My family moved to the rural town I grew up in to escape to a quiet, calm atmosphere. Acres of land separated the neighbors’ houses from each other and grass meadows were spread out hundreds of yards. I couldn’t invite over any of my old friends from the town I formerly lived in, and the houses were too far from each other to approach any of the neighbor’s homes on my own and meet any other children. I spent most of my time in the first few weeks living there in the front yard of our house, sitting on the lawn and playing with my toys as my mother sat on the porch watching me.
Although most of my memory from our short period living in that house is hazy, I distinctly remember a few events that transpired there while I was five. It began when I was sitting in front of the television, flipping through the channels and searching for my favorite show, a children’s programme featuring singing and talking animals. It was only on in the afternoons and I couldn’t find any station playing an episode, so I continued to search the channels. We didn’t receive an abundancy of channels in that town, but I could find a couple popular stations.
I landed on a show I was familiar with. I remember glancing at the corner of the screen and discerning it was a children’s station broadcasting various well-known shows.
My wide eyes glanced up at the bright, flashing television screen. Cartoon drawn animals were helping children learn how to share. A joyful melody played throughout the episode.
The following week, I was sitting in front of the television and I stumbled across the children’s station again, but it was broadcasting a different program. I can’t remember the title of show I found, but I can vividly remember everything that happened.
A group of children were gathered around a tree. They were all holding hands, and gazing up with cheerful smiles on their faces. They were singing a song in unison. I don’t remember the words of the song, but I remember it involved something about “the Lord” and contained words and phrases like “happiness” and “love.” It sounded like children’s gospel music, and the children singing together on the screen resembled the groups of children singing in the pews at the church my parents had taken me before.
I heard the sound of footsteps approaching towards the living room. My mom’s chipper voice asked me what I was watching. I don’t remember what my reply was, but a puzzled expression grew on her face and she announced that lunch was ready and gestured me into the kitchen.
A short while after, I stumbled upon the show again. Something immediately began to unsettle me as I watched. There wasn’t anything overtly strange about it, but something seemed wrong. I began to feel anxious and a familiar lump grew in my throat, accompanied by a knot in my stomach I felt growing whenever I felt nervous about a situation at school or with my friends. But the uneasiness developed into something I hadn’t recalled feeling before, like I was watching something I wasn’t supposed to be seeing.
A voice narrated the importance of sharing and the camera focused on a group of children sitting on a carpeted floor, toys spread out before them. The film appeared to be of poor quality, and intermittent bursts of static distorted the screen. Three of the children sat in a circle playing with alphabet blocks, and two girls talked to a doll, about the size of a baby, with medium-length blonde hair and a pink shirt and denim jeans. Another group of children were filling in coloring books at a table.
The girls were acting out some sort of story with the doll. It seemed like a normal game a child with play with their dolls, but every so often, between their sentences, I heard something that didn’t sound right, like a strange word or phrase. I can’t remember what they were saying, but I remember feeling disquieted.
The bursts of static between each clip began to increase, the image and the audio becoming more distorted. It only lasted a fraction of a second, but I caught a glimpse of an image flashing across the screen during each interruption. It was so fast, that it couldn’t be discerned if you weren’t paying close attention. I only caught a glimpse of red as the image flashed across the screen for the last time.
Suddenly, the image returned to normal. The audio was smooth, and there were no interruptions in between clips. The children continued to play with their toys.
I recall having a nightmare when I went to sleep that night. I remember that it was so vivid that I wondered if it had really happened for a long time.
I was playing in a playground that I remembered visiting in my old town. I ran around underneath the warm sun. The sky was bright blue, and the leaves of the trees gently rustled in the wind. I climbed up the stairs of the playground and rolled down the slides. I climbed onto the platform and gripped the edge of the slide I had just pushed myself through, and was preparing to roll through again. Just as I let go of the edge, and felt my body slowly sliding down the cool surface of the slide, I saw a face at the bottom of the tunnel.
It was red. Its eyes were black, with no visible pupils. It was sitting, perched at the bottom of the slide, just staring at me through the tunnel.
I was overwhelmed by impending fear. My mouth opened to form a scream, but no sound escaped.
My eyes fluttered open and I tried to adjust my vision to the darkness. I was in my room, in my bed, underneath the princess themed comforter. The red, illuminated digits on my alarm clock read 3:34 AM. My body was drenched with cold sweat and my face was stained with tears. I reached out my hand into the pitch-black darkness to turn on the light. My hand caught hold of the string, and I jerked it down, my heart thumping so loudly I could hear it in my head. I sighed in relief when the light turned on, but the face of that figure never left my head. As it stared at me, I could feel the malevolent nature it emanated.
Everything seemed to be normal the following morning. Our neighbors visited for the first time, and we sat down for lunch together at the table as they asked me questions about school and my favorite toys, and movies, and television shows. My mom explained that I hadn’t begun preschool yet, and she was planning on finding a school soon, and they had a conversation about local schools.
After the guests left, the show was playing when I turned on the television. The same group of children were playing a game of hide and seek, and the camera was following them. A song was playing in the background, an animated and whimsical tune. The camera followed their steps as they ran through doors, hid behind corners, crawled through tight spaces, and crouched behind furniture.
