House of Haunted Houses.
The barker— a pallid, ectomorphic Jesus in a candy-striped vaudeville suit— stands atop a raised entry platform, swinging his cane and making tricks with his straw hat. He lets a little kid pull a chunk out of his beard; its patchiness suggests he’s been letting children do that for some time. Cane hooked on one arm, pulling his hat to his chest, he exclaims, “A wise man once said: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions.'” He stage-winks at the crowd, then flips his hat onto his head. “Common sense would indicate that perhaps he was mistranslated, BUT— as he was a representative of the highest authority—” he crosses himself, invertedly ” —we have deferred to the extant phrasing and provide you with a house full of houses, along with some random rooms that might comprise a house, were you to choose to engage in some non-euclidean architecture.” The barker engages in a bit of gratuitous soft-shoe.
“So go forth into the house-houses, and explore the hauntedness therein! As for myself—” the barker kicks open an onstage hatch and yelps as he avoids a plume of fire that leaps from the opening “—I’m going to pop down to this flaming lake and—” waggling his fingers “—do some light atoning for my blasphemy.”
“See you on the other side!” the barker says, and drops through the hatch with a scream. The hatch closes after him.
The room full of things that nearly hit you in the eye.
The room of falling from great heights.
The room that narrows to a series of crevices you must climb through to get out, and everyone crawls to a point in the crevices that is too small for them, and they wedge themselves into unyielding rock and cannot extract themselves, and they have done this of their own volition and ignorance, so there is shame in the panic as they yell for help.
The room full of people not acknowledging that you exist.
The world-famous “Room Where Secrets Are Revealed At The Worst Possible Time”
The building that was a roller rink when you were in elementary school, and is occasionally a roller rink again as you get older, where the paneling on the walls always stays the same.
The room where everyone looks exactly like you. When you say something, the duplicates say it too. Eventually they begin to speak your sentences before you start saying them. One of the duplicates starts talking about how this is freaking them out and they want to get out of here. The duplicate gets more and more upset, until finally it is crying, on the floor, in the fetal position, begging to be released from the room. Two of your friends are let into the room and begin to console the crying duplicate. You call out to your friends that you’re the real you, but all the other duplicates say your words in unison with you, and mimic your movements, so when you try to get closer to your friends, they block your path. Your friends pick up the crying duplicate and escort it out of the room while you struggle to reach them. One of your friends makes eye contact with you, but doesn’t recognize you at all. The door shuts behind them.
The perfunctory room full of clowns. And beyond that room, the room of mall Santas. And beyond that, the room of costumed theme park mascots. And beyond that, the room of unfamiliar spinster relatives in distant towns. And beyond that, the room of your parents’ acquaintances who wear powerful colognes and insist on calling you “Tiger” or “Sport” or “Muffin” or “Princess” even though no one is comfortable with it.
The room with a floor made of fine mesh stainless steel grating. Persons in hazmat suits lead a weeping hysterical person out of the room. A black hose hangs on one wall; at the end of the hose is a black gun-like attachment with a long thin pointed nozzle. The end of the nozzle drips. A person in a hazmat suit asks you to stand on your tiptoes. You are measured. Another person in a hazmat suit opens a door and gestures for you to go through it. You enter a small chamber with the same grating for a floor. The door shuts behind you. One small light illuminates the chamber. Pink gel begins to seep up through the floor grate. The gel is slightly cooler than your skin, just enough of a temperature differential to be noticeable. The chamber fills, past your knees, and thighs, and waist, and chest, and neck, and mouth. Standing on your tiptoes, you can crane your neck and still breathe, but you have no buoyancy as you would in water, and moving your limbs through the gel is cumbersome and tiring. The ceiling begins to lower.
The long hallway full of doors. As you open each door looking for the exit, a ghoulish figure jumps out and startles you. The timing of each of the ghouls is perfect, even though you prepare yourself for the scare, even though there is no variation from the “open door-startled by ghoul” pattern. When you open the last door (always the last door, no matter which door is the last), the ghoul stands in the revealed chamber, head down. You wait. The ghoul waits. Nothing happens.
The “Your First Sexual Experience” room: a maze of interconnected teenage bedrooms (see the popstar posters on the walls, feel the maudlin confessional diaries leap into your hands), backseats of cars, dark corners of parties at friends’ of friends’ houses , and other potentially “romantic” locales. Everywhere, just out of sight— downstairs, outside, in approaching cars— the parents lurk (they are monsters). You are given special pants to wear, puddled around your ankles, over your real pants. The final room is a honeymoon suite— as you lay next to your spouse, you feel at ease, finally safe, until your bride/groom rises from the bed and removes its mask and lets in the parents. The house is riddled with parents. From their ghastly monster faces, the parents begin to lecture. They’re not mad, just disappointed. No— wait— some of the fathers are mad. Very mad. Run.
The house on your childhood street that adults only speak of in hushed tones, or after telling you to go play with your friends. The adults will not share information about the house with you, what warrants their caution or fear. They don’t even tell you to avoid the house; all mention of the house is avoided. The adults will not risk invoking the house in the presence of children.
