PseudoPod 781: Screen Haunt

Screen Haunt

by Orrin Grey

“What are you afraid of?” Jeanne asks, kicking her feet on the top bunk. I’m lying underneath looking up at the springs where they sag down under her weight. My mind is racing like a game of Memory, flipping over cards to see what comes crawling when exposed to the light.

What am I afraid of? How about everything? Dogs and spiders and those firecrackers called jumping jacks and cancer and splinters and that story about the girl who has a spider lay eggs in her face and, while we’re on the subject, earwigs and that other story about the girl with an ax-wielding maniac in her back seat and the guy in the pickup behind her keeps turning on his brights but really he’s just trying to warn her and infections and going to the swimming pool this summer because everyone expects me to wear a bikini but I’m too fat so I’ve still got a one-piece and Mrs. Conroy at school and getting a C in algebra and and and…

Eighteen years later, I want to go back to that day and give her a different answer than whatever I say, as I put my feet on the springs and push up, feeling her weight push me back down. I want to tell her that what I’m afraid of is her not being there. But at that age, even though I worry about everything, I don’t yet know to worry about that.

What Are You Afraid Of? in big white letters up on the screen of the Galileo. I’m standing in front of the seats and behind the couches. Alex is next to me in the dark, but for just a second it feels like I’m alone. The screen expands to fill my peripheral vision, and I’m just a tiny shadow in front of those massive white letters that are burning a hole in the world.

Then the letters are gone and the screen lights up with a grainy Halloween safety video that I’ve salvaged and adjusted to make it look sepia-toned, like an old newspaper photo come to life, and suddenly the theater resolves back into focus around me. “Looks like it works,” Alex says, and I nod and say, “Looks like.”

The safety video was made in 1962—the kids all wear weird, lumpen papier mâché masks and handmade costumes. It couldn’t be better. At the end, it freeze-frames on one shot that I added in for the movie, and that shot pans out to become a picture in a newspaper, resolving like a pointillist painting to dots of black and gray as the camera pulls back so you can see the headline: THREE GO MISSING ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT.

The picture—which I shot on the street where Jeanne and I used to live—is of three kids dressed in homemade Halloween costumes, their masks carefully designed by Rufus Santiago, based on drawings that I pulled from Jeanne’s old notebooks. A witch, a devil, and a vampire with a bat mask over its eyes.

They’re walking down the middle of a suburban street at night—trees and sidewalks and only the rumor of houses to either side of them. There’s just enough of a hill that everything disappears behind the rise they’re cresting as they walk toward the camera; a cheat light over the ridge to cast them all in chiaroscuro, so you can see the masks well enough to recognize them later.

The witch mask is a submarine bluish-green in color, the mouth open in an uneven smile that could as easily be a grimace, the handful of teeth candy corn yellow. There’s a witch’s hat built into the mask; tiny and conical, with stars around the brim.

The devil has a pencil-thin gold mustache that curls up at the sides, but not the same way on either end. The mustache seems to blend like smoke with gilded arabesques that decorate the painted eyes. The devil’s smile is less uncertain than the witch’s; and his teeth are sharp. The vampire mask is pale with a greenish-yellow undertone; the bat is purple with green fangs.

“Seems like it should have been a ghost or something,” Devin said at the bar after we showed the work print for the first time. “Or a pumpkin and a skull?” I asked.

Devin was always full of “constructive criticism.” He’d asked why I set the movie in ’84, rather than today, or when I was a teenager, and I told him that it was because I didn’t want to worry about cellphones, which was only a half-truth—it was also because that’s when the movies I grew up watching were set. Maybe he was right about the masks, but I used the designs in the notebook, and there wasn’t a ghost in there.

Except that there was, wasn’t there?

Not that you can see any of that in the first shot. The image is grayscale, the newspaper dated November 1964, twenty years before the events of the movie. The masks are all washed out by the faux-grain of the film. But of course they’ll be back, those three anonymous trick-or-treaters.

In the script, they’re identified by their masks. The Witch, the Devil, the Bat. In reality, they’re played by three girls I met in film school, even though the Devil is supposed to be a boy—Liz, Viv, and Steph, their names as short as they are. I mean, I’m not tall, and Viv still barely comes up to my shoulder. That’s why they were perfect to credibly play kids, without me having to jump through the hoops that actually hiring child actors and having them shoot at night would have entailed.

There are a few kids in the movie, of course. Devin’s son is in there, all tousled blonde hair, and some of the kids in the theater class that Liz teaches at the high school, wearing replicas of those cheapie Ben Cooper costumes that we all seemed to wear when we were kids. But they’re only for establishing shots, mostly. I didn’t want them to play the monsters.

