SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 20, 2013

The Haunted House, Part 2

 

It was a cool late October night with temperatures in the forties when my ride arrived for the fifteen-minute drive out to the haunted house on Lime Kiln Road. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and rode in the front seat with Brendan’s mom, my fourth grade teacher, an enormous woman with cat’s eye glasses and a heavy Georgia accent who always wore pearls. She was nice enough that night, acting more like a friend’s mom than a teacher.

            My one and only goal during that drive was to cover how terrified I was of what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t want to go to any goddamn haunted house, but I had no choice and couldn’t let on. I was in it now. I felt the cold death creeping up inside me even before we hit the first light, and fought back the urge to throw the door open and roll out onto the asphalt in an effort to escape. To distract myself, I talked a lot. I repeated the stories I’d heard about what others had seen at the haunted house, cracked jokes, put on the face. I was fully aware, though, that however much I wanted to get away the house was something I’d have to confront and clear, or I was fucking doomed.

            “And there’s one part where you see a girl writing a suicide note, but she’s cut her wrists and she’s bleeding all over the paper.”

            “That sounds just awful,” my teacher said.

            She pulled into the gravel parking lot, but only a few yards. There were already dozens of cars parked there willy nilly, and she had no intention of waiting. As we climbed out she told us she’d be back in an hour to get us, told us to have fun, then backed out onto Lime Kiln and drove away.

            Brendan and I wove our way through the maze of battered teenager's cars toward the long line leading to the front door of the house. It was about eight o’clock, and everything outside the white bubble of light cast by the streetlamps was impenetrably black. I remember looking up at the front of the crooked wooden house. I’d never seen it this close before, and wondered both then and now how the local building safety department could allow thousands of people to tromp through an old abandoned house that looked like it could collapse or go up in flames at any moment. But I guess it was a different, more daring era.

            We took our spot at the end of the line, which was marked by a long stretch of piano wire strung between a series of mop handles pounded into the ground.

            The crowd, as expected, was mostly teenagers. I didn’t see any kids our age, and certainly none alone. Everyone was excited though, there was a lot of laughing and jostling, and there was a small cheer every time another group of ten was allowed inside.

            Every few minutes, screams from inside the house filtered out through the dark windows. The line wasn’t moving very fast, we were still a ways away from that door, but the second thoughts I was having long before Brendan ever asked me to come along were growing stronger.

            Then there was a collective piercing scream all around me as a figure in a hockey mask appeared out of nowhere, swinging a howling chainsaw dangerously close to the people in line. Everyone collectively flinched back a few feet to get away from that blade, crushing me hard against the piano wire fencing. (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had just premiered a few weeks earlier, but the pre-Jason hockey mask was a nice touch.) The guy with the chainsaw menaced the crowd up and down the line for only a minute or so, then vanished into the darkness around the side of the house, chainsaw still roaring. No one followed him. It took a few long seconds after he vanished before the screaming stopped, and when it finally did everyone laughed, the jerks.

            Brendan, who had half-crushed me himself, turned and asked, “You okay?”

            In an instant I saw my way out of this nightmare—a grievous bodily injury. “I . . . I don’t think so,” I said. “This wire slashed me pretty bad, I think.” I was holding my side.

            “You sure?”

            “Yeah I’m sure—this wire slashed me. I can feel the blood running down my leg.”

            He pulled my hands away and looked at the unmarked sweatshirt. “Ahh, nothing happened. You’re fine.”

            The jackass. “No, believe me—I think I’m bleeding pretty bad.”

            “Oh, c’mon. You’re fine. We came all the way out here, so don’t be a baby.”

            I shut up and seethed for a few minutes. I always really hated anyone who called me a baby. Fucking guy’d even broken my glasses once. Asshole. So why was I standing here with an asshole? Then I remembered I was standing there because there was no way I couldn’t be standing there without running into far worse back at school, and for far longer. Then I began to relax about the whole thing. If I got lost or killed in there, at least I’d done it. And doing it and dying was better than putting up with all the shit I’d need to put up with for the months, maybe even years to come if I didn’t.

            “Yeah, I’m cool,” I said. “Guess all those people just knocked the wind out of me or something.”

            Over the next half hour the line drew us inexorably toward the dark maw of the front door. Then, before I even realized it, we were handing over our two bucks apiece and being herded inside with a few others. It was completely black, and the hallway was narrow. I was in the middle of the group and wanted to hang onto Brendan just to see where I was going, but didn’t need him calling me a queerbait.

            Suddenly we turned a corner into a room filled with deafening, thumping mechanical noise and flashing strobe lights. Twenty years in the future it might have been mistaken for a rave. Ahead of us, Frankenstein’s monster was slowly and jerkily moving in our direction, arms outstretched.

            We shuffled past him without injury into another hallway that had been reconstructed into a series of sharp dips and rises. Other people in masks and makeup appeared from around corners and waved their arms.

            We peeked through doorways at tableaus of assorted terrors, murder scenes and screaming severed heads and mad scientists.

