By Orrin Grey
Kim Parks considered himself something of a connoisseur of the haunted attractions that sprang up every year around Halloween. While he was getting his masters, he had been to haunted attractions all over the country—New Orleans, St. Louis, New York.
He worked as a systems analyst for a major telephone company, a job that required him to travel all over but that kept him occupied only during the daylight hours. At night, he was left to his own devices, and during the month of October those devices took him unfailingly to the doorsteps of the haunted houses.
Every city had one or two, most had more. Some were professionally run, put on by people who attended the HauntWorld trade show in St. Louis every year, but Kim was particularly fond of the more amateur affairs—the haunted equivalent of putting on a show in the barn.
He was not, in any of his other habits, a morbid individual. At work he wore suits in colors with names like “charcoal” and “fawn.” ‘There was nothing to mark Kim out as a habitue of haunts, yet some exploratory urge drove him to them, time and again.
After a while, they became so uniform—dark rooms and strobe lights and men in masks wielding chainsaws with the chains re- moved—that every deviation was like a precious stone unearthed unexpectedly in his driveway. These deviations became what he lived for.
He had passed through a door cut in a movie screen playing Night of the Living Dead, seen a dragon made of sheet metal breathe real fire, walked across a pulsating floor that bucked and squirmed like a living waterbed beneath his feet, and pushed his way through “cobwebbed” rooms festooned with silly string. He had been to haunts on islands, on farms, in plantation houses, old hospitals, and even an abandoned doll factory.
The haunt he pulled up in front of that October night was just a regular house, built on a cul-de-sac off the highway, on a level above the sidewalk, separated by a low concrete retaining wall so that Kim had to climb up a short batch of stone steps to reach the front porch. Bungalow style, the house was two stories with big, square pillars supporting a deep front porch. Did it strike Kim as slightly altar-like, as he approached, or was that just an embellishment?
There was no name above the porch, nor had there been one on the listing he had seen online that brought him here. “Haunted House,” was all it said, followed by an address and a ticket price.
On the porch, a man stood next to a wooden box and took Kim’s money, handing over a nondescript paper ticket, orange, of the kind that could be purchased in big rolls at any party store. The man wore a costume, though Kim couldn’t have said what he was supposed to be dressed as. Perhaps an old-fashioned carnival barker in his top hat and mantled cloak, but that didn’t explain the red scarf wrapping his mouth and throat.
The ticket vendor looked tired and maybe strung out. Kim wouldn’t have been surprised. Haunts could be scary for reasons besides the safe and intentional ones. They were necessarily fly-bynight operations and many, even the biggest ones, were located in the most burnt-out parts of town, where large, empty buildings could be rented for cheap.
Kim fully expected to wind up with a knife in his guts someday, or at least with tetanus from a rusty nail, or a broken ankle from falling in the dark. Oddly, the thought never dissuaded him.
There were a few other people standing around on the porch, smoking cigarettes or talking quietly, waiting for their turn to go in. It wasn’t a big crowd, especially for this late in the season, but there were also much bigger and more well-publicized haunts in the city—it’s why Kim had chosen this one.
A wooden porch swing still hung on rusty, squeaking chains and a young couple sat in it, the boy whispering something in his date’s ear as she stifled a laugh. The only light on the porch came from two dim bulbs, one above the ticket vendor and one above the storm door. They seemed to cast their light only straight down, leaving the rest of the porch in deep shadow, made even deeper by the distant streetlights.
Kim counted six other people besides himself and the ticket man; all in pairs.
Involuntarily, Kim found his gaze drawn back to the man selling the tickets. His eyes were bloodshot and bulging; his face, where it showed above the scarf, pale and feverishly clammy, with a sickly, almost greenish tinge. In the weak light, Kim couldn’t decide if it was makeup or not.
The man seemed to be waiting for something impatiently, even irritably. Kim imagined that, had he been a cartoon character, he would have checked a comically oversized pocket watch.
There was no one else behind Kim in line, and no one else coming up the walk. With a deep-body sigh, the man stepped out from behind his wooden pulpit and drew himself up as best he could. When he spoke, his voice was the croaking rasp of a heavy smoker, or someone who hasn’t slept in several days.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he wheezed with a flourish. “Before we proceed, I must give you one final warning. Despite its humble appearance, this house is unlike any other haunted attraction you have ever visited. If you enter these doors, I can guarantee neither your life nor your sanity. I caution you, if you fear for either, take this opportunity to collect a full refund and depart this place without shame.”
It was a good speech, and though the man was obviously exhausted and the speech clearly one that he knew by rote, he fell into it effortlessly. Still, no one took him up on his offer, of course. As he turned and opened the storm door, he seemed to almost deflate, as if he really had hoped that they would all just leave.
