Last month I spoke about my abhorrence for the so-called ‘extreme' haunted attractions. This month I want to talk about another trend that makes me somewhat uneasy, but not nearly as much and for different reasons.
The most difficult of putting on a successful haunt might just be finding a good location. You want something close to a community for your audience's convenience and accessibility, something fairly large so that you can do a number of maze-like corridors and rooms (a haunted apartment just doesn't have the same possibilities as a haunted house – unless the apartment belongs to the Woodhouses…), something that probably isn't in the finest condition so that 1) it possesses a suitable atmosphere of creeping decay and disuse and 2) you can do creative and destructive things to it without causing a drop in property values, and it should be fairly friendly to any and all neighbors who might have to put up with hordes of excited, screaming, terrified and, sadly, sometimes inebriated visitors into the wee hours of the night.
It's no surprise that many haunted attractions choose industrial locations as their sites. A large empty warehouse has enough space to create any number of exhibits and surprises from scratch, it's solidly constructed to take the most rigorous rebuilding, hammering and refitting, and it's far from any populated area that might object to excessive noise and spectacle. NETHERWORLD Haunted House in Atlanta, GA is a prime example of this thinking; because of the size of the building they are able to produce three separate haunted experiences each year for their customers, and they are located in an industrial complex where there is minimal opportunity for the macabre merriment to get out of hand.
(An addition plus is that NETHERWORLD actually owns their building instead of renting or leasing it for the season, so they are able to revise and construct new frights and features at their leisure, while also taking advantage of the opportunities to open yearlong for special events and holidays.)
The Overlook Hotel - THE SHINING
The late great HAUNTED THEATER of Norristown, PA (of which I was a proud member) was a barn structure converted into a community theater. Because the building had no heat, they only performed shows during the late spring to early fall. But in October they removed all the portable chairs from the auditorium, built walls to divide the space into rooms, and constructed one of the premiere haunted attraction in Pennsylvania. Although it was set in a residential neighborhood, the building was isolated enough to not disturb the neighbors during the regular season run, and went out of its way to cultivate their good nature and faith during their busy October celebration; everything worked quite well.
Most recently I've been involved with the BLUE OX HAUNTED MILL TOUR here on the Lost Coast in Eureka, CA. The Blue Ox Mill is a working mill where students learn the art and craft of woodworking, architecture and custom home design and trimmings. It's quite an imposing structure, off in the corner of town near the bay where the trees and grasslands grow dense and uninviting. Even during the daytime it's an eerie sight, with large industrial pieces and discarded or half-finished projects littering the grounds and some of the building s in disrepair. At night it becomes downright frightening and oppressive, and when someone suggested turning it into a haunted attraction to raise money for both the Mill and a local theater company, many wondered why such a natural idea hadn't occurred to anyone before.
The criteria listed above – an isolated area without imposing on the neighbors, a location convenient to customers, a building that could take refitting and reimagining without doing serious damage – worked perfectly, and in just two years the Haunted Mill Tour has grown into a permanent event in the hearts of Halloween aficionados throughout Humboldt County.
Lately, there's been another tradition for many haunted attractions, one that leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. Because of the conditions required for a well-produced haunt, some have decided that some abandoned hospitals and asylums would be the perfect locations to use for their Halloween extravaganzas. After all, they're isolated, many of them; they're certainly eerie enough, so the morbid atmosphere is already prevalent; they can't be seriously damaged because they're not in general use anyway (and often can be rented and zoned with very little effort). And even more in keeping with the Season, many come equipped with an ambiance and history of misery, horror and despair from the true-life misfortunes that occurred on the premises. As Stephen King points out in his wonderful reference book “Danse Macabre”, every haunted place needs a provenance, a tragic past that provides a catalyst for the uneasy Dead to walk the night.
