The first unfortunate souls arrived in our murder room shortly after 7 p.m.
They shuffled down the darkened hall, past the burning corpse, through chains hung from the ceiling. They clung together and stepped lightly, almost in unison. Necks swiveled. Shoulders hunched.
Some nervously chatted. Some were silent. They sidestepped the disemboweled torso of my brother, Leo, affixed to the wall. And then the first of them saw her, my mother demon, Millie.
She writhed and spasmed and twitched in the opening of a wire mesh partition at the far end of the room. Her eyes glowed atop a white face rutted with scabs and lesions. Her drab burlap clothing hung off of her in tatters.
A few of the guests, realizing the room’s only exit lay on her side of the barrier, began looking for alternatives.
“Fuck that. Is there another way?” asked one.
“Don’t you want to play? Come play with me,” Millie purred between violent snaps of her synovial joints.
The answer, communicated with physical distance, was a resounding no.
I stood a few feet away in my cloak, watching and waiting.
Millie gave me the cue.
I sprang to life.
A bingo parlor in hell
I am not a fan of haunted houses. I don’t enjoy being startled. I don’t enjoy the dark. Needless to say, I really don’t enjoy being startled in the dark.
As I’ve gotten older, this feeling has only intensified along with my growing aversion to impulsive fun in many forms.
But it’s not everyday you get a chance to see what it’s like to be the haunter instead of the haunted, to go behind the costume — or cloak in this case — and scare the daylights out of strangers who’ve eagerly paid for the pleasure.
So when Etna’s famed ScareHouse offered me a recent Friday night shift, I packed my bag and set off with only mild trepidation.
I arrived around 6 p.m., following a line of professional nightmares in street clothes who walked into the building — an old Elks Lodge surrounded by well-manicured homes — like factory workers arriving for a shift.
They gathered upstairs in the makeup/costume room where demented clowns and demons and ringmasters and zombies checked their cellphones and spread themselves across vinyl chairs as colleagues completed their transformations with makeup artists or costume designers nearby.
It was here, in a space best described as “a bingo parlor in hell,” that I first met Halle Mathieson, an irrepressibly chipper 20-year-old dance major at La Roche College who’s moonlighting at ScareHouse for a second year.
“I want to do this for as long as I possibly can,” she said, partially made-up and looking like a cross between Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil and Zooey Deschanel. Mathieson has been coming to ScareHouse since she was a child and always wanted to work there, she said. So, when a callout ad popped up on Facebook a few years back, she decided to audition.
This year, Mathieson was assigned the Mother Demon character, which she’s given a name, Millie, and a detailed demonic possession backstory. In preparation for the role, Mathieson studied audio recordings of Anneliese Michel, the German woman who died after undergoing 67 exorcisms and whose death inspired the film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” (This level of character development is not at all unusual among ScareHouse actors.)
It’s decided that I will play one of her sons. Another son, Leo, is dead and hanging from the wall of her room.
We decide to name my character “Dante.”
Watch as The Incline goes behind the scenes at ScareHouse to meet the people in our nightmares:
Like mother, like son
After a few programming notes from the managers, some heavy metal music pumped through a boombox and a rousing “ScareHouse” chant, the employees and I leave the makeup/costume room and make our way downstairs.
Mathieson and I work our way down an employees-only hallway lined by doors to the ScareHouse’s various rooms.
We find ours and inside we find Leo, Millie’s partition and where I will stand a few feet away. Mathieson gives me the nickel tour.
Asked how most people respond to being frightened like this, Mathieson, who was not yet in character, said some recoil, most curse, one person recently shoved her away and some flirt.
“I don’t understand that last one,” she said.
Her goal as Millie, she explains, is not to startle. Guests will see her from the hallway. She lacks the element of surprise. Instead, she’s trying to unnerve them, get inside their heads and leave a lasting impression.
“We’re trained obviously to scare. There are jump scares and delayed scares where you get the middle of the group. There’s all sorts of different ways to scare somebody. But what I think is the most effective is the psychological scare.”
She gets close, uncomfortably close, and asks guests to stay with her and join her family and meet her sons — of which I am now one. She does all of this in a feathery voice that’s both childlike and alien. The goal is to put you, the valued customer, on tenterhooks.
After some consultation, we decide she’ll introduce me to that night’s guests as her son Dante, at which point I can emerge and approach the rear or middle of the group.
“Follow the last one out,’ Mathieson said. “Really get in their faces. They hate that.”
I nod in the affirmative and take my position against the wall. We wait.
“I just want people to come in so we can mess with them,” Mathieson shouts.
You scare some, you lose some
It is incredibly dark in there and my eyes struggle to adjust. That process is further hampered by the continuous flashing of strobe lights, to say nothing of the depraved soundtrack — heavy machinery, looping backwards audio, an unidentifiable frequency — playing overhead and liquifying my inner ears.
In the sensory chaos of all this, and with the hood of my cloak down too far over my eyes, I’m caught off guard by the first group’s arrival.
I see their feet first. They shuffle in in a tight grouping like a chain gang. This is dubbed the “conga line” formation by ScareHouse employees — smaller groupings of people unconsciously merging together in some sort of innate fear response. “Strength in numbers,” an employee later explains.
Just as the head of the group reaches the exit behind Millie, I hear my cue — “Have you met my son Dante?” — and I eagerly make my move. But with my vision obscured, I walk straight into a pipe jutting out from the wall to my left. It knocks me off balance and causes the cloak’s hood to fall completely over my face. I stumble blindly for a moment and then step in reverse back to my hiding place. I wait until it sounds as if the group has gone and I re-adjust.
The next one goes better.
A few more groups pass and go smoothly as well.
Here’s how it worked:
I stood planklike along the side wall across from Leo and drop my chin so my face isn’t visible. When a group enters the room, and while they’re busy looking at Millie in front of them, I lurch forward from the side, winding up inches from some unsuspecting person in the middle of the conga line. Other times I wait until the whole group has passed to follow the last member out.
I do this to one man who wraps his arms around the woman in front of him and piggy backs it out of the room. Later, I lurch up beside a woman who screamed so loud my ears were left ringing. The omnipresent soundtrack is suddenly watery and distant.
One woman says to another “He’s real!” as I invade their personal space.
“Oh my god, there’s a dude in that hat,” said another.
But they didn’t all go as planned.
I lurch up beside one man who instead of flinching says “excuse me” as if we were strangers on a city bus. Others were similarly unfazed.
“Hey man. Are you in a cult?”
Another person when asked by Millie if they wanted to meet my character Dante simply offered a polite, “No, thank you.”
In between groups I play with my costume or jot down notes on my phone. I practice covertly scratching my nose. I also practice lurching or raising my arms in spectrelike fashion for greater effect. I take off my wedding ring so it doesn’t show when I do. I crouch slightly so the cloak bottom covers the white soles showing on my running shoes. Mathieson practices as well, pacing like a caged animal behind the wire mesh.
Periodically, managers come in to offer us water or cough drops. The hours fly past.
But it’s hard work, and I emerge into the night with a mild case of eyestrain and a newfound appreciation for the art of recreational terror.
Maybe most surprising, I also emerge with the urge to go right back in again.