Shadow People – Sarah Young
Without my knowledge, my body made the decision that I can only cry once, maybe twice a year. I try to look back and nail down when this order was signed into effect to no avail. One day, it all just stopped. But if I had to guess, I would say I came to notice it when watching a documentary series about indigenous struggles for sovereignty. This particular episode was focused on Standing Rock. One of the main organizers filmed herself weeping, pleading with her community to care—to “dry out” and come stand with her. The next frame showed teenagers in hooded sweatshirts riding bareback on white and brown speckled horses, charging toward the construction machinery and rows of police officers in riot gear, crashing through the muddy, flooded ditches. They held hand-painted flags that read “Mni Wiconi” and medicine staffs. A slow, fierce inhale started crunching my chest inward. And then that year’s tears came pouring out.
I felt like it was inappropriate; like a person who seems to have a very intense reaction to the death of someone they didn’t know very well. More so, I felt uncomfortable with the fact that this could have been motivated by guilt as someone whose ancestors have been in this country since the beginning. I had a nightmare that evening of waking up with signs of stigmata – a circular wound in the palm of each hand – that started oozing crude oil.
My partner and I had gotten into a fight over the phone. I had become uncomfortable as he told me about a conflict with a coworker that day. In his anger and frustration, he repeatedly mocked her weight. I agreed that she is a terrible person, and this was a particularly shitty moment of hers. Yet, each time he used her weight to insult her, I became increasingly aware of my own body. Of the soft bunch of flesh that bulges around the band of my bra and at the waistband of my pants. I tried to explain this – how viscerally this affected me – and suddenly I was weeping. Eventually, he stopped trying to defend his venting and apologized, just before he walked through the front door. Within minutes, the hurt I felt dissolved. I could remember that he is a good person and would never treat someone so cruelly. He just has a temper. We kissed and joked as we began making dinner. “How do you do that?” he asked, “go from sobbing to laughing so quickly?” All I could do was shrug. These moments of release never seem to make sense; they’re either disproportionate with the situation or melodramatic. Or both.
All of this feels significant. It feels beyond my control and out of character.
An “empath” is defined by Merriam Webster as “one who experiences the emotions of others”. However, the psychiatric idea of someone being an empath is explained as people “who’re high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies,” Psychiatrist Judith Orloff cites hyper-responsive mirror neurons – the neurons that are believed to be responsible for compassion or a sensitivity to the electro-magnetic fields created by those around us as well as the Earth and sun. This kind of spectrum ranges from sensing how someone is feeling, to intuitive dreams and premonitions, to full-fledged mediumship. I also found out that a lot of the markers of an empath are also the markers of being a witch. The end goal of psychologists in understanding this phenomenon is mostly centered on helping those with these sensitivities from constantly feeling drained. They push patients to practice visualizations and meditations and setting boundaries to keep “emotional vampires” at bay.
How is visualizing a pink light-shield going to stop this mappable neurological reaction? Can I just visualize myself with an espresso in a quiet room instead?
Every time the neighbor’s daughter has a meltdown, and the inevitable screaming starts from the father with matched intensity, I find myself picking sides. Sometimes, I agree that M&M’s are not a breakfast food, or that 9pm is too late to go out for a bike ride. But there are times, when through the plaster and drywall her screams and sobs are met with, What? What is wrong with you? Something guttural in her weeping makes the reason for this breakdown obvious to me and I take her side. I flinch each time his fists slam down on the counter. I envy her ability to purge herself of the building frustration and anxiety and inability to cope with what feels like the entire world.
In Jill Galvan’s book on the role of women in the rise of spiritualism in the late nineteenth century, she notes that men at the time felt women were “particularly well disposed to automatism, offering little impediment to the spirits channeled through them.” She discusses how they felt this skill with channeling was due to an “unthinking” or “distracted” state of mind that women seemed more predisposed to.
If God created us in “his” image, why is it that women have a more significant role in creating life? Maybe patriarchal societies are a manifestation of an inferiority complex.
An afternoon was wasted trying to find some evidence that women are more often psychics or have empathic abilities. No one seemed to want to answer this question. Yet, I can’t stop hearing women use terms like “emotional labor”, and when I stop to think about it, I cannot recall hearing this from any of the men in my life.
We seem to be the ones who hear the noises in the middle of the night. My sister-in-law and I were the ones bumping into each other at three in the morning to investigate a phantom drum circle that sounded like it was coming from the living room. It was the anniversary of an attack on settlers in our area— we declared it a residual haunting and went back to bed.
Maybe it isn’t an ability at all. Maybe we are still kicking ourselves for not hearing the footsteps before; hell-bent on preventing re-victimization. Or maybe we are terrified of the stories other women have told us, thus retaining the oral traditions as an integral part of our survival.