Instead, he opened the storm door and then, beyond it, the front door of the house, which was painted a kind of faded brick red. The room on the other side still looked like what it had always been—a living room. There was no TV or couch anymore, and the fireplace against the far wall had been covered up by something black and shiny that looked like garbage bags. But even though all the lights had been replaced with red bulbs that lit the room like a heat lamp, it still looked like just a room, in just a house.
In one corner, old newspapers had been taped to the walls and floor. They were covered in streaks of fake blood that looked black in the red light, like a very dull Jackson Pollock. Something was crumpled in the corner. It looked like a pile of dirty laundry, but the arm jutting out said that it was supposed to be a body.
Kim had maneuvered to place himself at the back of the group, so that he was the last one into the room, aside from the ticket seller. All of the interesting stuff tended to happen to those at the front or the back, and the people at the front were usually pushed forward by the press of those behind—their fear, sure, but also the rush of the haunt operators to get one crowd through before the next arrived. Kim liked to be in the back, so he had more time to soak up the artifice.
No one else seemed to notice anything amiss. There were the usual exclamations of giggled disgust from the girls, the usual rueful chuckle from the guys. Kim’s senses had been honed by innumerable haunts by now, though, and he noticed it immediately. The door to the coat closet that should have contained the knife-wielding killer stood ajar, and inside there was nothing but a couple of coats all shoved to one side.
The ticket seller seemed to notice it, too. He walked across the red room and paused by the door on the far side, letting his bleary gaze drift around the room, as though he was equally surprised by the killer’s absence. If he truly was, though, he covered it well. “Once,” he croaked, “terrible atrocities were committed in this house. What you see before you is merely reenactment. The true horror lies beyond.”
While this, too, sounded like a prepared speech, Kim was pretty sure it wasn’t. By now, he knew the rhythms of a haunt as surely as he knew those of his own body, and he knew that there should have been someone in that closet.
As the ticket seller opened the door and ushered the others into the next room, Kim paused beside the “dead body” on the floor. Closer now, he could see the mannequin face drizzled in syrup blood, but he was actually squinting to read the headlines on the newspapers. They were about some explorer bringing back artifacts from abroad and donating them to the local museum.
“You can still depart, if you wish,” the ticket seller said from the doorway, gesturing with one too-long arm toward the front door, shut once again to keep out any latecomers. Kim pulled his gaze away from the newspapers, shook his head, and followed the others into a room that had once been a kitchen.
There were things in the sink. Puddles and stains all the way up the cabinet doors. In here was the obligatory strobe light, making the room feel like it was in constant motion.
The others were most of the way through already, their limbs seeming to jerk in the flickering light like a series of still images not quite linked together—a flipbook with a few pages missing.
In one corner of the room a staircase led up to the second floor, and Kim was sure, as sure as he had been about the empty coat closet, that the tour would normally have gone that way. In the pulsing glow, he could just make out the dummy dangling from a noose above the first landing.
Instead, however, the ticket seller had somehow already crossed the kitchen ahead of him, his hand resting on the brass knob of a smaller door, set into the wall beneath the stairs. In the throbbing light, he seemed to be moving strangely, his clothes shuddering with hidden life.
“Beneath us is the true house,” he said, his voice somehow thicker still, filled with mucus. “It’s not too late to turn back.”
Yet he didn’t wait to see if anyone did, just opened the door and, one by one, the group ducked through. As he passed, Kim tried to get a closer look at the man’s face, or his twitching clothes, but the light wouldn’t let him. It played tricks with his vision. Was the ticket seller wearing a mask underneath the scarf after all? Out on the porch, Kim would have sworn not, but now he saw some- thing—an expanse of damp flesh—that he was sure couldn’t be a man’s face, even with makeup.
As he followed the couple in front of him down creaking cellar stairs, he was blinded by the transition from the strobing light to darkness, black spots and flashbulbs dancing in front of his eyes. In time, though, his vision began to adjust, and he saw that the stairs were lit by another light that seemed to creep up from the cellar ahead.
The steps themselves were wooden slats, with spaces in between where hands could reach out to grasp unwitting ankles—another thing that should have happened, in a regular haunted house. The sides had been blocked with pieces of pegboard, hung with the usual detritus of fake rats and bones and shrunken heads. The violet light from the cellars below crept through the holes in the pegboard, making strange patterns on the backs of the couple in front of him.
The light was sharp yet murky and it seemed to ooze up the basement steps, following the low-hanging fog that was as much a part of haunts as strobes and defanged chainsaws. The air below smelled damp and coppery, like a reptile enclosure.
