I dropped the bloody ax to the ground and dragged it behind me down the hallway. This eerie thudding sound caused the couple in front of me to glance nervously over their shoulders and pick up their pace, feeling along the walls as they went. I knew they couldn’t see me in the darkness. They had just been semi-blinded by bright lights in the last room they were in and I was dressed all in black, with even my face shrouded. I also knew they were about to run into a dead end. As they felt along the wall and realized their mistake, they turned back with trepidation and strained to see who or what was following behind them. I froze in place making it more difficult for them to focus on me and watched their panicked eyes dart back and forth, the young woman grabbing her partner’s arm. As they turned sideways to continue seeking their escape, I slowly picked up the ax. The spotlight blasted on above me.
“Raaaaaaaagghhhhh!” I screamed angrily, swinging the ax towards them, but falling several feet short.
Now I was in full view clutching an ax dripping with blood with one hand and holding a disembodied head against my chest with the other. The predictable scream followed. It was amazing how much a 30-year-old man could sound like an 8-year-old girl in a moment of terror. The woman with him burst out laughing and pointed at him as she bent over in hysterics. Embarrassing. Poor guy. I’d already watched them go through the first two rooms with my co-actors. Initially, the woman had appeared to be the vulnerable one. She’d startled and ran away from every character that jumped out at her. The guy hadn’t even flinched at the first couple of scares. Now it appeared the shoe was on the other foot. Maybe he just had a particular fear of headless ghosts with axes. They ran, almost falling over each other, bouncing into another wall before backtracking, taking one last frightened glance at me and finally discovering the exit and scrambling towards the next room in the house maze. I smiled and slipped back through the trap door to leave them to continue their trek through the house.
It was Halloween night; we were expecting our biggest crowd of the season at the Broken Doll House, our local haunted house attraction. I quickly retreated to the central blue room; named for the black lights that kept the room illuminated and our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the house maze. I had to get ready for my next victims. Rick, a fellow actor, was also in the room, dressed all in black, wearing a crazy spiked grey wig, his zombie painted eye pressed up against a wall, peeping into the 4th room, getting ready to make his appearance known.
The house was set up with a central corridor that allowed the actors to sweep through, get eyes on a room and pop in and out quickly through a series of trap doors. It was also where we hung out together when things were quiet or we had to pass along information to our fellow workers. Warnings about drunk visitors itching for fights, or a child we thought a little too young to handle the level of fright we could dish out. We worked as a team, sometimes two of us would join up in a room to work in tandem. The victims would jump from one scare, retreat to the opposite wall in the room only to have the second actor pop out. Or we’d set up a scene of a victim being tortured by the sociopath. We liked to get creative and mix things up sometimes, just to keep it fun and amuse ourselves for the six weeks we were open each year.
“Hey,” I whispered, nodding to Rick. He turned from his peeping and nodded towards me. I’d worked here for 4 weeks with Rick almost every shift, yet, I still didn’t know what he looked like. His ghoulish face paint is all I remembered. I likely wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him in the street in the daylight. As for me, well, I often wore a dark hood over my entire head and carried my other head in my hands. So, Rick had never seen me either. That probably applied to most the people here. I knew a few out of costume from when we met on orientation day but some of them had come and gone already. New actors and characters showed up in their place.
“Hey Ben,” Rick whispered back. “Busy night”.
A long, deep groan came from Room 4 and this time a medley of female screams. Shouts came from Room 1. Another scream. Another shout. A lot of giggles.
A trap door opened into the corridor and Vanessa jumped in, laughing. She was covered in blood dripping from her neck down onto her ripped wedding dress. She wore a blond wig that appeared to be sporting some serious bedhead. In her hand was a huge butcher’s knife. She spotted me and smiled. “Hey Ben!”
I returned the smile. Vanessa was one of the long-timers here. She’d been doing this job for multiple seasons now. Unlike most of the rest of us, she took this job and her acting seriously. She used the experience to pump up her CV. She also really seemed to get a high from scaring the visitors, especially the women and most especially the pretty young ones. I suspected there might have been some ‘mean girl’ bullying in her past.
She was still laughing. “I got her to piss herself!” This was considered an honor here. It also happened more than I ever knew. This past season we’d had numerous people lose control of their bladders. Wouldn’t you think people would visit the restroom before diving into a haunted house? We had also had one heart attack and one seizure. For those types of events, we had an emergency button in each room that would turn on all the lights on and set an alarm off. Full stop on the proceedings. Luckily, both of those visitors fully recovered.
