Creature Feature 

The Horrific Allure of the Haunted House

The Horrific Allure of the Haunted House

Text by Jim Ridley; Photos by Eric England

At some point during the next week, it is likely that you, like thousands of other Middle Tennesseans, will violate every rule of common sense and behave like a certifiable idiot. You will drive to dimly lit warehouses and tiptoe into sepulchral woods. You will walk up to doorways that are streaked with cobwebs and blood. Then you will venture inside to be chased with cleavers, axes, and chainsaws—a privilege for which you’ll pay $10 or more. Didn’t you learn anything from horror movies?

You did, of course. You learned not to accept rides from strangers, especially those wearing hockey masks or, worse yet, masks made from human scalps. You learned not to shower in roadside motels, especially when the concierge is mummified. You learned not to make out with your girlfriend on Lovers’ Lane—not unless you wanted to find a bloody hook on your door handle. But sometimes a vicarious brush with your darkest fears is not enough. Every so often, you still need to face the monsters in the flesh. Every October, you get the chance.

I was all of 5 years old when I went to my first commercial haunted house. It was sponsored by a local radio station at a decrepit old Murfreesboro frat house, which was strung with orange crepe paper and bedecked with skeletons. (In retrospect, the frat house looked a lot scarier on any regular Saturday night.) I don’t know what possessed my father to take along a 5-year-old who shrieked at the sight of a cricket. It was probably the same sadistic impulse that made him creep outside my window with a rattling glow-in-the-dark skull, or made him place a gnarled rubber witch’s hand under the lid of our commode. Whatever the reason, one cold October night I was wedged between my father and my uncle Bid in a line that slooo-o-owly inched into the darkened maw of the front door of the frat house.

My memories of that night are vivid only because my family has rehashed them so many times. They love to tell how I had to be dragged through the entrance when a bloodthirsty ghoul—actually a Jaycee in a bedsheet—materialized to collect our money. How I screamed and wailed so hard at the Chamber of Horrors that my uncle and my father had to inch their way backward out of the house because I wouldn’t take another step forward.

The main thing I remember, though, besides a man in a gorilla suit who was just a little too enthusiastic about his role, was the wait. Nothing in the house—no ghost, no chainsaw-wielding maniac, no escaped mental patient with a shopping cart full of limbs—could live up to the horrors I imagined while standing outside in that line in the dark.

As I went back year after year, the anticipation remained the most frightening part, especially after the kids at school promised a maelstrom of gore and guts and grisly sights. By that time, going through the house itself was just a formality, an exercise that gave you bragging rights when you went to school the next day. You went through the haaunted house for two reasons: so that you could act as if it were the most normal experience in the world to have a power drill held inches from your eyeball, and then to use the details to scare the hell out of kids even tinier and more timid than yourself.

This, I understand now, is what my father wanted to teach me, and it is why parents line up every October to drag their quaking kids through lurid pits of ersatz bloodshed. Like a snipe hunt, it’s a peculiar rite of passage. To walk through a haunted house, with its blood-red lighting and its gallery of grue-smeared ghouls, is to confront the monster that lives under every kid’s bed. You see it grab for you, but it never quite reaches you. You feel the brush of its claws and its hot breath on your neck. Around every corner you face a new monster, each more horrible than the last. But in the end, you walk out into the night air unharmed.

Until last week, I hadn’t been to a live spook show since I was 12. Haunted houses have changed quite a bit since I was a determinedly blasé preteen. They rely more on horror-movie franchises like Halloween and Hellraiser for their imagery, and the blood-and-body-part quotient is a lot higher for a generation bottle-fed on cable TV. But the experience is essentially the same. You wait for interminable minutes while the people in front of you gradually disappear inside. Screams, the sounds of revving saws, and loud music issue from behind the door. When your time has come, you too venture into the darkness. And then...well, that’s something you must discover for yourself. More important than facing what’s inside is facing what you think will be inside.

Last week, at a Gallatin Road horror house, I saw a couple ushering a wide-eyed 7-year-old up to the front counter, and I was overcome with fondness for the nightmare material of my youth. The things that scare me most these days have nothing to do with werewolves and vampires. The biggest horrors in my life right now are a high risk for heart disease and a rising mortgage rate. But there was a time when the secrets of the haunted house were the scariest things I could imagine, as the kid at the counter reminded me. He put on a brave face, but his gaze kept returning to a hand-lettered sign that foretold an unending night of terrors. By the time the vault door opened and a bony hand beckoned him inside, he was clutching his father’s hand.

I didn’t tell him that 45 minutes later he’d emerge on the other side, frightened but exhilarated and ready to scare his friends with the bloody details. He would go on to a life filled with joys even more elating, and fears even more complex. And he too would probably return someday with a 7-year-old of his own. When the door opened, I felt the same tickle of apprehension I had felt when I was a kid, and it felt good. Sometimes even adults need to be reminded that the worst they can imagine is a whole lot scarier than the worst that actually lies ahead.

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