As much as I like horror movies and horror novels, I am a gigantic baby when it comes to actual, real-life haunted houses. I’m not referring to the real ones – although I’m a baby when it comes to those, too – but the ones that are set up for Halloween. You know the ones: sometimes they’re professional, and there’s a whole complex of buildings, sets, costumes, the whole nine yards; sometimes less-so, and they’re run by a church group, or something along those lines, as a fundraiser.
I tie this into my fear of things jumping out at me. I’m usually very practical and very level-headed. I can kill a mouse with a shoe (no jumping up on something and squealing for this woman!); I can bait my own hook, catch my own fish, remove it from the hook, clean it, cook it, and eat it, all on my own (so, as you can see, totally ready for the zombie apocalypse); I once watched as a doctor removed moles from my shoulder (much to her disgust; I’m fairly sure there’s a file out there somewhere that says “Keep an eye on this one; latent serial killer tendencies.”) However, I hate, hate, HATE things jumping out at me. Even worse: surprises, where you’re supposed to look pleased, that involve people jumping out at me.
When I was six, my mother planned an elaborate surprise party for me. My father took me on errands with him for the day, so she could organize the whole thing and so everyone could arrive. When we pulled up (why I didn’t notice all the cars in the yard? Give me a break, I was SIX) and went in, they all leaped out from behind things and screamed “SURPRISE!!!” at me. The photos of my face are really things of legend. They get brought up at family functions, sometimes. I was first scared shitless (I have a really overdeveloped fight-or-flight response, and wasn’t sure whether to punch someone or run out screaming; you can see this crossing my face); then I almost pissed myself (again, I was six); then I was FURIOUS. Every photo of me from that party was of me scowling like a young Winston Churchill. I remember asking when we could send everyone home, including my mother (who lives there), who I had named as the head betrayer. Everyone once and a while, my family jokingly says things like, “Hey, you have a milestone birthday coming up…maybe a surprise party is in order?” This is NOT FUNNY. I do not like people jumping out at me; I don’t like not being in on something; I don’t like people screaming in my face. Does anyone like this? If so, what the hell is wrong with you?
In grad school, a friend of mine invited me and another friend of ours to a haunted house his fraternity (fraternity in name only; please, like I’m close friends with too many fraternity brothers. I believe they were a grades-oriented fraternity. Or charitable works. Something like that) was putting on at the local Chuck E. Cheese knock-off. I wasn’t sure about this. “Will people touch me?” I asked. “No,” he said. “We’re not allowed to touch people. We’d get sued.” “Will things jump out and surprise me?” I then asked. He looked at me like I was special (which I am, but I mean that more in the special-needs way, not the sparkly-princess-unicorn way.) “Um, probably?” I love him – still do, he’s one of my favorite people in the world, and why he puts up with my insanity? Well, he’s very patient, and kind – so I said I’d be there.
(Before I start, I want to make this clear – I am well aware these people are actors. I work with actors. For some reason, this does nothing to make them less scary to me. Something is broken in my brain? Probably.)
We showed up, and listen, this wasn’t anything fancy. They’d closed off half of the place and draped it in garbage bags, so it was like one long tunnel, and set up little scenarios inside. It was for children, not adults. I need to reiterate this. It was for children, not adults. The tour guide brought my friend and me in and then all hell broke loose.
I don’t remember a lot of what was in there. Scenarios, like people dressed up with Halloween masks and a lot of fake blood, I think. But apparently, they had all been tipped off I was coming, so they were all whispering, “Amy….Ammmmyyyyy…” as I walked along. But I couldn’t SEE them whispering it. It was coming from NOWHERE. I tried to rush the tour guide but she was NOT HAVING IT. (I think because if we went too fast, the wind from our wake would knock down the garbage-bag tunnels. Did I mention – this was for children? Not adults? Because it was.) The children on the tour with us were laughing and pointing and I could not understand this. This was not funny. Did they not hear the creepy whispering? The people in the scenarios would reach out at us and I almost trampled the children pulling away from them. I could not get out of there soon enough.