I imagine early man holding animal carcasses to the silent, open sky, shouting, “Daddy, look what I did!” and I want to giggle. And I do. But I know too well the feeling of going unnoticed for the laughter to last.
David Weatherly has posited that the Shadow People phenomenon may be a manifestation of pure thought or highly concentrated negative energy, much like the Tulpa of Tibetan lore. These “mist-like” humanoid-looking entities feed on the fear and dread they invoke in their victims by strangling victims in their sleep, lurking in corners both in dark rooms and appearing in broad daylight. Once they have gathered sufficient amounts of energy, they can take on a solid, physical form. Many victims often describe being in a trance-like state, unable to move when they appear.
They started showing up in my adolescence; the time in a person’s life when one’s energy is strong enough to create poltergeists that can rearrange furniture and smear peanut butter on the walls. At first, I tried ignoring the sounds; footsteps when I was home alone and the distinct plastic clink of a light switch turning on and off. But a ceaseless curiosity brought me to chase after them. Then one day I saw her. She looked like someone you might pass on the street without taking a second look. No luminosity, no tattered white dress. She wasn’t floating. And yet there was an undeniable strangeness about her – some animalistic instinct in my gut knew something was not right about her. There was a stillness that enveloped the room. It poured in, fossilizing us both in this moment in which the veil had been pierced by two women who needed to be seen.
I scoured local records online until I was face to face with her again in an article from 1982. She had disappeared after a party without a trace. She told me her boyfriend strangled her, buried her by the edge of the branch of a river a third of a mile from my home and pushed her car into the water. She is still considered an unsolved case. Her parents passed without ever knowing what became of their daughter. Selfishly, in the wake of discovering her tragedy, I wondered if I were to disappear, would my own case remain open forever?
Not too long after that, I saw the flash of someone else. She was a sandy blonde, slight woman in a peach-colored dress. I had been outside smoking a cigarette, looking out off the back porch into the darkness and listening for animals crunching across the snow. The wind picked up and I turned to the side to shield my face from the cold and I saw her. It must have only been a few nanoseconds that I could see her in my periphery, but the vague image played in my mind as if I had been looking straight at her. She was just gliding through the living room as if it were her own, an unconscious, subtle smile on her face.
I couldn’t quite pin her down until recently. I went home to help my parents clean out the attic for the weekend, hoping to find some answers among the clutter. My grandmother lives with them in the in-law apartment. Somehow I got roped into helping her put together photo albums of the family. That’s when I saw her again. It was her sister – my great-aunt – Marsali. She was a nurse who married an unfaithful and ungrateful man (one whose ashes earned a spot underneath the kitchen sink of their home). I asked more about her, since she passed when I was very young. My grandmother’s eyes were washed over with a melancholic sheen, and after a long, quiet, sigh, she told me. Marsali suffered bouts of depression that once drove her to slip half a dozen vials of morphine into her pockets before heading home from work. If the housekeeper hadn’t sensed something was wrong and came back, she wouldn’t have survived.
It fractured the few idyllic memories I had of her before she passed. The plump, glowing woman who snuck me popsicles at family reunions, running her hand along my cheek before her golden retriever and I bounded out of the kitchen and into the sunshine of their lakeside cottage. I cannot fathom how she concealed such a heavy darkness within her. I was never any good at it.
I told my grandmother I had seen her years before—the flash of a woman in the peach dress – and she smiled. “Maybe she’s trying to help you.”
Others believe these Shadow people are the spirits of those existing on an in-between place; unable to fully manifest in ours while struggling to find their way to the afterlife. Others feel they are elementals in which case these highly concentrated manifestations of dark energy only exist to create chaos for the humans they appear to.
When a boy pinned my wrist to the couch years ago, it became serious. Something in me froze up. And I learned that consent cannot be given retroactively. I stopped seeing faces; now they are only shadows.
Maybe she’s trying to help you
They started appearing in my apartment. It wasn’t immediate – in fact, it wasn’t until almost a year of living there that I noticed them. These little gremlin-sized shadows running at the very edge of my periphery.
The candles and open windows seemed to work, but only for a little while. I needed something stronger.
I stayed up until the witching hour sprinkling salt in the doorways (though, I couldn’t afford Kosher), clapping three times in every corner of every room, and playing three-hour-long videos of Tibetan singing bowls. I went to bed with all of the windows open.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe there is just something wrong with your eyes?” my partner asks. It did. I am more afraid of medical explanations. I research how to grow my own white sage for cleansing. The plant dies on my windowsill after a few weeks and my partner calls his friend to bring some from a shop on the rez.
