I read a blog called Pumpkinrot. The writer loves Halloween images, haunted houses and the like. When I see one of those posts, I get a chill, thinking about the one, you know, "that" one -- the greatest haunted house of all time.
It took forever, in child time, to summon the nerve to stand in line for the haunted house at the school fall festival. This was big. The usual icons were there, hay bails and pumpkin mounds, dunking for apples and a cake walk. I cannot pass up a cake walk to this day. Cakes leap off the table into my sister's hands. I have yet to win one.
We all loved the jail. For a dime, we could have anyone hauled off to a classroom slammer (how fitting) guarded by "deputies." Adding insult to injury, the inmate had to pay a dime for bail. There were a few escapes, through unlocked windows. I know because I spent so much time there. I blamed my older brother. It was a cheap way to get rid of a pesky little sister.
But the greatest attraction of all was the haunted house. My brother must have run out of jail money because finally I ended up near the front of the line. The "house" was set up on the stage in the gym. The seniors, I think, were running the show.
The brave dropped their admission tickets into an old cigar box at the edge of the heavy velvet curtain on one end and disappeared. I heard shuffles and clunks and things dropping, loud screams, yelps, running. There were sounds of shuffling and dragging. Bodies? Were there murders being committed? I counted, carefully trying to keep up with the people who went in at one end and the number coming out. Hysteria began to close in, did that girl ever come out? Did she?
It was horrible and thrilling. I wanted my mother, but at the same time fretted she would show up and drag me away, citing the nightmares and sleepwalking I was sure to commit if I went through the haunted house.
I waited. I'm sure I jumped from foot to foot, wrapping thin arms around my body, tighter and tighter.
I saw my brother. He went in. Good, I thought, keep him. No don't. Just teach him a lesson. The sounds started up. Yelling, not him. Shrieks. Running. Louder and louder. Where WERE my parents? Always hovering when they weren't wanted, never when I needed them. How could they have allowed this to happen? No one had stayed in the haunted house that long. Silence. Oh God. HE'S DEAD THE HAUNTED HOUSE KILLED HIM!
Suddenly, he popped out, pushing back the heavy velvet curtain. He was blindfolded and doubled over. Injured? That's okay, he could live. He straightened up and threw off the blindfold. His face was red, in a grimace. He began to howl... nearly in tears he was, laughing!
I heard the word "hilarious" and "stupid." The future engineer pronounced the haunted house as just "dumb." I was furious.
And I was going in.
I took a deep breath. I handed over my ticket with what I'm sure was a trembling hand. A teenager put her arm over my shoulder, drew me close and took me inside the darkened chamber of horrors. Blindfold? I didn't see one. A sheet-covered ghoul floated up slowly and held out a bowl. My escort said, "These are the eyes of a dead man, you can feel them." Then she whispered, "They're really grapes." The same procedure was repeated with the "brains" -- a bowl of cold spaghetti.
We stayed on the very edge of the stage, near the curtain. I was rigid with anticipation. The escort claimed there was a skeleton in the shadows and all sorts of beastly things, but I never saw those. I heard bumps and shrieks, sort of. The escort carefully stayed between the darkness, the darting haints and me. And quickly, too quickly, she led me out. It was over.
I was disappointed. I had not gotten "the treatment." All the way home, I grilled my brother for information. He obliged with painful detail. He said the ghost wranglers were afraid I was a crybaby little girl, so they didn't blindfold me and take me through the scary corridors. The ghouls grabbed his ankles when he was led through, cobwebby things brushed his face, unseen beings shouted and screamed next to his ear.
I had nightmares anyway.
I remember it still, a vivid haunted house I never got to go through. In my mind's eye, I see ghosts and ghouls soaring in a glorious mansion that did not exist. I feel cobwebs full of deadly spiders brush against my pale cheeks and forehead, icy hands grasping for my ankles. I see a wretched skeleton with a knife protruding from a long-gone heart.
And I see myself, tiny and quivering, but outlined by a shimmer that is clear even now, decades later. Through it all, through the fear, love from that very small and gentle place was, and still is, carrying me.