Horror experiences, of the kind where gruesome-looking actors chase people through cornfields filled with “pop up” deranged farm animals, are professional development for me. I write horror stories in my spare time, but I’ve never been to one of those Halloween haunted house type deals because I’ve always chickened out. However, on Saturday, I participated in one of those experiences and I was in it to win it. What I “won” was a chance to stand in the rain for two hours and then use Nate as a human shield for five to ten extremely frightening minutes at the end. I may have shouted, “My God! It just goes on and on! Are we done yet? I want to be done!”
I did also “win” the chance to figure out what I should be doing with my horror writing in order to take it to the next level. Based on my scary walk/run through a possessed barn of sorts, the “next level” involves an unrelenting use of strobe lights and a plot organized around the sound of a car horn. Since this is a “DIY” blog, which implies providing some kind of instructions for doing or making something, I’m giving instructions for surviving a Halloween horror experience. These instructions may sometimes morph into horror/comedy writing tips which, if followed closely, are guaranteed to make literary agents everywhere say, “What the . . .?” Follow along below—if you dare.
Survival Tip 1: Bring rain gear. It will rain. The lines will be long and you will be tempted to step out of line, just for a moment, to buy some doughnuts because they are made fresh, right on site, but you know you’ll be eating them in the rain, which isn’t as fun as eating them in your living room, which is where you want to be right now. The tension will build as you realize that your teenage son is trying to get some friends to meet up with him, but they are stuck in traffic. Will his friends make it? Will they?
Writing Tip 1: At this point, you will be tempted to write: “It was a dark and stormy doughnut-smelling night. The sound of chainsaws filled the air as my teenage son frantically texted his friends. The worried look on his face did not bode well. They would be late. Very late. My husband turned to me and said, ‘I’m a good sport, right? Standing in the rain like this? And I hate haunted houses too, right? You know that?’ I smiled and sneezed over and over again, battling the beast-like allergies that raged and plagued me like very thorough maniacs who are also murderers.”
Yeah—just go for that opening above. That’s gold right there. Lots of great metaphors and images. No revisions needed.
Survival Tip 2: When your son’s friends finally do arrive, don’t expect them to reassure you about the scary experience that’s coming up shortly—in just one more hour.
Writing Tip 2: Create a “wacky mom” character that tries to make conversation with her son’s friends by saying things like, “Have you listened to the new Maroon 5 song? It’s awesome!” Your readers will appreciate it when she gets the living daylights scared out of her.
Survival Tip 3: When you FINALLY approach the entrance, a director/safety manager will go over the rules with you. Do not give him any indication that you’re scared because I strongly suspect that the director/manager can sense hesitation and “radio” it directly to the other actors inside the horror experience, who will salivate at the chance to make you really, really lose it. The director/manager will look at you and say, “You’re prepared for this, right?” Opening your eyes wide, giggling nervously, and saying, “I guess?” is asking for trouble.
Writing Tip 3: Create a manager/safety director type character who provides an opportunity for the other characters to escape, but they just paid $20 each and stood in line for 2 hours in the rain and now, even though at least the “wacky mom” character is really scared at this point, she must go through with it. She’s also left her teenage son behind with his friends, so they can go through the experience without having to comfort the “wacky mom” along the way. She may be wacky, but she’s trying to let go and give some independence to her son. Also, she only has enough energy to worry about herself. She’s a complex character with lots of layers.
Survival Tip 4: Anyone and everyone can be used as a human shield. Trying to figure out a pattern to the whole experience is useless. Nate actually stepped aside so that I could through first, which was not the chivalry I really wanted at that moment. I was so afraid and there were crazy actors and possessed looking horses with glowing red eyes everywhere, so I moved behind Nate and made him my “shield.” Then, I noticed that I was still getting the brunt of the “surprises,” so I figured that the last person in a group always “got it.” When we finally ended up with another group of strangers in front of us, I put myself between them and Nate—grabbing onto the man in front of me—as well as Nate. (The safety manager/director warns you that the actors cannot touch you, and you cannot touch them, but he doesn’t say anything about NOT grabbing/clutching onto strangers that are going through this experience with you.) Then, I tried to just walk next to Nate, but the corridors were too narrow. Nate was incredibly confused and annoyed by now.
Writing Tip 4: Create a hero and minor heroes: Nate and some other people who happen to be nearby.
Survival Tip 5: There are strobe lights, spinning lights, and bright lights, which are very, very disorienting. The floor also moves sometimes and it’s pitch black. The old, “stare at the horizon” trick does not work because you are not on a boat. I don’t know what to tell you, except maybe limit the glasses of wine you drink that night and don’t wear pointy boots. Some “tricks” I tried before I just gave up and stared at the lights included the following: squatting down low and waddling, to keep my balance, and pretending I’m just at the airport, going through the TSA line.
Writing Tip 5: Just write strobe lights right into the story line. Lots and lots of strobe lights. Good horror writing involves distraction through strobe lights, and the following lines: “Get out!” and “Can you help me find my baby?”
Survival Tip 6: When it’s all over, get someone to explain the whole story line to you, especially if you were so scared, you didn’t understand that there was a “story” to the whole thing, which is really embarrassing if you write and analyze stories for a living. In my case, I had Nate, who could explain the following to me: There was a car that we saw at the end and it had been blaring its horn the entire time we were walking through the haunted barn. This car, which I think was a tiny jeep, had a backstory: It sped out of control and hit the barn, killing all of the passengers inside the car. As a result, the barn was haunted by all of the damned souls that once occupied that car. Incredibly, this tiny jeep must have been filled with at least 10-20 people and several very large animals.
Writing Tip 6: If you’ve done your job of creating complex characters, heroes, and strobe light effects, you’ll have to hammer your reader over the head with the plot. Writing HERE’S THE PLOT in all caps, just like that, and then summarizing it at the end of your story, will make your reader say, “Well now, that all makes sense!”
Your Turn: Have you ever done one of those horror/Halloween haunted experiences? If so, what was it like? If not, would you ever do one?