I still have nightmares about my childhood home
And I’m still not sure why
The front door of my childhood home was always open. It never sat in its lock, no matter how hard you pushed it or jiggled the door handle. So anyone could come along and press a finger against it, and it would quietly swing open and no one inside would know until it was too late.
I still dream about that house. Every detail is precise, but something always feels wrong. Instead of a yard, there’s a black void surrounding the house. And if I’m inside the house in a dream, the story never ends well.
I don’t understand why, though. It was a welcoming Mississippi ranch-style house with doting parents and unassuming neighbors. Friends visited often; it was an open secret where we hid the door key, so I’d sometimes come home from school to find those friends playing video games in my room. Then my dad would grill hamburgers for all of us in the evening. Some nights, I’d stay up watching movies in my living room while I ate entire boxes of macaroni and cheese. I spent fifteen happy years there.
But my dreaming mind doesn’t remember the house fondly at all. I’ve latched onto a memory of an evening alone when my parents had gone off somewhere for a couple of hours. I’d been playing video games until dark, and when I came out of my room, most of the house lights were off. I tiptoed through the dark hallway into the living room and reached for the lamp. I paused when I heard something outside, then peeked through the blinds. A man was walking down the street, yelling and cussing. It startled me, but I figured it was maybe a neighbor who’d gotten drunk and gone for a late-night stroll. I stepped away from the window and turned on the lights around the house. My parents got home shortly after and I didn’t tell them about the man in the street.
When I dream about my house, I see that man through the window, and he’s looking at me from the street. He has no face, and actually, there is no street. It’s only the void, and something out there is trying to get in. All the doors—the patio door, the back door, and of course, the front door—are wide open, so when the dream begins, my goal is to close them as quickly as possible. But I always fail. Sometimes I go out onto the porch thinking I can run away. But there’s nowhere to go. In real life, that porch had steps leading down to my backyard, but in the dream, it drops off into nowhere. And the monster inevitably finds me. Sometimes, it’s formless. Sometimes I just feel afraid, like something’s watching me, and then feel something grab me, and I wake up.
One time, I saw myself in the house. My doppelgänger. I saw sunlight coming through my living room window. I thought I’d finally escape the nightmare in peace. But then I turned and there he, or I, was. He had black eyes and he reached out to grab me. Then I woke up. I felt relieved but not peaceful. I’ve heard that if you’re killed by your doppelgänger in a dream, you don’t return, and your doppelgänger takes your place. I wondered if I’d been replaced and if the real me was stuck in that dream house.
In 2015, my parents sold the house and moved north. Whenever I go back to my hometown to visit in-laws, I drive by the house to see what’s changed. The basketball goal my dad set up in the driveway is long gone and there’s a new coat of paint. It’s an olive color now. And I’m sure they fixed the front door.
I wonder if the new tenants are as happy as I was and if they’ll live there as long as I did. But I also wonder if the house haunts them, too. Or maybe, like me, it’ll haunt them after they’ve moved away. I wonder if they have other homes they dream about or if my old house slowly eats theirs, tearing off rooms like limbs and replacing them with its own.
Sometimes, I’ll dream about other houses—shades of homes I’ve visited. But then I’ll turn a corner and see my old bedroom or my parents’ room, or I’ll be lost in the woods and find my old porch leading to the open back door. I’ll know something’s waiting for me inside, and the dream will change. In the dark part of my mind, where all the bad dreams come from, there’s only one house. It’s beige—not olive—and it has that front door that will never shut. The monsters can always get in if they want to.
There’s one other house I’ve dreamed about that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It wasn’t based on any real place that I knew of. Its interior was a labyrinth. Some rooms were ornate, while others were bare and unwelcoming. A quiet, hooded old woman followed me from room to room, and there was a door at the end of a long hallway that had never been opened. I woke up in the night and immediately wrote a note on my phone titled “The Yellow House.” My dreaming mind invented eleven bulleted “rules” about it—its inhabitants, why that dark altar was there, where that furniture had come from, all sorts of unsettling ideas that made me think I’d written down a curse.
I’ve only dreamed about the Yellow House once, and I’ll probably never dream about it again. I think it served its purpose. My mind probably used the Yellow House to make sense of the beige one, except unlike the Yellow House, it has no rules other than: don’t come back.
In my adult life, I’ve mostly lived in small spaces. My first apartment out of college was a six-hundred square foot one-bedroom set against a row of Mississippi woods. I lived there alone for three years and slept well every night. After I got married, my wife and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment, and that’s when I realized something had followed me from my childhood home. I’d wake up some nights wondering what was happening beyond earshot at the other end of the apartment or in that second bedroom. I used to have those same worries at night when I was little.
This fear has names: oikophobia, a fear of house environments, or maybe domatophobia, a fear of a house itself. I don’t know which one I’m stuck with. Maybe both. I’m scared that a house will turn on me and reveal hidden spaces or try to lose me in dark corridors.
Look up the meaning behind nightmares about childhood homes and you’ll find that I’m probably holding onto past events or wanting to go back to a simpler time in my life. I could explore those dreams more deeply, and maybe I’d discover hidden trauma. But I don’t think there’s much to it (ha-ha, of course I’d say that). Because here’s the truth: I kind of like the nightmares. They’re pure fiction. They excite me like scary movies do: stoking fear of lurking things, even when I know nothing is lurking, really. Hearing a campfire story about a vengeful spirit will not manifest a vengeful spirit, just like the cold nightmares about my childhood home will not undo its warm history.
I’m grateful for my childhood in that house. I’m fortunate that no one ever tried to open that red front door except for loved ones. I think life will bear its claws on me one day, and I’ll have something new and tangible to have nightmares about. But until then, I’m okay with the claws reaching from behind that opened front door in my dream, and I’ll keep on trying and failing to lock them out.