I admit it, I did it.
As much as I would like to say I’m above such things…I bowed to the peer pressure.
I fell for the hype.
I went to a haunted house this Halloween season.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. It seemed like a fine evening’s entertainment in theory, except for the part where I spend all my time around REAL dead bodies, so I’m not sure why I thought a warehouse full of fake ones would be even remotely interesting.
Ever since becoming a medical examiner, the American fascination with simmering, oozing, coagulating gore has paled on me a bit. It’s not because I find it distasteful or anything. I’m not “insulted” by it. I don’t have a newfound respect for life and death… Quite the opposite. My respect for death has actually declined significantly since it became my job. I reckon it to becoming the personal assistant or publicist for a mega-beautiful, billion-pixel-perfect movie-starlet. Everyone else is clamoring to get closer and take a picture. Whereas you, as an insider, know how rancid her milk farts smell and how annoying her voice gets when she’s snapping at the help for serving her cold coffee.
When you’re elbow deep in anything, be it cocaine, music, strippers, show ponies, or dead bodies… The varnish tends to wear thin and every shiny surface goes dull sooner or later.
I remember way back when in my twenties, I used to make a point of going to every haunted house in the city. I loved them. I would scamper through countless warehouses and converted storefronts… Each one was sketchier than the last. Scorched burlap and newspaper would be draped over every available surface while grimy gauze tendrils hung from the ceiling, drifting gore smeared caresses through your hair. The fog machines belched out bottle after bottle of eerie ambiance as bargain-store strobe lights flashed themselves to smithereens. My friends and I would tear through each b-movie horror installation squealing like a Kardashian in a plastic surgery clinic (speaking of tiresome starlets).
Every time another community theater reject covered in ketchup and hack-job prosthetics would leap out from behind a wooden palette or trash-can… we would obediently shriek, flail, run…. Kind of like the morbid, gen-x version of eat, pray, love…
These days, going to a haunted house feels like I’m a Royal Shakespeare Academy trained actor that has been coerced into attending an 8th grade performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” The first few scenes might be cute… bordering on quaint. But even before the pimply faced heroine can breathlessly gasp “Wherefore art thou…”, I’m going to be scanning for the fire exit or rooting through my purse for my flask.
Of course I still went… Reasoning with myself that haunted houses should be like medical procedures… in that they become more sleek, stylized and effective as the technology improves. Surely, I would at least be entertained, maybe a little grossed out and at best, alarmed. Besides, I was going with a delightful cadre of buddies and I believed that together, we were incapable of having a bad time unless we were really, really dead set on it.
Here, I should let you know that before we embarked on our adventure, we had a nice little dinner of cocktails and … More cocktails. Which may explain why I almost got into a fist-fight before we even breached the front door of our holiday adventure. I was feeling a bit ornery from the get-go, after having worked perhaps the most heinous scene of my career just a few days earlier. But I don’t always recognize the forest for the trees, so to speak. I never know that I’m bothered… bordering on traumatized…by something at work… until I’m screaming obscenities at a grocery store clerk, or choking back heaving sobs at a step-aerobics class. It isn’t until THAT moment that it occurs to me that … maybe… just maybe… my lug-nuts are tweaked just a liiiiiittle too tight.
The establishment we patronized wasn’t your typical haunted house, it was actually three separate haunted houses all set up in the basement of the local coliseum. The idea was you bought a ticket for the whole shebang and spent your evening wandering between the three makeshift structures, each of which had a different theme. The first level of hell that we decided to visit was the “Zombie Apocalypse” experience. And it was here… In the entry line for this shit-show (yes, the ENTRY line) that our evening began to go off the rails.
The line for our zombie experience was relatively short, but the process by which people entered this experience was downright laborious. I noted that at the front of the line, a haunted house employee was letting customers into the house in measured doses. He was dressed up as a bedraggled SWAT officer who had allegedly been battling the undead hoards. And having spent a pretty significant amount of time around every incarnation of law enforcement officer under the sun, I can attest that this dude’s costume wasn’t half bad. He pulled off an air of exhausted authority as he would allow a group of two or three folks to enter the front gate… Then he would hold the next group in line for a couple of minutes before motioning them through as well. I get it. The idea is to enhance the horror ambiance and control your crowds. But I didn’t want our stumbling-drunk little group to get separated since we needed each other so desperately in order to stay upright. Consequently, as we approached the gate-keeper of the zombie apocalypse, I asked him, as sweetly as I could, if it was okay for the four of us to stay together as we entered.
