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The Want to Haunt

Text by: Sue E. Peterson, author of The Mourning Run

Where I live, during the months of September and October, there is a fascination with commercial haunted houses. This weirdness actually goes beyond "the house" and oozes into other venues, such as fields and forests — no doubt Blair Witch Project inspired.

Lately, entrepreneurial individuals have started to take things to the next level. I was driving down the freeway the other day and noticed a billboard announcing a "Horror Run." I ask you, what constitutes a horror run? I allowed my mind to wander through the scenario: Runners accosted along the trail by individuals dressed in ghoulish costumes; participants with elevated heart rates frightened to higher heart rates, cardiac troubles ensuing. Would prizes be given for "Highest Heart Rate and Still Finished"? Would finish times be improved due to fear and adrenalin rushes? Actually, someone wanting to improve their personal best should seriously consider entering. Just a thought.

I've never been a huge fan of the haunted house. I don't feel good about paying people to scar the crap out of me. I can rent The Village or The Sixth Sense for a lot less cash and pee my pants just as easily.

Perhaps my aversion to haunted houses goes back to the one and only I did attend twenty years ago. It was held at the State Mental Hospital and was manned by the patients. Yes, you read that right. The folks who were being treated for mental illnesses along the lines of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, paranoid personality disorder, Tourette's, or psychosis, just to name a few, where the ones dressed as the vampires and zombies and holding the knives - which you hoped to heck were props and not the real thing.

© Felicity Photography

Now don't read me as a mental illness bigot. I have my own dealings with depression and direct no laughing gestures at those who are deep in the despair of a mental illness. I just know for myself there are times even I can't be trusted with a knife, and I'm walking the streets merrily dosed on Zoloft and Wellbutrin.

But there I was, standing in line with some "friends" who had talked me into this "fun" adventure ("Oh, come on, Sue, you'll love it! Scary? Oh sure, just a little."). To our left was the tall, razor wire topped fencing, and on our right the dour, gray hospital building itself, seemingly having a good laugh as we filed past its stone fa├žade. The whole thing felt wrong from the moment I stepped out of the car.

At the entrance to the haunted castle (it was billed as a castle, which I suppose sounded more Transylvania-ish than hospital) we were greeted by costumed individuals who looked somewhat harmless. I thought, Gee, how bad could it be if everyone is as cute as this little grandma dressed as a witch? I realized later this was a guise designed to trick us into dropping our guard.

After we paid our outrageous entrance fee, we were led into the haunted castle proper, and the innocent greeters were quickly replaced by blood-dripping, psycho-eyed, dragging-limbed, grotesque zombies/evil professors/monsters/living dead/devils, and all traditional creatures you find in the depths of the Eternal Abyss of Fire and Brimstone. Each room we entered was worse than the last, and all were adorned with headless corpses, eviscerated torsos, axes, chains, guillotines, spikes, and every manner of sharp, or rusted, torture device known to man.

Of course to add to the general splendor, the costumed patients — who by the way seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely — pawed us, their victims, and grabbed our hair and clothes.

This went on for about a week, at least it seemed that long, until we finally reached the dark tunnel that led to the lights of the parking lot. Saved! Or so we thought. We had forgotten one important ingredient of the standard haunted house/castle/forest/field: the chainsaw.

Just as we all breathed our misplaced sighs of relief, directly behind me, I mean almost up the back of my shirt, a chainsaw ripped into life. Why I didn't pass out right there and then, I have no idea. I suppose my flight response kicked in — I know that my friend Becky's did, because she jumped on my back and screamed "RUN!" into my right ear. I didn't need the command, because I was already booking it out of that tunnel as if the Hounds of Hell were nipping at my heels and thirsting for my blood.

It was a good long while before I recovered. It took the chocolate shake at the drive-thru to finally calm my nerves, because as we all know, most anxiety can be subdued by chocolate.

As I was driving home, shake in hand, I pulled up next to some friends at an intersection. While we waited for the light to turn green, I rolled down my window and morphed into one of the ghoulish creatures that had made me call out for my mama, and I encouraged them to go to the mental hospital haunted castle. "Come on," I lied, "you'll love it! Scary? Oh sure, just a little."

I smiled a wicked little smile as I drove away, and realized with striking clarity that it really is true: misery dearly loves company.