on friday, alison and i went back and forth reminiscing about the rotary sponsored haunted house in our little town every halloween. it was pretty great and i got to work in it for much of my high school career. it was big fun to get made-up and scare people and work the "scenes". the rotary club in town--for those of you unfamiliar with the rotary--is an organization of the various businesses and businessmen and women in the community and so there were a lot of great resources there for them to make scary stuff out of.
the local churches donated old black choir gowns for all of us to wear. the local pharmacy provided boxes of ghoulish make-up and kilmer's iga donated karo syrup and red food coloring for all the blood that was going to be needed. the rhinebeck hardware store sent a box of flashlights and batteries for all of the guides to carry. we'd all tease our hair and whiten it with baby powder, paint our faces white, black circles under our eyes, blood on our mouths--sometimes people would get creative with scars and gashes--but that was the standard look.
von husen's butcher shop/deli donated an authentic meat case and vicki's (dress shop) and the hudson valley department store donated some old mannequins and mannequin parts and there was your sweeney todd/horror butcher shop. add one kid wearing a bloody butcher's smock wielding a plastic cleaver and another lying on a table covered with blood and you got screaming kids!
the local funeral parlor donated a coffin and kids who weren't too claustrophobic got to be the vampire in the funerary scene.
there was a corner in the "darkened maze" that was boxed off and some bars put in so that joe paydon (or some other kid. but it was mostly joe or he'd beat you up.) could be the "wildman", reaching out through the florescent orange bars with his white gloves in the black light.
there was a haunted cornfield scene with a scarecrow that would come to life, a mad scientist/electric chair scene where the local beauty parlor had donated an old hair drying chair with that big cowling thing above that someone strung tiny christmas lights through to make it look like it was shocking you to death! there was a swamp scene with a plastic kiddy pool filled with brackish water and lined with sod, tree branches and spider webs, a few rubber snakes and spiders spray painted in neon green or yellow or orange to show up in the black lights.
one of the local electricians wired the place for sound and every scene had it's own unique scary serenade. there was maniacal calliope music in the butcher shop, the solitary sound of cawing crows in the cornfield, crickets and screeches in the swamp scene, and i can still to this day hear the loop of deep pipe organ music playing that crazy funeral dirge, muffled though, as if i'm waiting inside that dark coffin all over again...
those were the main-stays. the tried and true elements.
there were also new ones, three or four scenes each year that would be "experiments", unique.
in '79--thinking of what would be truly frightening to me--i suggested that they take advantage of the alien phenomenon and create a chest-burster scene; kid on a table, a harness over his/her chest, flexible plastic vacuum hose made up like the alien with tiny piranha teeth and a lever on the side to make it move and jump. they loved the idea but the execution was...lacking. it ended up being a kid laying under an obviously not connected appliance that look more like one of those can of snakes things. (i found out later that the guy who put it together had never seen the movie...) i never offered an idea again.
the first two years i worked the haunted house--9th and 10th grades--it was located in the barn next to the deli.
the next two (three actually--i came home from college a few days earlier to help out and be student coordinator one last time) the rotary had decided to build a very basic barn of their own up at the fairgrounds. local carpenters and contractors all came together that september to put this thing up in about a week--and it was beautiful!
it was really just a basic shack--not insulated, not heated, but it was tight and had plenty of extra room for a few extra scenes and even a second maze!
as the student coordinator, it was my job to do the "final sweep of the night" each night before locking it all up, to make sure that no one was still inside; some kids on a dare, maybe one or two of our kids also on a dare...
it was late by the time we closed up and, the first two nights, i insisted that i would be the last one in and out. it was my responsibility after all and so i sent everyone home and went in to do the sweep. the crazy thing was was that the house had never been wired for regular lights--all the fixtures were set up with either black light florescents or some other colored bulbs for one effect or another. and the sound system had been wired right into that. so, flashlight in hand, i had to go through the house with all the sound and lighting set to scare. and as soon as you start a project like that you realize that you need to check behind every bloody meat case and every coffin, check in every corner trying not to let your imagination see something--or someone--there. i did the sweep but have to admit that, when i finally got back outside to the cool, crisp autumn air, my heart was beating faster and my mouth was pretty dry.
the second night i realized, of course, that i could do it with everything turned off.
just me and the flashlight. in the dark.
and actually, that was a lot better. the black lights and the music, it turned out, had only fueled my already engaged imagination. there was a certain comfort and peace that second night with the flashlight as my only illumination. i checked everywhere, every nook and every corner, every maze and every room, and i could hear nothing but the wind outside.
i was almost done and stepping carefully around a huge mirror that had been laid on the floor of one scene, the ceiling above it decorated with some paper mache rocks and rats to make it look like you were looking down into a torture pit. you had to be careful--there wasn't much room to get around the mirror. i came around the corner, letting my flashlight beam stay ahead of me, to the final scene, the swamp scene.
in earlier years, this had always seemed to all of us kids to be a boring scene, an unmanned scene, no one worked it, no one jumped out at you from it. the adults from the rotary got this too and were constantly trying to "scare" it up, give it a little something more. one year they got scarier rubber snakes and spiders. the next, they used anti-freeze instead of water so that it would glow that eerie green in the black lights. the next, they added a small smoke machine to give the swamp some mist--but that had to be abandoned 'cause it was just too unreliable.
this year they added a doll.
half-submerged so that you could only see half her face and one tiny arm reaching out of the emerald water, someone had added a baby doll. i suppose the idea was that some lost little girl had dropped her favorite doll here in the middle of the marsh, but the doll was so life-like and so still that it could only look, at that moment, like a little drown baby to me. a small, small child that had somehow made it out to here--and, helpless--drowned.
someone had painted her too. lightly, with that florescent orange, so that she'd show up better in the blacks. it didn't make it easier for me there with my flashlight shining on her, her one eye peering out at nothing, lifeless.
i have had chills since then--of course, i have--but the shiver that ran up my spine--through my entire being--at that moment, was one that i will never, ever forget.
one of the scariest things i have ever seen was a doll laying in the water.