By Shane Cashman
Someone is playing a game in the house that I grew up in…
— The Killers, Smile Like You Mean It
I used to see the shadow of a hand reaching up from behind the curtain almost every night in my childhood bedroom. I must’ve been at least 4 or 5 when it started––and the hand would appear like that, on and off, for years.
At the time, I also experienced a reoccurring nightmare: someone with a gun chased me through the forest and past our house. Sometimes it was a stranger, sometimes it was a familiar face.
Whether it was the hand, the nightmare, or a combination of the two, there was a good stretch of time back then where I’d run into my parents’ room, telling them that I didn’t want to die.
My mom would walk me back to my room, tell me that I had a long life ahead of me, and move the curtain to prove that there was nothing hiding behind it. She’d say it was probably just the wind from the trees and the moonlight. But we never did determine what made the shadow. And I don’t believe anyone ever saw the hand but me.
It wasn’t until ten or so years later that my family would learn about the young boy who was shot to death in our house sometime in the 1970s––and that I was sleeping in his old room. We were told his name was Jimmy. Almost as soon as we learned about Jimmy, we would include him in our daily conversations. If anything ever felt a little off with the house, we’d consult what we believed to be Jimmy’s ghost. He’d become, in a way, a part of the family.
The room he died in happens to be underground. Our house was built into a hill in the 1700s––so this portion, my old playroom at the back of the house, is cold and damp as a mausoleum.
Recently, I’d decided to learn more about Jimmy. I wanted to know what he looked like and how old he was. I was curious about the details of his death.
All I knew is what a man named Sgt. Anderson told my father years ago:
Jimmy’s brother and his brother’s friend were playing with their father’s .22 caliber pistol––that they only meant to scare Jimmy with the gun, but the gun went off and Jimmy died instantly. It happened to be Super Bowl Sunday.
My childhood home is owned by the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY and is reserved for employees who manage the farm on the property.
The town historian, Stella Bailey, has two whole floors above the Mayor’s office that are stuffed with records dating back to well before the American Revolution. She’s helped me try to locate two-hundred-year-old skeletons, lost foundations of Civil War-era bars, and descendants from a nearby abandoned mountain town. She’s even combed through each cemetery in our area to catalogue every name on every headstone––should anyone ever reach out looking for information on the deceased.
When I told Stella about Jimmy, she said she’d never heard of the incident. She’d had plenty of records about my house, but there was no mention of Jimmy. It seemed bizarre for such a tragic event in a small town to be absent from the historian’s office.
So I went to the police station asking to go through their archives––but they also had nothing.
Since the home is government property, I reached out to the local military police. And they had no records.
Did we convince ourselves of Jimmy’s presence? There was no official record of Jimmy––dead or alive. Not even hearsay outside of Sgt. Anderson’s story. And he has since passed––so I couldn’t ask him.
If there was no Jimmy, then what was the shadow in my bedroom? I guess once my family learned about the boy, I must’ve retroactively attributed the shadow of the hand to his tragic death. The hand could be a false memory, but I can confirm that I did, at least, think I saw it when I was a boy. My parents remember all the nights I’d wake them up, worried about the hand. Or maybe it was some type of hallucination that happened in the space between sleep and consciousness. It was also entirely possible that I was just a young kid who spooked easily––and my imagination morphed ordinary things into terrible shadows. I’ve read that psychologists say a vision like the one I experienced could’ve been the product of sleep paralysis. There’s no way to know for sure––but I do remember being able to move while under the spell of the hand.
I’ve heard of other people who’d been menaced by shadow figures. I knew this wasn’t unique to me. So I reached out to Heidi Hollis, author of The Hat Man: The True Story of Evil Encounters, and asked her what she thought of my shadow. She’s written extensively about shadow figures and has been a frequent guest on Coast-to-Coast AM.
I’d come across her descriptions of Hat Man, a term she coined about an evil entity, which, in a way, were reminiscent of the shadow I encountered as a kid.
“These shadow people, as I categorize them, they shape shift… They can become what looks like a bat, a rodent, a streak, a cloud,” she said. [Hat Man] likes to go after children––and find a way to possess their soul.”
She referenced thousands of emails that detail such encounters. Some people, she said, have attempted suicide to escape the fears brought on by this shadow figure.
I asked Hollis if she thought there could be a connection between Jimmy and the shadow hand.
She said it’s possible the shadow had some influence over the boys who supposedly shot Jimmy by accident. She calls this figure perverse and that it will do anything to fill a heart with fear.
Hollis made me wonder if behind the curtain, attached to the hand, there was, what she calls, the Hat Man––trying to worm his way into my soul.
Whatever it was that I saw all those years ago, I couldn’t give up on the idea of Jimmy being connected, somehow, to the shadow. But I had to prove Jimmy was real first.
It dawned on me to reach out to an old high school classmate, Sara. She’s become our local historian-in-training and has been collecting stories about our town, both old and new, as a way to preserve an oral history. She’d never heard about Jimmy either. Her father lived in town in the seventies, and he’d also never heard anything about the supposed incident. She tried a few other people and they, too, had no recollection. It was becoming clear that maybe there was no death in the house––and maybe there was no Jimmy at all. I’d just about given up, when I mentioned to Sara that the only information I had about Jimmy was what Sgt. Anderson told my father.
