October 13, 2013

The Haunted House, Part 1


Green Bayís Lime Kiln Road is a long and lonely stretch of two lane blacktop that snakes through miles of empty gray fields marked only by a few barren outcroppings of dead trees. Pretty much the only building you can find along Lime Kiln before hitting the gun shop on the corner of, hell, whatever Allouez Avenueís called down there, is a massive industrial slaughterhouse, and no oneís much interested in opening a business or raising a family too close by. It can get pretty rank in the summer.

††††††††††† At least thatís what it was like back in 1974. I donít know if itís been built up much since then, but the way the rest of the townís been going I wouldnít be surprised. Anyway, back in Ď74 there was one house out there, a battered, gray, two-story ramshackle job about a mile west of the slaughterhouse and half-hidden from the road by a small, thick grove of gnarled trees. As long as I could remember the house had always stood empty and the trees had always been dead. It scared the hell out of me back then. Hell, that whole stretch of Lime Kiln scared the hell out of me. I donít think I was alone in that.

††††††††††† That probably explains why every October starting in the early seventies some charitable group or another tried to raise money by turning that condemned spooky deathtrap just down the road from the slaughterhouse into the haunted house it was clearly meant to be. Nowadays whenever Halloween is on the horizon in New York, haunted houses start cropping up all over town, from Times Square to Coney. You can take your pick of themed haunted houses, hipster haunted houses, kid-friendly haunted houses, whatever the hell you like. Forty years ago, Green Bay only had the one, and it was a mighty big deal.

††††††††††† A group of high school students remodeled the interior of the house anew every year, made their own costumes, rigged up their own lighting and worked out their own scary bits. They put a couple of streetlamps outside to light the grounds, threw together an impromptu gravel parking lot, and the place became a madhouse seven nights a week for a month until Halloween. Same as any other small town in America, for those few weeks it was the one and only destination for kids who usually didnít have much of anything else to do except drink and screw around. Teenagers went there on dates, groups of drunken hooligans stumbled through hooting and hollering, and kids not yet old enough to drive went with older brothers or sisters. It was a real badge of honor at Allouez Elementary if you made it all the way to the end and could offer a full report. It was a rite of passage, like climbing into old lady Gundersonís back yard, that few kids my age were ready to risk quite yet.

††††††††††† First kid I knew to test himself at the haunted house was my friend Gary, who went with his older sister. He was a rough and tumble outdoorsy kid, already a seasoned hunter and fisherman in the fourth grade, but also one who was easily spooked and kind of emotionally iffy.

††††††††††† It didnít take much coaxing the next day before he confessed he hadnít reached the third room in the haunted house when he freaked, and a friendly ghoul led him to a well-lit side room where they put all the sissy kids who couldnít handle it.

††††††††††† I loved horror movies, didnít scare easily, and desperately wanted to see for myself what all the hubbub was about. But I was nine and didnít have anyone to take me. My sister had gone the year before and wasnít much interested in going back with her little brother. At least thatís what I told the other kids. I WOULD go, see, but. Fact was, love horror movies as I did I wasnít sure how Iíd handle actually being confronted with real monsters (even if they were just teenagers dressed like monsters). Iíd already had one bad experience in a haunted house some neighborhood kids had set up in their basement, and didnít care to repeat it. Whatís more, at that age I already knew I couldnít see in the dark like other people, but hadnít told anyone this. I didnít want to fail, and was scared to death to try. The very idea of going to the haunted house made my stomach hurt. Fortunately I had a solid out, so I could keep up the bravado.

††††††††††† Then one day during recess my teacherís kid, who was a year older than me (and a future overdose), told me he was going and invited me along. His mom would drive us out and back, sheíd even pay for both of us to get in. It was all set if I wanted to go.

††††††††††† Well Jesus Christ, that was the last thing I needed to hear. Not only was an older kid from the same school inviting me, my own fucking teacher was driving us. I couldnít very well say no and save face, and if I did go I couldnít freak out because Iíd be with a witness whoíd blab to everyone. I was fucking stuck. If I bailed either now or out at the house itíd be all over the school in no time. Older kids would beat me up more than they already did, and my teacher would make fun of me in front of the class. I dredged up the bravado again even as it felt like I was going to puke right there in the playground, and told him sure, Iíd love to go.

††††††††††† What made the whole thing all the weirder was that the kid, Brendan, was a cool, burly, blond thug with tiny eyes whoíd bullied me plenty himself in the past. Why heíd ever asked me to go in the first place was a mystery. I mean for godsakes heíd broken my glasses! And my fucking teacher was driving. I didnít even like my teacher that much, the stupid redneck cow.

††††††††††† None of this got me out of going to the haunted house. If Iíd been a little older and knew a little more Iíd of course have smelled a set-up from a mile off, but at the time it was simply the way playground politics worked. Some kid could knock you in the mud and kick you in the stomach on Monday, and on Wednesday he could invite you to his house after school to play air hockey.


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