's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" The Owl Man "

Submitted by Irene Vallone

I remember with perfect clarity the first time I ever heard about the Owl Man. I suppose a memory like that, the foundation of a lifelong fear, sticks out in the minds of most people.

It sticks out so clearly and yet it was so long ago, more than twenty years ago now. I was seven years old, the youngest one in my family; my sister was nine, and my brother was twelve. It was early June of 1992.

My parents were taking us on our annual summer road trip. Normally we went to some boring place that only interested our parents - my brother still complained about the Civil War memorial they took us to when he was ten - but this year they had apparently decided that we deserved to have some fun too. When they announced that we were going to Disney World, we nearly combusted with excitement.

My joy was curbed when I learned that this trip came with one catch. On the way there, we would be making a stop along the way to visit my dad's twin brother. Uncle Joe lived in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he worked as a manager for a hotel. Our parents went to visit him every few years, and usually took us along for the ride.

My brother and sister were excited to go see Uncle Joe. He was a slightly eccentric guy who loved practical jokes and scaring people. I, on the other hand, was terrified. I wasn't yet old enough to appreciate the distinction between good-natured scares and deadly serious danger, and I didn't start to appreciate it until I was much, much older.

We set off for Tennessee at seven in the morning and drove for ten hours, stopping only a couple times at rest stops to eat. Needless to say, my siblings were vocally unhappy about this schedule. By the time we finally got to Uncle Joe's house, I think my parents were about ready to strangle them both to death. I was silent nearly the whole time. I was stewing in my own fear.

I feel ridiculous admitting it now, twenty-one years later, but I was really scared of my uncle. I was dreading this visit, dreading what sort of horror my uncle might inflict on me. My standards of "horror" at the time were pretty low, though; all it really took was a gag snake in a peanut can to send me over the edge. It wouldn't be until this visit that I learned what real fear was.

Uncle Joe was waiting for us on the front porch when we pulled up to his house. He looked nothing like my dad, even though they were twins; whereas my dad was clean-cut and business-casual, Uncle Joe was dressed more like a lumberjack, with a shaved head and a huge black beard. It didn't make him less frightening to me, to say the least.

"Hey, Doug!" Uncle Joe boomed to my dad as he exited the car. The two shared a huge bear hug. He did the same to my brother and my sister, offered a hug to my mother that was respectfully declined, and then quickly grabbed me under the arms and lifted me up to his eye level.

"Hey there, kid!" he said. "Jeez, you get bigger every time I see you!"

I nodded, eyes wide in fear. I could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.

After Uncle Joe put me down, he invited us into his house for dinner. I picked at my chicken and peas as my parents caught up with my uncle and my siblings wolfed down their food.

When we were done eating, Uncle Joe invited us to stay the night. My parents declined - they already had hotel reservations - but my brother and sister made such an uproar about it that they finally acquiesced and had us stay. I didn't want to, but I was outvoted five to one.

I watched my parents drive off out the front window. They had promised to come back in the morning to pick us up and take us the rest of the way. Morning couldn't come soon enough.

Uncle Joe, who never married or had kids of his own, was glad to have an audience. Before we went to bed, he shut off all the lights except for one orange-glowing table lamp, sat us down on his living room couch - almost monolithic to a tiny seven-year-old - and told us the scariest story I have ever heard.

To this day, I remember it.

"Alright, kids. It's not very often that I get to see y'all, so I better use the time I have with you to tell you one of my famous ghost stories."

(My brother and sister cheered. I was not happy.)

"By the way, don't tell your dad I told you this story. He'd kill me, probably. He didn't want anybody to know about this. 'Cause you see, this isn't like most ghost stories. This is a true story. This happened to me and your dad when we were kids, back in the dinosaur ages, y'know.

This is the story of the Owl Man.

When your dad and I were kids, we lived in a little house in the Tennessee backwoods, right on the edge of the forest. Now, this forest was fine during the day. Sunlight shined through the trees, birds would sing. It was a fine and happy place. At night, on the other hand, the woods were no place for kids. It was dark and quiet, with shadows climbing up the trees and blocking the light of the moon. We were sure that there were ghosts and skeletons and all sorts of horrible things that came out there at night.

It turns out, we were right.

Your dad and I spent most of our afternoons exploring the forest. We played games in the woods for hours, but we were always sure to be home before dark. We didn't want the monsters who lived in the forest to come and get us.

One day, we explored into those woods farther than we ever had before. We hardly noticed as the sun began to set. By the time we realized how late it was, there were already shadows all around us.

I was already scared, but your dad told me that we'd be fine. We just had to get home. 'We can't be that far,' he said. Heh. I remember him saying that. We can't be that far.