A boy leaned against a wall and covered his eyes with his hands. He began to count to 30. A young girl with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail wandered down a long hallway. All of a sudden, her movements became very slow and the music ceased. There was a deafening silence, and you couldn’t even hear the sound of her footsteps. The camera began to shake and appeared as if it was gradually teetering from side to side and I felt nauseas as I looked at the screen.
She stepped through a door at the end of the hallway and into the room. There was a small door in the corner of the wall. She crouched down, and began to crawl towards it. Her hand rested on the miniature doorknob, and the door swung open. The camera was lowered and the lens was fixed forward as crawled through the narrow passage to the other side.
I couldn’t discern what was on the other side, but I could perceive a glimpse of a room. There appeared to be nothing inside. It was entirely absent of furniture, or doors or windows. The walls were painted red. A garish, intense red.
As soon as she reached the end of the passage, the door to the entrance shut behind her. The camera displayed a different room. The boy, his forehead pressed against the wall and his hands covering his eyes. The sound of his counting was audible again.
He jerked away from the wall and his hands fell to his sides. He began to explore the house, searching for the other hidden children. He knelt down beside a table. A little girl with curly blonde hair leapt out from underneath.
He peered into rooms, swung open closet doors, and peeked behind furniture. Random children appeared, popping out of their hiding places. The show came to an end, but I remember the thought lingering in my mind; they had never showed the little girl with the brown hair being found.
I was having trouble falling asleep the following nights, for some reason. Every time my mom turned off the light, left the room, and I watched the door swing shut behind her, I was filled by this strange sense of unease and dread.
I knelt down beside my bed, my hands and knees pressed into the floor. I tentatively leaned forward, and peered underneath the bed. I could hear the sound of my heavy, trembling breaths and my heart racing in my chest. My cheek touched the cool hardwood surface of the floor, and my eyes frantically searched the through the darkness. My stuffed rabbit lay splayed out on the floor underneath the bed, enshrouded by black shadows.
I didn’t bother to reach out for it. I stood up onto my bare feet and staggered into my parents’ bedroom. I asked them if I could sleep in their bed and my mom offered to escort me back to my room.
As I lied down in the darkness, I heard the sound of a knocking at the window. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around, my heart hammering in my chest. I heard the knocking again, like the sound of fingertips rapping against the glass pane. I glanced up, feeling the urge to scream but unable to form any sound.
A black shadow appeared behind the window, standing in the frame.
The door swung open. My parents rushed in, my mother kneeling by my bedside. She asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain to her, with tears streaming down my face, that I’d seen someone outside my window. My mother explained that I had another night terror, stroking my hair, after my father gazed out of the window. He strolled outside, and searched the yard, but there was no one there.
The next time I watched the show, a group of children were sitting at a table. A little girl with black bangs was reading from a book, its pages covered with rows of small black letters. It sounded like the Bible, but there was something different about it. She passed the book to another child. As the boy began to read, the sense uneasiness in my stomach increased. The words resembled the passages of the Bible, but there was something aberrant about them. There were subtle nuances and deviations.
In the scene that followed, the same group of children were sitting in a classroom. Their glances were fixed ahead in their seats. A faint, dull voice spoke in the background. Underneath it, I could hear this weeping sound. As the disembodied voice continued to deliver their speech to the class, it grew louder into a ceaseless wailing noise. I could hear the sound of pounding, and banging.
Images flashed across the screen, for a brief second in between the tape of the schoolchildren sitting in their seats. I couldn’t discern the contents of all of the pictures, but as they reappeared, I caught glimpse of an image of a hand, appearing to belong to a child, the wailing noise growing louder in the background. The hand reached up from an outstretched arm, fingertips scraping the wall, scraps of paint peeling off.
A schoolgirl in one of the desks stood up from her seat, and approached the front of the classroom with unsteady footsteps. She knelt over, and vomited onto the floor. A stream of yellowish liquid emerged from her mouth and propelled towards the ground.
The tape ended, and the regular broadcast on the station resumed.
I woke up the next morning to dissonant voices outside, and the sound of my mother sobbing. I don’t remember much of what happened, but my parents brought all of our clothes and belongings outside, and carried them into a moving van before we returned to our former town.
I only caught a few words and sentences from their conversation before we left, as we gathered outside of the house. My parents were speaking to the police. The police officer explained something to my mother with a solemn expression on his face, nodding in between every few seconds.
I remember him talking about something regarding a children’s television show being broadcasted in the town. I didn’t understand everything he was saying, but I remember he spoke about the neighbors and a religious gathering in the town. He explained that the families administered the local preschool, and he mentioned the words “underground tunnels,” and “hidden rooms.”
I didn’t understand why, but I could feel my heart sink to my stomach when I heard him say the words “red painted room.”
We returned to the comfort of our former town, and I met with my friends and went to my favorite nearby parks again. For a long time, I forgot about the isolated town, but when I grew older, it returned to my mind again. Sometimes I try to believe that most of it was just a coalescence of dreams and childhood delusions, but the images still fill my head, and all of the feelings return. Memories of something I couldn’t understand, and still can’t comprehend.