Monday, July 19, 2010

Dark & Pooky

What is it about basements that make them so creepy?

When I was a kid, our basement was both a sanctuary and the scariest place in our house. Okay, maybe the eaves of the house where we stored old keepsakes and treasures were scarier, but I'm talking about creepy heated living space.

Ours was the kind of house where the television did not overtake the fireplace as the focal point of the living room, so the finished half of our basement became the de facto family room, complete with a sofa and two comfortable chairs aimed purposefully at a modern black and white television. Before too long, my parents purchased a color television with a pull-knob on/off switch, a volume control that looked like a car's cigarette lighter, and two knobs for changing to the seven or eight regular channels and the five or six UHF channels, even more if you spoke Spanish.

The basement itself really was not creepy. With the entertainment it offered, enhanced in the early 1980s by the addition of a wired brown cable box and a VCR big enough to house a nuclear arsenal, the basement truly was a place to retreat to with a glass of milk and a bag of Oreos for hours of respite and quiet.

No, the creepy part of the basement, for me anyway, was restricted to a very definable and small area located between the third step up from bottom of the stairs to just inside the room itself. This "portal" was the place you ran through on both the way up from or down to the basement. You might wonder why. The reason is simple: the door to the other side...

Like many New England basements of the time, ours was split into a left and right with the staircase dividing the two fairly evenly. At the bottom step you turned either right to the finished side or left through a door to the unfinished side. The finished side was open and comforting. The other side, not so much.

The unfinished side of our basement had a painted concrete floor and an impressive oil burner that heated our water and sent steam hissing through radiators in the different rooms of the house. It had a small, dark storage area under the stairs that held our toys and was just big enough for someone to hide in. It had a workbench with all of our father's neatly-arranged tools and a weaving pattern of cords along the ceiling that served as clothes lines for the washing machine tucked into the far back left corner of the room. It had two utility lights that lit the front and back halves of the room equally poorly, shining a harsh glow on anyone -- or any thing -- within a few feet of it but casting deep shadows around the periphery. On laundry days, the hanging clothes blocked even more of the light from reaching the walls where our common-property toys and games were kept on metal shelves.

As you descended to the basement, you paid attention to see if the door to the other side was closed. If so, it typically meant safe passage. If not, it could mean something hidden just around the corner to your left could reach out and grab you, dragging you back into the laundry-scented darkness and into the floor drain where it lived. Even worse, it could be an older brother waiting to scare the bejeezus out of you and steal your Oreos!

Whatever my mental issues are with basements, our children seem to have developed their own. Five years ago, when we moved into our newly-built house, we envisioned our basement family room as the center of activity for our three kids. Our builder had cleverly overcome my Yankee instincts to cut the basement up left-to-right and instead finished the entire back half of the basement, leaving the forward half unfinished for storage.

During the first few years in the house, the kids flat-out refused to go downstairs without an adult chaperone. I must admit, despite my long-standing fear of the basement with which I grew up, I didn't understand it. Our basement has windows along the entire back wall that let in copious amounts of natural light. There's a huge television down there too, which was enough to make me overcome my childhood fears on a daily basis and run the gauntlet through the "portal." I simply could not reason out why they were afraid of the basement.

As they have gotten older, they have gotten over their fears to the degree that they now realize the basement can offer them the same quiet hideaway our old basement offered me and my brothers. They take full advantage now of the fifty-five-inch television, the computer, the games in the storage closet, the open expanse of carpeted flooring, and they even can play for hours in the unfinished "other side" of our basement.

I think the best understanding of why basements strike some of us the way they do came not from my own reflections or from observing my children overcoming their fears, but instead from a tiny visitor who came one day with his family. The small boy, as toddlers seem to do, was having fun playing at the top of the staircase leading from our living room to the basement. He repeatedly would go only a few steps down and then come quickly back up.

When I asked him if he wanted to go downstairs, he shook his head and said: "It's dark and pooky."

I think that pretty well sums it up.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

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