Secrets of a Haunted House
by Zoe Schwartz
It was a dark and stormy October evening in 1998. (Ed. — Scared yet?) I was wearing new pants from Delia*s and my heart was racing, beating faster than the rhythm of Chumbawamba’s current hit song, “Tubthumping.” I was about to go to my first haunted house. Despite my intense adolescent fear of what lay ahead that evening, I allowed my 8th grade classmates to push me onto the school bus that had been rented for this after-hours field trip. We were going to four different haunts that evening, which offered too many opportunities for me to embarrass my scaredey-cat self in front of Adam E. Um, Adam who? Only the HOTTEST guy at Forest Park Middle School! Crush of all crushes.
When we got to the first house, a miracle happened: I ended up right behind Adam. We entered the dark building and my fears were pushed aside by how close I was to this 13-year-old MAN with his basketball team-defined arms and awesome shaved head. Something popped out at us, a dead nurse maybe, and I grabbed his arm. To my surprise, he did not pull away, but continued to offer his limb as a protective talisman from the horror that lay ahead. My heart beat out of my chest, my brain swelled, my body ached with longing, and I was so pumped up on that crush adrenaline I barely noticed the bloody monsters around me. We came out of the house and I was the highest I had ever been.
Luckily, we still had three more stops on the tour, and this feeling was present in every slight touch and dark room we walked through that night. From that moment on, haunted houses became a site of sexual tension and excitement for me, and that mixed with crazy frightful adrenaline created the biggest boy buzz ever. I continued to force boys I liked to go to haunted houses with me well into my 20s, just so that I could experience that same innocent tension over and over again. That is, until I worked in a haunted house last year.
“Chronicles of the Cursed” is a non-famous haunted house in Chicago. I was born and raised there (in Chicago, not in the haunted house), and had never really lived anywhere else. I’d just spent nine months thinking I was going to FINALLY leave and move to Austin — I did that thing where you quit all your jobs and tell everyone as dramatically as you can that you’re headed out of town and “never coming back!” But as my departure date drew near, I wimped out. So there I was: broke, jobless, and feeling a little embarrassed and salty about my life.
One evening at the grocery store I was contemplating which brand of beans to buy for dinner for the fifth night in a row when I was contacted by a casting agent friend who told me a new haunted house, “Chronicles of the Cursed,” was hiring actors to be the scary people. It paid “a lot” per night and they were very much in need of participants, so no audition was necessary! The palpable desperation should have been a sign of ooky-spooky troubles ahead, but all I could think of was the sexy feelings I had associated with haunted houses in the past, and how this could be a great opportunity to gain some sweet love tension, some acting experience, and some money. I took the job.
I was coming in a week after the house opened to the public, so I missed the rehearsal process and was thrown in with no direction or monster guidance. I showed up to the haunted house and was directed to a green room filled with lines of people half-dressed as monsters and waiting to get their make-up airbrushed on. I was anxious to meet my new co-workers and to see what other out-of-work actor/hotties I might be able to make out with in some foreboding corner. After a few introductions and room scans it seemed Love-Lady Luck hadn’t shown. She may have even been out of the country. However, a few characters did stand out:
“Omaha.” He was the skipper of the haunt, a young passionate guy who was usually yelling at someone to apply more realistic looking fake blood.
“The Boss.” He was distant, cold, and always wore a black hoodie. He would criticize our performances, saying things like someone’s scare wasn’t “committed” enough.
“The Mean Older Guy.” He must’ve had some ownership in the house. He’d occasionally appear in face paint and jump into the house and join in the scaring. I once saw him and his wife (or something) making out behind the tent.
“Super Weird Guy Who Was Always in Character” (who may have really had some kind of legit mental disorder). He always wore overalls with no shirt and carried about a (fake?) chain saw.
“Man In White Face and Top Hat Who Carried Around a (fake?) Rat.”
