We here at The Lifted Brow have an enviable archive of great stuff that disappeared into the ether when we changed how our website works; this is one such piece. Over the coming weeks and months, on a strictly occasional basis, we will feature more of them.
Probably the least fun event of my life occurred on the night when two friends of mine took me to Knott’s Berry Farm in Los Angeles. The Halloween Haunt had lured us there. Around Halloween, as you might be aware, the whole place is renamed Knott’s Scary Farm. Haha! I thought. What fun this will be, as denoted by the wordplay! Plus amusement parks have always held for me, like they do for many of us, an eternal promise of Maximum Fun™. Throw into that the infectious fervour with which Americans wholeheartedly celebrate Halloween—an at best vague notion to an Australian—and suddenly the potential for Untold Fun™ is ratcheted up to the sky.
Did I want to go to an enormous haunted park populated with hundreds of monsters, aka “professional scarers”, where there are basically no lights and everything is shrouded in smoke? Yes, I did! I was so psyched.
Do I have what could charitably be described as an anxious temperament? Yes, I do. Did I think at all at any point about the potential connection between these two things? No, I did not. I thought mainly about funnel cake, as funnel cake had been the chief topic of conversation for the entire drive out to this place, and I was going to eat all the funnel cake there was at Knott’s Berry Farm, just as soon as I figured out what funnel cake actually was (delicious, obviously, though the memory of funnel cake will always be fraught with a Pavlovian terror for me now, so vale, that one time I ate funnel cake).
In any case, already everything was fun. Seeing as this was my first ever trip to LA, and I was being toured around by two excellent people, even the traffic was fun. One afternoon we drove seemingly forever to the middle of essentially nowhere in order to locate a specific roadside taco stand, which was said to serve the best tacos outside of Mexico (they were great), and even that interminable journey was fun. Being the time of Halloween, spiders, which I do not enjoy, rendered in comically huge black polystyrene, could often be seen attached to the sides of apartment buildings, and even they were fun (as a concept. Until I thought for a second of the possibility of prehistoric spiders once having actually been that huge and roaming the planet and then they weren’t). Driving by but not actually entering the Scientology Centre was fun. Saltwater taffy at the Santa Monica Pier? Fun. Gawking at the houses in Beverly Hills? Fun. Learning that Sheryl Crowe had basically lied to me as a child and that you would never see the sun come up over Santa Monica Boulevard—at least not from a bar—because everything shuts at midnight? Still fun. So although I doubted secretly that anything could top the fun I was already having, I was willing to take a chance with Knott’s Scary (Fun) Farm.
I should add here that my friend Annabel’s commitment to fun was such that she was carrying out all this wonderful hospitality while seven months pregnant and with two broken arms. Her arms had been broken by the dogs in her office. The dogs hadn’t meant to hurt her, they’d just been very excited, and had charged together in a dog-greeting, straight into her shins, upending Annabel and sending her hands-outstretched to the floor.
There were dogs in Annabel’s office because she was the Dog Whisperer’s chief publicist. Although, she was careful to reiterate that these weren’t Cesar Millan’s dogs that had broken her arms by mistake: there were always just lots of dogs there, whoever they belonged to. Annabel and her winsome American husband Lu had already adopted two of the naughtier dogs, two dogs that had exasperated even the Dog Whisperer in their steadfast refusal to behave. One of them, while on national television, had left a steaming hot poop on the studio floor. This was a point of particular pride for Annabel and Lu, both of whom admired this chutzpah.
“Anyway, I’m totally ok!” Annabel had told me on the phone, while I was waiting at LAX for her to pick me up. “But I wanted to explain first why I am wearing two casts. You’ll easily see me waving at you, so that’s a plus.” And sure enough, this was true. An outstretched, white cast-encased arm enthusiastically waving from inside an SUV is indeed easy to see from quite some distance.
Whole years dissolve in an instant in a foreign country. It had been more than ten since Annabel and I had last seen each other, even in passing, and before that was longer, when we were in high school. Back then Annabel had been sort of high-school famous, as her older brother was a brooding and mysterious goth who had painted the walls and ceiling of his bedroom black and was always in there playing Doom and pounding Nine Inch Nails while the house parties Annabel threw whirled dervishly around his sullen and handsome vortex.
Annabel and I had recently been reconnected via a mutual friend on Facebook, and she thought nothing of setting aside a few days to show me around LA, a city which, it must be said, is otherwise quite impenetrable to a lone visitor. It was as if no time had passed between us at all, and the combination of a tour spearheaded by Lu, who was literate in all kinds of LA arcana, and the unquestioning open-heartedness of their welcome, turned my time there into one of those one-time only adventures you will forever be mildly sad about not being experiencing at every moment of your life.
