Once, on a fall road trip, a friend and I decided we wanted to check out a Halloween attraction near to where we were camping that evening, a small town in Idaho. This place had a distinctly creepy rural vibe, you know the one, made popular by movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an unfair portrayal of country life, but nonetheless. As we drove out through the dry fields, we passed ominous silos and abandoned barns, getting more and more lost looking for this apparent haunted house that we'd seen posters for pinned up at a pizza place.
It was mid October, already dark as our headlights illuminated only what was right in front of us, a plain gray road, and then, a wide gold field as we turned the truck around. Our GPS was as confused as we were. And then there it was. We heard it before we saw it, booming upbeat music, and then a huge group of mostly teenagers waiting outside, cars parked in the grass, black spotlights swinging their beams through the night sky.
I have to admit, we were scared. I had been going to haunted houses my entire life at that point, but my friend never had. You know when your friend is scared, that fear is sort of contagious? We both chugged a beer (just one, don’t worry, I am a responsible driver) to try to calm our nerves. When we finally found our courage, we walked up and got in line.
As we were led inside by a sinister teen, we were immediately laughing hard, the best part of the haunted house experience. Laughing at your own fear. It was the type of haunted house that has multiple buildings you have to reach by walking through woods and across open fields. The experience doesn’t stop between the different building though, the actors might suddenly appear from the woods and chase you to the next spot. There might be an creepy old trailer in the middle of the grass, and chainsaw wielding hillbilly maniacs might crash out of the rickety door. My friend had an great time, and we would look for more haunted houses over the rest of our trip, but that one has always stood out, hard to find, in the middle of terrifying dark rural Idaho.
This week, I got curious about the history of haunted houses. I learned that it was good old Madame Tussaud that got things swinging in the scary attraction category. You must be familiar with her brand of wax museums that attract hundreds a day in many major cities all over the world. In London in 1802, Tussaud created, along with her wax figures of famous people, a “Chamber of Horrors,” an exhibition of decapitated wax figures of French politicians like King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat and Robespierre. There was an extra fee to visit this controversial room, and its legacy lived on in many of the wax museums until recently.
I remember the Chamber of Horrors well from childhood trips visiting the wax museum that used to be open in Victoria, BC, and has since closed down. The Chamber of Horrors included displays of old English torture methods using wax figure victims. I loved that place as a kid, but I guess many parents felt differently. Because of the large number of complaints over the years, the Chamber of Horrors sections of all of Madame Tussaud’s were permanently shut down in 2016. Parents: still the worst.
Speaking of, the haunted houses we know today began as a way to control prank-crazy kids and teens during the Great Depression. Halloween used to be wild, you can read about its history here. The pranks were serious, brought over by Scottish and Irish immigrant traditions, and included things like leaving dummies on train tracks, pushing over occupied outhouses, leading livestock onto barn roofs, and stealing neighbors’ gates. As Halloween expanded into the cities, it got more intense. The baddest of the bad set fires, broke windows, and tripped pedestrians.
In order to distract kids from this type of destruction, adults tried to corral them into activities that still had a thrill to them, but did not affect the community quite so negatively. One way they came up with was creating 'house to house' parties, which meant that families would decorate their basements in different scary ways, and kids would go house to house to experience each. As you can image, they weren’t very cool.
It was Walt Disney in 1969 that really created the haunted house model as we know it now. Still standing, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was inspired by the real-life Winchester Mystery House and Evergreen House. Disney was able to create the famous ballroom scene using refracted light to create the illusions of dancing ghosts. From there, the haunted house became a fixture at Halloween time, with Knots Berry Farm creating its own scary Fall time attractions, and many smaller amusement parks following suit. The United States Junior Chamber, or the ‘Jaycees” used the template of the haunted house to raise money all over the country.
Even Evangelical Christians like Jerry Falwell used the structure to create “Hell Houses” in 1972, which flipped the script and used the haunted house to showcase a trip to hell, to scare people away from sin. There is a 2001 documentary about them I just put on my list called Hell House. But has anyone made a horror movie about this yet? Please.
In the 80s and 90s, haunted houses used the slasher boom to attract horror fans; it would be typical to see Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Pinhead. These attractions soon eclipsed the basic not-for-profit haunted houses the Jaycees were running, and when a fire broke out in an attraction in New Jersey, killing eight teenagers, the government began creating safety measures through regulations. With tougher laws and more competition, the volunteer-run haunted houses for charity largely disappeared.
The modern versions of haunted houses are expanding into all sort of different structures. There are overnight camping trips, haunted corn mazes and hayrides, zombie runs, zombie paintball. Then there are the hardcore ones, places like the legendary McKamey Manor in San Diego that promises terror beyond anything you would want to imagine. You are made to sign a waver before going in, as well as a nondisclosure. Because of this, no one except those who have passed through really know what it’s like. Actors have reportedly beaten and tortured guests, locked them in coffins, waterboarded them, covered them in tarantulas, cut their hair, bound and gag them, and made them eat all kinds of disgusting things. It can last up to six hours, only costs a donation of two cans of dog food, is entirely volunteer run, and has a waitlist of 24,000 people. I am so freaked out by the fact that no one gets paid; all the actors just do it because they want to. I draw the line there, but apparently many people don’t, as it obviously remains a hugely popular Halloween attraction.
Radio stations always had the best haunted houses when I was growing up. They would take old warehouses and turn them into massive haunts with tons of rooms and tons of teenaged actors making minimum wage. I’m a screamer, which means that I often get picked on because I give a reaction. There is something very cathartic about a haunted house. You get to get some of that real fear, that real anxiety out of your body in a way that is ultimately safe. You get to scream it out, and you leave feeling a sense of relief, or at least I do. Plus, how much fun is it to watch other people freak out? Remember this video? It always brings me joy:
As a little kid, I went in one haunted house, one of those rickety dark rides at the fair, with the weird 90s horror murals painted on the outside. For whatever reason, the ride scared me senseless, and I refused for several years to go back. This also happened to me when I was four-years-old, at a walk through haunted house for kids. I don’t remember what happened then either, but apparently those experiences weren’t enough to keep me away for good. The end of summer is hard, especially here in Seattle when we all know the rain is coming. But the consolation of the fall before the winter, of Halloween itself, promises to get us through the next months. I hope to hit as many haunted houses as I can find, especially if they take me out of the city and into the unknown.