Did you know that our brains are hardwired to see faces in the things we observe? It makes sense if you think about it. A few notches on a tree can look like a smile, and you often see images on the internet of inanimate objects that appear to be frowning or winking at you. The phenomenon can be quite entertaining, at times frightening and other times hilarious. And it happens a lot, to the point where people will imagine these faces with incredible detail.
Knowing that our brains like to trick us doesn't always convince some people that these things are illusions. Jesus likes to show up in some fairly bizarre places, from water leaks on a floor, to a burnt piece of toast. You also get the occasional dead celebrity: Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. The thing is, our minds see what we want to see. It's why if you look at something long enough, the perceived hidden image becomes increasingly clear. We're trying to make sense of the things around us.
Of course, I didn't know this fact as a kid. That would have been a good time to learn it. Kids already see and hear things that adults don't. Fear and imagination can make monsters incredibly real. It's why I was always afraid of my grandma's old bed.
The frame had to be a hundred years old, all creaky and worn. It was a sturdy material, some sort of heavy oak or something, and it always smelled a little musty. At the top was a large headboard, with a design along the edge that sort of resembled two lions stretching in an arch. I can't remember the details exactly, but I do remember one thing quite vividly.
Along the grooves of the wood, there was a very distinct, sharp face.
My grandma always tried to comfort me when I'd complain about it. She eventually started to tell me it was my grandpa watching over us--a well-intentioned, though perhaps misguided, attempt to soothe me. I didn't remember my grandpa very well, and the suggestion that he was in grandma's headboard didn't help. If it was in fact my grandfather, he never seemed all that happy to be there. In fact, he seemed quite upset. The mouth of the face was turned down, angry. It was open wide, as if in a howl of rage. The eyes were two big, empty blotches, dark holes with no pupils. His nose was thin and twisted, like it had been broken. I'd seen pictures of my grandpa, and it didn't look anything like him.
When I spent the night, I would sleep in the bed. Grandma rarely slept in it anymore, as it was hard for her to get up and down the steps. Despite my protests, my parents insisted it was the best spot for me, and that I had nothing to be afraid of. We compromised by leaving the lights on, though ultimately that only made it easier for me to see the face. It was always there, staring at me, like it hated me. I tried to pretend like I couldn't see it. Sometimes I even tried to talk to it, like it was a friend. But it just seemed so menacing.
I was relieved when grandma started sleeping there again, though only because I didn't understand what it meant. She didn't get up and play with me anymore, and eventually she wouldn't even talk to me. I visited less and less, which made me sad. My parents tried to explain, but I don't think I really got it until she was gone. Grandma died in that cold, oak bed with the face watching over her. I told mom what grandma had said, that it was grandpa looking out for us. My mom had laughed through her tears and told me that she may have been on to something, given how much the face was smiling.
For the first time, I noticed that the grimace was actually more of a grin. In my mind, it had always been a scowl, but sure enough, the lips were now curled into a wide smile. It wasn't a nice smile, either. In fact, it frightened me even more now that it was wearing an otherwise happy expression.
I had bad dreams about that bed for years after my parents had sold the house. It wasn't until I grew up that I was finally able to explain away what I'd seen. My childish imagination, mixed with the human tendency to conjure faces, had caused my brain to interpret eyes and a mouth that were, in truth, just discoloration on the wood. It made sense, too, that I'd started to see that strange grimace as a smile, based on my mother's power of suggestion, and my own attempts to cope after the loss of my grandmother. Once I understood all of that, it made me feel a lot better. So many things can be explained if we just look at them with logic, and it's a relief to me, after years of nightmares about a silly stain on a headboard.
The only thing I still don't quite understand is how an optical illusion could create dark, sickly laughter, or how I always fell asleep to the sound of manic whispers.