This piece ran previously.
I hate being scared. I hate the dark. I hate enclosed spaces. I hate being touched by strangers. I’m so-so on actors.
In short, I hate haunted houses.
So, when my editor told me I would be spending an evening getting repeatedly scared in dark, enclosed spaces while being touched by strangers (who also happened to be actors) at a haunted house, I was more than a little aggravated. Next, he told me I would have to drive from Los Angeles to Orange County for the privilege, and I was ready to quit entirely.
At which point I remembered two very important things:
- My job can be done by almost anyone with a steady internet connection and a pocket thesaurus, which lessens my bargaining position somewhat.
- The last royalty check for my book could not finance a Mexican pizza at Taco Bell (author’s note: it would be much funnier on my end if I was joking about this).
And so it came to be that I spent an evening at the 17th Door Haunted House in Tustin, California.
On the appointed night, I bought tickets for 10 p.m., the last time slot that 17th Door had available. I did this in part because it seemed difficult to face the rest of the evening (and an early dinner at Applebee’s) after going through a haunted house featuring simulated gore and dead fish being rubbed on my person, but mostly because driving from Los Angeles to Orange County at rush hour is one of the few things in life that sounds less appealing than having a decomposing trout slapped about my chest and neck.
As a traveling companion, I brought along stand-up comedian (and friend) Ryan. I chose him partly because I knew he would make the experience more fun, but mostly because he hates haunted houses just as much as me, and, for many unflattering reasons, the idea of somebody else suffering by my side made me feel somewhat better about what was to come. I would like to note that I promised to buy him tacos after we were done at the haunted house… just so you know that I’m not a complete monster.
Tustin is a city about 10 miles south of Disneyland, and the 17th Door Haunted House was located in one of the vast shopping centers that Orange County is so famous for (along with family-friendly amusement parks and Twitter bigotry). I found it next to a Home Depot and a Toys R Us, and though the rest of the shopping center was empty (this being a Tuesday in Tustin), there was a large crowd of people spilling off the sidewalk and into the street in front of the location. There was also a row of porta-potties in the parking lot next to the haunted house. Though I needed a pee, and I knew that I would soon be startled to a degree that could very well compromise my dominion over my bladder, I decided that pissing my jeans was a much more dignified option than using these particular parking lot porta-potties. They had a certain look about them.
The space for 17th Door used to be a furniture store, and the showroom was turned into the waiting area/merchandise table/line corral. But before we could get in line and start the haunted house experience, Ryan and I first had to sign the attraction’s famous waiver. At the time, I thought the waiver was just an admittedly effective way to generate hype for the event, and I signed without reading the fine print. But even though I doubt that the contract would stand up to much legal prodding, I probably should have perused it a bit more closely before I signed. Because a man who signs a document that says he consents to “being puked on” without reading it, probably deserves to get puked on.
The haunted house itself is divided into 17 different rooms (each with doors, hence the name of the place). The first was an orientation set in a very-well done representation of a spooky classroom. We were all told to sit down at the desks and — in the first of my many unflattering and cowardly actions performed that night — I scrambled into the desk behind Ryan so that I could use him as a human shield.
My human shield plan wasn’t entirely necessary for this first room. There was a “teacher” patrolling the front of the classroom with a riding crop in her hand. She played the role with a dash of German dominatrix, and explained the rules of the haunted house. The actress was both fully committed to the role and obviously talented, but I couldn’t look past the fact that she was clearly in her early 20s. It’s hard to see a teacher in her early 20s and think of anything but an overwhelmed Teach for America kid getting their optimism crushed by the unfeeling bureaucracy of public education. And that’s only frightening in a metaphysical sense.
As the classroom scene went on, seedlings of doubt began to spring up:
Maybe this place isn’t as scary as everyone said.
Maybe it’s all hype.
Maybe I just have a naturally stoic demeanor that makes me immune to being spooked.