We got to the end – oh, the friend I was with thought this was all very funny, because, as I mentioned, normally I pretty much have it all together – and I could see the light (literally!) at the end of the tunnel. I booked it to the end.
AND THEN A WOLFMAN GRABBED ME FROM BEHIND.
Seriously. A wolfman grabbed me from behind and stopped me from exiting. A wolfman put his paws on me around my waist and was eerily silent and would not let me go. So, as I think anyone would do, I elbowed the wolfman in the solar plexus and, when he bent over in pain and let go, turned around and punched him really hard around the face and neck. I faced the wolfman, triumphant. No wolfman was grabbing me! No sir!
And then the wolfman said, “Jesus, Amy, really?” and took off his K-Mart mask and it was really my friend whose fraternity had set the whole thing up. Listen, I still, years later, think I was within my rights. A wolfman was attacking me. I think I actually thought fast and acted appropriately. I mean, what would you have done, just sat there whining “Oh, no, wolfman, please, don’t eat my face?” Yeah, that’s what I thought. I clobbered that wolfman. (Also, the wolfman had FAIR WARNING I did not like being surprised or touched, so the wolfman might have gotten what was coming to him. Just saying.)
After that (and I can tell you, I never really lived that down – it’s hard to keep your reputation as a bad-ass when the story of you weeping and wailing like a baby at a child’s haunted house gets out) I didn’t go back to haunted houses. Obviously, they were out to get me and I didn’t have the psychological tools necessary to fight them. Until a couple of years ago, when not one, but two haunted houses reared their broken windows and cobwebby halls at me. I had to take the challenge. I had to regain my womanhood.
The first was a haunted house for a children’s charity at a local house of history. I was interested to see the house. Plus, there was the promise of a petting zoo. You could tell me, “Listen, you’re going to have to do about five hours of work in 90 degree sun, then you’ll get beaten by a couple of Russian wrestlers until you pass out, but there will be pygmy goats” and I’d be there. My friend, her sister who was visiting from out of town, and I went. I was prepared. I knew what I was up against. I kept asking, “This won’t be that bad, right? This is for kids, right?” and kept getting, “Yes, it’s for kids.” “No, it won’t be that bad.” “Were you accidentally dropped as a child?” (That was from the visiting sister. She didn’t really get that I’m pleasantly neurotic and not just looney tunes.)
We were in a group with about ten kindergarteners and the three of us. I thought, “The haunted house can’t kill us. Look at all of these adorable kiddos!” much as you do when there are babies on your plane and you reason it won’t go down because the powers that be wouldn’t be that cruel, would they? (They would. They are.) The children, the ladies, and I followed our ghostly-dressed tour guide into the house.
It was a wonderful old house. But I don’t know if you’re aware, but old houses are creepy on their own. They creak. The floors are crooked. Add some cobwebs and people dressed up like escaped mental patients grabbing at you and JUMPING OUT FROM BEHIND DOORS (this happened) and it’s like a recipe for disaster.
I started hiding behind my two friends when I realized that this house was even worse than the haunted garbage bag tunnel. I just grabbed onto their sleeves and put my head between their shoulderblades and followed them. The children in our group thought this was hysterical, as did my two friends (I think they might have also found it annoying, because it was like a lamprey had attached itself to them and wouldn’t let go. Made it hard to walk easily.) We got to the last room, and, as in my first experience, I could see the outdoors. Pygmy goats! And a mini-horse! And (for some reason) chickens! The petting zoo, my reward for braving the haunted house (and, let’s face it, losing!)
The last room was set up like a butcher’s shop, only people were being butchered, and for some reason, the butcher decided he was going to scream, to the top of his lungs, “Get out of my HOUSE! Get out of my HOUSE! Get out of my HOUSE!” However, in his infinite wisdom, he was blocking the only door out of the room. So you couldn’t “get out of his HOUSE!” because he was blocking the exit. And he was waving around a bloody cleaver. I tried to get out, and he kept blocking me, while bellowing for me to get out. After trying to get out and pet some goats to calm down about three times, I had had enough.