Now either this dude was an undiscovered gem of an actor, or he was a complete cock-sucker. I say this because he looked down his nose at me with an air of utter exasperation and held up his hand as though he was attempting to Jedi-mind-trick a yapping dog.
“Just chill out,” he snapped at me, “don’t worry about it.”
A completely irrational sense of indignation rose like bile in my throat. I felt my face flush red with rage as the pseudo -cop launched into his spiel about the haunted house rules. My jaw jutted forward and my shoulders squared back. My right hand raised in an inquiring index-finger point that I was prepared to bury in this ass-hole’s sternum as I barked through my gritted teeth, “Exactly WHO the FUCK do you think you ARE?”….
Because the fact of the matter is… I’m the head bitch in charge. As the county medical examiner, I outrank every uniformed officer on every scene… Without exception. If there’s a dead body involved… I’M THE BOSS… And every officer in the county KNOWS it. Nobody does a goddamnned THING without my permission. They know, balls-to-bone, that it’s “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am”, “can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” Or they will be relegated to a career of helping me with the gnarliest, smelliest, sloppiest tasks I can find for them… (Think head-wounds and decomps… Those bodies don’t roll themselves) Historically, any officer who’s copped an attitude with me (get it?) has lived to regret it.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone in a uniform had dared take that tone with me. In my vaguely inebriated mind, I failed to recognize that this douche was just a guy in a costume, and my professional knee-jerk reaction was to lay into this cum-stain like fucking Cujo on meth.
“Look here, probie,” i hissed at the guy, fully prepared to demand his badge number and the phone number of the staff sergeant on duty… When my rant screeched to a sudden halt. Though my conscious mind had failed to grasp the reality of the situation, my tactile mind was able to grab the steering wheel and stand on the proverbial brakes before I got myself and all of my friends kicked out of the evening’s festivities. “He’s not wearing body armor” my sensory neurons whispered across the synapses of my brain. “There’s no chest plate.”
It was true.
Everytime I’ve ever put my hands on a cop (it’s happened more frequently than you’d think,) I’ve always been conscious of the ceramic plate that tucks into the Kevlar pocket at the front of their bullet proof vests. This plate, ideally serves to protect their heart and lungs from bullets and other projectiles… Such as my finger when I start poking them in the chest, fully prepared to serve up a frosty, sarcasm-laced piece of my mind.
“Uhhhhh…” …. Was the only noise I could make as all my ire dissipated like steam escaping from a teapot.
The not-cop blinked at me as I took a step back and patted him on the chest. Right where his plate would have laid, had he been the real deal.
“You’re adorable.” I mumbled as my buddies grabbed my hand and dragged me into the zombie nest where we spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around in the dark while “Zombies” meandered hither and thither… making threatening gestures and moaning.
As we tumbled out the exit of the zombie phase of our evening, my friends were laughing and shrieking. But I couldn’t join in. It wasn’t working. I wasn’t scared… I wasn’t even really entertained and I was beginning to wonder why I had come along. This experience was downright depressing, and not just because I had allowed some guy dressed as a cop to mouth off to me. But because, just a week earlier, I had been at the scene of some REAL fucking horror…
My boss likes to tell me that I have the “black cloud” curse. It happens to people in law enforcement and emergency medicine. The “black cloud” is what they call it when you have an uncanny knack for being on shift when all of the most ghastly, soul-crushing, violent and chaotic incidents happen. And not only do I have the black cloud… I also have the pediatric black cloud. I’m on shift when kids die… All the shit-sucking time… And the week before this haunted house occurred, I had the great grand-daddy of all black clouds seep into my shift and rain the deepest of dark deaths down on my head.
This dude had snapped and killed both his 8 year old daughter, 6 year old son… and then himself… With a handgun… While his wife and the mother of his children took a shower in the next room.