Playing with your friends, your ball flies over the house’s high backyard fence. The group plays rock-paper-scissors to see who goes and you lose. You creep up the driveway. The back half closest to the house is gravel, so you sacrifice speed for lower volume. Every halting step crunches, you cannot help but crunch, there is no silent ground to walk on. You scale the fence (which you are not good at, you snag your shirt while climbing and rip it as you get it free, and part of your brain tries to figure out how to hide or explain the tear to your parents) and drop onto a concrete patio slab. You sight the ball, glowing against the lush shaggy lawn, so far back in the yard. You keep yourself from flat-out running to the ball but in your haste you trip over a potted plant. The tinkling crash is the loudest sound you’ve ever made. Now you run for the ball and look up to find the easiest way to escape. The owner, an elderly man, stares at you from the back door of his house. You cannot move. The man walks toward you, and holds out his hand. As if by reflex, you hand him the ball. He grasps your shoulder with firmness and leads you inside.
At his silent direction, you sit at his dining room table (similar to one at your grandparents’ house, giant doily covering the top and a bowl of fake fruit at its center). He leaves. You hear him moving around in other rooms. The house is a little stuffy, and quiet except for a clock’s ticking, distant and muted – its seconds seem too long. No lights are on, the only light the sun from outside through the thin white curtains that cover every window, making defocused gauzy shapes of the rest of the neighborhood. Through the large bay window in the front room, you think you can see a couple of your friends, watching from behind bushes across the street, trying to determine if you have been killed.
A cabinet near the table, draped in another giant doily, displays dozens of framed pictures, all of the man (younger than he is now) and a woman. The man returns and sits across from you. He looks at the pictures on the cabinet, silhouetted by his kitchen windows. He opens his mouth but only air comes out. Time passes. You cannot speak. Finally, he turns to you and sets your ball on the table, next to the bowl of fruit. He gets up, walks across the front room and out of sight. You hear him climb some stairs to the second floor of the house. The front door is twenty feet away, a thousand miles away.
The house that is a mediocre haunted house. The scares are predictable, the sets and effects are cheap. Some walls fall over when you walk by. Several times you wander into the hiding places of the crew. There’s also a jarring lack of thematic unity: some parts of the house have an asylum motif, other parts are set on a spaceship, but there are Victorian-looking ghosts, and a Frankenstein(‘s monster), and some wolfpersons, and the place is riddled with performers playing underwhelming clowns, who think they are much creepier than they actually are. Clowns, you think, are overrated.
After reaching the end – a rotating tunnel with LED lighting intended, but failing, to induce vertigo – you complain to the manager. The manager is very apologetic, explains that his haunted house lost some good scarers in the off-season, and funds have been tight, and some of the new effects ended up not working at all and had to be scrapped, and his mother has been sick, but here is a refund, here are free passes, please don’t speak ill of the house, it’s doing its best. You say you won’t, and you leave.
The next day you are arrested for the murder of the haunted house manager, who has been stabbed to death. The prosecution has a strong circumstantial case, and your fingerprints on the murder weapon, which you remember handling while you passed through the haunted house and dismissing as a very fake-looking prop. You proclaim your innocence, but the prosecution’s case falls apart due to a series of procedural errors, including the disappearance of the victim’s corpse. The court declares a mistrial, and the DA has no plans to re-prosecute. However, the lack of a conviction does not have the same benevolent purgative effect that a not-guilty verdict would have. You are not guilty, but you are not not guilty either. Trial costs have consumed your savings. Friends and loved ones treat you with a cold, polite distance. You lose your job. The manager’s body and his murderer are never found.
Years later, you feel compelled to drive into the country. You pull to the shoulder on a desolate stretch of road, walk into a dense-packed thicket of trees, and begin digging. You dig for a long time, with your hands, in a fugue state, raking the earth with your fingers, through dead leaves and topsoil and moist earth and clay. Winded, shirt clinging to your sweat-glazed back, you fall away from the crater you’ve gouged in the ground. The manager’s ruined face stares up at you from the hole. Back on the road, a car has pulled over next to yours. The driver is walking toward you, asking if you need help. He’s almost reached the trees.
The haunted house ends in front of the same stage where it began, though you have no memory of how you returned there. The stage hatch bursts open and the barker leaps out, arms stretched wide, faintly smoking. “Welcome back! I hope your wanderings have left you sufficiently terrified. Though our time together has ended, please accept—” he reaches into a pocket and holds up “—this complimentary keychain, which looks like a miniature house, for reasons that I hope are obvious.” The barker leans from the edge of the stage to distribute the mementos, cane hooked on his keychain-passing arm, and holds out the little house. “Of course,” he says,” you don’t have to take a souvenir. Your body is a temple, which is a kind of house, complete with ghostly inhabitant, and that may be all the haunting reminder you need.” The barker smiles and taps the side of his head three times with his free hand.