            It wasn’t long before the whole thing, as cheap and homemade and enthusiastic as it all was, began to strike me as wonderfully silly and entertaining. Also it wasn’t long before I got separated from Brendan. Don’t know what the hell happened to him, but suddenly I was on my own amid strangers and ghouls, and figured I’d find him later. This really was like a goofy, live action horror movie, even if it didn’t have much by way of a plot. I moved on up to the second floor as I was guided by assorted creeps, taking in all I could along the way.

            In what turned out to be the last room on the tour, a witch’s lair or some such, a large-nosed fellow in heavy white face paint and a hunchback get-up began following me around, sniffing me. I found this mildly unnerving, especially when it continued much longer than you might expect. I’ve always had trouble with people sniffing me in public, so when he didn’t stop sniffing me, I pointed at someone else in the room. “Look,” I said. “Enough of that. Could you go sniff her instead?”

            He did. Hump wobbling, he hobbled off silently across the room toward an unsuspecting teenage girl. When she finally noticed she was being sniffed by a hunchback, she screamed. Then a woman in a witch costume (guess it was her place) tapped me on the shoulder.

            “Would you like to come and pet my pet wolverine?” she asked in an appropriately witchy voice.

            “Sure!” I said. I looked around, but apart from the fake fire under the bubbling cauldron, the room was awfully dark and I couldn’t see much. “Um, where is it?”

            “Ahead!” she barked.

            “Oh,” I said. “Okay.” I moved slowly ahead until I bumped into a table. On the table was a taxidermed mammal of some kind. Ah, Wisconsin, where such props are easy to come by. I began petting it as she suggested, then leaned in to get a better look. I stood up again.

            “I’m real sorry, ma’am,” I told her. “But I think someone cheated you. This isn’t a wolverine—it’s a badger. A young one, too, it looks like.”

            “Silence!” she screamed. Then she pointed toward a door on the far wall. “And get out! All of you out!”

            “I’m sorry,” I tried to apologize. “I just thought you should know.”

            “Out!”

            The few of us who were in the room filed out the door, which led to a rickety flight of wooden steps that led to the ground along the side of the house. I guess that was it, then. The whole trip through the house had only taken about fifteen or twenty minutes.

            I was starting to wonder how, exactly, I was going to find Brendan now. There were a lot of people there, and it was dark out. Then I saw him waiting with a few others at the bottom of the stairs.

            “So wha’d you think?” he asked.

            “That was great!” I told him. we started trading stories about our favorite parts and stopped paying attention to where we were going. Within minutes we were completely alone on an unlit and uneven dirt trail leading us lord knows where through the gnarled and dead trees. The trees had closed in around us, we’d lost sight of the house, and had no fucking idea how to get to the parking lot where his mom was waiting. I paused and listened for the noise of cars or the crowd. Then I pointed. “I think we need to go this way.”

            “You sure?”

            “Sounds like that’s where all the cars are.”

            Brendan led, still talking a mile a minute as we crunched through the dead leaves and branches, hoping for the best. It was only a small grove of trees I know, but we were small people and it was night and I was as lost as I’d ever been. It was all much more frightening than anything I’d seen in the house. Then I heard something. A rustle that neither of us had made.

            “Brendan?”

            He kept walking and talking, and I heard the sound again, coming from somewhere behind us.

            “Brendan, I think I heard something back there.”

            He finally stopped. “What?”

            “I heard something. It’s over there by that pile of leaves.”

            With that cue, the guy in the werewolf costume, the one who’d buried himself in that very same pile of leaves lord knows how many hours earlier just waiting for this opportunity, sprang out at us in an explosion of dead leaves, growling and waving his arms. If that wasn’t bad enough, he then began to chase us through the darkness and the trees. Brendan and I both shrieked like banshees and ran blindly, tripping, falling, scrambling to our feet and running some more, screaming all the way. All the lighthearted booga booga inside the house went straight out the window—this thing was gonna kill us.

            We didn’t stop until we hit the gravel parking lot, sweating and panting. I looked back toward the trees. I don’t know how much effort he’d actually put into chasing us, but he’d clearly headed back to his leaf pile already to rebury himself to wait for the next stupid kids to come down the wrong path. He probably bitched about pulling the assignment at first, but man when it works it’s magic. And stupid kids that we were, we couldn’t have scripted it any better for him.

            Brendan’s mom flashed the headlights and we crunched across the gravel parking lot toward the car. On the way home, proud of ourselves for having done it, we laughed and told stories and I put on the brave face again about everything except that fucking werewolf in the leaf pile. That son of a bitch scared the shit out of me, but not nearly as much as the prospect of returning to school on Monday if I hadn’t made it all the way through.

            Thinking back on it, it only strikes me now what an odd little conundrum that night represented. The expected fear—the fear of the unknown, the fear of ghouls, and goblins and sniffy hunchbacks—wasn’t enough to scare me away from the house, no, but a much more banal and tangible fear is what drove me to the house in the first place.

 

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