These doubts only multiplied after we passed our waivers to the front of the class, and a kid stood up from his desk and pointed a fake gun at everyone before he sat back down, put that fake gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Then, a dainty bit of red-colored liquid squirted on a piece of white butcher paper that was tacked to the wall behind him.
It wasn’t scary. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. Maybe offensive? I was mainly focused on how pathetic that brain splatter special effect was. Why was there so little blood? Were they running low on fake blood at the end of the night? Couldn’t they just send out an intern for more fake blood? Just how expensive is the stuff, anyway? It’s just corn syrup and food dye, right? Is this a printer ink situation?
The doubts multiplied and grew into something bigger: Fear. I was suddenly afraid that this entire experience would be completely lame. That there was no story. I was terrified that the whole thing would be more actors who were too young for their roles, but trying their damnedest — like the poor freshman kid who has to paste on a fake mustache and play Officer Krupke in the high school production of West Side Story — supported by more cheesy special effects. And there I was, trapped until the awkward performance was over.
But as I walked into the next room of the haunted house, the fear of a lame experience ended and was replaced by something far more terrifying.
Pig people. Goddamn pig people.
Let me set the scene: After the classroom orientation, we were ushered into the next room. As Ryan and I stepped through the door, a couple of the girls in our group looked back at us. One of them said, “Well, at least we have two big guys to protect us.” If I were a person with slightly higher self-esteem, I might have even thought they were flirting with me. Ignoring that possibility for a second, at least half of what those girls said was true. Ryan and I are big guys — Ryan was a college basketball player, and I regularly put cookies in my breakfast cereal. But the second part of her statement was troublesome: “… to protect us.” Those girls were wrong about that, because the 17th Door operates on a strict Showgirls-esque, “we can touch you, but you can’t touch us” policy — so there would be no protecting.
Also, on a more practical level, I would not be able to protect anyone because I was soon too busy shrieking profanity and cowering behind Ryan. Which brings us back to the pig people.
I’m not going to give too much away about what happens in the 17th Door Haunted House, because it’s still running, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t gone yet. But I will give a few broad strokes about the second room. Inside, the room was dark except for a video being projected on a screen. Opposite the screen, a small mannequin leaned against the wall. And because I was on high alert for getting scared (again, full bladder), I immediately locked onto that mannequin as a potential jump scare threat.
Maybe that wasn’t a mannequin at all, right? Maybe that was just an actor pretending to be a mannequin who was waiting until I became distracted by the video, and then they would spook me. And if they spooked me, I would definitely urinate in my trousers, and then I would have to say the safe word (“mercy”) and be escorted from the haunted house, and then everyone in line would whisper that I was the guy who peed himself, and the manager would probably offer a refund, but I’d be too embarrassed to take it, and then I would have to send Ryan to Target to buy me a pair of “whoopsie” sweats for the ride home while I hid behind decorative shrubbery in the parking lot and hoped that none of this would end up on social media.
So, in an effort to avoid all that, I ignored the video and I kept my eyes locked on the maybe-mannequin.
“That’s a person, right?” I whispered to Ryan.
“Probably,” he said.
“Are they breathing? I’m pretty sure I see them breathing.”
“Yeah, they’re breathing.”
“Because I’m pretty sure that’s a person.”
“That’s because it is.”
At some point before the conversation could end or Ryan could reevaluate our friendship, the person who was maybe pretending to be a mannequin definitely lunged at me. And the person was wearing a pig mask. I saw actors wearing those same pig masks in the lobby, and under full halogens, the masks were obviously rubber and plastic. But in that room, illuminated only by the flashes of the video being projected on the screen, the mask no longer looked like it was made of rubber and plastic. It didn’t look like a mask at all. It looked like a goddamn homicidal human/pig hybrid was attacking my face. And even though I knew that maybe-mannequin was really a person all along, and I knew that person was wearing a mask, and I knew that beneath that mask was just an actor with a head full of dreams and a Mazda trunk full of headshots, I was still scared as hell.