Knott’s was the last stop on this magical tour, arranged for the day before I was due to return home, and how my whole trip could have been more perfectly topped than with a ride on a rollercoaster, I did not know.
Our excitement, after finally navigating the Knott’s car park, could be best described as feverish. You see, Lu and Annabel loved to be scared. They adored being scared. They had extolled the virtues of being scared for the whole drive out, in the spare minutes that Lu wasn’t also extolling the virtues of funnel cake. They regaled me with tales of the previous Halloween at Knott’s, Annabel’s first, and how, essentially, all she had thought about in the intervening year was being back there, and being scared half to death once more. Being scared was her number one favourite adopted American pastime. What fun, fun, fun, she said.
Now, I do know myself somewhat, and one thing I know about me is that I do not enjoy being scared. I find it very hard to get through horror films, a bummer for someone in a live-in relationship with a horror-nut. The other night I discovered a small spider on the living-room wall and wouldn’t go back into the room until I was safely in human company. How this all slipped my mind at the time of going to Knott’s I’m not quite sure – other than to say that I am clearly as susceptible to group hysteria as the next person who would be sucked into a cult, and that the car trip was very long, all the better to be warped by all this pro-scare propaganda. Also, the rides. I think I was primarily preoccupied with thinking about the rides. And the funnel cakes, whatever they were.
Something should have twigged for me when we got there and Annabel and Lu were excitedly perusing the map of the park, which was enormous, and which rated the twenty or so haunted mazes you could go through on a “scary scale” from one to ten.
“Look at the clown one,” Lu said, practically hopping on the spot. “That’s a nine. It has chainsaws!”
I have an intense coulrophobia: that is, a morbid fear of clowns. This was born in me, according to my mother, when I was about five and a clown jumped out at me from behind a supermarket aisle, having mistaken me for one of those idiot children who loves clowns.1 This is a memory that is so traumatic I can’t even retrieve it from my mind to verify it. Suffice to say, up until Knott’s, the worst day of my life had been when I was tricked into watching Stephen King’s It in primary school by a particularly unkind young boy I wanted to impress. (Life lessons learned.)
“Uhhh,” I ventured. “I think we should do all the rides first!” And because I was the guest we did what I wanted, which was to not go anywhere near the chainsaw-wielding clowns.
Lu hates rides, it transpired. He did not find swooping high above the park with Los Angeles twinkling in the distance from atop the circling Windseeker to be delightful, as I did. No. He was clutched by a mortal terror of heights, and though game none the less, repeated many incantations of “Nononononono” until we were safely terrestrial – but not before I mercilessly laughed at him, because that’s what we do with scared people because we are all assholes. It would be the last time I laughed. It would be the last time I laughed that night.
Okay. So if you have not been to Knott’s, this is what it is like on Halloween: it is, first of all, huge. The entirety of the space is darkened and lit only by low-wattage streetlamps and the lights of the rides. Thick smoke is piped in everywhere, and pre-recorded cackles blare from speakers over your head. There are sometimes vast stretches of streets and tunnels you need to traverse to get from one thing to another, and figures constantly emerge from the smoke around you. Once you’re in the middle it’s an epic journey to get out. And let loose amongst all this are hundreds and hundreds of monsters of all descriptions, people who spend all year preparing to effectively scare the living crap out of you. They are in competition with each other to get the best scares. If they can make someone pee their pants, that’s a huge win. But every other thing you can imagine a body doing in uncontrollable fear, they will try to do that to you as well.2
Understand, these aren’t just vaguely scary people in masks, these are professional scarers. Their make-up is approaching Hollywood VFX levels, and a lot of them are jobbing actors who are therefore extremely good at acting in terrifying ways. They have many tools in their arsenal: they often work in pairs, so when you think you have cunningly sidestepped the zombie hillbilly coming at you, it is only because the hillbilly’s hideously deformed twin is silently standing behind you, ready to menace your face the second you turn away. They also rattle bean cans behind you, which is, I’m pretty certain, Satan’s ringtone. Then there are the sliders: probably psychotic, probably escaped mental patients wearing metal pads, who come running at you from ten feet and slide right up to you, stopping inches away on screeching, grinding, sparking metal knees. Then there are the ones who stand silently in the shadows of walls and leer out at you from the darkness, making guttural, inhuman noises right in your ear.