“You were always such a happy kid,” my mom says, whenever I try to tell her I have an anxiety disorder, that I’m seeing a therapist and taking blue-and-white pills and things are getting better. “What happened?” Nothing happened, I don’t say, because she doesn’t want to hear it, won’t hear it, no matter what I do. I was always like this; I just hid it from you.

Which isn’t entirely fair because I hid it from everyone, didn’t I? The only person who could see through my bullshit was always Jeanne, and now she’s gone, so I have to do it myself.

The night before the premiere, we stay up ‘til one in the morning watching the movie through on the big screen. We’ve already spooled parts of it up there, but never with everything going at once. The synth loops and jangling guitars from Bat Lightning, the house lights down, the whole nine yards.

When it’s over and they’ve pulled the masks off the trick-or-treaters to reveal the mummified faces underneath—also courtesy of Santiago—and the screen has gone black and those two words come up, I find myself caught off guard yet again, even though they’ve always been there, and I’m the one who put them there.

For Jeanne.

“Are you all right?” Alex asks as I push past him and out the fire exit into the alley.

“I just need some air,” I say, and I hear Steph stop him as he tries to follow me out.

“It’s all just a lot, y’know?” she says, her hand on his arm. I stand in the alley, the streetlights reflecting on puddles of water, and cry until I stop shaking, until my breath is coming out in puffs of steam and I’ve hunched my shoulders under the orange-and-black sweater and pulled the sleeves down around my hands, but I’m still too cold and I have to go back in.

Fortunately, by then, I’ve wiped my eyes, and it’s dim enough that I don’t think most of the crowd could tell even if they hadn’t started celebrating at about the halfway point of the film. I pull up a stool at the bar and manage a smile at Steph that I hope says, “thank you.”

“Movies don’t scare me,” I tell my therapist at our second or third session, when she asks me why I want to make scary movies. “They’re, like, the only things that don’t scare me. So, of course, I want them to.”

She doesn’t seem to understand—and I can’t really say that I do either—but it’s also about as close as I’ve ever come to a vision statement, and I want to write it down in case someone asks me that same question in an interview or something. Y’know, once I hit the big time.

I don’t ask her for a pen and paper, though. It’ll take a bunch more sessions before we get to that point.

In the original screenplay, the unmasking of the three trick-or-treaters isn’t the end. In the screenplay, I describe them as looking like “mummified dolls” underneath the masks—Santiago did a pretty good job of nailing that, actually—but then I go on.

They fall to the ground but don’t stay still. CLOSE UP of the dust and bones as something begins to boil out of them. A green-black smoke that’s too thick to be a vapor. Like when you drop a smoke bomb into a bucket of water. A witch’s brew that boils through the air in three dimensions.

PULL BACK as it rises up from their bodies and starts to take form above them. CUT TO close-ups of CANDICE and JUDIE as they watch; Argento gel on the lights. In the boiling smoke brew, two huge yellow moons appear. It doesn’t become apparent that they’re eyes until wall-eyed pupils roll into view. Beneath them, two rows of perfect, yellow teeth.

Naturally, the Haunt, as the screenplay eventually calls the apparition, proved not to be feasible on the budget we had to work with. And even if we had been able to afford some CGI or something, I wanted to stick with effects that could have been achieved in 1984, when the film was set. So we stopped with the trick-or-treaters themselves. “I actually think it makes the movie better,” Alex says. “Simpler.”

I nod, as if I agree, but really, I’m not even thinking about the movie at all. I’m thinking about the nightmare.

When you’re scared of everything, you learn how to compartmentalize. That’s how you get through each day.

At Jeanne’s funeral we bury an empty box, so I focus on that. That empty box becomes a totem—I’m terrified it will tip off its moorings and come crashing to the ground, the lid lolling open, and that Jeanne’s body will come tumbling out. In my mind’s eye, her body is gray and rubbery, her joints all cut black lines, like someone was trying to make a marionette. Her mouth hangs at a grotesque angle and one eye is peeled open, staring and yellow.

“Why do you girls like to watch those scary movies?” Jeanne’s mom would ask, and I never had an answer, but looking back at that funeral, I have one, finally. I can handle my fear of Jeanne’s decomposing body, her face a terrible rictus, her limbs taking on the horrible life of a mannikin—better that than my fear of the truth, of the empty box and not knowing what happened to her.

She disappeared in twenty-seven minutes and four houses. That’s how long it took between when she left my place and when her mom called to say she hadn’t arrived home. Twenty-seven minutes through the pools of shadow between the porch lights. That was all, but it was enough.