And it's this last that unnerves me…
Hill House - THE HAUNTING
It's not unusual for Horror and Dark Fantasy to draw upon actual events to inspire their art. If there had been no atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition, Mr. Poe would not have written “The Pit & the Pendulum,” and if the Plague had not devastated Europe there would be no “Masque of the Red Death.” Jack the Ripper's butchery in Whitechapel inspired several music hall songs, with lyrics such as, “Two little whores, shivering with fright, Seek a cozy doorway in the middle of the night. Jack's knife flashes, then there's but one, And the last one's the ripest for Jack's idea of fun…” and the exploits of Burke & Hare, the graverobbers who turned to murder for their cadavers sold to medical schools were immortalized with, “As time went on these kind men/Brought me several guys and gals/ My lab was choca-block/ With all their freshly passed on pals/ I paid them lots of money/ Bodies came from everywhere/ You really are a busy Mr Burke/ And Mr Hare…”
Harlan Ellison's classic tale “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was inspired by the famous murder of Kitty Genovese, the woman stabbed to death in the courtyard of her Kew Gardens apartment in New York while many of her neighbors watched, listened and did nothing to help her. The brutal and tragic murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszewski was the basis for Jack Ketchum's novel “The Girl Next Door.” Stephen King drew from the details of the crimes of mass murderers Charles Starkweather and Charles Whitman for his stories “Nona” and “Cain Rose Up.” (For that matter, Mr. Starkweather's spree was also retold in the film BADLANDS and on Bruce Springsteen's song “Nebraska.")
Probably the most infamous incidence of art imitating life came from the crimes of Ed Gein, a notorious figure from the 1950s. His life and behavior was the basis for several books and films, including DERANGED, ED GEIN, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (although that film, which begins with the admonition that it is a true story, is completely fictionalized.) The most famous inspiration was Robert Bloch's classic “Psycho”, made into the film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock, although again, the details of the crimes and situations were only based loosely on the actual incidents.
Of course there have been a number of cheap, uninspired television and direct-to-video films that purport to tell the stories of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Richard Ramirez and other serial killers. These films have little to no merit, and do not approach the artistic ambitions and achievements of THE DELIBERATE STRANGER, CITIZEN X, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, HELTER SKELTER and THE MANSON FAMILY; they are simple-minded examples of exploitation at its lowest level.
And that is troublesome; these are not the fictional exploits of a deranged mastermind. These were crimes that involved actual individuals, mourned by relatives, friends and acquaintances who have to relive the horror every time one of these terrible movies is made and released. It should give any artist with integrity pause, wondering if they really need to add more misery to the world with their talents, or, in the very least, whether they owe something to these relatives and friends to be as careful, respectful and sensitive as possible in creations of historical records.
Some things can be enjoyed as guilty pleasures, but I do believe there is a line to be drawn at some point. I don't call for censorship, but simple acknowledgement that genuine flesh and blood people are involved in these actions, not cardboard characters to be moved about or slaughtered at the scenarist's whim. It's the difference between SCHINDLER'S LIST and ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, and the chasm that separates them is enormous.
Belasco House - THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
The Bad Place is a traditional archetype of the Dark Fantastic; some might argue the archetype. The haunted castle, the dungeon labyrinth, the old, creaking, abandoned cabin in the woods…next to the churchyard, this is perhaps the most famous setting of all supernatural tales, from Mr. Lovecraft's town of Innsmouth, MA and Mr. Poe's House of Usher to the Castle of Count Dracula nestled in the Carpathian Mountains and the quiet borough of Jerusalem's Lot in Maine.
One can't know where the idea of the Bad Place may have originated; certainly it might have arisen from fears of human ancestors hearing the wind moan through the ominous depths of their sheltering cave, conjuring visions of restless spirits roaming the earth. Or it may have come from superstitions surrounding the mythology of death, and tribes were warned to avoid the ritual burial grounds for fear that some harm may come after the comforting sun had settled behind the horizon. Wherever it came from, the Bad Place is as old as humanity itself, and the genre overflows with famous landmarks.
Shirley Jackson's Hill House may be the most celebrated, and the most iconic. It has a history of terrible events that seem separate from any spectres that might be walking the hallways. Indeed, the events suggest that the house itself caused those tragedies, and may be sentient – and watchful. We are told that whatever walks Hill House walks alone, but it's suggested that Hill House itself is what walks (figuratively) and waits – waiting for someone susceptible to its siren song, like Eleanor Vance, to join it in a lover's eternity.
