by Alexandra Neumeister
A man with a scaly, gilled face pulled out a meat cleaver. “Fresh fish!” he yelled, and he slammed it down on a big silver cod, sending out a spray of salt water.
Directly into my face.
Great, I thought, pulling off my glasses and rubbing them on my shirt. Just what I needed in a haunted house—less visibility.
“Fish Bait” was my favorite of the haunted houses at Midsummer Scream 2017, although that might be my bias toward anything related to Marine Biology. The most genuinely frightening had to be a literal trailer that they wheeled in, although that one almost felt like cheating. The fear came when I was forced to push through two heavy air bags, and I felt stuck and started to worry I wouldn’t get out. Eventually, I pushed through and felt my blood pumping like in many of the other mazes, but it was more of a sensory experience than the storytelling I’d enjoyed in the other houses. Someone could get genuinely trapped and panicky, and while they’d warned us about claustrophobia, all the haunted mazes had tight corridors and people pressed together with similar warnings.
At the Midsummer Scream’s Hall of Shadows, there was a plethora of haunted mazes to choose from. It took maybe a minute or two to walk through each facility, at first a bit of a letdown, but the sheer number of mazes and the pure creativity behind them made up for it. Each was only about half the size of the average mobile home, but they used the space so efficiently, making twisting and turning halls that monsters could easily pop out of and that confused the guests’ sense of direction just enough to make them vulnerable to a good scare.
Many of them used the same strategies. A distraction, either a message on a screen, an actor warning of doom and despair ahead, or a suspicious looking mannequin, and then someone jumping out at you from around the corner while you were preoccupied. I learned that the key was not the quality of the jump scare, but the atmosphere around you, making you scream at every little thing before you even met one of the people in costume. I found myself enjoying the ones with interesting themes—Lovecraft-esque ocean horror and Grimm style fairy tales—but I was most frightened by the ones with more gory elements, hanging baby dolls in strobe lighting and a girl with gleaming pustules popping out from behind a grimy fridge. At one point I screamed when someone’s bag brushed against me, expecting that someone had grabbed my ankles. Even when I’d gotten good at spotting the little hidey holes where the actors popped out, it made the experiences even more horrifying, making me dread every second of waiting in the most wonderful way.
While I was excited about going into the mazes, I did not head straight for them. I paced the exhibit hall up and down, working up the nerve. I’d invited a friend, but she was running late, and I was too anxious to go into one of them by myself, as much afraid of grabbing a stranger in fear as I was of actually being startled. When she arrived I’d finally mustered the courage, knowing we could at least laugh at each other’s reactions if we were particularly afflicted by fear.
My friend grabbed my shoulder and followed like a short conga line of terror as I led the way through the first few mazes. I was easy to scare, jumping at the slightest movement, but I found it easy enough to brush off. At one point I’d looked a monster right in the eye and said “Sup,” although it was more to calm myself down with the absurdity of it than to get an actual response.
I felt bad in some of the mazes because I know the actors in costume were working hard. My default reaction to being creeped out, rather than my yelp and half-swearing at the jump scares, is either to go into robot mode and suppress my discomfort or to smile and laugh hysterically. I’m weird that way, but one of the most frightened reactions I’ve ever had in my life had me curled up in a ball in a chair laughing my ass off. I almost wanted to tell them, “No, that was super creepy. I’m giggling because I’m terrified.”
The Hall of Shadows was fair game for wandering monsters. Anyone with even an ounce of makeup could be just waiting to scream at passersby. Although once on my way in, when I was checking my phone in the lobby, a person in a pumpkin mask jumped out and made me scream. That taught me to be wary of everything. They know instinctively when to get you, keeping an eye out for people cowering. I was particularly vulnerable since my first reaction when passing someone is to turn and avoid touching them, giving the perfect opportunity for a well-timed snarl to catch me off guard. Although I’m fairly convinced at least half of them were just amateur cosplayers being jerks, catching people as they walked out of mazes, there were some interesting moments. A couple of people walked through an area that had been cordoned off for safety, looking down at their phones and bumping past a group of ghouls that were out of character and just casually conversing. One of the ghouls split off from the rest, instinctively stalking after the jaywalkers. He didn’t even say anything, just let them turn around and scream when they noticed him, earning a round of snickering from his cohorts. Sometimes, scaring can be used for good.
There were safe spaces, though. No one poked their head under the bathroom stalls to scare me, and nobody bothered me when I was resting my sore feet and charging my phone by a wall outlet. It gave me a lot more confidence, that while there was the unpredictability of being in a horror movie in 90% of the space, I could still walk out whenever I wanted. I was in control. My friend needed a few breaks to calm down, which I obliged, but I didn’t really want to stop. I felt my blood pumping, and I wanted to keep that feeling up and barrel through the mazes as fast as I could.
But I have to admit, the most bizarre event of the convention was meeting my aunt there.
I glanced back passively, expecting it to be addressed at someone else with my name. I almost didn’t register her because she seemed to blend in with the goths, her red rockabilly haircut that stood out at family gatherings matching the atmosphere here almost perfectly.
Then she waved and smiled and I realized—wait, I’m related to that person.
We stopped and talked, stunned at each other’s presence, my aunt introducing herself to my friend and my friend cooing over my youngest cousin.
Since she’d married my uncle, I’d found out she worked at Knott’s Berry Farm as a scare actor in the past, not dissimilar to the actors working the mazes at the convention. But it didn’t really occur to me that someone I usually only see at family events could just pop up at one of the cons I go to for fun. In some ways it was even more shocking than the ghosts and ghouls popping out of the walls.
My aunt asked what I was doing here. I’d told her I was just generally interested and here to support my fellow members of the Horror Writers Association.
“We were just hanging out at the Knott’s Scary Farm booth. He loves it,” my aunt said, holding up her infant son. “I know all these guys, the Decayed Brigade are old buddies of mine.”
The Decayed Brigade? The troop of performers who were given command of the Hall of Shadows three times a day to put on their extreme stunt-like show?
We parted ways to continue our particular convention quests, shortly after taking a selfie so I could prove to my parents it really happened, but the whole thing still felt surreal.
I passed by the Decayed Brigade booth on my way out for the day, and I noticed people in costumes and plain clothes hugging each other, mentioning how long it’s been since they’d seen one another. For them, this event was like a reunion, and I recognized the same reactions whenever my friends from writing workshops got together. I consider a lot of my fellow writers to be like family, and I saw the same kind of camaraderie here. The most hardcore of theater geeks.
I walked up to the booth and mentioned my aunt’s name to some of the performers.
“Yeah, she was here earlier. Her new baby was really cute,” said a guy with slick hair and an upside down cross painted on his forehead, like some kind of James Dean Antichrist.
“I remember when she’d bring her other kid,” said a guy with pitch black voids for eyes. “I was a different character then. The baby used to reach out and try to grab my face.”
So I guess can include monochromatic extreme sports ghouls on a branch of my extended family tree.
Midsummer Scream was one of the best conventions I’ve been to and well worth a return trip next year, but it also showed me connections can be found in the most bizarre yet delightful of places.
After all, monsters are people too.