“From Ghoulies and Ghoosties, long-leggety Beasties, and Things that go Bump in the Night, Good Lord, deliver us!”
– Early 20th Century Prayer
My wife Diane bought some Halloween candy the other day and that started me thinking about Halloween and some of the things that I find frightening. Hearing strange sounds, especially at night, is scary, even for most grownups. My mother told the frightening story of being awakened in middle of the night by the sound of someone trying to cut through the screen of her bedroom window. Like in some urban legend, the next morning you could see where the screen had been cut.
About three years ago Diane and I moved into a new house. Even now we have not fully gotten used to the sounds that it makes at night. Often if I hear a strange sound, I tell myself that it’s just the icemaker. A few times we’ve heard crashes late at night. Perhaps I should be a manlier guy and get up and investigate these things. Twice the crashes were the wire shelving in our closet collapsing and dumping clothes on the floor. Other times, however, we never discovered exactly what made the noise, which is, of course, a lot worse.
How people interpret such sounds has a lot to do with how they are feeling at the time and their general state of arousal. If they have watched a scary movie right before bedtime or had a bad dream, they tend to interpret the sound as something that would be consistent with the tension they feel. If they are comfortable and relaxed, however, the sound may not seem all that threatening.
In one of our previous houses in Florida, Diane and I started hearing an odd noise in our bedroom at night. It sounded like there was something in the wall. Your imagination can run wild in such circumstances. I remember fantasizing that the wall was full of raccoons, rats, or maybe even snakes, like in The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sound would stop after a while, but it was hard to fall asleep again. This went on for several months. One night, just by chance, I noticed that I had an old briefcase leaning against the wall. I opened it and discovered my long lost pager, that apparently had vibrated whenever someone dialed a wrong number.
Some people think they hear things at night due to a strange, but not all that uncommon, medical condition, called Exploding Head Syndrome (EHS). Fortunately the head doesn’t actually explode. Instead this is a sleep disorder that causes people to perceive loud noises, as they transition in or out of deep sleep. Although the noise may evoke fear and anxiety, EHS is not a severe condition. It interferes with sleep and can lead to daytime fatigue. It’s related to sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors. Dan Denis from Harvard and his colleagues estimate that 10-15% of the population may have EHS episodes. It’s thought to be caused by mild seizure activity that is associated with stress and anxiety. I would have thought that researchers could have given this disorder a less disturbing name.
Despite our fears, most night-time sounds are probably due to the laws of physics. Diane and I once stayed at an old log cabin in a county park. This cabin was fine at night, but as soon as the sun came up, we heard louder and louder noises coming from the roof, as if something was running across it or falling on it. I thought that it must be squirrels or perhaps nuts falling from some tree. When we looked outside, however, we couldn’t see anything on the roof. We finally concluded that it must have been the sound of the tin roof expanding, but we never knew for sure. We didn’t ever stay there again.
According to Glenda Taylor, a Kansas contractor, “Popping, banging, or creaking, especially in the dead of the night, is startling — but in most cases, those sounds are just your home’s reaction to temperature changes.” She says that sheet metal ducting is “notoriously noisy”, as the hot air from the furnace pours over the cold ductwork, the metal suddenly expands with a bang — like a cookie sheet suddenly put in a hot oven.
In older homes wood trusses, joists, floors, and rafters expand or contract as roof and basement temperatures change. Drying wood can make creaking, or popping and crackling sounds. Plumbing noises caused by metal piping are also quite common, as are the sounds made when houses settle over time.
In our last house, late one night we heard a loud swooshing sound and a lot of high-pitched chirping. It was like something out of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds. We then discovered that a flock of chimney swifts had nested in the chimney. Since they are migratory birds, they’re protected by federal law. Once they were in in our chimney we were told by the chimney sweep, there was nothing we could do until the eggs hatched and the birds left on their own accord. If you’re convicted of interfering with them, you can be fined up to $15,000 and get six months in prison. Now that’s really scary.