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Scared silly: Haunted Hotel allowed room for laughs | Arts & Entertainment

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On Halloween in 1973, my mother sent me out trick-or-treating as one of her movie idols, Charlie Chaplain. I don’t recall what my two older sisters dressed up as, but I remember only a few minutes before we set out to fill our pillow cases with candy, I didn’t have a costume at all. My quick-thinking mom basically put me in ill-fitting clothes, handed me a cane, drew a mustache on my face, and gave me a hat to wear.

Other kids might have rehearsed their witch laugh, or ghostly sounds, but I was practicing my penguin waddle and trying to decided if I should play up the silent film star routine and decline to shout “Trick-or-Treat!”

A few years later on Halloween, I was standing in my room wearing all black, a cape, and a plastic Darth Vader mask. The costume didn’t come with a light saber, so I hardly felt like I could rule the galaxy, much less our house. Once again, though, my mom stepped in, gave me a roll of shiny red wrapping paper, and just like that, I was powerful and annoying my sisters (Particularly the one dressed as Princess Leia.)

I’ve never been a big fan of the super-scary costumes for Halloween. Frankly, I’m not at all a fan of scary movies. For all my mom’s knack for saving the day so I could go out and load up on sweets, someone showed less-than good judgment in letting me watch “The Exorcist” as a young child. That movie set me at odds with darkness for a long time.

My wife loves scary movies, but I have no desire to watch them, which makes my love and fascination with Halloween attractions seem out of place. I love going to haunted houses, or haunted trails and mazes.

For a work assignment with a previous employer, I visited and reviewed four of the most-popular local Halloween attractions. I rated them on basic amenities, like bathrooms and concessions, and I added fun categories, like the number of chainsaw-wielding characters, or clowns.

Most of these attractions use sudden, loud noises, flashing lights, and tilt the floors to keep people off balance as a way of scaring people and getting terrified reactions. There’s not always much creativity involved with those efforts. In my experiences, the best haunted houses and terror trails involved characters that lurked, or stared at you menacingly, or approached you and quietly spoke. At the Hacker House in Pilot Mountain, a demented-looking character walked next to me and said, “I’m glad you came to my house, when can I come to yours?”

I also gave high marks to these Halloween destinations when the character stories were well-developed, detailed and clever. If the blood-stained surgeon clutching a butcher knife announces, “Don’t worry….I’ve never lost one patient,” and then follows with, “I know exactly where each is buried,” my review just bumped up a star .

For about five years, the church I attended as a youth, would open a Haunted Hotel in downtown Greensboro. This was done mostly as a way to raise funds, but I can’t help but believe it was also a way for members to show off their wilder side, and release pent-up stress. What better way to blow off steam than to take someone’s money and then scare the bejesus out of them?

When I was in junior high — middle school — I was invited to help out, mostly as an extra to keep groups moving through. The setting for the Haunted Hotel at one time was an actual hotel. The building was more than 100-years-old, and had gone unused for a couple of decades when the church began using it for about four weekends leading up to Halloween.

The premise was basic, with a tour guide leading groups room by room through the hotel, stopping at each to tell the tragic story of each guest of the inn. The first year I participated I worked as a sweeper, making sure none of the customers fell behind, and to keep the groups moving. The Haunted Hotel stayed busy, moving hundreds of people through each night.

I didn’t get a speaking role until the second year I worked the Haunted Hotel. There were no scripts; no one assigned a character to me. But I got to interact with the “front desk” worker, who was loud and quick on his feet with comments and warnings of the impending horror behind each door. To say ‘guests check in, but they don’t check out,’ was cliché and lazy.

“Welcome to the Haunted Hotel, where ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs should be taken as a warning,” the desk clerk would shout to the group of expectant thrill-seekers. A guide would then lead the crowd down a hall toward the first room.

Humor was a key ingredient for the Haunted Hotel. “I’m terribly sorry,” the Desk Clerk would yell down the stairs to the people waiting to take their tour, “but it seems we have ‘no vacancy’ at the hotel.”

Off to the side, and out of sight, a woman would let out a scream that would wake the dead, and make them put in earplugs.

“Hold on. It seems someone has just checked out,” the desk clerk would yell down, eliciting laughs. “More blood!!!!”

My job, that year, was to communicate with the hotel host when we had a group ready, or if we needed to slow down the flow of customers.

My character was a kid, with a dirty and bloody face. I had no back-story, no explanation for the bloody mess I was. For reason’s I can’t recall, I thing to speak in a cockney’d British accent.

“Ah you ready to meet yer maker, gov’ner,” I would say, hunched and limping about. It was awful. I feel like a lot of people let me down when no one tried to stop me from speaking that way.

There were no chainsaws, no Jason or Michael Myers, but we did have a bodiless head on a silver platter, that opened its eyes and shouted, “I need some body. Any body!” We didn’t have a Freddy or Chucky, but we did have a reference to to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a tour guide tells of the hotel’s maintenance man — who we see doing some brick-laying — and his wife, who is “something of a shut-in.”

At that moment, a spotlight kicked on to reveal a chained woman who screams for her freedom. Horror, humor, and literature. What else would expect from a bunch of Unitarians?

That was the last year the church did the Haunted Hotel. The cost and work that was required each year to make the place safe had become more than the congregation wanted to take on. Now days, haunted attractions are high-tech, expensive, and big business. Professional make-up artists would do wonders creating nightmare-inducing characters. There’s nothing amateurish about the audio/video work.

But whether you’re being chased by someone in overalls and a chainsaw, or being chased by a mangled bellhop spewing puns, the benefit is the same: release.