by Julie Trout
Jake was happy with any holiday, but Kirsten had a favorite. Halloween. We dressed up, carved pumpkins, baked goodies, ate candy, and decorated the house with spiderwebs and green glitter. I loved watching my kids run from house to house with wide eyes and open bags. I rarely had to say, “What do you say now?” They were both thankful.
One year when my kids were older, Jake 16 years old, and Kirsten 12, we went to Pleasanton Fairgrounds with a few of their friends. My husband and I went through the first haunted house with our kids and their friends in a tight bunch. It was a spooky pirate-themed house. We were immediately greeted by a swamp creature who was trying to grab at our legs. Kirsten was startled and kicked the poor thing but apologized quickly while Jake doubled over in laughter. I wasn’t sure if I was more impressed or freaked out that the swamp monster never broke character and kept coming after us.
The next house was a series of closets, some with ghosts popping out of boxes and “others” who followed us, floating in and out of the hanging evening gowns and dress shirts. Lots of ghostly eyes followed us from room to room. It was clear each house was going to get progressively creepier.
I remember feeling it was such a weird concept that we had actually paid these people to scare us. What were we thinking? Kirsten kept saying, “Because it’s fun!” I objected to my husband having me in front of him because I had to take all the shock and awe of being first, and after going halfway through that house, I switched places with him not knowing when you’re in the back things come up from behind you as well and that was even scarier. Unfortunately, I made enough of a big deal out of not leading the way, possibly using a few expletives, that I was stuck in the rear position for the rest of the night.
The next house was a chain saw massacre theme. I did not want to go! But I was sure I could get through it because it was the second to the last house. We were almost done. I had felt a sickening mix of mama bear and ego protection mode that was pushed by teenager peer pressure, so I went on. I told myself I didn’t have to look but when we turned that first corner, and the blood splatter was running down the walls I couldn’t stop looking.
Kirsten had gotten ahead out far ahead of me with a thinning group of friends in the next room and that’s when I heard buzzing and screams. Then the distinctive sound of my child in pain. Real pain. I ran ahead to find Kirsten alone. Everyone else had run into the next room, having been chased by chainsaw man. Kirsten was holding her head, wincing, and explained that Sarah, a friend from school, had reflexively thrown herself backwards into Kirsten when a bloodied man started up his chainsaw which sent my child’s head into the corner of an ornate picture frame.
It was dark enough that I wasn’t sure if there was any actual blood but, I could feel a knot at the back of Kirsten’s head and that was enough for me to yell out, “Hey” to chainsaw man when he had come back in the room to start up his act again. He did hesitate, but he wasn’t convinced he should stop until I said, “There’s an injury here. Please don’t start that!” He nodded and when I said, “We need to get my kid out of here. They’re hurt.”
He snapped out of character. “Oh, okay. Come through here.” I hate to admit it but at first, I was elated that I didn’t have to endure any more rooms in that house and then, since I didn’t know where my husband was, I just allowed that bloody man to guide Kirsten and me through the hidden backstage passageways.
I was almost sure this bloodied man was a decent guy but, as we walked on, I could not help thinking about how that theme park had been set up by bikers and carnival people and what a perfectly crafted stereotypical setup for a Steven King novel. I mean think about it–this bloodied character could’ve been anyone, taking us anywhere, in those behind-the-scenes spaces that had allowed the actors to pop in and out of different rooms. I prayed that I wasn’t allowing a bad character to lead Kirsten and me into a real-life horror story. Could I have made the ultimate in bad choices just like the women on screen in those B flicks who I have personally screamed at for years, “Why would you do that?”
But he did finally open the last chamber of the maze that led us outside where the air smelled like freedom. It had that clean, clear, fresh scent with a hint of sweet kettle corn. We both checked Kirsten’s head and although it would leave a mark there wasn’t any need of stitches. I told bloody man he could go. He apologized politely and went back to scaring other children.
We stood outside of the last house staring at a sign above the door that read “Psycho-Murder Nightmares.” The distorted high-pitched screams that were piped out of the speakers at the eaves were so loud I felt they had rattled through my entire body. I was thankful Kirsten did not want to go in. I have never again purposely gone through another darkened door of any kind of carnival since! I’m sticking to baking pumpkin cookies and sprinkling green glitter on fake spiderwebs.