Because the knowledge that it was all fake was tucked away in a distant corner of my brain while another part of my mind — the reptilian brain, the part of my brain that controls the fight, flight, or freeze response — fired at full power. The part of the brain that has long protected Esch men — from the time we were oddly-proportioned cavemen, to oddly-proportioned peasants digging root vegetables from the cold dirt in Switzerland, until now, when we are oddly-proportioned internet writers — that’s the part of my brain that was in control. And in that moment, it was making the very compelling argument that pig men were very real and that one of those very real pig men was about to eat my beautiful face.
In hindsight, what I did was embarrassing — but at the moment, there was no more appropriate reaction to the situation than the one I provided. Which was to shriek “pig person!” and raise my fists next to my face so I could more effectively punch, block, or cower depending on what developed in the next few microseconds.
Remember those girls I was talking about earlier? The ones who may have been flirting with me (they probably weren’t, but let’s just say they were)? One of them said something to me after I finished screaming and cowering, and though it would be impossible to deliver this sentence in a flirtatious way, the way she said it was distinctly non-flirtatious.
“How did you not know that was a person?”
It was an obvious question. But if I would have responded to her, or done anything besides dipping my head in shame and shuffling to the next room, my answer would not have been so obvious. Because just for a moment, I really did not know that was a human being in a pig mask. For a moment, I fully believed that pig people existed. And that I was in actual danger. And that I wasn’t standing in the husk of a failed furniture store in Tustin. For a moment, and it was a very brief moment but it was definitely a moment, I believed that all of this was real.
While at the same time, another part of me knew with equal certainty that this was all a fabrication. And somewhere — in that divide between reality and fantasy — I started having a good time.
Throughout the rest of the haunted house, there wasn’t a moment that reached the same emotional heights as that first pig person spotting, though there were many that came close. Each of the different rooms conspire together to tell the story of a college student’s descent into madness, and both the set design and the acting was pretty spectacular. Without question, it was the finest theatrical work being performed on a Tuesday night in Tustin. There were also enough moments of levity, whimsy, and (very occasionally) inanity that made the scary bits feel just a bit scarier when they arrived. Most impressively, the story that was told through the rooms and experiences was compelling.
That is to say, the parts I paid attention to were compelling. Because despite the great lengths that 17th Door put into crafting a cohesive story, I was too busy scanning each room for pig people to fully focus on narrative. I kept my head on a swivel and checked every curtain, window, or door where a pig person could swoop in and jump scare me. But even though I knew exactly where those pig people would come from, I still screamed, “Pig people!” and covered my face with my fists every time they appeared.
Judging by the eye-rolls and sighs of the rest of my group, I think they believed I was trying (and failing) to be funny the dozen or so times I did that. But I wasn’t trying to be funny. I wasn’t trying to be anything. I wasn’t even trying to scream “Pig people!” I was simply reacting. My body was being controlled by a section of my brain that evolved long before conscious thought. And because I spend the majority of my waking hours hunched over a computer keyboard (with occasional breaks for inappropriately grunt-filled weightlifting and inappropriately grunt-filled burrito eating), it felt good to let that ancient, primal part of my brain call the shots for a while. It was fun.
That isn’t to say I loved every minute of the haunted house. I got spit on, and slapped with a dead fish, and those weren’t even the grossest parts of the experience. But it wasn’t the grossness or the occasional unpleasantness that I’ll remember. It’s the terror I felt when I first thought — against all logic — that pig people were real, then the relief I felt when I almost-immediately realized that believing pig people exist was stupid. That flicker of a moment was thrilling and horrifying, but mostly it was fun.
Later, after the tacos, but before I got to pee, as I drove back to Los Angeles with my neck smelling of dead fish, I decided that I would return to Tustin for Manic Mind Production’s again sometime. Because I hate being scared. And I hate the dark. And I hate enclosed spaces. And I hate being touched by strangers. And I am so-so on actors.
But after my night at The 17th Door, I kinda like haunted houses.