A man with a mask shaped like a crow’s head met us when we arrived at the scream park, lugging our sleeping bags, fresh off the golf cart that had brought us from our car. I’d already quietly predicted that the golf cart might unironically be the most fun part of the night for me, and when the crow-man approached, wielding a staff and peering inscrutably at us down a sharp red beak, I froze. He was the first “monster” we’d met.
“You guys signed the waiver, right?” he asked us.
Oh God! I thought. Somebody nodded yes.
“Good! That means I get to hug you!”
He enveloped two of us in a hug. I wasn’t sure how to react. Was it meant to be friendly? Uncomfortable? He kept hugging us for a minute although we didn’t really hug him back. Uncomfortable must have been the goal.
When my friend pitched us the idea — one night of “horror camping” at the Scarefest Scream Park in New Haven, Mich., where we were guaranteed to be terrorized for 13 hours straight at a campground in the woods — I thought she was joking. Every step of the process was twofold for me: Not quite wanting to go while still agreeing, pulling up thrilled to see the festive searchlights and torch-rimmed park while simultaneously yearning to backtrack and find an Air BNB somewhere. We really are those idiots, I kept thinking. Signing up and paying money to get terrorized for a night, waltzing into a forest where we know we’ll get attacked, joking about it.
All of it was like that: excitement virtually indistinguishable from dread.
I’ve been thinking about this line a lot lately. In the spirit of fall (and of my whole horror-obsessed self), I’m taking an English class focused on popular horror, and last week we talked about why anyone would ever enjoy something that’s specifically designed to disturb or frighten them. I tried recalling some of the theories to my friend while we waited in line for the haunted hayride (the least terrifying attraction by far, and the one we both felt most equipped for), but could only remember a few. There was the idea that horror engages our curiosity and fascination, the notions of being thrilled or vindicated by empathizing with either the attacked or the attacker, and the gender-normative “snuggle theory,” which my class seemed to unanimously decide was the strangest.
As the night wore on, we noticed a lot of recurring characters. There was the young man with a face caked in skeletal grey makeup, who seemed to dislike all four of us in a fair, controlled sort of way. There was the nun in the terror maze whom we later saw in the late-night scavenger hunt who was dressed scarily but who actually gave us helpful advice whenever we talked to her. In the scavenger hunt we met a boy covered in makeup who had us do the “Thriller” dance in exchange for a clue. The crow-man’s presence was woven in and out of our night; every couple of hours we’d cross paths with him again, ask each other how the night was going. He was a benign presence. Oh, good, I started to think, after the second or third encounter. It’s our friend the crow-man again.
By 3:00 a.m. or so, toward the end of the scavenger hunt, I’d begun noticing a thread: The horror of the night was tied inextricably in with comedy. Even now I can’t completely figure out why — there’s no simple reason, and it’s not like the event was marketed as comedy, or as anything other than strictly horror. But we were very open to laughing, the same way we were open to being scared. Maybe it was the same door inside of us that was open to both of them. It was weirdly freeing. The monsters made fun of us when we made missteps or took wrong turns, and we made fun of ourselves, too. That giddy feeling you get when you’re nervous stuck with us all night, making us giggle probably more often than we jumped and screamed.
For all the giddiness I mentioned before, it was still unquestionably scary; the two were linked. I clutched my friends and held hands with them. We were a team, the Dream Scream Team as one of them had labeled our group chat beforehand. We jumped at fake gunfire, tensed at chainsaws and flinched when monsters crept up on us. A couple of times I started shaking and couldn’t will my body to stop, which was frustrating, but really more mystifying than anything.
I’ve always loved scary stories. I think horror is a rich and fascinating subset of literature, and of culture in general. One of my friend’s persuasions for why we should go camping was, “It’ll be like being in a scary movie for a night!” Which sounds horrible, sure, but also kind of awesome, right?
Who hasn’t sat in a group of their friends, debating the order in which they’d be picked off in a horror movie? Who hasn’t watched “Halloween” or read “The Shining”and thought, What would I do if that were me? They’re hero stories, and everyone wants to think they’d be brave, but there’s no way to know unless you’re there. Maybe you want to be Sidney Prescott or maybe you want to be Carrie, or maybe you want to be both, either, just as long as the night ends with you covered in blood, as long as you’ve changed, you’ve emerged the real you, you’ve gone through something.
I was afraid that “living through” a scary story wouldn’t be as much fun for me as reading or watching one from outside. It would be too much for me, I wouldn’t be able to take it. To be sure, there were parts of the night I opted out of; our experience could have been much more extreme. But overall, I had a terrific time. It felt liberating, exhilarating. Everything was elaborately, enthrallingly ridiculous. So a clown is running after us with a chainsaw? Whatever, we paid for this, didn’t we? The scary crow-man? Yeah, he’s our friend. At one point in the terror maze I urged my friend forward, saying something along the lines of, “What are you afraid of? Getting scared? That’s going to happen no matter which way we go,” and I felt an immediate small rush of pride. Even this one moment of impatient rationality made me feel very smart and competent, in control, like maybe I didn’t need to be so terrified all the time — maybe it was up to me.
The next morning, we wandered dull-eyed out of our tent, working on an hour or two of sleep. The concessions tent was doling out a sugar-heavy complimentary breakfast, and while we sipped our orange juice and ate our doughnut holes, we surveyed the scene that had so terrified us only hours before. The turnaround of the hayride was dusty and flat; the haunted castle was clear-edged in the pale dawn, no longer a threatening cave of shadows. Already I felt a little nostalgic as we finished our breakfast, said goodbye to the crow-man while we packed up our rental tent. It was a clear morning and everyone was happy (we survived!) yet I already missed the thrill of the night before. I missed the story: the constant expectation, the emotion, the question of which characters we could trust.
Yet I still felt giddy. We left the campsite still marveling about how different it looked, about how bizarre it was to see all of this left over in the daytime. It’s a wonder what a little darkness can do.