Rick silently opened one of the trap doors into Room 4 and, without looking back, slipped out of the blue room and back into his character.
Vanessa raced over to the peep hole into Room 6 and pressed her entire face against it, leaning her hands on either side to brace herself. “Do you know who’s playing Rose tonight?” she asked without turning away from the peep hole. “She’s fantastic!”
“No idea. I’d heard Marie was sick though.” I had just started my shift. I hadn’t made it into Room 6 yet this evening. I was to make an appearance there next, still looking to score a new head with my ax.
“OMG! She just scared the shit out of that kid,” Julie said. “How is she able to use that lighting technique?”
I didn’t have time to ask what she meant. I was due up in that room to chase that same couple again. My job was to essentially to keep the visitors moving. We were a volume business. And we didn’t want anyone taking too much time to look around or stare at the actors too closely. It spoiled the illusion.
I pushed up the trap door built into the slanted ceiling of the blue room, lifted my fake head up and stuck it in first, then hoisted myself up, disappearing into the darkness. There was a small corridor that led me into the back of Room 6. I looked through the second peephole here and saw that “Rose” had them distracted enough for me to gently push the backdoor open and silently step in about six feet behind them.
“Rose” was set up in her rocking chair, a full-grown woman dressed in a little girl’s dress and shoes, her hair in pigtails, snuggling her baby. At least you assume that’s what it is. It’s a bundle she holds and coos to. The room was decorated in dolls parts. Heads stuck to the wall, various disembodied dolls set up on shelves, their eyes (if they had two) seeming to follow you. Across from Rose is a large crib. It contains a few scruffy and ripped stuffed animals and a bunched-up set of blankets. This room gave me the creeps even in the daytime. There was no blood or gore. It just caused your imagination to reach into dark corners in guessing what happened in this child’s room. Or what might happen.
I stayed silent, watching Rose. She slowly lifted her eyes from her ‘baby’ and studied at the two teenage boys in front of her. They each took a step back. Using a deep, scratchy sound voice straight out of the Exorcist, she asked “Do you want to see my baby?” She held up her bundle and started to unwrap it.
The boys simultaneously shook their heads. “No thanks!” one of them exclaimed.
I swiftly moved up behind them, dragging my ax. The other one turned and saw me. He hit his buddy on the arm and nodded towards me with panicked eyes. They both rushed out of the room. I didn’t even have time to raise the ax.
I turned back to Rose to say hi and hopefully introduce myself. We had a few minutes before the next ‘guests’ arrived. Her head was bent over the bundle in her arms, and she appeared to be talking softly to it, still pushing the rocker with her feet.
“Hi,” I stage whispered.
She didn’t look up; still apparently keeping character. The spotlight, always over the Rose character to draw others in, switched off. Then on, then back off again. Candles that I hadn’t even noticed before starting lighting up around the room. They were those battery-operated ones with realistic flickering lights. At least that’s what I assumed since they must be on a timer. Rose kept rocking.
“What’s with the lights?” I asked.
I was supposed to creep out of the shadows to surprise the guests while they were focused on Rose. But my corner of the room near the trap door was now lit up. The woman playing Rose swung her head up from the baby and leveled her dark eyes towards me. Every hair on my arms and the back of my neck rose and a chill swept over me. I was struck with the urgent need to get away. Fast.
Hearing the creaking chains and a loud burst of music from Room 5 next door, I dashed to the trap door to let myself out. With this new light setup, I wasn’t sure how I was going to sneak back in for my turn without drawing attention. Or if I even wanted to.
I pressed my eye to the peephole and waited. ‘Rose’ remained where she was, rocking and cooing to her baby again.
The couple that I’d met in Room 3 entered the room. The woman was laughing a bit hysterically and the guy looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here. I assumed it had been her idea to come here tonight.
They both stopped just inside the entrance to the room and looked around; marveling and pointing at all the various dolls along the walls. These were intended just to set the creepy mood but they focus was supposed to instantly be on ‘Rose’. I glanced over at the actor. She’d stopped rocking. She had lifted her head and was staring at the new victims.
“David,” she said, in that scratchy deep voice.
The man, presumedly David, froze and his eyes scanned the room until he locked on Rose. His face turned white and his eyes widened. His body started to violently shake but he remained upright. It was almost like his skeleton was trying to escape his physical body.