The symptoms of Demonic oppression are much like an illness in which the afflicted will experience a change in their attitude or personality, experience misfortune in their jobs and personal relationships, or even become significantly ill. They often report feeling emotionally and psychologically drained. This is also referred to as demonic molestation—that a person has come in contact with a demon but is not being actively conquered by one.
I believe Marsali made the move to my new apartment with me. She opened doors and made empty boxes of cereal rock back and forth. I knew it was her because these little displays never scared me. “Hey Auntie,” I would say to my empty apartment. But when the little black shadows came, that feeling of protection evaporated and my annual opportunity to cry presented itself, and I wept. She was gone once again, and it felt like a punishment.
Some believe a significant portion of shadow people encounters are actually just episodes of sleep paralysis. However, this theory does not account for those who have experiences with shadow people as they are out and about in broad daylight. The explanations for these sightings that a lot of skeptics insist upon is a lack of sleep. They point to the hallucinations often had by amphetamine users when they have been up for days.
Most Christian authority figures believe Shadow People to be demons trying to manifest on Earth. Often, those who have been victims of physical attacks (with scratches and bruises as proof) say that invoking the lords name, or the Archangel Michael will make the entity disappear.
“Do you think this is another depressive episode?” my partner quietly asks. I want to say yes, because then I could adjust my medication or run through my list of healing practices I developed over the years. But I cannot. There aren’t the same bouts of staring at the ceiling in a trance of apathy for hours. I still want to eat. I can still get up in the morning and brush my teeth. It doesn’t impede my ability to function, it complicates it.
In Islam, they are called the Djinn – what the western world calls a genie. In Islamic lore, the Djinn were created alongside humans but were expected to bow down to them. Iblis (the head of the Djinn) believed humans to be inferior and refused to bow down to Adam [humankind]. Allah banished Iblis and his followers to the desert where they have lurked ever since, forever hellbent on revenge. Once a person is noticed by a Djinn, they will latch on and harass the person until they are driven to madness or even until their death. They are so powerful and often malevolent that many researchers investigating the Djinn will suddenly stop, or even cease production on already published bodies of work.
In taking up the next leg of genealogical research of his family, my father starts with the Mayflower. His great-grandfather made it back to John Adams, and from there his father traced back to Mayflower passengers. But he notices a blank in the mid-1600s; an unmarried daughter of a son of someone’s husband. She had suddenly disappeared from records when she would have been close to twenty years old, yet there was no death certificate. Instead, he found a court document. She was accused and found guilty of the crime of witchcraft and was hung somewhere at the edge of the village. Burial site: unknown.
On my mother’s side, at the turn of the twentieth century, there is also a blank space. Unmarried. A suffragette arrested for chaining herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace during a protest.
One may have only been unmarried but that seemed enough evidence for an arrest. One dared to speak up for herself and that was enough for an arrest. Neither were witches. Maybe both were witches. The truth seems unimportant in these matters. The outcome was the same. Both were chopped from the family tree.
American Indian traditions call shadow people “Sgili” or “witch”. These shadow people are believed to be medicine men who have strayed from the path of healing. They’re still alive to some degree, but they’re not necessarily considered human.
The Sgili take this form to attack other people both physically and spiritually.
Many believe signs of being a natural-born witch are the abilities to either hear or see spirit (or being able to do both). Almost all of those with these abilities learn of an ancestor that was tried—if not executed—for the crime of witchcraft.
The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of websites, blogs, and even clothing brands dedicated to the celebration of witchcraft makes my neck sweat. They make it cute and sassy. They make it a commodity to be bought. They try to wash away their guilt in the back of stock rooms and boutiques. If only these women could see what their “crimes” looked like now.
The bowl-singing and salt-spreading hasn’t worked. The shadows still linger. The exhaustion has heightened to a point that I feel disconnected to my body. As I move about the apartment, it feels as if the energy I exert is only to pull strings loosely wrapped around my limbs—fumbling about like a marionette. I come home with a higher dose of an SSRI and three books: The Empath’s Survival Guide; Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us; and Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. They all sit on my kitchen table for two weeks undisturbed.
Some believe these shadow people are travelers from other dimensions. When asked, physicist David Richardson states: “if there were extra dimensions… [shadow people] might actually be people… I’m skeptical of that, but it’s possible. We’re just starting to figure out that sort of stuff.”
I stare at the pill bottle and the books. Seconds tick by as the gray haze of winter weakly illuminates the apartment. None of these options feel right and I lack the confidence in my ability to do what needs to be done regardless of what is causing this metaphysical, soul-sucking funk I am in. None of them provide an answer to everything.
And then a wave of heat washes over my face and tears begin pooling—a static, desperate energy clouds the space around me. I am surrounded by women who had to do something.