Surviving Haunted Houses

There’s a pivotal moment in the lives of horror movie characters. Pivotal because their lives are on the line. Pivotal because, in most instances, that moment represents the last choice the character will ever make. Pivotal because that’s how most of these characters die.

The killer lurches forward--Jason, Freddie, Ghostface, even the little girl, Samara, from The Ring. Killers of this ilk rarely move at rapid speeds, but rather, because of physical limitations, enjoying the victim’s terror, or another tension-building plot device, they prolong their attacks. The victims tend to fall in one of three categories:

1) They freeze.
2) They fight.
3) They run.

I suppose there are characters who call for help, too, but they tend to fall into the freeze category because help is so rarely available, or if it is, the films tend to present such help as based more in happenstance, or the rescuers' clever planning, as opposed to the victim truly having chosen the best strategy and allowed for his own preservation.

The characters who freeze are goners. Fair enough, given that they didn’t even try to survive the attack, and I almost respect these characters more so than the ones who fight or run, because the latter groups tend to execute the fighting and running strategies so poorly.

The fighters don’t seem to understand that they are in a fight for their death. I had a friend in Baltimore who used to insist anyone held up at gun or knife point should fight for her life, because there was every likelihood of being killed anyway in such a situation, and so the victim should do everything in her power to end the life of the assailant in the process. I don’t necessarily agree with that philosophy, but in a horror film context, when the villain is clearly more interested in murder than money or assets, I can get behind the idea of not only fighting, but assuming that one is in a fight to the death. That’s the point at which most horror movie victims fail. They land a good shot and then they flee (or, even worse, don’t flee and stand around the not-really-incapacitated monster). In either case, if the fighter gains the advantage, she tends to let up, when a few more head shots with a blunt object might have sealed the deal.

The runners are even worse, though. I don’t fault the running strategy empirically--in fact, faced with a serial killer or monster, I think the odds are that that would be the first option I’d embrace. But there’s the insistence on looking back while running that has a tendency to only distract and slow down the runner, making him especially prone to trip over a tree branch or curb. And then there’s the direction of running--inevitably upstairs, toward a sketchy alleyway, or toward a lake, each of which lessen the chance of rescue or continued escape.

I like horror movies in spite of myself. Despite recognizing these logical gaps, and as often as not feeling deeply unsettled by them, I feel drawn to the prospect of witnessing high stakes monstrosity through the safe lens of fiction. Paradoxically, it’s my favorite horror movies--the ones that I feel are best realized and most authentically scary--that are also the ones that leave me most disturbed and checking beneath my bed at night. Thus, I embrace that which psychologically scars me.

I haven’t been too many haunted house attractions. I went from too scared of what I might find as a kid, to too grown up and prone to recognizing the hokie-ness of it all to really be scared or entertained, without ever lingering in that middle ground that haunted houses are made for.

But I did act in one.

The setting was Huntingdon Ave in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore—a not particularly nice area of the city that just the same neighbored the Johns Hopkins University campus, and thus was subject to a disproportionately high volume of volunteer efforts. I volunteer-tutored kids in the area on a weekly basis during the school years, and was thus made aware of Hauntingdon, a street re-branded for a Saturday night outdoor street festival a couple nights before Halloween. The community blocked off the road. Front porches hosted pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-type games, and folks erected a stage for a costume contest. And there was a haunted house.

When I offered my services, I was advised to put on some make up, wear ratty clothes, and plan to be a zombie in said haunted house. I wasn’t sure what to expect--if I’d spend the evening cooped up in one of the neighborhood basements waiting to scare people who were led down, or if perhaps the organizers had contracted with someone who would set up a plastic apparatus to approximate a house.

In reality, the haunted house was a homemade construction. A frame of wire and two-by-fours, walls made of slit open black trash bags. We decorated it further with fake cobwebs and rubber spiders. A self-described makeup artist enhanced my self-applied black and white face paint with splashes of fake blood.

The whole operation seemed kind of shoddy and underwhelming to my overly critical eye. I didn’t imagine anyone being scared by it or by me.

And I was wrong.

I took in this haunted house not only from a place of economic privilege—expecting a nicer haunted house set up--but perhaps even more detrimentally through an adult’s eyes. The first group of children came through and shrieked as the garbage monster (literally a woman dressed in black with candy wrappers and soda cans taped to her) lurched out of a corner and toward them. They screamed and actually ran when they spotted my fellow zombie and I waiting in the next “room.”

And so, I got into it.

I experimented with a slow stumble versus convulsing. Rolling my eyes into the back of my head versus staring straight at the passersby. More often than not, they were scared—even half of the grownups shocked by the surprise of coming upon us in the penultimate stage of the haunted house.

And I had the time of my life. Years later, I would listen to podcasts and read articles, and learn about all of the technical pieces we hadn’t gotten right. The importance of spacing out visitors to a haunted house so the first group wouldn’t scream and tip off the second group about when the scare was coming. I learned of the concept of “scaring forward”—that catching groups from behind is both more frightening because they can’t see it coming, and helps move people forward through the attraction at a faster clip. In that moment, I didn’t know much about best practices for scares. All I knew was that what we were doing seemed to be working. We listened with glee as, outside, we heard the host at the entrance warning families that this part of Hauntingdon might be too scary for their little ones.

And then there was Reggie. A rambunctious ten-year-old I’d worked with week in and week out at the tutoring gig. He came without parental guidance and without any friends. Contrary to all of the kids who had edged through the haunted house slowly, weary of the next threat, he espoused something closer to my old strategy for the levels of Super Mario Bros. that I found most challenging—running straight through.

Except Reggie didn’t just run. He fought. I heard him yell at the trash monster, “I ain’t scared of you!” Then he came us zombies. Rather than freeze or scream, he looked me in the eye. I thought he might recognize me from Monday nights—and maybe he did. Regardless, he kicked me hard, straight in the shin, and bellowed “Take that, motherfucker!”

And he was gone.

Thus I discovered in the city of Baltimore, the bevy of people--children and adults alike--who might make perfectly reasonable horror movie fodder, freezing in their terror, stopping in their tracks. And I found Reggie.

He would be a survivor.