That’s all I’ll say about it. So don’t ask for more. Suffice to say that no one involved in that situation, personally or professionally, came away from that scene emotionally or mentally intact.
I had gone home in a daze, dragging myself in the front door in the convoluted soup of midnight minutes and hours between one night and the next morning… Lost in that weirdly ambiguous barbed-wire tangle of emotion and duty. Do I take a few minutes to lose my shit or do I start my paperwork?
Just to be clear, I wasn’t comparing the haunted houses to the death of this family at the hands of one of their own. A haunted house is a farce, whereas a death scene like that one… Is a nightmare of desolation and grotesque insanity. To even attempt to weigh the two against each other communicates a lack of understanding so profound it defies language.
So what the hell was I doing there?
I don’t know. I guess there was part of me that wanted to feel like everyone else. I wanted to join in the willing suspension of disbelief and dangle my toes over the edge of the proverbial abyss, giggling and nervous, like I used to…. Before that abyss became my job and I wasn’t dangling anything anymore… I was fully submerged and I’ve been swimming for the surface ever since… trying to gasp a breath of air before I dive back under and go about the business of black-clouding my way through another fucking shift.
I just wanted to be scared, like a normal person.
“I feel bad.” I told to my friends, trying to play off my flat affect as we got into line for the next portion of the haunted house. “I feel like such a disappointment to all these ‘actors’. They’re all trying so hard to be creepy and it’s just not doing anything for me.
The line crept forward and I announced to my companions that for the rest of the night, I was going to scream like a kicked hooker whenever anyone jumped out at me….just so they’d feel like they were doing well.
To their credit, I think at least one of my friends, Gretchen, was picking up on my weird vibe. She nodded her approval and squeezed my hand as my other friend, Josh, seized upon the idea.
“I think,” he declared imperiously, “that every time some one jumps out at you, you should scream, ‘FUCK ME IN THE FACE!’ As loud as you possibly can.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
I’m not sure if he didn’t think I’d do it.
But the second we walked through the front door of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-themed ramshackle facade, it was on like Donkey-Kong.
Some freaky-little mutant looking dude crept out of the shadows and I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with all the breath they could hold and taking a moment to mix the air with all the latent frustration, sorrow, and pain in which my heart had been marinating since that night… The night I had a lethal bullet fall out of a little boys cheek and into my hand… The night I had to sift my fingers through a little girl’s silky black hair in order to find an exit wound… The night I was again reminded of what really haunts us… each other…
“Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!” I screamed with all the blackness of this heaviest cloud… Vomiting out all the darkness… All the rage… I hollered as the slimmest hint of tears quivered beneath my closed eyes and I tilted my head back firing it all up toward heaven…
“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!!”
The little mutant looking dude stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me in astonishment as I opened my eyes and looked at him. He hesitated for a second… Unsure as to whether or not to continue forward or retreat back into his corner, having elicited perhaps the most violently dramatic reaction any of them had witnessed this year.
Nearby, I heard Gretchen titter and snort, before finally bursting into peals of laughter, loud, clear and pure as a ringing bell.
“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!” She screeched, driving the little mutant dude back into his hidey-hole to wait for some people who were a little less…. Frightening.
I laughed… . I laughed like popcorn, I laughed like a downpour. I laughed like it was shaking rust off my brain, like it was rattling the cage door of my brain open… I laughed like my life depended on it.
The next twenty minutes was a deafening festival of profanity as Gretchen and I bade every haunt and villain to fuck us in the face… Each time dissolving into a puddle of laughter so overwhelming that, just half-way through, we couldn’t even get the whole phrase out of our mouths before we drowned in the sheer ridiculousness of it.
We staggered out of that haunted house breathless and bouyant. Josh and Will, who had charged on ahead of us, staring in amazement… Having heard us screaming the whole way through the maze of characters and scenarios. Telling each and every one of them… that they, too… could fuck us in the face.
“So….” I grinned at Josh as we lined up for the third and final installment of our evening. “What are we doing this time?”
Josh thought about it for a second, then grinned back.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,is to yell “RANCID CHLAMYDIA!” Every time someone jumps out at you.”