(This article was originally published in Positive Health magazine in March 2002.)
There were five of them filing down the old stone steps into the cellars of the university: four members of the fraternity and one applicant, a dark-haired, pale young man called Richard who wished to join the fraternity.
Richard had not been told where they were going to take him, and he knew that it would be bad form to ask, so he just followed the student in front of him who was carrying a torch. Nobody was speaking.
Richard was second in line, with three students following behind him. He felt very nearly like a prisoner, even though he knew nobody was forcing him to do this. It was his own pride that compelled him to go on. If he backed out now, he would lose face. He would be regarded as a coward and be the laughing stock of the college. It was now simple a matter of pulling himself together and going through with it.
They reached the bottom of the steps which led them into a musty smelling vault where tools and various maintenance materials were kept. It was chilly down here, and Richard felt the cold from the bare stone floor creeping through the soles of his shoes up into his legs. He noticed with some alarm that it was already impossible to hear any sounds or voices from upstairs; only their own footsteps echoed hollowly in the windowless basement room as they crossed over to a big oak door.
The student with the torch produced a key and ceremoniously unlocked the door. Before he opened it, he turned around to Richard and shone the torch in his direction. “Your task,” he said in a low voice, “is to stay in the room beyond this door for the next hour. Once you have entered the room, I will lock the door behind you. In an hour, we will be back to let you out.” Richard felt a lump in his throat as the door was opened just enough for him to squeeze through into the dark room beyond. Immediately he had entered the room, the door behind him slammed shut, and a moment later he heard the key turn in the lock. He heard retreating steps, then nothing.
And then there was only silence and darkness. Utter darkness. Richard stood very still. The only thing he could hear was his breathing. He kept his back firmly pressed against the door, waiting, hoping that his eyes would adapt to the darkness so that he could see where he was. He did not know how big the room was or what shape it was or what was in it. He stared into the darkness, his eyes forced wide open. For a moment, he felt as if he had gone blind, and he felt a sudden panic rise in him. He started to shiver.
With his back still firmly pressed against the door, he slid slowly down into a sitting position until he felt the stone floor under his backside. He cowered for a while, listening into the darkness. The air was stale and cool against his face. He strained his ears for sounds around him, sitting quite still. His rapid breathing frightened him. What if there were mice here or, even worse, rats? The college grounds were infested with them, everyone knew that. He started shaking again. He was hugging his knees for warmth as the cold from the floor was beginning to creep into his bones.
He tried to put the thought of rats out of his mind, but without success. Not being able to see his surroundings made him feel helpless and exposed and he became aware of cold sweat breaking out on his forehead. He decided to stand up again to get most of his body away from the ground which was where the rats would be if there were any. He slid up slowly, his back pressed against the door, still shaking, still listening and staring at the invisible floor.
He felt he had been standing there for an eternity, his feet and legs tired but tensely pressed together, his arms hugging his shoulders. He just could not stop thinking about the rats when, suddenly, his heart nearly stopped – there had been a sound from the left. Or at least he thought there had been a sound. He held his breath in case the sound recurred, at the same time slowly turning his head in the direction from where the little whispering noise seemed to have emanated.
All his senses were on alert: he could feel every muscle and every fibre of his body getting rigid and his breath coming in quick, shallow puffs as if he had been running. He was petrified with fear as he suddenly remembered all those stories he had ever heard of rats attacking people, running up people’s legs and going for their throat with those razor-sharp teeth. He could only just stifle a scream.
Suddenly, there! Another sound, this time from further over to the right! The rat was moving about, or even worse, there were probably several of them. They lived in colonies, didn’t they? Richard’s scalp was creeping and he felt his whole body covered in goose bumps. Sweat began to trickle down his face, running down his collar. There! Something had brushed past his trouser leg: he had felt it quite distinctly. Automatically he kicked his leg forward as if to shake off an attacker, thinking that his kicking would only make them more aggressive, but he could not stop himself: his leg was kicking, kicking, in a frenzy, out of control, as if it was no longer part of his body but a thing in itself.
He pressed into the door, sobbing, when suddenly the door gave and he fell backwards out of the room into bright lights. He had not heard them coming back and unlocking the door. He covered his eyes with his hand against the sudden brightness of the light. He breathed deeply, trying to collect himself, and finally took his hand away. As he looked up he noticed that all the students were carrying torches now.
And now, something peculiar happened. One by one, the students went past him into the room where he had spent the last horrible hour, illuminating the room with their torches. Richard could now see that the room was small, without windows, with a stone floor, stone walls and a stone ceiling. And he could see another thing – the room was totally empty.
If you have a problem with fear, anxiety or phobias, hypnotherapy can help!
Vera Peiffer BA (Psych) FAPHP MNRPC MFHT