“I AM TRYING TO GET OUT OF YOUR HOUSE BUT YOU WON’T GET OUT OF THE WAY, BUTCHER!” I screamed back at him.
The children, my friends, and the butcher all got very silent. The children took this opportunity to sneak past him to the exit and raid the cider doughnut table. The butcher and I were facing each other, both furious. My friends were in hysterics. Like, holding each other up, in tears, their sides aching for days with laughter hysterics. I had screamed at an actor in the children’s charity haunted house. This was the best Halloween ever.
The butcher sized me up and finally moved aside enough that I could pass. I had conquered the butcher! (Or he heard the next tour group coming and realized I was a weirdo and it was time to let me out.) Whatever the reason, I escaped with my life! I frantically petted the animals in the petting zoo for the rest of the afternoon to get over my trauma. (There were also rabbits, by the way. RABBITS. And I had acted like I was in Of Mice and Men, so it was appropriate that I got to continue to do so.)
Finally, there was the coup de grace, the Headless Horseman Hayride. This thing gets voted scariest in the state. How I got talked into this? I’m not 100% sure about that. I thought it would be fun? My friends thought it would be funny? This isn’t a haunted house. It’s a COMPLEX of haunted houses. First you take a hayride (this is – oh, I could be nice, but why – kind of lame, like “let’s put on a skit!” lame, only the skit didn’t make a lot of sense. Although there were pyrotechnics, and things jumped out of the woods and followed the hay wagon, and that was kind of funny.) I entertained myself by snarking at the storyline (something about an escaped mental patient, only it didn’t all tie together very well) only inside I was quite aware what was next – 5 haunted houses, one after the other, and a haunted corn maze. I couldn’t handle a children’s haunted house and this had an AGE LIMIT ON IT. You had to be AT LEAST THIRTEEN to even buy a ticket to this thing.
The night is kind of a blur. Like when you’re in a car accident and you look back and remember arriving, and leaving, but not the terror in between. I think, at some point during the night, my brain shut off. Because I started chatting with the ghosts. The ghosts, who can apparently, in some other-worldly way, sense fear, locked onto me like I was a tractor beam. (Oh, and also, they told me as I was coming in, “The ghosts are going to love you.” I’d worn a light-colored shirt. The ghosts working the park can’t see that well in the dark, but they can see you in a light-colored shirt. Blast you, fashion sense! So if you want to be left alone at the Haunted Hayride, wear black.) Once the ghosts started following me (they couldn’t touch, but they could get very, very close) I mentally shut down, and started a monologue to them under my breath. “Oh. Hi. Another ghost. Right nearby. Awesome. No, really. So cool. Are you going to eat my brain? Because that would be great. IS IT STILL FOLLOWING ME?” (Here my friends, laughing like lunatics, would scream, “YES!”) “Oh. Well, good. Hi, then. Were you going to kill me? Is there someone else you’d like to follow? Oh, you’re leaving that’s great WHY IS ANOTHER GHOST COMING?” (They did this tag-team thing where one would peel off into the night and another one would glom onto me. I was like ghost Velcro.)
I also agreed with them a lot. It seemed to shut them up faster than screaming or trying to run. When one would scream, “You’re going to die tonight!” I would say, “I know. It’s the worst.” “You’re one of us now!” “Yes, yes, I saw the movie ‘Freaks’ too. One of us. One of us. I know.” This made my friend’s boyfriend laugh until he had to brave the haunted port-a-potties. (I came back from them with a haunted piece of toilet paper trailing me from the sole of my shoe. Ghostly fun!) When we were driving home, he kept saying, “And Amy agreeing with the ghosts was the best. No matter what they said, she just agreed with them.” Apparently, he has never watched the millions of kidnapping Lifetime movies I’ve watched. You APPEASE killers. This makes them KILL YOU LESS FAST.
This Halloween, there’s a Haunted Capitol tour in Albany. I want to go. Thing is, I’m fairly sure my antics (which I would like to emphasize, are not under my control) would get me on a terrorist watchlist. And who needs that, really?