Friday, October 29, 2010

Nate Southard: There's Something in the Old Schoolhouse

Nate Southard is one of the most promising young writers working today, and it's my pleasure to have him as a guest at American Frankenstein. Here's a Halloween memory from Mr. S... straight from the bloody heartland of the good old USA:

Ah, the haunted house. There's a reason it's a Halloween staple. Sometimes I wonder how long people have been putting on these attractions, getting other people's money and then scaring the living hell out of them. It's got to go back a long ways.

I live in Austin, home of the House of Torment, one of the nation's leading haunted attractions. Seriously. currently has it listed as number twelve in their top thirteen. A few years back, they were even higher on the list when some friends and I went to check it out.

Sadly, it wasn't scary. Don't get me wrong, I still had a ton of fun. The sets were great, and the makeup and costumes were amazing, but there wasn't any real effort made to scare other than people jumping out and yelling, "Boo!" And for the love of all that's holy, please explain to me why, in the middle of a post-apocalyptic themed haunted house, there's a clown with a big hammer dancing around? Maybe it's a symptom of a high-volume business. Their job is to move people in and out of the building, and that doesn't leave much time for high-quality scares. Really, I don't know.

To me, the haunted house experience was best when I was a kid. In my small Indiana hometown, the local Jaycees held a haunted house in an abandoned schoolhouse. The three story building that sat in the trashier part of town was a tower of scorched bricks and busted windows. I was in the second grade when my parents first took my brother and me. I still remember waiting in line for more than an hour, looking up at this brick monstrosity. At one point, a woman on the third floor started screaming and beating against the window. The glass broke and rained down the side of the building, and then something grabbed her and pulled her away from the window.

If I wasn't scared before, I sure as hell was after that!

Finally, we made it into the haunted house. The first room was a tight little spot where the guide explained the rules to us. Okay. No problem. Once we were ready, we were ushered into the next room...

...and right into a funeral.

There was a full funeral service happening in the next room. Rows of wailing mourners in chairs, an actual coffin with an actual person inside, and a priest giving a service. My seven-year-old mind tried to guess what was happening. The guy's gonna get out of the coffin. That's the scare.

But the funeral just kept going, the priest talking and talking, and I started to feel the pressure build, that anticipation when you know something's going to happen, but it just doesn't. The service lasted long enough that my anticipation began to fade and boredom started to creep in to take it's place. Then a door to the left burst open and something leaped out. Strobe lights burst into life, and I saw a shrieking woman in a white dress that was both tattered and streaked with blood. There was blood around her mouth, too. Her skin was just as white as her dress, and her hair was a black, tangled mess. She had a knife in one hand, and with her other hand she grabbed one of the mourners, a woman who began to shriek just as loud as this monster. The mourner struggled in the woman's grip, but she was still dragged back through the door, which slammed shut behind them. The screams continued for a few seconds, arching upwards in a horrible, painful climax.

And then they stopped, cut off like somebody had brought an axe down on them.

I didn't open my eyes for the next hour. I know my parents dragged me, my hands iron claws in theirs, through the rest of the house, but I never saw another scene. That night, I didn't sleep. I'm not sure I slept the next night, either.

One scene did that. One scene was more terrifying than the three times I've been through the House of Torment combined. Sure, I'm twenty-five years older now, but I don't think that's the reason. The Jaycee's Haunted House was about suspense, while the House of Torment relied on shock. There's a difference, and it's an important one. I can only hope that today's haunted houses can take a look backward and learn a thing or two.

I want to take a moment and thank Norm for letting me take up some space today. He's as solid as they come, and I'm thankful for it.

Next Monday, November 1st, my debut novel Red Sky will be available for pre-order. It's a gritty, grisly tale of a bank heist gone wrong and the terrible things the perpetrators find while trying to flee through the deserts of New Mexico. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I hope you'll head over to Thunderstorm Books and reserve a copy on Monday. It's a limited edition, so there may not be copies available when the book is released early next year.

Well, that's all I've got for today. I hope you all enjoyed it. Happy Halloween!