Before the bottom, the stairs turned sharply to the left. In the eerie light, Kim could see the rest of the crowd disappearing around the corner below him. He could make out a kind of quiet thrumming noise; a bunch of voices humming atonally.
As he reached the landing and that sharp left turn, his sense that something was very wrong with the haunted house came back, filled him up. It made him want to turn and flee and also eager to press on. Novelty was the high he chased through these dim labyrinths, after all, and this promised to be novel indeed.
When his sneaker touched the damp-slick basement floor, Kim’s first impression was a sweeping sense of chagrin. It was just a haunted house after all; another spook show in a long line of spook shows, and he was both impressed and disappointed that it had managed to take him in.
The rest of the crowd was strung out in a loose group at the base of the stairs, as though uncertain of their place in the tableau of the room.
The basement itself was unfinished and small, with concrete walls and wood supports. Unlike the rest of the house, it hadn’t been decorated except with its one central prop. In one corner, a mundane washer and dryer still sat.
The only other furnishing was a card table upon which had been placed what Kim could only think to describe as an idol, roughly three feet tall. It was carved from some kind of purple-black stone that made Kim think of the volcanic glass that his mother had brought back from a trip to Maui. He was hard-pressed to say what the thing was carved to look like. It was hunched forward, like a gargoyle, and its back was swollen and bulbous, its head a mass of holes or protrusions and how was it he couldn’t tell which?
Standing around it were the rest of the haunt’s staff—the ones who had been missing from the rooms above. Here was the man in stained coveralls, a bloodstained plastic knife now hanging limply from his fingers. There, a girl in a torn white dress and overdone silent movie makeup who should probably have been descending those kitchen stairs.
The atonal humming sound was coming from their throats as they all stood around the statue, arms at their sides, heads cast back, eyes rolled up in their sockets. And though they were all wearing costumes, it was also like they were wearing another costume beneath it. The girl in the white dress had one arm that was much longer than the other; the man in coveralls had split his costume down the back to reveal a humplike, cancerous growth that swam with yellowy eyes. And though the light cast smoky, undulating shadows on the walls, they weren’t the shadows of the figures that surrounded the idol.
No, this was not just another haunted house. Kim knew it absolutely now. Knew it in his guts and his bones, not just with the creeping sense of wrongness he had felt before. He didn’t know exactly what it was, instead, and in the months and years that followed he would lie awake at night often, struggling with the fact that a part of him wanted to stay and find out.
He was never sure what allowed him to break away. To turn and run, only too late remembering the ticket seller behind him, blocking the foot of the stairs. Half in a fall, Kim scrabbled at the man, and the scarf wound ’round his throat came off, revealing a shuddering, clenching mass of wet, red flesh where a mouth should have been.
Behind him, there were sounds of movement now. Perhaps a choked-off scream and a breathing like a wet bellows. There was a gust of hot, fetid air at his back, but he didn’t look over his shoulder. He shoved past the ticket seller, recoiling at how much his flesh felt like a great tongue.
Up he went, through the strobe-light kitchen, the murder-scene living room, leaving the storm door slapping against the siding as he crossed the altar-like porch. He didn’t even stop for his car, where it was parked up the cul-de-sac. He just ran and ran.
The police called Kim at his hotel room the following day, and when he went to pick up his abandoned car, he was questioned by a Detective Stanton, though Kim learned more from the exchange than the detective did.
After several reports of abandoned vehicles along the road, police had gone door to door, eventually finding the door to the haunt ajar, just as Kim had left it. They also found $350 in the petty cash box on the front porch, but otherwise the property was vacant. Even the props that Kim remembered from the haunted house were all gone, though there were still bits of tape stuck to the walls in the living room, dried fake blood in cracks and crevices here and there.
The house had been rented by a Benjamin Jasper, who had no license to operate a haunted attraction there. Back at his hotel, Kim did some digging into Benjamin Jasper. At one time, he had inherited a small fortune from his parents, who had been bigtime local investors. He had gradually squandered it all on world travel, bringing back all sorts of objets d’art, many of which he had donated to local institutions, including the museum at his alma mater.
Several were currently on display there, but Kim opted not to go pay them a visit.
About the Author
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.
About the Narrator
Bob Eccles is a Parking Enforcement Officer with the University of Michigan Police Department. He served in the U.S. Army Military Police, and is a 30-year radio broadcasting veteran. Bob has previously appeared on our sister podcast, PodCastle. Bob has also written a few short horror stories of his own. He’s a member of the Horror Writers Association, the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers, and The Fictioneers.