Pareidolia

by Jim Hohenbary

A few months ago, I told my therapist that I saw faces at night. Scary faces that just popped into my head as I drifted off.

“Do they keep you awake?”

I shook my head. But I told him that the faces were ugly and always different. Horrible faces and monster faces. Just a flash and then I opened my eyes. I might see an alien with buggy eyes and insect mandibles one night. I might see a woman with milk-white skin and sharpened teeth the next. Features too small for her face. Maybe a man with stitches and one blind eye. I might go two weeks and then see a face covered in seaweed, a lamprey mouth.

“Mostly men or women?” the therapist asked. What is the gender of a face covered in burlap? He also asked about their bodies. I had never considered that. I told him that the faces filled my mental screen like the disembodied face of Porky Pig after a Looney Tunes cartoon. I explained that it was actually the endless variation that worried me.

“Is my imagination sick? Why are they all so horrible?”

A week passed. The therapist told me that he had done some reading. He thought it sounded like Hypnagogic Pareidolia. Nothing to worry about, just a mild form of hallucination.

Did he think “mild hallucination” would calm me? He told me to close my eyes and asked if I saw swirls of phantom light. Squiggly patterns and static on the back of my eyelids. He explained that my mind, while falling asleep, sees those patterns and assembles them into faces, a common thing for brains to do. Like a mirror for the imagination.

But the faces seemed too fully realized for that. Not like seeing Elvis in moldy cheese. He said that my imagination was powerful. It filled in the sketchy parts.

“Can we try something? Next time . . . just keep looking at the face. Maybe even try speaking to it. See if that makes you feel different about what you see. Try to remake it into a more attractive face.”

That made sense to me. “Like lucid dreaming,” I said.

Four nights later, I was falling asleep. A face came to me. Long and thin. The eyes were hard and icy blue. Skin like weathered wood. I mean it looked like actual wood. Like an abandoned barn turned into skin. My eyes popped open. I recalled what the therapist had said.

I closed my eyes again. Those cold eyes still stared at me. I opened my eyes and took in the shadows, the green glow of my alarm clock. The porch light sliced a line between the curtains.

Was I scared of my own brain? I closed my eyes one more time. The image still waited there. His hair reminded me of greasy twine. “What can you tell me?” I asked inside my head. “Wooden man . . . wooden man . . .”

I mouthed softly to myself. Like reciting a nursery rhyme. “. . . I will call you wooden man.”

I shook the image from my head. That was enough therapy for one night. I pulled the covers tight and felt chilled by the experience.

And then a voice whispered, clearly. It felt like a mouth against my right ear. “You name me. You welcome me.” The voice sounded raspy. Like desiccated wood. It sounded pleased. I knew it was his voice.

I threw myself out of the bed and turned on the lights. The hair bristled on my neck, voice still hanging in my ear. Like the feel of scratchy fabric. “I reject you! I reject you! I reject you!” I said to the bare walls. I looked in all directions but still felt his image inside my head.

My parade of faces vanished after that. I only see him now, the wooden man. I had hoped it was like getting a song stuck in my head. But I have seen his face in my window as I wait for my garage door to come down. That has happened twice. And I heard his voice again last week while passing a dilapidated house in the country. The paint had peeled to expose the bare siding. Wood the color of rotting rope. “Here! This place!” he fiercely whispered. The voice came from behind my shoulder. I struggled against the urge to stop my truck and enter that house.

Last night, I heard his voice again. “Mine now!” he said angrily. I had fallen hard asleep this time. His voice startled me awake.

And that is why I have come here, Father Allen. I can still feel that anger under my skin. He still wants me to visit that house. And I don’t need a therapist. Pareidolia was the wrong diagnosis. No, they were coming to me, watching and waiting, Father. They were all just waiting for me to invite them inside, to give them names and open the door. That rotten door, its hinges stiff and harsh with rust.

Jim Hohenbary likes to think about the metaphorical meanings of myths, monsters and mysteries, while still hoping that some of them are true. He lives in Manhattan, Kansas, hopes to one day have a Bigfoot encounter, and acknowledges that the former is not conducive to the latter. His debut novel, Before the Ruins, which has a vampire in it, will be published by Blueberry Lane Books in 2019.
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