvious that he too expected to see the other copy being checked out. Nevertheless, he placed the tape into a case and then into a plastic bag with A Nightmare on Elm Street. I noticed that the label on the tape itself just said "Caligari". Again, this didn't seem too out of the ordinary. I remembered the store also had a copy of Godzilla vs. Megalon that just said "Godzilla" on the label. The distribution companies were being lazy as usual, right?
Watching A Nightmare on Elm Street with Jacob was a lot of fun. We got my mom to make popcorn that tasted exactly like the kind at the theater (it was probably just loaded with butter), and mixed sodas into crazy concoctions. Jacob seemed to have no problem with scary movies. In fact, he might have been more immune to them, considering he was more used to the modern ones.
He appeared to be enthusiastic to check out what The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was all about. I warned him that it was a lot different than what he was used to, but he didn't have a problem with that. The tape played out just fine. Jacob was engaged with the film, which surprised me immensely. I almost forgot that it was a different copy until the film came to an end. When the twist unraveled and the film went to black, I stood to rewind the tape.
"Wait! It's not done," Jacob said before I could hit the "rewind" button on the VCR.
What appeared on screen sent shivers down my spine. It was the scene of Caligari descending the stairs.
"What the hell…" I whispered before looking over at Jacob. His face was blank, as if he were in a trance.
Once the shot cut to the close up on Cesare, Jacob began screeching at the top of his lungs. He flung himself into the back of the couch and violently swung his arms through the air. Our parents rushed in, and my aunt relaxed him as I shut off the VCR. They began yelling at me, as if I were the one responsible for upsetting him. After my aunt pulled him out of the room, I rewound the tape to the ending scene and showed them that there was nothing that should have caused his outburst. I hesitated telling them that I witnessed this exact scene in my dream only nights before. I doubt they would have believed me.
Needless to say, my aunt and my cousin didn't return for any more weekend sleepovers. When my dad and I returned the tapes to the video store, I noticed that the usual copy of Caligari was sitting where it always had, as if nothing had changed. My dad asked the owner why they had brought in the second copy, but he swore that he had no idea as to why it would have been registered into the store. He picked up the tape and took it into a backroom. I thought that that was the last time I would ever have to think about it, but it wasn't.
The mystery of that tape nagged at me for a long time. Years after the incident, I emailed Jacob and asked if he remembered the movie. He said that he vaguely remembered screaming, but that was the extent of it. No luck there.
At that same time, websites like eBay became popular, and my curiosity got the best of me. Despite several searches, I could never find a VHS copy of the movie that matched the one from that fateful night. Just days after I gave up the search, I heard that the video store that I had rented it from was closing down and was selling loads of their old tapes for cheap prices. I figured that this was my only chance to reclaim the tape.
Alas, it was not present. The owner said that he had thrown out a lot of tapes over the years, and that it was most likely lumped with the rest of them. Part of me was glad that it ceased to exist, but something in the back of my head kept me at the store for a little while longer. I picked out some tapes to buy, and that's when I saw the original Caligari tape that I had viewed relentlessly as a teen. I eagerly bought it and it now sits on my shelf. To me, it's not just a relic from my past. It's a reminder of the most unnatural occurrence I've ever dealt with.