The fall of my sophomore year of college, I came across a help wanted ad for a month-long gig at a haunted house. It seemed like the perfect fit for a college student with more theatrical makeup than the regular kind, plus the pay was decent, the nights and weekends schedule wouldn't interfere with my classes -- and the only other employers looking for inexperienced 18-year-olds advertised on a different part of Craigslist.
I responded to the ad and showed up a few weeks later for casting at what everyone called “the haunt,” a former morgue on the outskirts of town. I was taken to meet the manager, who asked me two questions: Was I claustrophobic, and had I ever been convicted of a felony? I said no to both and was hired as a professional creep, though as I soon found out, neither would have necessarily been a deal-breaker.
My co-workers were mostly carnies and struggling actors, plus a few high-school kids and a couple of teachers. More than a few people were down with the clown, but there didn't seem to be a particular type at the haunt, except that most of the men were taller than six feet.
I took interest in Scott, who did double duty at as a chainsaw-wielding clown and makeup artist for the whole cast. He was what-are-you-doing-here handsome, with a cool smile and tattoos of classic horror stars on his arms. I tried to flirt with him once, and by that I mean when he was painting my face, I blurted, “Do you have any other tattoos?” while blushing furiously. In response, he casually lifted up his T-shirt. Obviously amateur gothic font wobbled across his stomach, spelling out a word I won't repeat here for fear of getting somebody shanked.
“It's the name of a gang I was in as a kid,” he explained.
“Oh,” I fumbled. “Did you do...crimes?”
“I did all kinds of shit. Beat people up, got beat up. Stabbed some people, got stabbed. Stole a car. A lot of real bad shit,” he said, gently dabbing my face with fake blood.
Costuming was another bummer. While the more babely women got to prowl around in bloodied nurse uniforms and Miss Havisham gowns, I got stuck with hooded black robes that smelled like a century of butts. My disappointment lasted until at the end of my first shift, when word went around the break room that the sexy nurses got a show from the first flasher of the season.
It's not too surprising, if you think about it. A cramped, dark labyrinth is exactly the sort of environment that emboldens people to cross boundaries, and act like total dicks. On my second night, a drunk girl tackled me and stuck her tongue through the eyehole of my mask. Once I pushed her off, she apologized -- not for second-basing it with my eyeball, but because, “Oh my god, you're a girl.”
Aside from Sorority sisters on the down low, women weren't usually a problem. Confronted with something spooky, women were allowed, expected even, to shriek and cry and cling to friends, to get into it and have fun. Most men, on the other hand, seemed to perceive a haunted house as a sort of challenge. Despite paying 25 bucks for a good scare, they retreated into ridiculous macho posturing, scoffing unconvincingly and trying to start fights with evil clowns. There I was amidst all this dumb, drunk masculinity in crisis, conveniently dehumanized in face paint or a rubber mask, a monster with tits.
Most of the harassment was of the kind women deal with every day on the street -- kissy noises, “Nice tits,” a fratty dude getting in my face to shout, “You're giving me the weirdest boner right now!” -- but as Halloween approached, the crowds got bigger and drunker, and things deteriorated.
One night on a bathroom break, I followed loud sobs to the break room and found one of my coworkers, Kris*, crying despondently. She was a bubbly pink-haired 20-something who had worked for years in carnivals and haunted houses, and while I didn't know her that well, I knew that whatever had happened must have been terrible to have broken her down like that. Earlier in the night, Kris had been cornered by two teenage boys who felt her up, laughing. She was angry and humiliated, but she needed the money, so after she got away and took a short break to collect herself, she returned to work. Twenty minutes later another man caught her and subjected her to the same thing. I think she finished the rest of her shift that night, though I'm not sure how she did it.
Kris's assault wasn't an isolated incident, either. It seemed like something happened every other night: "accidental" boob-grazing, a drunk guy pinning one of the high school girls up against a wall. The worst part of it all was that, at least to my knowledge, the bastards got away with it. The only time the management ever addressed the harassment was when our resident rent-a-cop, a dishearteningly laid-back man in his 30s, called a meeting before the haunt opened to tell us, “Ladies, if the guys are giving you trouble, feel free to punch 'em.” Meaning, of course, that it was our problem, not theirs.
Although the assaults continued at a steady pace, I myself was rarely in any physical danger. I was fast, I was careful, I was comparatively flat-chested, and, above all, I was lucky -- but my luck didn't last.
It was 30 minutes before closing on what had been a slow and boring night. I was working in a room called the meat locker, a narrow hallway named for the human-sized plastic bags suspended from the ceiling on meat hooks, equipped with motion-sensitive strobe lights and a hydraulics system that made the bags twitch. It was one of my favorite rooms, a perfect union of claustrophobia and good old-fashioned bloody terror, but it wasn't much fun empty.
I was bored and tired, waiting alone for the night to end, when a group of drunk, middle-aged men staggered into the room. They spotted me immediately. “Oh, you're just a little thing,” one of them cooed. The others chuckled mirthlessly, and then I was the one pursued, slipping between shivering body bags, shoving them back in the direction of idiot laughter. It felt like a mile before I reached the exit door. Bracing my body against the door in case they tried to follow me, I listened to their voices recede, waiting for silence before I went back out into the room to resume my position.
One of them was waiting for me.
He was smiling, predatory. He reached out for me, and that's when I think I hit him. To be honest, I'm not sure what happened. I remember the strobe light and the adrenaline, his smile, and my fear turning quickly into a kind of fury I'd never felt before. I believe I punched him in the stomach, though I might have slapped him, or possibly screamed in his face. I just remember him stumbling backward and turning to run from the room, away from me.
My shift ended not long after that. I clocked out without removing my face paint and drove home listening to weird late-night radio and smiling at my reflection in the rear-view mirror.