Turns out, we were that far. We walked for what felt like hours, looked around for anything familiar, but we couldn't get our bearings. It was all just trees to us. Our house was nowhere in sight. We were completely one-hundred-percent lost, and it was getting dark fast.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I saw something.

Out of the shadows, between two trees, a pair of huge yellow eyes was staring at us.

They certainly weren't human eyes. They were big and yellow, with huge round black pupils, even blacker somehow than the shadows around them. They were about twenty feet up, too, at least halfway up the tree. Whatever was watching us had to have been huge, I thought.

As the eyes looked down at me, I felt a chill run down my spine. I was more scared than I had ever been in my life. I felt these eyes looking into me, looking into my heart and soul, seeing everything I had ever said and done. I couldn't take it.

Your dad saw the eyes too, but he wasn't scared like I was. He told me that it was just some owl sitting up in a tree, and that it was probably as scared of me as I was of it.

I knew he was wrong. This wasn't just an owl. I had seen owls. The eyes were way too big.

I heard the leaves on the tree rustle, and that's when I knew something horrible was about to happen.

Out of the shadows, between the two trees, a huge owl-man came out.

It was enormous, about twenty feet tall. It was all covered with hair and feathers at once. Its giant eyes stared down at us as it walked forward.

I knew it was coming for me.

Your dad and I turned tail and ran, jumping over rocks and sliding across piles of leaves, just trying to make it out of the forest at night. I knew I should have just run and not looked back, but I couldn't help it. I couldn't stand the thought of it looking at me without knowing where it was.

Every time I looked, it was closer.

Eventually, I looked back at it and lost track of where I was going, and so I tripped over some tree root or something. I rolled over and faced the Owl Man. It was still advancing on me, making tiny little steps but somehow moving quick as the wind.

I rolled up into a little ball on the ground and tried to cover myself with leaves, hoping it would pass me by. I was too scared to think straight.

I lied on the ground for what felt like hours. The Owl Man never touched me or hurt me, but it kept on staring at me. I could still feel it.

Then I heard your dad calling my name from somewhere nearby. He ran up to me, kneeled down, and asked me if I was alright.

I uncurled myself and looked up. The Owl Man was gone. It had vanished without a sound or trace.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and ran myself home as fast as I could, with your dad close behind me.

Once we got home, Ma -- that's your grandma -- asked us what we had been doing in the woods for so long. We told her we had gotten lost, but we never told her about the Owl Man. We knew better than that.

She marched us up to bed without dinner for scaring her like that. Your dad fell asleep right quick, but I stayed up for hours and hours, still thinking about that huge feathered man with the eyes that looked into my soul."

With that, Uncle Joe cheerfully led us off to bed. My brother and sister were seemingly unfazed. I was shaken to the core.

I lagged behind as my uncle, brother, and sister tromped up the stairs. I peered into the darkness of the living room and kitchen from my vantage point on the lowest stair, imagining faces peering around every corner and lurking in every patch of darkness.

As I turned around to go up the stairs, I knew that they were all there behind me, watching me.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I fled up the stairs, certain that monstrous fingers were seconds from touching my neck.

We were all relegated to Uncle Joe's single guestroom, where we all had to share a bed. My brother put up a stink about it at first, but eventually we all got into the bed. My brother and sister went to sleep almost immediately. I, on the other hand, was paralyzed with fear, sandwiched in between my siblings, unable to escape from the things that I inevitably knew were waiting for me in the darkness.

I looked around the room. My uncle hadn't done a very comprehensive job of cleaning up the guestroom before we had arrived; there were clothes and books lying all around the floor and on top of the furniture. In the dark, it created a multitude of abstract silhouetted shapes. I imagined that they were all monsters, the ghosts and skeletons and horrible things that had stalked my uncle in the forest as a child.

I was so scared that I would hardly let myself breathe. I couldn't stop thinking about the monsters of the forest that I was certain were coming after me right at that moment.

I tried to take deep breaths. There was nothing in the room except for a bunch of junk, I told myself. There were no skeletons and monsters, I said. I was perfectly safe, I lied.

I managed to look away from the indistinct shapes surrounding me and towards the window to my left next to the bed. I thought that seeing the lights of the stars and the town outside might calm me down.

Outside the window was a massive face, not quite human and not quite owl.

I screamed. My siblings jolted awake almost instantly and began complaining about the noise, demanding to know what the matter was. I couldn't answer. All I could do was stare into the horrible eyes of the face outside the bedroom window. They were even worse than the vivid image I had pictured when hearing Uncle Joe's story. They weren't angry, or judgmental, or anything like that. They were completely empty. It was like staring into the ocean and knowing that there was miles and miles of cold and unfathomable water between you and the bottom.

Uncle Joe burst into the room in a panic.

"What's wrong?" he asked, breathing heavily.

