Monday, April 6, 2009

Why I Write This Stuff

The still I posted a few days ago of me as a werewolf and the Other Guy as a vampire reminds me of a Halloween story (which should rightly be told around Halloween, but that’s six months from now.) It’s as good a reason as any to show why I write horror.

Part of my misspent youth was misspent one autumn (1970) being a part of an ensemble group who put on a haunted house every fall. It was set in an abandoned Public Works building, no doubt reeking of asbestos, formaldehyde and other complex chemicals guaranteed to change your life, and not for the better. As a potential redress for a haunted house, though, it was perfect: lots of small rooms and corridors connecting them. We had a different monster for each room: as I recall, they were Frankenstein’s Monster (And yes, purists that we were, we drew the difference between the mad doctor and his creation); the Wolfman, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Ghoul. (The last was pretty much filler; we had six rooms, five of which had to have Something Nasty lurking in them.) The guide was a Mad Scientist, who had decided, for whatever obscure and twisted reason, to give guided tours of his castle/laboratory (which, judging from the monster menagerie, also contained an Egyptian tomb, a graveyard, an interior roofscape and a sizable chunk of Transylvania). Still, few complained about the set-up. (Not that they had a chance; in order to break even on the costs we had to move twelve people through there at least eight times. The overage, in case you wondered, went to charity. This was a labor of love for us, sometimes going until two or three a.m.)

We all took turns playing the monsters; everyone’s least favorite was, unsurprisingly, the Mummy, as it took nearly three roles of toilet paper to get the proper look. And after all that, all he could do was limp about pathetically. Don Glut was right: If you can’t outrun the Mummy, you deserve whatever happens to you.

My favorite was playing Dracula -- again, unsurprisingly. I got a great entrance, springing from a coffin (yes, it was a real coffin -- don’t ask.) and the biz with the cape and all. But best of all, I could act as Drac. My face wasn’t covered with a prosthetic doggy snout, or great whooping amounts of yak hair spirit-glued to my face; nor was it hidden by several dozen layers of toilet paper. I was free to suck the scenery dry. (We all, as I said, took turns as the various monsters; except for the Monster. Frankenstein’s creation was always played by a fellow named Rudy, who looked entirely too much like Glenn Strange's version of the Monster; glue a couple of electrodes to his neck and he was good to go. The only problem was that he was short. Seriously short. We wound up putting a pair of what one of the crew termed “express elevator boots” on him. The soles were over a foot thick. All he could do was break the cardboard straps that held him and step away from the inclined gurney, roar and wave his arms -- if he took another step he would fall flat on his face. Guaranteed.)

So. It’s the last tour of the Halloween show, and believe me, we’ve been doing a land-office business all night. We’ve collected large amounts of cash for the widows and orphans, and even though we’re young, we’re all pretty tired. Hurling open the lid of a coffin and leaping forth from it fifteen times in one night can take it out of you, even if you have the strength of the undead. We were all in agreement -- this was the last show for this year.

Outside, where the beetling cardboard battlements cast uneasy shadows and -- well, it was spooky, okay? Work with me -- the last tour group had gathered. Like the rest of them, they consisted mostly of pre-teens and early teens. Among them was a boy of around ten, who had begged and begged his parents to let him go on the Haunted House tour. His parents were initially against it, but finally his older brother (age fourteen) volunteered to take him. The reason for everyone’s initial hesitation? The kid had been in a wheelchair for the past year. Car accident.

I think we can all see where this is going.

And man, did it go there in style. I’m lying in my coffin (which is a phrase I’m not accustomed to typing), and my buddy who’s leading the tour (who’s also confusingly named Michael), gives me my cue. All carefully-orchestrated hell breaks loose: James Bernard’s soundtrack for Horror Of Dracula starts pounding the room; a strobe light (1970, remember?) goes off fast enough to give everyone there epilepsy, and I bound athletically out of the box, hitting my mark perfectly with my black wingtips. What with the strobe and all, I can’t see a bloody thing. Someone’s screaming, but then, someone’s always screaming. But these screams sound awful damn close -- and, more puzzling still, I don’t hear them dopplering away, accompanied by the pitter-patter of pounding feet. . .

Someone has the presence of mind to turn off the strobe, if not the music, and I realize that I’m literally looming over this poor kid, who’s out of his gourd now, screaming with abject terror (I can see his face as clearly now as I could then.) He can't even roll the wheelchair -- he's frozen. I’m standing there holding my cape spread wide, mouth open and my fangs (39¢ at Rexall Drugs) gleaming, looking like I’m about to devour this helpless kid. (Who’s all alone, by the way. His brother? Gone, babe. Little Warner Bros. puff of smoke dissipating behind him, and That's All, Folks.)

Someone finally remembers to turn off the music, I drop the character like a live grenade and ask him if he’s okay. He gradually comes back to Earth, his tachycardia at last dropping a bit south of Mach 1. His sheepish “¡No mas! ¡No mas!” brother is persuaded to come get him. By the time he does, the younger kid has rewritten the last half hour in his head -- in the new version, he was the only one with the balls to stay and face Dracula.

And -- I swear on a stack of The Origin of Species -- when he reaches the door, he twists around to look back at us, and says: “That was bitchin!” (Again: 1970.) “I want to go again!”

It very well could have been right then and there that I decided I wanted to scare people for a living.


orclgrl said...

Halloween - my favorite holiday! I must take a week off in order to prep for the festivities. Peeled grapes = eyeballs, cold lumped spaghetti = brains, third bag = treat - May the kids of our neighborhood remember to pass on the tricks they learn as I have.

"Black wingtips" = scariness has ensued!

Steve Perry said...

Oddly enough, kemosabe, I also ran a spook house on Hallowe'en in my misspent youth. Our contribution to originality was a spring-powered revolver that fired little plastic bullets which I had painted with a phosphorescent glow-in-the-dark green paint used for fishing lures. This was back in the day when such glow-in-the-dark things were hard to find.

In the middle of feeling the dead man's guts, in a pitch-dark room one of us would cut loose with the streaking missile whilst yelling "Kill them! Kill them all!"

Couldn't do that today, but it was the bomb way back in 1961 ...

Flintphone tomorrow?

Simon said...

That was an awesome story... In England, (at least when I grew up) I don't remember anybody doing haunted house 'shows' - unless you are taking about the Wax Museum's House of Horror stuff.