Have you ever seen a bunny in the clouds? Or a face on the moon? Or a creepy grin in that dried-up splatter of tomato sauce on the kitchen floor?
Our brain sees faces in random patterns. Call it evolution, insanity, or whatever you like—but it’s an instinct ingrained in all of us, from the very day we were born.
And that’s exactly what happened when I found myself staring at a birch tree, waiting for Jake to finish up his lunch.
“Jake! Look!” I said, pointing to one of the black marks on the white trunk. “Doesn’t that look just like an eye?”
“What? It’s totally an eye! There’s the pupil, and the eyelid—”
“Looks more like a bird to me,” he said, through a mouthful of tuna. “Or a bat. The wings, the round little body. Those points could even be fangs!” He grinned. “Maybe it’s a vampire bat.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s totally not a vampire bat.”
See, that’s the thing about pareidolia. Everyone sees something different; it’s like a Rorschach test. While you see a cute kitty on your morning toast, your boyfriend sees the perfect likeness of Alice Cooper.
“I’m done,” Jake said, crunching up the paper bag and throwing it in his backpack. “Let’s go.”
We continued to hike up the hill. The birch trees surrounded us, the pale trunks contrasting sharply with the yellow leaves of autumn. And the black eyes etched into the bark seemed to multiply, the deeper into the forest we got.
“Shouldn’t we be heading back?” I asked, as I applied more bug spray. “It’s nearly four—the sun’s going to set soon.”
“Aw, come on, don’t be a party pooper. Just a little further.” He took out the pamphlet, and fluttered it in my face. “I want to see this kickass waterfall.”
But it took at least thirty minutes for us to find the waterfall. And when we did, we were both disappointed; the recent dry spell had reduced it to little more than a trickle. “It was worth it,” Jake said, trying to convince himself more than me. “Totally worth it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Teresa?”
“Really beautiful,” I replied, rolling my eyes behind his back.
After a tedious five minutes of taking photos, we finally turned around. My legs ached, and I scratched wildly at a bump on my arm; but at least we would be back soon. As we stumbled down the hill, the eyes seemed to watch our every move.
“Woah, wait a second,” he said, stopping dead on the trail.
I groaned. “Jake, come on. We need to get home.” It was nearly five-thirty, now, and the forest darkened with every passing minute.
“Look at that tree.”
I looked up, and squinted in the shadows. Among the sea of white and black and orange, nothing looked amiss. “What are you talking about?” I said, glancing from tree to tree. “I don’t see any—”
There, a few feet off the trail, was a pure-white birch tree. All the black markings were gone: no eyes, no birds, no bats.
“Maybe it’s like, an albino birch tree or something?” I said, ignoring the chill down my spine.
“Then how come we didn’t see it on the way up?”
“I mean—I was looking at the ground most of the time. I didn’t want to trip. There are so many rocks, and—”
My eyes flicked back to the trees, and I faltered.
Now several of the birch trees were white.
We both gasped.
Before our eyes, the black markings wriggled and twitched. They scuttled down the trunks, across the forest floor.
“No, no, no,” Jake whispered.
A low chittering burst through the darkness. The crunch of leaves, the snap of twigs, and a sickening clicking sound.
“Run!” I screamed.
But I already felt the prick of their legs on my ankles. The touch of their smooth, round bodies; the itch of their long antennae swishing against my calves.
We ran as fast as we could.
The chittering grew louder, into a shrill scream. Don’t turn around, I thought, an intense itch flaring up my legs. Just focus on running. Focus. Focus—
I turned around.
The insects—or whatever they were—had coalesced into a dark shape. Wriggling, writhing, twisting in the gray shadows of the forest. A shape with wobbly legs. A throbbing chest. A lumpy head.
A human shape.
Around us, the trees paled, as more of the things spilled out into the trail. “Just keep running,” I huffed. Just. Keep. Running. But the image of them crawling up my legs, under my shorts, and all over my body, didn’t budge.
“Are we almost there?” I shouted.
“I—I don’t know!”
The trail was now a shifting, rippling mess of black. And the shape… it was growing larger by the second.
But then I remembered.
“Wait, Jake! The bugspray!”
I reached into my backpack, pulled out the aerosol can—
And aimed at the ground.
Shrill squeals in response. The black sea parted, and we ran for our lives.
It felt like hours had passed when we were finally out of the woods, huffing and puffing in the dying sunlight. “What were those things?” I said, collapsing against the hood of the car. “Beetles? Or—”
Jake shook his head. “Let’s just get out of here.”
We dove into the car. I thrust the keys into ignition.
And through the windshield, in the shadows of the forest, I could just make out the figure. As we pulled out, it turned its head—watching us.
I mean, it didn’t really look like a person.
But pareidolia is a powerful thing.