My screaming turned into breathless sobbing at that point. I turned away from the window to look at him, trying to indicate to him to look out the window.

As soon as I turned back to the window, the Owl Man was gone.

Uncle Joe managed to calm me down, at which point I told him that I was having a nightmare. I knew I hadn't.

The vacation was pretty much ruined for me after that. Not even the rides at Disney World could fully distract me from my terror. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see those yellow eyes in the darkness.

I will fully admit that I was what my mother referred to as a "delicate child" (and what other kids referred to in much less polite terms), but I had never been this scared of something before. I wouldn't sleep for nights at a time, lying awake in my bed from sunset to sunrise, frozen in fear at the thought of those eyes staring through my window.

My parents were unsettled by my fixation on the Owl Man once I told them what was going on, but it seemed to only be the unsettlement anyone would feel if their ; if my dad recognized the Owl Man from his childhood, he didn't show it. They took me to therapy to try and reduce or cure my all-encompassing phobia, but nothing seemed to work. My fear remained.

I would say that the Owl Man had become my boogeyman, but that implies that my fear of the Owl Man was irrational, that it was some imagined figure who lurked only in the recesses of my mind rather than in my uncle's backyard. That would be wrong. The Owl Man was all too real. I had become the Owl Man's prey.

I grew up a lot in the years after seeing the Owl Man. I graduated from elementary school, then middle school, then high school and college. I got married to a man I met in the campus library. We got jobs in the city, and we bought a small house and two cats, vowing to never have any children. We were happy.

I became a lot more like my Uncle Joe as I got older, too. I started to see the fun and the excitement in being scared. I grew out of my meek and fearful childhood and became an adult who reveled in terror.

In the process, ironically, I forgot what it meant to be truly afraid. I grew out of my fear of the dark, of my paranoia of strange figures lurking in the unlit corners of my house. I stopped running up the stairs in a panic after turning the lights off, and never again lingered in my dark hallways, eyes locked with those of some imaginary monster. I never thought about this; I had more important things to think about in my day.

Although I did forget my fear, I never completely forgot about the Owl Man, but the memory became foggy and was pushed to the back of my mind. I forgot about the reality of what I had seen that night outside my Uncle Joe's house. The Owl Man was only a story once again, an amusing little anecdote I told to friends on Halloween.

Halloween was very close to my brother's birthday - October 17th, 1980. Normally my husband and I only sent him a card, not having the funds to make frequent trips up to his house in Vermont, but on the year he turned thirty, our whole family made a secret plan to pay him a visit.

We got out of the house late, and arrived at my brother's house in the evening. There, we were confronted with my brother and his wife, their two kids, my sister and her husband, their daughter, my parents, and my Uncle Joe - whose beard was now more grey than black - who all greeted us warmly and gently mocked us for being late.

Everyone had a good time. We gave my brother his presents - my husband and I got him a new mountain biking helmet - and Uncle Joe and I told the kids some scary stories. I told them the story of the Owl Man. It was a big hit.

"Very creative," said my dad with a laugh.

As my mother began passing around the cake, I began to feel a headache coming on. I excused myself for a few minutes to take a break from the festivities.

I bundled myself up in my coat and stepped outside onto the porch. My brother's neighbors had their Halloween decorations up. The sun had set several hours ago, and no moon or stars were visible; the only light came from the jack-o-lantern string lights hung from the porch across the street, casting a grim yellow glow on the plastic skeletons and carved pumpkins. I smiled at how delightfully spooky it was.

Behind me, the woods that formed the back border of my brother's backyard . The dark and skinny trees, barely visible in the night, had lost most of their leaves, and resembled twisted black fingers reaching up into the sky.

I walked down the front steps and headed around the back of the house. My head still ached slightly, and I thought that a short walk might help.

As I crossed around the back of the house, I was confronted with the Owl Man, who was standing behind my brother's house.

It was just as big to me as it had been when I was a child, now dwarfing the house and towering over me. Its body was covered in black hair and brown feathers, and its head was crowned with feathery horns. Its eyes were still yellow.

Its eyes stared down into me, cold and blank as death.

In that instant, I was a seven-year-old again. I threw myself to the ground and curled up into a ball, shutting my eyes as tightly as I possibly could. I cried and screamed like a baby. I begged for it to go away, to leave me alone.

I knew it wasn't working. I knew it was still there. I knew it was still looking at me.

I cried for what felt like hours, lying on the ground and hiding my face from the Owl Man. It didn't move or react. I felt its eyes burning me.

Suddenly, I heard my husband shouting my name. I refused to uncurl myself or open my eyes to look at him, even as he grabbed me and started shaking me, his voice cracking as he begged for me to snap out of it.

I finally, reluctantly, opened my eyes, seeing nothing in front of me but the woods of my brother's backyard, dark and silent in the moonless night.