The haunted houses began with cardboard boxes.

It was two weeks before my seventh birthday, when my family still lived in our Lincoln Log home in Colorado. My dad brought back a dozen shipping boxes, the long and skinny kind that hold coat racks, just wide enough for my friends and I to crawl through, tunnel-style. I frowned as he disappeared into the basement, ribbed cardboard knocking down the jack o’ lanterns I’d just set up. It was late October, a few blustery nights before trick-or-treating; just close enough to November fourth to throw my first Halloween-themed birthday party.

My dad, a ghost story master and scary movie fanatic, was hooked on Halloween. Maybe it was because he’d met my mom at a Halloween party when he was in law school and she in medical school; she’d dressed as a baby and he was a boxer, a “total knockout,” he would joke. Or maybe it was the way mine and my younger sister’s eyes would widen around the campfire as he told us about the howling ghost dogs in the woods — when he’d pause, our hearts thudding — and our mom would sweep in on cue, tying up the story with a happy bow. We’d snuggle in the tent, all warm bodies and crickets, sleeping soundly with dreams of friendly ghosts.

When I started planning my birthday party, little organized queen that I was, I was strict with my theme: spooky spiders, not friendly ghosts. As a wizened first grader, I’d seen my fair share of scary things. I’d ridden the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. The scarier the haunted house, I decided, the more fun the party was. And so it began.


Eleven years later, orange lights bobbed in the mist as we made our way to the castle-house on the hill. My heels clicked on the concrete, calf-high leather, the closest thing to cowboy boots I could find in my dorm room trunk. I’d linked arms with my friend, another freshman in West Quad, our matching tied-up flannels and cutoffs brushing with each step. Cute cowgirl: instant Halloween party costume.  

The castle was packed. A thick fog of smoke and body heat made faces hazy, their movements blurred and jaunty, like the final room of our haunted house: Zombie hiding in corner, strobe lights, FOG MACHINE! Except these zombies were different — all lumberjacks and bunnies and cats, laughing too loudly and staggering to the beat of Rihanna. Alive. Friendly ghosts, as long as you didn’t get too close. The “no touching” policy didn’t apply to this haunted house.


When I outgrew the cardboard boxes, around middle school, our garage became the new haunted house. The construction would begin in early October: bendy boards of plywood, stapled together in a narrow maze, covered in black sheets of plastic.

The scent of plastic stayed with me, even after we packed away decorations. Even after the season changed, the years passed, my new home became a dorm room. My college roommate baked banana bread because it smelled like home; I lingered unknowingly by hardware shops. The chemical smell always stopped me, slinging me back to fall, to my family, to our haunted house kingdom.    

Designing the house was my favorite part. The plan was simple: I’d bring my friends to the side door of the garage (where I’d pause, to heighten anticipation), then enter the main room, occupied by a haggard skeleton in a rocking chair and a phony chandelier, creepy music overhead. We’d twist through the dark plastic walls, shrieking from my dad and brother jumping out of corners, their faces hidden by masks. The last room was thick with smoke and strobe lights; and my brother, suddenly lunging from the fog.

Screaming, scrambling, we’d bolt through the front door into my mom’s candlelit living room, surrendering to the smells of freshly baked carrot cake and caramel apples. Sugar smeared on our fingers, we’d tell each other ghost stories, giggling to prove we were brave.  


Our laughter pierced the quiet in Jess’s apartment, its shrillness wafting up and out of the balcony doors. It was our last night together as summer interns; but really we were celebrating Jess, who’d already graduated and landed a full-time job as the magazine’s art editor. While three of us were heading back to college for our senior years, Jess would stay here, alone in her brand-new life.

The furniture wouldn’t be here for a week, when her parents could drive it up. Empty, the room was massive, smelling of plastic sheets. Cardboard boxes towered in the corner like hulking monsters, casting shadows over our huddled circle on the floor. We sipped wine from Dixie cups and talked about the future.

“Are you scared?” I asked Jess, the question burning the tip of my tongue.

“All the time,” she said after a minute; the room hushed. Fingers clenched around Dixie cups. “Right now, I have a job, an apartment, a boyfriend. But a year from now, that could all change. Don’t know what’s around the corner, ya know?”

I watched the red wine swirl in my cup, like the fake blood I used to paint on my brother’s face. The floor creaked in the silence, eerie and empty. But Jess’s apartment wasn’t so much haunted as it was waiting, testing her. Weeding out the screamers, leaving the brave alone. I realized then that the real haunted houses in life can’t be designed, their twists mapped out and surprise scares planned. They don’t always stick to the theme, your vision, no matter how organized you are.

I don’t build haunted houses anymore. But I’m learning to feel my way through the dark.

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