Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012
It is the first week of October. The houses and lawns of this tranquil Midwestern town are already adorned with macabre ornaments. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve experienced Halloween season in America. When I was a child, the season began about a week before Halloween. Decorations consisted of the traditional carved jack-o’-lanterns. My brothers and sisters and I wore the costumes that my mother sewed for us. We usually wore these costumes for a few years in a row, as long as they still fit. We had a party at school and then on Halloween we went trick or treating. When I got older, I snuck out and met up with my friends on the night before, Devil’s Night, to teepee trees and soap windows of our rivals.
Jack-o’lanterns still grace porches, but they are accompanied by flashing lights, cobwebs, or various effigies. Every house is different. Zombies seem to be the current favorite. The tone is much more violent than the witches and ghosts of my youth. Chainsaws and axes. Bloody brains and amputated limbs. The size and scope of some of these displays makes me wonder how these houses look at Christmas. Where does all of this stuff go after the festivities are done? Every shop has a display of festive products: cards, candy, costumes, candles, and other decorations. In a corner near the Halloween trinkets, a display of Christmas merchandise makes a discreet appearance.
A few days into my visit, I meet up with Sheila, my former best friend from high school. We haven’t seen each other in over seventeen years. “Hey, you wanna go to a haunted house this weekend?” she asks me. She shows me the Sunday newspaper insert which features all of the haunted houses in Michigan. Haunted asylums, hayrides, castles, factories, forests, and farms. I’m overwhelmed by the choice. Sheila is a connoisseur of haunted houses. Most of the places are downstate, a couple of hours drive away, so she suggests the haunted house in St. Charles.
In the time since we’ve last seen each other, Sheila and I have both gotten married. I see similarities in our husbands. They are both soft spoken and good-natured. Bill acts as a chauffeur on our trip. He knows St. Charles well and suggests that we stop off at the Rustic Inn for a drink to start our adventure.
The Rustic Inn features an impressive collection of taxidermy, including the obligatory jackalope mounted on a mirror behind the bar. I shake my head and smile. Decapitated animal heads as decoration. Gotta love Michigan. Sheila, Bill, and I chat about the weather, their jobs, and a little about my life in Budapest. Too much time has elapsed for Sheila and I to catch up on everything that has happened since we last saw each other. She has not changed at all, and yet she seems like a stranger. A comforting warmth moves through me just the same.
There is a line for the haunted house when we arrive. While we wait, a tall man dressed as Michael Myers lurks in the shadows and stares at passersby. An insane clown prowls around. Attracted by Sheila’s laugh, he accompanies us in line. Sheila and I take turns teasing him. “The scariest thing about him is the fact that he’s wearing stripes with squares,” I say to Sheila. The clown crosses his arms and glares at us.
No photos are allowed in the haunted house, an attempt to thwart copycats. We step inside, the clown in our wake. A strobe light flickers, illuminating a girl strapped to an electric chair. A cop announces her crimes and then asks us what he should do. The clown is now pressed up against Sheila who’s giggling and squealing. The girl snarls and tosses her hair. Bill sits with his hands folded in his lap. The strobe light flickers relentlessly. A sinister vibration moves through me. Don’t you dare have a panic attack now. I scold myself. I take deep breaths and close my eyes. “Kill her!” Sheila and I scream in unison. The girl shrieks and thrashes as the cop throws the switch.
We wander through the labyrinth of chambers – darkness and light and darkness again. We are chased by blood splattered surgeons and monsters and the insane. The clown disappears along the way. We step into a spinning vortex. “Man, we need to get through here before I barf,” Sheila proclaims. Bill has not so much as flinched the whole time. In one of the last rooms, we are greeted by a massive clown wielding a machete. The ceiling is low and the walls are painted in carnival colors. Hurdy gurdy music plays. The room tilts back and forth. The clown is immobile. Every few seconds he strikes the machete on the floor, shooting sparks into the air. For the first time, a real shiver moves through me.
We burst out into the air, laughing. “That is definitely the best haunted house I’ve been to,” Sheila says. We linger for a while in the parking lot, taking photos of the clown. Coffin rides are also for sale, but that’s not our thing.
On the way home, Bill tells us about a real haunted house in Midland. Back in the 1980s, one of his coworkers awoke and felt a presence in his house. When he turned on the light, there were entities in black robes standing in the room. They disappeared into the walls, growling. After that, his wife would see them even during the day. They moved shortly after that.
Sheila and I ask him to find out which house it is. I feel both fascination and dread. I won’t sleep well tonight.
Near the end of my visit, on the third week of October, Sheila and I go in search of the house. It is a very modest wooden construction on a street near the Dow Chemical factory. It’s said that the people who live around here die from cancer at a young age. A car is in the driveway and toys are scattered in the front yard. We drive by, but don’t stop. We don’t want hitchhikers of any kind.
A few blocks down Bay City Road, we come upon a similar house. We pull to the side of the road and marvel at the array of ornaments scattered about the lawn. I hop out to take photos, leaving the car door open in case we need a quick getaway.