Halloween Haunts: Hallowe’en in a Suburb and in a Library by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.
I have spent much of my adult life chasing my drug of choice: the feeling of October in the New England of my childhood. The day gets darker earlier, the air becomes a little crisp like an apple, and, as Ray Bradbury put it, “everything is smoky smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight.” There is no feeling quite like it and it lasts for a whole month. My little hometown of Cheshire, Connecticut (“The bedding plant capital of New England!” is its claim to fame) would become the setting of a Stephen King short story for thirty-one magical days. October itself transformed the town.
“The steeples are white in the wild moonlight, / And the trees have a silver glare;” begins Lovecraft’s poem “Hallowe’en in a Suburb,” and he is right, as is the rest of the poem. There is something different about moonlight in October. As you drive through the center of town, past all the churches, the steeples do look different – they could be hiding vampires, or the thing that got Robert Blake in “The Haunter in the Dark.” The cemetery in the center of town seems as if it were possible for something to emerge in the dusk, and the woods behind your house seem just a little more threatening.
I loved it.
Halloween was my favorite time of year, and being in a suburb in the seventies and eighties was very different than being a kid now. If you were old enough, you could go around with just your friends, no parents supervising, and you would hit as many houses as possible, even going to other neighborhoods, so long as you were home by the time your parents told you to be back. That’s not to say there were not arguments with the folks (“Mom! The Wolfman does NOT wear a coat. He’s got fur! It’s not THAT cold! I’ll look dumb. I don’t need a coat! None of the other guys are wearing coats!” – despite these incredibly brilliant legal arguments, my mother won with the strategy, “If you don’t take a coat you’re not going out.”)
One year I tried to make a haunted house in the basement. I made all kinds of special effects. I cut bats out of construction paper. I made a skeleton that was supposed to jump out at you (although mostly it just fell off the wall). Sadly, my imagination outpaced my skills as a haunt-maker when I was ten. I don’t think my haunted basement actually scared anyone, although mom was kind enough to tell me it was kind of scary.
Throughout my teenage years my appreciation of Halloween only grew stronger, maybe because as a teenager you’re not supposed to enjoy the holiday in the same way you did as a kid. But I still found fun in being frightened. I first saw Night of the Living Dead when it ran on MTV on Halloween, 1983. I would dress up and pass out candy for my parents. It was a way to hold onto that feeling of childhood October. Then, inevitably, I grew up.
In some ways I write horror and read horror to keep October in my heart all year long. But more recently I was given the opportunity to do what I could not as a kid. I now get to make a haunted house that actually frightens people and it all began as a joke.
I teach in the Theatre Arts department at a university in Los Angeles. I do a lot of site-specific work – plays that are created to be performed in a specific place, usually not a regular theatre. Four years ago my university library approached me. They knew I did theatre and I wrote about horror and the special collections was going to have an exhibit on gothic novels. “What can you do theatrically with that?” they asked. “Give me the whole library for a night and I will make a literary haunted house, where people go through and instead of people in costume jumping out and yelling ‘boo’ they’re perform scenes from the books in the exhibit,” I said, expecting they would laugh and we’d talk about something more realistic.
Instead they said, “Go on.”
So I fleshed out the idea and the folks I met with took it to the dean of the library who loved the idea. A month later I found myself writing scenes from Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the short stories of Poe, among others to be performed in the stacks for audiences of eight to ten at a time. A month after that I was rehearsing with the student performers and the last week of the month we performed the scenes for hundreds of people who came through the haunt, watching ten five minute plays in a row.
The highlight for me was one group who was watching the Jekyll/Hyde scene and when the maid looked up at them and said, “It’s Mr. Hyde. Run!” they did. The actors watched them flee the scene, which was not yet done, and then reset for the next group, smiling that they had frightened their fellow college students with a bit of literature.
The event was so successful I was asked to do it again the following year. I asked if the special collections exhibit was going to be horror-themed again and was told no, it would be “Moby Dick and its Legacy.” No problem, I responded. We’ll call it “The Last Voyage of the Flying Dutchman” and do sea-themed horror stories. We did the scene in Dracula in which Lucy and Mina watch the Demeter crash in Whitby harbor. We did The Shadow Over Innsmouth. We did William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates. It was lovely.
“What is the exhibit this year?” I asked the following spring. “Fairy Tales as Instructions for Girls” I was told. That fall the Brothers Grimm welcomed the groups going through and warned them of the disturbing things they would encounter when the audience went back to the original stories (like Cinderella’s sisters mutilating their feet to fit in the slipper and then birds pecking out their eyes – the eyeless, bloody-footed sisters then showed up later on the tour!). Hansel and Gretel murdered the witch who held them captive, but since they lacked the key to get out of their chains, Gretel then killed Hansel in anticipation of eating him to stay alive. Some things were obvious: Little Red Riding Hood as a werewolf; others were less so (go read “The Hand with the Knife” – the Brothers Grimm were messed up!).
This year, the exhibit is entitled “So Short a Lease: Early Reflections on the Human Timeline” and on display are early modern books dealing with life’s brevity and the stark reality of time and death. I smiled when told that because at this point this thing writes itself. Our audience will be brought to the library basement to meet H.G. Wells who will warn them about time and death, and then we are off and running through the stacks with a literary haunt.
I am truly grateful to the library at my school, as they have given me the October of my childhood again. I get to make werewolves without coats, things that actually scare those who go to the basement with me, and transform the familiar into the sinister, just as October did to my hometown every year of my youth. Best of all, though, is that unlike that kid laboring in his basement, I have dozens of people working with me to make a literary haunted house each year, and as a result we are able to give hundreds more that experience of horror, fear and a love of scary literature. I’ve done my job well if the audience is scared. I’ve done my job even better if some of those people go home and pick up Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker or Hodgson. My October now is the gift that keeps giving.
Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. is a professor of theatre at Loyola Marymount University and a proud member of the Horror Writers Association. He is the author of Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema (Continuum) and Back from the Dead: Reading Remakes of Romero’s Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times (McFarland), among others. He is also an award-winning short story writer with over two dozen stories in such anthologies as Midian Unmade, Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning, and Whispers from the Abyss 2, as well as magazines such as Mothership Zeta and Devolution Z. He is also one of the co-chairs of StokerCon 2017 and the recipient of the Rocky Wood Scholarship. He is currently at work on a book on how to write about horror.
Video of the 2014 Haunting of Hannon: https://vimeo.com/139087822
I’d love to read your book about how to write horror. Good luck with it