Something wasn’t right. I tried to open the trap door, thinking I should get in there in case I needed to hit the emergency button. The door wouldn’t budge. I yanked harder. Nothing. I’d just opened and closed it. How could it be stuck? I put my eye back to the peep hole.
The girlfriend started to laugh nervously again but then glanced at David and realized how hard he was shaking and how white he had turned. Her smile was replaced with a concerned frown. She reached out a hand to grab his arm. “Are you ok?”
“David,” Rose said again, softer this time, not using the scratchy deep voice this time. She’d risen from the rocking chair, still cradling the baby in her arms, pressing it tightly against her chest.
David had stopped shaking as violently, but now was bent over, his hands on his thighs, and looking like he might throw up. He took several loud deep breaths, finally calmed down a little and straightened back up.
He stared at Rose, his eyes searching her face, his breath still coming too rapidly. “How?” he asked. “Who are you?”
Rose smiled. “I told you I would never leave you,” she said, in a normal voice.
David swore. “Ok, that’s enough!” he shouted at Rose. He spun around, searching the walls and ceiling of the room. “I’ve had enough of this bull***!! Does anyone hear me?”
Rose stopped smiling. “David, I thought you’d be happy to see me,” she said. Her lip jutted out a little into a pout.
David didn’t address her. He turned to his girlfriend. “We’re out of here. NOW!” He grabbed her arm and headed towards what he thought was the exit. Instead, it was an illusion – it was actually part of the wall. He bounced off it, circled around, the girlfriend still attached to his hand.
“Do you know this woman?” the girlfriend asked, sounding confused and angry now.
Suddenly the candles around the room went out and they were plunged into darkness. I tried the trap door again. It still wouldn’t budge. I was trying to decide if I should dash back to the blue room for help or wait it out. Maybe this was all part of the act and I’d spoil it.
The girlfriend screamed. David yelled again “Let us out of here!”
The spotlight came back on above Rose and the baby in her arms. She was bent over the bundle again, appearing to kiss it.
David and the girlfriend were about six feet away from Rose, still not turned in the direction of the correct exit door.
ose took a couple of steps forward and lifted her eyes to David. Her face was now wet with tears. “David, I’ve missed you. Do you want to see our baby?” She started to unwrap the bundle. “He’s beautiful.”
David screamed, “No!” and ran, cursing, this time managing to find the correct exit, leaving the girlfriend behind to try to follow him.
The room was plunged into darkness again. I could no longer see Rose. I tried the trap door one more time and it still wouldn’t budge. I spun around, ran back down the tiny corridor and lifted myself back down into the blue room. No other actors were there. I quickly headed towards the exit door.
I reached it just before David and the girlfriend dashed past me. He ran up to the main office window and started screaming at the cashier there. People in the line up outside moved back out of his way.
“What the hell was that?” he screamed. “You people are nuts! How DARE you!”
The girlfriend tried to interject, apologizing and asking him to calm down.
I jogged up behind them. “Hey man, I saw what happened in there,” I said
He spun around and I felt a wave of angry energy blasted in my direction. “You SAW what happened? Are you in charge here?” he demanded.
“No, no. I’m just one of the actors. That was really weird. Rose is one of our regular characters, but that actress is new. I’m so sorry if she scared you that badly.” I said. We got used to apologizing to overstimulated guests.
He shook his head. I realized his hands were still violently shaking. “Do you know who that girl was?” he asked. “Do you?”
The crowd in line was now silent, listening in on every word. Probably thinking this guy couldn’t handle a Haunted House on Halloween.
“No, man. Like I said, she’s new.”
“Oh my God,” he said slowly. “She’s not…NEW.” He practically spit the word out.
“She’s my wife,” he stated.
“What?” the girlfriend asks, her mouth dropping open.
He shook his head again. “I mean, she was my wife. That was Beth.”
I jumped in, trying still to appease the situation. “I’m so sorry. She must have been messing with you. I don’t know how she got in there.”
Both his hands went to his head, grabbing big chunks of his hair, his hands still shaking, his breath still coming in and out way too fast. His knees wobbled. I instinctively took a step towards him, hoping to reassure him it was all just good-natured Halloween fun.
David looked me straight in the eye. “My wife is dead. She died a year ago.”
“What?” I shook my head as did the girlfriend who now had a hand covering her mouth and had taken a step back.
“She died during labor. And…” His voice caught and he sobbed.
“We had a son. He died with her.”
With that, David’s knees gave out and I didn’t react fast enough to catch him as he collapsed on the pavement.