Round Two: Something spooky only the cats can see

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Science says cats can see things we can’t.

I believe the science.

And in honor of Halloween Week, the following story will illustrate why. First, well, some science:

The human eye can only see wavelengths of light in the visible light spectrum.

Other types of light include radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet rays, X-rays and gamma rays — none of which humans can see with the naked eye. Visible light — what we can see — sits between infrared and ultraviolet in the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared light has longer wavelengths and lower energy than what our eyes can see, while ultraviolet is just the opposite with short, high-energy wavelengths that we also can’t see.

Cats, on the other hand, not only can see in the visible light spectrum, but their vision also extends into the ultraviolet range. In other words, they can see things we can’t.

No, this isn’t a science lesson. It’s just a primer for Round Two’s annual Halloween special: a fright night I spent with our first cat, Sylvia.

My wife Kim and I got Sylvia in March 1996. Sylvia was a seal-point Himalayan; she was 7 years old when we got her and looked like a stuffed animal: small, soft and fluffy with big blue eyes. The day we got her, we set her down on the living room floor and she promptly disappeared — for a couple weeks. We knew she was somewhere in our three-level condominium because her litter box was used and her food bowl emptied every day. Other than that, we couldn’t find her anywhere.

To our great relief, Sylvia eventually decided to come out of hiding, and from there she quickly warmed up to us and her new home.

Except for the basement.

Now, the basement was three-quarters unfinished and contained typical basement stuff like the washer and dryer, furnace, hot water tank, exercise equipment, and various odds and ends. The other one-fourth was a finished side room with a desk, typewriter (yep, a typewriter — this was 1996, after all) and boxes of holiday decorations.

As far as basements go, it wasn’t creepy. But Sylvia wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. She would not go down there, period, end of story. One time we coaxed her about three steps down, then she lost her nerve, turned around and shot back up the steps and disappeared.

Another time, I made the mistake of thinking that maybe if I picked her up and carried her down the steps, she would feel nice and safe in my arms and realize there was no reason to be afraid. Well, about halfway down she’d had enough. Terrified, she squirmed out of my grasp, dug every last claw she had into my chest and shoulders, perched next to my head, and launched herself all the way to the top of the steps in a single bound. My upper torso — I was wearing a tank top, by the way — looked like Freddy Krueger had gotten ahold of me, blood oozing out of the numerous scratch canals dug in my skin by Sylvia’s razor-sharp claws. If you’re a cat owner, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Months later, I found out why Sylvia absolutely refused to go down to the basement.

It was the wee hours of the morning, and I was in the living room watching TV (my work schedule at the Record-Courier required me to keep “vampire hours”). My wife Kim was upstairs sleeping; it was just another quiet, peaceful summer night in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Until it wasn’t.

Out of nowhere, a loud voice exclaiming “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” broke the stillness of the night. I pretty much levitated right off the couch. I could actually feel the years being shaved off my life as my blood pressure soared into the stratosphere.

The loud voice continued to exclaim “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” over and over and over. I knew right away where it was coming from — the basement — and I knew right away what was doing it — our plastic Santa Claus cookie jar. And I also knew right away this absolutely should not — could not — be happening, because Santa’s voice could only be activated by lifting his head off the jar.

That was bad enough. Making matters worse was the fact that the Santa cookie jar was in a box of Christmas decorations that hadn’t been touched in about six months. The box was in that little side room off the basement that we didn’t go into very often. My first thought was: Someone is in the condo, they’re hiding in the basement waiting for everyone to go to sleep, and they just accidentally knocked Santa’s head off the jar. This was a major problem.

As Santa’s voice continued to loudly wish me a Merry Christmas, I pondered what to do as I battled shock, fear and confusion. So I did what came naturally to my 28-year-old brain in such a heightened state: I walked over to the living room closet and pulled out our aluminum baseball bat. I wasn’t going to be a sitting duck; I was going to literally go down swinging.

I stood at the top of the basement steps, aluminum bat in hand, and turned on the light. Santa instantly grew quiet. Not a sound after several minutes of continuously exclaiming “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” Now I was more convinced than ever that someone was in that little room.