Richard Matheson's Hell House is not so subtle. Something definitely walks there – and bangs and smashes and attacks with physical poltergeistian fury – but it also seems intent on seduction, playing on the fears and weaknesses of those who would test its malevolence. But it doesn't seem to want lovers or companions; with its perverse intentions it revels in its victims.
Robert Marasco's house of the Allardyce family in “Burnt Offerings” seeks companions such as Hill House, singling out one particular inhabitant to safeguard it for a generation until a suitable replacement is corrupted. The pallor shows the framed photos of its many inhabitants over the years who came to stay as party of the sentient structure. But be warned: while the house is generous to the one it's chosen, it's merciless to those who might stand in its way.
The New York brownstone in Jeffrey Konvitz's (in my opinion) flawed “The Sentinel” is filled with tenants who begin to exhibit alarming behavior directed at their new resident, a model who has twice attempted suicide in the past. A blind priest sits in his room by his window on the top floor, watching over the building which is revealed to be the doorway to Hell. At the conclusion the old priest is gone, but another sentinel is left to keep the demons at bay.
The Brooklyn Brownstone - THE SENTINEL
Perhaps the place most germane to our discussion is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's “The Shining”. Although there are differences between the book and Stanley Kubrick's film, the central theme remains the same: the hotel may well be haunted by genuine ghosts (it is, in fact) but moreso it, like Hill House and our other locations, is itself a creature of thought, able to turn it's benevolence on those who can be drawn into its will, while destroying any that might threaten its existence. It also is hungry, feeding on the tensions, fears, desires and perversions of those who stayed within its walls.
What is most terrifying about the Overlook is the numerous hauntings taking place in each of its rooms, each reliving a particularly horrendous event. Halloran, the caretaker who possesses the ‘shining' ability along with Danny Torrence, tells him that they're like movies that repeat over and over again in an endless loop.
“Did you ever see pictures in a book that scared you, Danny?...Well, that's how it is in this hotel. I don't know why, but it seems that all the bad things that ever happened here, there's little pieces of those things layin around like fingernail clippins or the boogers that somebody nasty just wiped under a chair. I don't know why it should just be here, there's bad goings-on in just about every hotel in the world, I guess, and I've worked in a lot of them and had no trouble. Only here. But Danny, I don't think those things can hurt anybody.”
Mr. King stated in an interview that he read about an idea some researchers had about haunted houses being receptors for the acts committed in them. The ghosts may not be actual spirits but only reflections of what had gone on, seeping into the woodwork and walls like the lead in paint or toxic gases in a basement. The house then becomes a storage unit for all the psychic emotion that existed. There is no conscious haunting, just recordings from the past. In other words, Mr. King suggests that while the Overlook may be sentient, the activities in the rooms are not, they are simply the aftermath. That they can influence the living is not a cognizant decision.
The Allardyce House - BURNT OFFERINGS
The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry (also known as Byberry State Hospital, or simply Byberry) was mental institution constructed between 1907 and the 1920s. It contained mentally ill individuals and the criminally insane. During the 1940s there surfaces allegations of patient abuse and inhumane conditions. These reports continued into the 1980s until the hospital was eventually closed in 1990 by Pennsylvania after an investigation into its ‘atrocious' conditions. In the mid-1990s a local Philadelphia radio station staged a haunted house for Halloween on the grounds.
Pennhurst State School & Hospital (also known as Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic) was an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals. It was built in 1908, and it also became embroiled in controversy with the practice of eugenics and reports of patient abuse, many of which occurred to children in its care. A class-action lawsuit concerning violation of patient rights closed the facility in 1987. Since 2010, the Halloween event Pennhurst Haunted Asylum has taken place on the grounds.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium was built in 1910 in Jefferson County, Kentucky to house tuberculosis patients. Originally built to house 40-50 patients, it expanded and constructed a new hospital in 1924 to hold 400 individuals. After the introduction of streptomycin in 1962, the hospital was converted into the Woodhaven Geriatric Center, housing elderly patients and the mentally handicapped. After allegation of patient neglect the institution was closed in 1982. In 2001 it was purchased by private individuals and hosted a haunted house each October.