Aside from these main players, there were a lot of off-season Ren’ Faire employees dressing up as crazy factory workers/dead little girls for a month. Sadly, there were so few options for love it was SCARY. Speaking of scary, the house itself was terrifying. Not necessarily in the content, but in the curving hallways and dimly lit small rooms. Because I came in late, I never got the full tour and didn’t know my way around or the secret exits and entrances. I could have died in there! Or gotten stuck in a corner with that guy in the top hat with the rat. I was first assigned to populate The Tomb, for which a spindly punk kid who was one clothing tear away from being Sid Vicious, but not in a cool way, dressed me as a monk. (You had to leave an ID as collateral with mini Sid so you didn’t steal the giant spider mask or monk robes. Because I totally would have stolen those size 16, musty monk robes!) Once I was frighteningly clad, I stood in a window in a room that looked like a not-so-great replica of an 18th-century Roman chapel (but not in a cool way) and acted like a statue. Then when someone walked by, I would pop out at them!
I don’t want to toot my own hearse horn, but I was so good at embodying a monk that Omaha decided to move me to a more challenging location. I was promoted to the Zombie Room. It had coffins on the wall and a Scare Hole for me to pop out of. Oh, you aren’t familiar with the term “Scare Hole”? Well, it’s a hidden cubby in which one hides and then jumps out to scare haunted house patrons. I was in that room with “Tall Ben,” who was generally stoned and really tall. The most potentially exciting element of becoming a Zombie was that I was given a full face of elaborate air-brushed make-up, and the make-up lady (who had blond hair down to her knees, combat boots, spikey silver rings, and played the same ICP song on repeat) artfully turned me into a hideous, undead scoundrel. I was also given a mini-seminar of scare tactics from The Boss:
The Pop Scare: Use your Scare Hole. Jump out of there, scream in the patron’s face, and then zip back into your little cave. Get in and get out.
The Prolonged Scare: Get ’em there and keep ’em there. The scary comes from not getting out of their faces. More opportunity to get punched by a drunk teenage girl.
The Creep Up: All of a sudden… YOU ARE NEXT TO SOMEONE! THEY DIDN’T EXPECT YOU TO BE THERE!
Having these new candy corn kernels of knowledge really spiced up the work day. I was able to be much more productive with my scaring. And boy did I scare the SHIT out of those drunken high school kids who came through “Chronicles of the Cursed.” They would wander in, their masses huddled, and I or my non-sexy co-workers would jump out of a scare hole at them, and they would flip their shit. The girls would get kind of slappy, trying to push the scare-er away with their flailing hands or cell phone light. But the dudes… THE DUDES THREW PUNCHES. Big guys who were trying to assert their masculinity in a group of hot lady dates would get a little freaked out and try to take the monster or zombie’s head off. You could usually smell the Red Bull and vodka seeping out of their pores. There was one night where a slightly older lady, who was among the haunted house veterans, got punched right in the face after she snuck up on a guy with her prop rolling pin. Real blood washed away her fake blood (is this a Coldplay song?), causing everyone in nearby rooms to seriously reconsider coming back the next night. The threat of personal safety wasn’t the only thing having me contemplate just walking out of my contract; that tent was hella cold. Chicago in late October may as well be early December and I was standing in a drafty, non-heated, outdoor tent, wearing a ripped long sleeve shirt and leggings. It was miserable. By the last weekend, when the cold really set in, I sure was missing my cozy old monk robes.
On one of my last nights, I stood there, stewing in my angry zombie juices while some 13-year-old girl flung her Hannah Montana backpack at me, and I suddenly saw myself in her. I wanted to grab her and yell, “It may be fun now, walking through here with that boyfriend you’ve never even really kissed, but never let yourself see the other side. NEVER! QUICK! Run while you still can! Hold on to your adolescence! GET OUT OF ‘CHRONICLES OF THE CURSED’! ” Because the scariest thing about working at a haunted house is knowing that you will never be able to walk through one and feel a twinge of sexual excitement again.
Zoe Schwartz recently moved to Brooklyn and is currently seeking a career in comedy and new/sexy fall activities.