I gripped the bat with both hands and had it “cocked and loaded” against my shoulder as I crept down the stairs, the little side room coming into view on my left when I reached the halfway point. As usual the door was wide open, and the basement light somewhat illuminated the interior of the little room — but not enough that if someone was hiding in there, I would be able to spot them immediately.

I reached the bottom of the steps, turned the corner and stood just to the side of the little room, bat raised, straining to hear any kind of sound coming from inside. But there was nothing. It was eerily quiet.

Holding the bat with one hand, I quickly reached around the doorjam with the other and flipped on the light, expecting to see someone lunging at me. I was ready to take my best Willie Mays cut.

Instead, all I saw were the desk, typewriter and decoration boxes. Thankfully, I was the only person in the little room. But then it crossed my mind that the prowler easily could have slipped out of the room and hid elsewhere in the basement after knocking Santa’s head off the jar, knowing that I would come downstairs searching for the cause.

Just when I was about to resume the hunt in the larger basement area, something caught my eye: It was the Santa Claus cookie jar, sitting in a cardboard box near the back wall. And my blood ran cold:

Santa’s head was still on the jar.

I took the few steps over to the box and stared down at Santa, trying to make sense of it: How could Santa say “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” repeatedly for several minutes without his head being removed from the jar? Did the prowler put the head back on when I turned on the basement light, quieting Santa, and somehow slip out of the little room just out of my field of view from the top of the steps? Not likely; I would have at least seen the person’s legs from that vantage point.

Curious, I reached down, pulled Santa’s head off the cookie jar and … no sound whatsoever.

My blood ran cold for a second time.

Santa wouldn’t shut up for several minutes with his head on, then I take it off and he doesn’t make a sound? That’s completely backwards from how the jar operated.

I put Santa’s head back on and pulled it off again. No sound. I did it again. Still nothing.

I was beginning to feel extremely uneasy. Santa should be doing his thing every time I pulled his head off the jar, yet nothing was happening. As I stood there holding his head in my hand, I happened to notice something that made my blood run cold a third time:

His activation switch was in the “off” position.

Could the prowler have had the presence of mind to turn Santa’s head “off” and place it back on the jar — in darkness — and slip out of the room in the few seconds it took me to descend the stairs? Highly unlikely. I was beginning to think I was dealing with something even more ominous than a prowler.

Several seconds later, I was convinced of it: I turned the switch on, put Santa’s head on the jar, pulled it off, and it didn’t make a sound.

Clearly, the batteries had gone dead sitting in the basement for half a year. The voice apparatus had no power source. So how could it possibly talk?

Even worse: How did it know to stop talking when I turned the basement light on?

I suddenly realized my predicament: I was in the back of that little side room, in the basement, alone, in the middle of the night. Standing next to a Santa Claus cookie jar with a mind of its own.

I was outta there.

My feet hit solid ground maybe four times, five tops, in covering the distance between that little room and the top of the basement steps. I closed the door behind me — even though we always kept it open — and kept the aluminum baseball bat next to me the rest of the night.

Not that it would have done any good against whatever was down there.

Of course, if I had just listened to Sylvia, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. I have no doubt that shortly after arriving in the condo, she must have headed downstairs looking for a prime hiding place and saw something that only her feline eyes could have seen. Something that terrified her, something she never wanted to see again, something that made her not want to go anywhere near the basement.

And after that night, I didn’t either.

In August 1997, the three of us moved to a house not far from the condo in Cuyahoga Falls. It was a Cape Cod with a basement that, while not scary in any way, was more of a traditional “dark, dank” basement than what we had at the condo. But Sylvia had no issue at all going down into that basement, and she often went down there alone.

People had offered the theory that maybe Sylvia wouldn’t go into the basement at the condo because the steps didn’t have backing. But that theory didn’t hold up because the basement steps at our new house also didn’t have backing.

Plus, Kim and I had many strange occurrences take place in the condo in the three years we lived there, things that we can’t explain to this day, things that haven’t happened to us anywhere else we have lived.

But those are stories for another Halloween.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.