Imagine, if you will, an asylum.
Not a nice modern one, with group time and art therapy and periodic state inspections; no, we’re talking about a stylized interpretation of an old-school asylum, with chain-link cages and straitjackets and experiments of questionable ethical integrity. Imagine darkness and dampness and screaming. Imagine people scurrying and shuffling and running and sometimes freaking out and smashing things. Imagine grasping hands. Imagine invasions of your personal space. Imagine that asylum.
Now step right over here, give the nice lady $18 apiece, and take your ticket. When you present it to the gal dressed as a demented nurse in the entryway of what used to be a high school, she’ll point you past the sliding wall and you can go tour the Creeeeeepy Asyyyyyyylum for yourself, where you’ll meet Mr Crazy Axe Murderer, Mr Doctor of Ambiguous Morality, Miss Jokester-y Clown Lady Who Is NOT I REPEAT NOT Harley Quinn, Mr I Have This Baseball Bat Because Reasons, and a fine cast of other assorted characters all inhabiting a darkened labyrinth of twists, turns, tight squeezes, that weird spinny cylinder thing from Grease but done up in blacklight paint with a little stationary bridge through the middle, and a very beautifully detailed series of creepy scenes that you’re supposed to be too terrified to stop and examine. None of this is recommended for anyone with any sort of physical or mental challenges, including claustrophobia, limited vision, or pregnancy (which isn’t really a physical limitation of the variety they’re considering, to my mind, though I can understand that they probably don’t want to scare anyone into labor).
That, kids, was our Saturday night. Halloween around here is a Very Big Deal(TM), and the Haunted House Experience(TM) is part of the whole kit and kaboodle. There are a few big-name haunted houses in the metro area–big three-story jobs that advertise more or less year-round and cost about $50 a head to walk through–but neither Moon Man nor I had ever been to a real professional haunted house, and we’d heard about this one near us that was only $18 and did not include a three-story twisty slide at the end (pro tip: nobody wants to hear the awful squonnnnnnnk sound of a buffalo whose skirt has ridden up around her hips trying to overcome friction and get herself down three stories of plastic slide designed for someone half her girth). So we decided to give it a go.
And y’know what? As it turns out, haunted houses really are scary to me. Just not for the reasons they had in mind.
I should note going into this that I struggle with social anxiety. Meeting new people is not exciting to me. I do not enjoy going to parties where I don’t know at least 50-75% of the attendees. I do not like being unfamiliar with the unspoken rules of a place, I do not like inconveniencing others with my ignorance, and I do not like infringing on someone else’s ability to have a good time. Small talk makes me want to go live in a cave. Public speaking is fine–I’m an excellent teacher and trainer, but that’s because I’m prepared going in and know what I’m supposed to talk about; “let’s go around the room and everyone stand up and tell us something interesting about yourself” makes me pray for sudden-onset laryngitis. It’s like that for me, you see.
So we rolled up, bought our tickets, got in line, and that’s when the fear started. There was only the one line, so I could be fairly confident we were in the right place, but oh man, what if I was taking up too much room? The stairwell into the school was modestly narrow; what if someone needed to squeeze by me to get in or out and I was in their way and it was inconvenient for them? What if I were to be standing on a stair, waiting, and I turned wrong and toppled over and knocked down a stranger and squished ’em? And that’s just getting in the door–what if I got inside and got turned around and someone had to come rescue me because for whatever reason Moon Man and I would have gotten separated? What if I knocked over some props? What if I stepped on a performer?
What if I did the haunted house wrong?
Finally it was our turn (I did not, you’ll be pleased to hear, fall off the stairs), and we started our walkthrough. The nice haunted house designer people had clearly planned for the possibility of people wandering off and getting lost behind the scenes, and had kept the path very clearly delineated–if you tried to go the wrong way, you would simply run into a wall. Try again. The pacing of the experience was good: enough jumpy startle moments to keep you on edge, but not so many that you got complacent; and the scenes changed often enough that you were constantly being distracted by new props and backdrops and somehow kept failing to notice the creepy guy in the corner who would chase you with whatever he was wielding in that scene (or you’d start to congratulate yourself for spotting him, and realize that you’d actually spotted a mannequin when the actual creepy wieldy guy ran at you from a different direction).
So yeah, I jumped and startled and gasped along with everyone else–two teenage girls had asked to walk through with us because they were too scared to go alone–but I realized as I was going through this thing that the real fear wasn’t so much the startles and spooks: it was a reflexive response to not wanting to be a bother. There were parts where we had to crawl through low, snug doorways; and those were scary not because of the claustrophobia, but because I am slow to get through such obstacles and heaven forbid I might slow up the line. At one point a Creepy Clown Lady told us we were going slower than her grandma, and I thought I might actually die of mortified embarrassment. And I was acutely aware of my body’s position in space–it was just terrifying to think I might accidentally bump someone, or try to feel my way around a corner and grab someone’s face by mistake. I realized at one point that when a performer leapt out at me and I jumped, it was partly a startle response, sure, but the noise I was making was the same noise I make when I back into someone in the grocery store aisle–that combination of “Gahh!” and “OhgoshI’msosorry”. In other words, I was mentally apologizing to the Hatchet Murderer, because I might have startled him.
And then it all came to a head when, in one room, there’s a sort of planned separation–the performers watch for groups to come through, and split them off from each other, trapping one part of the group in the room for an extra minute or two. We came to that room, the teenagers got stuck in there while Moon Man and I got shunted into the dark hallway just beyond it, and, because you’re supposed to keep moving, we kept moving, figuring the girls would be chased to catch up with us in a bit. We were a good ten steps down the hallway when the Demented Man With Meat Hook stopped us and asked (in his gravelly “evil” voice) if we wanted to wait for the girls; we said yes, so he told us to wait right there, and I (because when you are a Socially Awkward Buffalo, you tend to default to Excessive Politeness) said “Oh, that’d be great. Thank you very much!”.
That’s right, kids, I’m the gal who politely thanked Demented Man With Meat Hook for his assistance in enabling our group to continue traveling together through the asylum of tortures and terrors.
So that was our Saturday night. For what it’s worth, it really was an entertaining experience. It’s probably not one I’ll repeat, but not because of anything they did wrong, or because it was too scary, or anything like that.
No, it’s because later, a Chainsaw Maniac With a Goat Head led us down a wrong path, then told us it was the wrong one and laughed at us while we headed for the right path, and I found myself thanking him too–y’know, for clearing up the mixup and letting us know we’d gotten it wrong the first time.
And really, once you’ve said “Ahh, right, [self-deprecating chuckle], thank you!” to a Chainsaw Maniac, there’s really not much left for a haunted house to offer.