(You can learn more about these and other institutions by searching their histories online.)
Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry
Each of these locations has a provenance that is ripe for a haunting. But the difference is that these tales of misery are genuine; like the films based on true incidents, these happened to actual people. The fact that much of it took place a long time ago mitigates the circumstances somewhat (I doubt many would approve of a haunted attraction at Jeffrey Dahmer's home, even supposing that it had never been torn down) but still leaves me feeling…well, uneasy.
I greatly believe in the concept of the Bad Place, somewhere that is filled with darkness and despair and shouldn't be visited by anyone, especially after dark. I believe the stories and legends are too well documented and detailed for it simply to be the product of overactive imaginations. And if you are a believer in other planes of existence and life after death, if you hold religious convictions that determine that some people and places can be blessed –why not the other side of the coin, and acknowledge that some places can be cursed as well?
Many theaters have been known to have ghosts prowling through their backstage catwalks and catacombs. Most are not human ala the Phantom of the Opera, but are spectral beings with a history attached to their haunting. So prevalent are these tales that it's tradition in theaters to leave a “ghost light” burning on the stage when the building is empty, a lone light bulb offered as a friendly gesture to the spirits sharing the rehearsal space.
It certainly makes sense. Most theaters are old converted buildings, barns, and storehouses that come complete with family histories and tragedies of their own long before they became entertainment venues. One theater in Pennsylvania that I've attended is an old converted funeral parlor; the light booth was built into the old elevator shaft that brought the coffins up from the basement for viewings. Another was an old slaughterhouse. One can only imagine the wanderers conjured up by such surroundings…
But for the most part, these are harmless affectations; if there are spirits haunting such places, they seem apt to be benevolent, or in the least apathetic to human intrusion. Rare is the place where the ghosts harbor grudges against the living performers. (Although such incidents have been reported.)
But if the idea of a house as a storage battery of tensions and violent emotions that live on after death, soaking into the walls and floors like a terrible contagion is correct, imagine the misery, horror and fear that permeates these environments! I've stood in front of Byberry; it looks as though it were wracked with pain, and you can almost hear the screaming from the walls. Step inside for some Halloween fun? I don't think so.
The old expression goes, “If these walls could only talk…” But what if they could? What tales would such places tell? And would you want to be the one to listen? (Like Eleanor…?)
Pennhurst State Hospital
A professor who's studied demonology and the occult seriously (and I'm sorry I can't remember his name) once presented a fascinating observation: in none of the cases of documents hauntings or possession have the victims all been random. In every event there has been some doorway, some act that instigated the occurrence. Perhaps there was experimenting with witchcraft, or delving into other dark arts and matters.
(Which is why I am adamantly against the Ouija Board as well; it's simply too powerful a channel for anything waiting to wander in. Even professional ghost hunters refrain from it. That it's considered a plaything or an object de'arte fills me with apprehension.)
Whatever your beliefs in ghostly experiences, I find the professor's point very interesting. If we take him at his expertise, and we accept that some supernatural accounts are genuine, then the old legends about evil presences having to be invited in stand affirmed. And I can think of no larger invitation that entering a supposedly Bad Place on a night when the Ancients believed the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest.
Perhaps I worry needlessly.
Perhaps there are logical explanations for Bad Places, and they're nothing more than myth and legend, leftover superstitions from racial memory.
Perhaps those abandoned hospitals and prisons contain nothing but terrible histories. Perhaps their sum is simply the rotting beam, the rusting iron gate, and peeling wallboard, the stained tile floors.
Perhaps your visit will be an enjoyable one, and that strange prickling sensation on the back of your neck during the ride home, during your evening ritual of eating and undressing, during those moments just after you've turned out the lights and lay in darkness is just the residual anxiety of the night's entertainment.
If it were more than that…well, what else would you expect from Halloween?