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I’ve discovered the scariest thing about this Halloween isn’t zombies or creepy clowns

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeenah Moon/AP</span>
Photograph: Jeenah Moon/AP

A friend has tickets to a Halloween attraction in downtown New York, marketed as a haunted house for adults and featuring chambers of horror that include a “killer clown room”, “the crypt”, and something called “maggot invasion.” It sounds, simultaneously, horrible and lame, and if I hadn’t spent every Friday night for the past 18 months on my sofa, mindlessly scrolling, I would have turned her down in an instant. As it is, it seems churlish to reject the offer to do something new. “Terrific,” she says, and sends me a note from the organisers: guests are advised not to wear white because of all the fake blood.

I love horror movies, and zombies, but I am unfun about Halloween, which in the US seems to go on for weeks. One of the upsides of Covid was the cancellation of indoor trick or treating, which in our apartment building traditionally involves dozens of kids fighting to get in the elevator to have first crack at the candy on each floor. (There are two wings of 20 floors in our building-enough sugar to ensure the onset of what might politely be called instability.) This year, the trick or treating will be outside again, a definite improvement, but the Halloween parties are back on and the time suck of ensuring my children are happy in their costumes – this year I have a vampire queen, and a “cat-dinosaur” – is as much of a drag as it ever was. It is in this spirit that I take the subway downtown.

The house of horrors occupies a nondescript building a few blocks south of the US immigration centre – a genuinely chilling place – and first indicators are that the experience will provoke something much worse than terror: mild embarrassment. Outside the venue, a man dressed as Beetlejuice hops up and down engaging the people in line. Oh, god. As I approach, he puts himself squarely in front of me and does a little caper. “Hello!” I say brightly, in the tone of one who believes that through firmness alone one might banish another’s delusions. Our eyes meet and for a terrible second, we are both caught in my failure to suspend disbelief. Volumes of unspoken information pass between us. “Help,” his eyes scream, “I don’t want to be here!” “I don’t want to be here, either!” mine reply. The moment passes. My friend and I flash our vaccine passports and are ushered into the venue.

Related: ‘Trump costumes are not popular’: what’s big for Halloween 2021

I love a good scare, as long as I can control it. One of the appeals of horror, it seems to me, is that you can hit pause, mute, cover your eyes, or close the book whenever you need to. The problem of a live event, of course, is that you can do none of these things. I don’t like the dark. I overreact during turbulence on planes and when my kids jump out at me, I shriek out of all proportion. As we walk down the stairs towards a warren of rooms, I realise too late this is my worst nightmare.

“You go first,” I say bravely, “this was your idea”, and give my friend a little shove in the direction of a black door. Gingerly, she pushes it. We take a few steps into a dimly lit room and the door closes behind us. A tableau looms – I forget, now, which horrible scene came first, but there were entrails and torture devices and stricken-looking dummies. Suddenly, a man in hideous costume jumps out from nowhere and screams in our ears. We shoot into the air, scream loudly, and keep screaming as we scurry across the room and through the door to the next one.

What follows is a pattern of entering rooms, having a moment’s pause, then being jumped out at by people in gory costumes shouting about how they’re going to eat us for dinner. It is deeply unnerving for the first three rooms, including the clown room, a tiny black space in which an aggressive clown runs circles around us. By the fourth room, however, I have started to detach sufficiently to understand that these people aren’t allowed to touch us. A man in a fright wig sticks his face into mine and I wonder how much he’s getting paid an hour. I wonder what happens if there’s a fire, and how they deal with the inevitable groups of drunk lads who pass through late at night. As we exit a torture room occupied by two young women dressed as Miss Havisham-type spooks, I turn and unsportingly say, “I think you did very well and were by far the scariest.” For a second, I see one break character and smile.

There is one genuine shock. After the room with the girls, we enter a chamber in which a single clown-aggressor roams. He is middle-aged and softer in his approach. His voice is insidious, creepy, and when he follows us to the next room, breaking the pattern of scares – this whole experience has a problem with pacing – I feel my heart rate leap. If this was a movie, the middle-aged clown-guy would be the maniac who did an actual murder down here.

When we exit the building, falling out on to the sidewalk, it’s with the exhilaration of having survived a small war. “That was great!” we say. Why don’t we do this every weekend? Horror is by far the best genre. Of course, as with the most effective scare tactics, the real horror is beneath the surface and not immediately recognisable. As we walk up Broadway, laughing and reliving our terror, my friend stops suddenly and turns to me. “Shit,” she says. “Were any of them wearing masks?”

  • Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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