Sara said she actually knew Sgt. Anderson’s daughter, and within minutes, we were in contact.
Susan remembered Jimmy. His full name was Albert James Kern Jr., but everyone called him Jimmy. He was shot in my house, and he died on January 18th, 1973.
Now that I had an exact date, Sara and I were able to track down some more classmates. I learned that he was a sophomore in high school when he died. He used to hang out with a girl named Cindy, and she remembers thinking Jimmy was cute. He was tall and skinny. He had a crooked tooth and a wave in his hair.
Since the story is almost 50 years old, each person I spoke with remembers the tragedy a little differently.
Some people say it was a prank gone wrong. Others say the boys were playing Russian roulette. Some say it was a suicide and that it was covered up out of respect for the family and their devout Catholicism. Others say it was a freak accident––no malice. Some say Jimmy pulled the trigger. Some say his brother, Ricky, pulled the trigger. And others say Ricky’s friend, Mark, pulled the trigger.
I interviewed about a dozen classmates and or people who were in school around the same time as Jimmy. And this, as far as I can tell, is the best reproduction of the events:
It was Super Bowl Sunday, 1973. The Miami Dolphins were playing the Washington Redskins at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The boys had gone out to the range behind the farm to pick up dud ammunition––leftovers from the Army training. A lot of the local kids used to go up there to collect the munitions. They’d find the duds, empty out the gunpowder and find ways to explode them for fun. If they couldn’t get the lead out easily, they’d saw the duds in half, crimp the ends, then snap the caps into a gun and pull the trigger to make a loud pop with the gunpowder smell.
That night, Ricky and Mark decided to scare Jimmy––who was lying on the couch in the TV room watching the game. They snuck in, cut off the lights, and pulled the trigger on their father’s .22 caliber pistol––hoping that the loud bang would shock Jimmy. The boys would play like this often––and no one typically got hurt. If anything, maybe someone would get burned from the heat of the spark.
A quarter inch of lead, presumably collected from the range, fired from the pistol and hit Jimmy in the forehead.
Sgt. Anderson was at a party with Jimmy’s parents when the phone rang with the terrible news. However, Jimmy did not die immediately. He was taken to the hospital on West Point.
Cindy’s father worked at the hospital, and she asked him repeatedly for updates. She remembers her father trying to ease her fears by saying, ‘they’re doing all they can.’ Jimmy would pass away four days later. It was the first time she’d experienced the death of someone her own age.
I haven’t been able to locate any of Jimmy’s surviving family. So I am unable to confirm this next part, but multiple classmates said that Jimmy’s brother, Ricky, took his own life not long after his brother’s death. I have located Jimmy Jr. and Sr.’s graves––but not the brother’s.
I went back to the military police hoping now that I had all this new information, plus exact dates, that they’d be able to locate any records to confirm the details. They referred me to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. Incidents of that nature would all be archived in Quantico, they said. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records pertaining to Jimmy, and within a week, I received their official statement: There are “no files pertaining to the death of Mr. Albert J. Kern Jr.”
The only sense I can make of the incident is that West Point was able to keep the whole situation quiet for the sake of the family. Or, just as likely, West Point could’ve also worked hard to keep it quiet because they didn’t want the public to know a boy had lost his life due, in part, to leftover munitions from their training just over the hill on the other side of the farm. (There was a lawsuit from around this same time about three New York City kids who had wondered onto the range and were badly injured.)
To those of us who grew up there, our town can feel like it’s cut off from the rest of the world. It’s lodged between two mountains and a river. It seems inescapable, especially when you’re a teenager. The town’s isolation breeds mischief––which, I think, like many small towns, might have something to do with our ever growing catalogue of tragedies.
It’s not lost on me that I had many, many jars of dud ammunition in my room that I also found in the same woods as a kid––and if Jimmy’s ghost was hanging around, he would’ve seen a boy in his old room collecting the very thing that took his life. Maybe he shared with me, through osmosis, the reoccurring nightmare of being shot. Or maybe that’s all coincidence.
I was able to connect with a man named Dan who lived in our house a few years before my family. He had moved in a few years after Jimmy’s death. Even still, he, too, never heard about Jimmy.
“I spent many nights in that house alone,” Dan said. “It’s not haunted. It might be cursed though.” I understood the sentiment. There is something off about the house. It stands alone at the top of a hill at the edge of town. There are no neighbors. It’s not hard to imagine that anything that happens there can be placed safely into a memory hole.
I haven’t seen the shadow hand since my childhood. But something strange did happen a few years ago when my wife and I had to move back to the old stone house with my parents with our one-year-old son.
The three of us had made my childhood bedroom our new bedroom. One night, our son woke up screaming and I tried to calm him down with the flashlight on my cellphone. I made shadow puppets along the wall to make him laugh––and it felt as though I’d slipped into some kind of quantum entanglement when I saw my own hand’s shadow in the exact place above the curtain––just as I always remembered it.