Essay: What Makes a True Haunted House

Oct 28, 2013

Essayist Liam Callanan argues that true haunted houses don't require an entrance fee.
Credit Sean MacEntee

We’re just a few days out from All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween is Thursday, and frightening opportunities abound.  Count Lake Effect essayist Liam Callanan as not all that excited.

There is nothing scarier to me than a haunted house. Not a real haunted house. A commercial haunted house. A haunted house you pay to enter, a haunted house that, this time of year, seems to magically appear everywhere.

These operations frighten me because the people who build them frighten me. It’s part of the larger problem I have with Halloween. I don’t see the fun in being scared. So I definitely don’t see the fun in being someone who likes to scare other people -- much less charge them for it.

It’s not a cliché then when I say my worst fears were realized this month when my children’s school asked me to help build a haunted house for their Halloween festival.

To clarify, because there’s nothing scarier than me swinging a hammer, I was asked to concentrate instead on writing a “script” for the haunted house, a backstory, something those staffing the house could draw from as they went about scaring people silly.

Imagine a person who hates sudden drops being put in charge of designing a roller coaster. Someone who hates beer being assigned Oktoberfest. The Grinch suiting up as Santa.

And then there was me.

My first script called for all the lights to be on, no makeup to be worn, and definitely no fake blood. It would be a kind of anti-haunted house, a behind-the-scenes look that --...My daughters vetoed this immediately.

My next script was for a Phantom of the Opera-style haunted house, which would make use of the fact that the school was constructing its haunted house behind the curtain of its actual stage. The storyline would be...a school, constructing a haunted house backstage.

The school vetoed this.

And then I experienced that moment familiar to anyone who’s seen a haunted house movie or actually been in one: I just gave up and surrendered to the dark.

The script I then wrote had children make a choice at the outset--climb the stairs up into school, or choose to go through a door marked (of course), DANGER, and descend into a dark underworld. Here lay a maze, coffins, a strange figure in a rocking chair, a cobwebbed living room, a stomach-churning dining room, and a winding passageway out that takes far too long to navigate. It was so scary I didn’t even like walking it with the lights on.

And when everyone else walks it, of course, the lights will be almost all out, and it will be very, very, dark.

Which is just as it was the one and only time I’ve ever been in an actual haunted house. Or did I not tell you this? Well, it was some years ago. And, like a true haunted house, I did not pay to enter. The structure itself was very old, and remote, five miles out of a town that was itself five hours from the closest real city.

It was filled with antiques, and seemed charming, for as long as the sunlight held. But sunlight always flees faster on such occasions, and soon enough, it was dark, and more to the point, time to sleep. I was visiting a family; they lived in another, brand new house, nearby, but their bedrooms were all full up. I would be sleeping here. After putting out the last light, I fell asleep, the dust around me so thick it choked everything into silence.

Perfect silence, until just past midnight, when I awoke to the screen door slamming. The wind--yes, we always blame the wind, but this was an absolutely windless night. I know, because I listened then, very hard, because I wanted to know, very much, if the door was slamming because someone had just left, or because something had just come in.

I’d never been someone who slept well. I sleep less well now. Years later, I still wake up sometimes at night and listen and think. About what happened that night there in the dark. About the fact that I’ve never told anyone what happened next.

About the fact that I’m really, really not the person you want to design your haunted house.

Liam Callanan is a professor of English at UW-Milwaukee, and author of the novels All Saints and The Cloud Atlas.