Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Basement

What is it about basements that creep us out? Is is just that they're darker and cooler than the upstairs? Or does the fact they are lower than the rest of the house have something to do with it? Be honest. What do you feel inside as you descend the stairs to a basement?

The house in which I grew up was a rambler with a full basement below the main floor. There were 12 steps from the back door landing down to the basement's concrete floor. I never did understand why the wooden steps were painted gray. But I was always grateful for the stability offered by the amber colored wooden handrail in the stairwell.

The ceiling of the corridor was level with the the main floor ceiling, so that it got higher and higher as one descended the stairs. It abruptly ended at a high wall just above the unguarded entrance to the basement. That unreachable corner where the high wall and corridor ceiling met sometimes sported cobwebs, which only added to the unsettled feeling I often got as I descended those stairs.

(That abrupt change in ceiling heights once resulted in a scalp injury that earned me half a dozen stitches. But that's another story.)

Our basement was fully in the ground. It had concrete walls that extended to the exposed main floor joists above. There were five tiny windows high in the walls, all of which were situated at the end of the basement farthest from the stairs and some of which were in cobwebby window wells. Thus, the single large room of the basement was a fairly dark place, even in the middle of the sunniest day.

When I was young the opening to the basement at the bottom of the stairs always loomed like some kind of gaping dark maw waiting to swallow those that dared make the descent. Worse was the sparse artificial lighting. Of the four pull-string bare-bulb light fixtures, the one nearest the stairs was a good six or seven feet away—a desperately long journey into the terrifying dark for a young child. What's more is that the pull string was out of reach.

My brother and I would stand at the bottom of the stairs peering into the inky blackness, trying to judge exactly how far away the light fixture was. After working up heroic bravery, one of us would dash into the dark, running with all his might to avoid whatever lurking monsters were waiting to pounce. Whoever remained behind would stand on the bottom step—not on the concrete, because by some unwritten law that surface was fair game for monsters—breathlessly hoping that the adventurer would succeed in turning on the light.

Most of these forays ended with success. After two or three jumps flailing for the pull string the bare bulb blinked on and the monsters were banished, making for safe entry into the basement. Occasionally, the advance party ran back to the safety of the steps after failing his quest to bring light to the benighted basement realm, and we'd have to start working up our bravery all over again.

Even when we made it into the basement and got the light turned on, we would avoid going near “the crawl space” under the stairs. Even with all four of the light bulbs blazing away, the shadowy reaches of the space under the stairs seemed like the perfect cave for any number of foul beasts that wouldn't dare enter the lighted portions of the basement.

Even having the lights on was no guarantee of safety. Once when I was about five and my older brother was about seven, Mom and Dad took our oldest brother to a Cub Scout meeting. It was a short meeting and they figured that we would be OK at home alone for that long.

But not long after they left, my brother and I started to hear strange sounds. We carefully looked around the main floor of the house and outside of the house, but we saw nothing out of the ordinary. There must be a robber in the basement, we reasoned.

In retrospect, it would have been difficult for anyone to break into the basement unseen. It would be nearly impossible to get through any of the five tiny windows and the basement had no external door. Since no one had come through the back door, teleporting or magic were the only other ways into the basement. Five- and seven-year-olds are not good at that kind of reasoning.

Having been left in charge of the house, we were determined to protect it. Before venturing into the basement gloom to face the imagined intruder, we each fortified ourselves with a weapon from a kitchen drawer. Mom and Dad came home to find every single light in the house on and us standing wide-eyed at the bottom of the stairs brandishing butcher knives.

The basement never bothered Mom. She was invincible. She went downstairs frequently to do laundry. She would casually advance into the darkness with a basket full of clothes and turn on the light, as if it were no big deal. We'd often follow so that we could take advantage of her amazing valor.

With the lights on we'd play in the basement. But we knew that the lights had to be off when we came upstairs. Dad worked for the power company and we were repeatedly indoctrinated in the necessity of saving electrical energy. Turning off three of the lights was not a problem. We'd sometimes use a stool for that purpose. But leaving a stool in the middle of the floor was not permissible. And we certainly weren't going to bother trying to put a stool away in the dark after turning off the light.

Rather, as the other children climbed onto the stairs, one of us would stand below the pull string of the light fixture nearest the stairs. It was considerably easier to turn the light off than on because we could see the pull string. The designated light turner offer would stand below the string, gather courage, leap and grab the string, release it after the light clicked off, and then run like crazy for the lighted stairwell. We hated it when the string rebounded and got caught on a floor joist brace, because we'd then have to recruit an adult to fix it.

When I was about eleven Dad wired and started finishing the basement (a project that lasted more than two years). But from the moment the place was wired we could turn on the lights from a switch at the bottom of the stairs. Gone were the days of fearfully dashing into the dark. It's true that I was older by then and plenty tall enough to reach the old pull string. But walking into the dark basement still gave me the willies.

Eventually the basement was sheetrocked and fitted with real light fixtures. I still remember the glorious day when burnt orange shag carpet was installed. How stunning that looked at the top of the formerly bare steps, where it mated up with the avocado green carpet in the dining area. (The 70s was a strange time in the evolution of home decor and those carpets were eventually replaced with neutral toned flooring.) Even when I moved into one of the two basement bedrooms at age 16, going down into the nicely finished basement alone still inspired a hint if eeriness.

Although the finished basement in our current home is a “full daylight” basement (meaning that all of the windows are fully above ground and have no window wells) and the basement has nine fairly large windows, I still harbor some sympathy for my younger kids when they tell me that going down there is kind of creepy.

1 comment:

Ben Arkell said...

Reminds me of the scene in Home Alone.