The night she disappeared, did I hear a voice whispering outside my room, “What are you afraid of?” Or was it just my imagination? Did I dream that green face with the rolling yellow eyes outside my window as I lay paralyzed in bed?

Halloween night—the night of the premiere—lots of people arrive at the Galileo in costume. They come dressed as clowns and slashers, zombies and characters from video games that I don’t recognize.

Three people show up dressed exactly like the trick-or-treaters from the film. So much so, that I have to double-take to find Liz and Viv and Steph, but there they are, all sprawled in their street clothes on one of the couches at the front of the house that are set aside for cast and crew.

The three unknown trick-or-treaters wear long cloaks, just like they do in the film, and they each carry a plastic bucket, just like in the film—a pumpkin, a skull, and the gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon. The buckets were designed by Michael Schwartz, another local who makes DIY toys and sells them online, but I don’t see him in the theater to ask if he made extras for whoever these people are.

“What’s up?” Alex asks me, as I stand gaping near the front of the auditorium. I jerk my head toward the three trick-or-treaters, who have taken seats at the back of the house, just below the hole where the projector will shine through.

Alex reminds me that we released the short film—Halloween Spirit—onto YouTube all the way back when we were raising Kickstarter funds for the feature, so they had plenty of time to work on homebrew costumes. “Be flattered,” he says, brushing past me to check the mics.

Someone who is finding their seat comes up to chat with me—something about how much they loved the short and how they’re looking forward to the full movie—and I force a smile onto my face and nod and try to pay attention, I do, but out of the corner of my eye I’m watching those three trick-or-treaters, noting how they don’t take their masks off after they sit, don’t turn their heads to chat with one another. They just stare forward, plastic buckets in their laps, and wait.

Sometime after we bury the empty box, I go over to Jeanne’s house and ask her mom if I can get some stuff that I left in her room. It’s mostly a lie—there is some stuff of mine in there, sure, but I’m there just to sit in the space that still holds her echo because it’s as close to her as I can get. I sit on the bed for as long as I think I can, eyes closed, trying to imagine her weight on the bed beside me, and then I pick up some stuff to make my story credible.

I take back my Batman Forever CD and a sweater that I left wadded on her closet floor, and I also take her journal. It isn’t a diary—diaries are private things that you keep in a drawer and lock with a key; decorated with little hearts and butterflies. Jeanne took her journal with her everywhere. She always had it. It isn’t fancy, just a composition notebook with a speckled cover that she plastered with T.S.O.L. and Misfits stickers.

She sketched in it and wrote her thoughts down in it; roughed out song lyrics for the band that neither of us would ever start. I refrain from flipping through it in her room, but when I get back to mine, I flop down on the bed and turn the pages slowly, reverently. I’m savoring each one, knowing that I’ll never get another chance to look at them for the first time, and that there will never be any more.

That’s how I find the nightmare. That’s what the page is labeled, up at the top, in letters that have been traced over multiple times, until they almost punch through the paper. THE NIGHTMARE.

Ever since I was a little kid, she writes, I’ve had this dream. Not even a dream. What do they call it? A night terror. I’m wide awake, or I feel like I am, and I’m in my own bed, except that I can’t move. It feels like I’m pinned down, like something incredibly heavy and soft is covering every part of me. But it doesn’t hurt and I’m not smothered; I just can’t move.

My room looks just like it really looks at night, but as I lay there, I notice something. There’s a shape in the corner, and it’s getting bigger. No, closer. Maybe both. It has a green face and green hands and it’s wearing this big, lumpy black robe, like a monk. Its eyes are huge and round, with black dots for pupils and no irises. Like a Muppet. They roll around in its head independently of one another. It’s smiling, and it comes toward me and I want to scream but I can’t because I can’t move and it reaches out its hands toward me and it smells like graveyard dirt and then I usually wake up.

Then, obviously written later, because the pen is different: Except it isn’t really like waking up, it’s like I was always awake, but the universe woke up, and so the thing is gone and I can move, but I have this feeling that, if the universe ever nods off again, it’ll be back.

At about the midpoint of the movie—when the four girls are all still alive but Pete and Shelly have both been knocked off already by the trick-or-treaters—I go out into the lobby. At my back, the screen is showing the pink neon of Wayne’s Burgers on the north side of town, the place where the kids in the movie all go to hang out and fool around. For a second I can see the glow from the screen on the carpet in front of me before the doors swing shut.