Some scarers will pick a person and follow them all night, sometimes letting them think that they’ve left them alone, but only long enough to sneak back up on them. Sometimes they follow people into the bathroom. They will chase after people who run. If they see you are afraid, they will swarm you. If you cover your face with your hands, they will wait until you eventually drop them, thinking that you’re safe when you certainly aren’t. If you act unafraid they will try harder to scare you. There is no winning against them. There is no escape from them. They are everywhere. And the whole time all around you are the loud screams of abject, adult terror.
I am having a horrible time, and we haven’t even been through a maze yet.
Annabel and Lu are lapping all this up and squealing in what sounds much more like delight than terror, and laughing, constantly, arm in cast-encased arm. I’m a little behind them, keeping my head down and trying to strike the balance between nonchalance and Hahahah, this is so fun!, which I hope will keep the monsters away (it doesn’t). I realise quickly that it isn’t the actual scares that are stressful (though they are, in their way, quite awful): the constant vigilance against the impending scare is where the actual terror comes from. Basically, every waking second is riddled with an unbearable anxiety about the scare that could come next, and from where it will come – especially if you, like me, don’t actually like being scared. You in fact deeply dislike being scared. If you are this type of person then the anxiety is never punctuated by the relief that people who love being scared seem to feel after the fact. On top of all this, I’m cursing myself for being so stupid as to put myself in this situation, while also not wanting to ruin my friends’ fun. When they suggest one of the mazes as our next stop, I set my game face and say: “Sure!”
Stupid. Which is exactly how the hapless cow led by the Judas goat into the abattoir must feel.
Everything I just told you about the monsters in the park is a cakewalk compared to one of the haunted mazes. These things are just darkness punctuated by flashing strobe lights and inhumanly loud speed-metal or thumping techno mixed with blood-curdling screaming – picture a Skrillex show at Rob Zombie’s house. You get forced down increasingly narrow passageways that you cannot turn around in, cannot get out of, and all throughout are frightfully made-up, lopsided psychopaths lunging at you with machetes3, screaming into your face, jumping out of the complete darkness and pretty much going for broke in the ‘murder these people with terror’ stakes. Eventually the maze becomes so narrow you can only fit single file, one body behind another, and sometimes a body is a monster right behind you, so that there is no one’s friendly hand to crush for dear life.
Once you get to the end and gulp at the smoke-filled air of the merciful, merciful outside, there is, of course, the one last ghoul you didn’t anticipate, who jumps out from behind a rock and I am done at this point, I am absolutely done. I have never, ever, been so thoroughly terrified in all my life. I am almost mute with fear and I am standing there, my face a rictus.
Lu and Annabel pop out, still yukking it up, totally enthralled by their scare high. They had a blast. Thought it was awesome. Although Lu is down on it a little, saying that it wasn’t scary enough.
“Man, that one was only a two!”
Only a two on the haunted-maze scale? I nearly have a minor stroke trying to conceive of the chainsaw clowns in their nine-point maze and I know that I am never, ever going there, ever, not even vaguely near that corner of the park where their maze is, where the surplus clowns tumble out and roam the area with their chainsaws trying to legitimately kill people for all I know. No way. In fact, I just want to get out of there, now. But I can’t formulate the language to say so.
Instead I manage to squeak out the only two words which have managed to form in my head:
Elmo Keep is an Australian writer in New York.
1. Actually, no children like clowns. To quote the Wikipedia entry on coulrophobia: “A study conducted by the University of Sheffield found that children did not like clown décor in hospital or doctors’ office settings. Dr Penny Curtis, a researcher, stated: ‘We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found the clown images to be quite frightening and unknowable.’”↩
2. A sought-after outcome is to achieve “a triple” on a single person. You can imagine what that is. I know this because when I got home I trawled online monster messageboards, interviewing the people who do it year after year, trying to understand what makes them love scaring people. Most of them reported it to be an incomparable rush to effectively terrorize someone. The only rule is they are never allowed to touch anyone they scare. There is huge competition among the scarers to be in the highest-rated and most-frightening mazes at the haunts, and spaces fill up quick. Audition days are intense, with many more people showing up than will get hired. As a result they diligently practice, often on hapless friends and family, all year round. Something that chills me to the bone to even think about is the special day in the Halloween calendar when a haunt is open only to the scarers, who go to even greater lengths than on the general public to scare each other, as presumably trying to scare a scarer is really a kind of Darth Vader scare-level Jedi proposition. Something else I learned which freaked me out was the existence of people, often drunk kids, who go to the haunts specifically to beat up the monsters. And also, that people will go to Knott’s Scary Farm on acid, of their own choosing.↩
3. I don’t have to tell you these machetes aren’t real; by this point who cares.↩