The lobby is mostly deserted. A couple sit on barstools and Conner stands behind the bar in the Halloween version of an ugly Christmas sweater decorated with bloody knives and black-eyed Shatner masks. He waves as I make my way into the ladies’ room, and I wave back, but I’m digging in my purse for the bottle that has my alprazolam so I can add another to the one I dry-swallowed before the movie began.

I’m bent over the running water of the sink when the door opens behind me, letting in some other patrons that I don’t immediately see. It isn’t until I feel them behind me that I straighten up, and when the three masks from the film are there in the mirror I drop the pale-green pill and some part of my panicked brain registers every leg of its flight as it ricochets off the sink, off the lid of the trashcan, and disappears under one of the stalls.

I try to transition my startlement into a socially acceptable laugh, though my heart has turned into a bird beating itself to death against the cage of my ribs, and my hands have already started to shake. “Those are amazing costumes,” I say, acting as though they have caught me just at the end of my ablutions and trying to make my way around them to the door.

They move to block me.

My first instinct is to reach for another alprazolam to replace the one that has flown, but I know better. Whatever they’re doing—the part of my brain that I have trained to shield me from the worst of my anxiety provides an endless litany of perfectly harmless explanations—I need to get out of this situation before my panic gets any worse. Once I’m in the lobby, I’ll feel safer. I can ask Conner for a drink and wash the pill down with that.

“Sorry,” I say, as though their move was just one of those things that happen, as you both try to get out of one another’s way and end up stepping in unison. I try to move around them again, and the Devil shifts one step to the side, between me and the door. Their masks are all totally still, and all staring straight at me.

The rationalizing part of my brain clams up. There’s no longer any possibility of explaining this away. No version of what’s happening now is any good.

I open my mouth, maybe to scream for Conner, though I doubt he could hear me over all the various noises of the theater, but before I can make a sound, they rush me.

They smell like burning leaves, that’s the first thing I notice. They’re all the same height as they are in the movie, a little shorter than me. The same height as Viv and Steph and Liz. They aren’t holding their plastic buckets, and I can feel their hands fasten on me. They’re wearing gloves, but still their hands feel dry, brittle. Like scarecrow hands.

“What are you afraid of?” they all ask, their voices tripping over one another as they tumble out of the holes in their masks. It’s the only line they ever have in the movie, and it’s provided by Greg Agee, my sound guy, running his voice through three different filters. Their voices sound just like that.

I punch one of them, the witch, and I feel the hard crack of her mask under my knuckles. It slips loose, but I don’t see what’s underneath—yes I do, that moving black filth—before I am running out of the bathroom.

The lobby is empty and dark. There are no streetlights outside the front windows, no cars, but I can hear the movie soundtrack, so I go back into the auditorium.

When I left, minutes ago, the auditorium was full of people. My friends were sitting on the couches at the front, watching themselves up on the screen. Now it’s empty, only dust motes dancing in the beam of the projector.

The movie is still going, but the music has died just as my forward momentum does. On the screen is a scene I don’t recognize—no, that’s not true, I recognize it all right, I just didn’t shoot it.

That green face all folded in on itself filling the screen; those rolling moon eyes; those perfect yellow teeth. An enormous green hand comes through the screen and collides with the red carpet in a cloud of popcorn dust, dragging its knuckles like Kong.

The screen isn’t torn, just bulged out a little where the hand leaves it, like a swimmer breaking the surface tension of water. The other hand is sliding out of the screen now, the face stretching the surface, those rolling eyes coming toward me as the first hand slides out of its black sleeve and fastens gigantic fingers around me. They smell like graveyard dirt.

I steadied myself on the back of one of the seats when I first realized what I was seeing, and as it lifts me up, I feel my fingertips slide off the seat back one by one. When the last one slips away, I’m gone with them.

Two words burn in the dark, white against the black. They’re backward from where I am, because I realize that I am behind the screen somehow, or inside it. They burn brighter and brighter until they burn through the film—even though we shot on digital, because it was cheaper—and then they’re gone and everything is gone.

From wherever I am, I can hear the theater full of people clapping, though. Clapping for my movie. Clapping for those two words. Clapping for Jeanne.

About the Author

Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, tabletop game designer, amateur film scholar, and monster expert whose stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s the author of several books, including Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts and Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

Find more by Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

About the Narrator

Lalana Dara


Lalana Dara is Thai American, was born in New York, and spent 20+ years in life sciences and information technology.

She is a gamer girl, a foodie, and a wanderer. Usually not lost.

Lalana is also known as Piper J. Drake, bestselling author of romantic suspense, paranormal romance, science fiction, and fantasy.

Find more by Lalana Dara