As Halloween approaches, beasties and ghoulies and other friends clamor for the story of “The Nightmare on Paperjack Drive”, the tale of our son, Ozzie’s, haunted house. I wrote a weekly column in our local paper in the late 1980s, and this story landed in my lap on a Monday night when I was under deadline, wracking my brain for ideas, and really annoyed because it was Halloween and I had to keep answering the door. As any reporter or columnist will tell you, it often happens that the best story is right under our noses, if we would only look down and notice. I was looking everywhere else for inspiration, while a true and delightful story played out in my basement . . . and to think I almost missed it by being a crankypants.
A few days before Halloween, Ozzie had approached me about having a “real-live haunted house” down in our basement. I wasn’t sure it would be much of an attraction in our bright basement of many windows and few finished walls, but I o.k.’d the project. I came home from work that Friday night to find him and his friend, Mike, industriously creating horrors our of a standard split-entry style basement. I gasped at the first horror: my good Chicago Cutlery carving knife embedded in a two-by-four and dripping with ketchup blood. I took a deep breath, assessed the safety (solidly in the wood—sigh, yes; high enough to be out of reach for little kids—yes) and decided to let it go on the grounds that I could replace the knife more easily than I could deny the kid his dream of a truly scary haunted house.
The boys had exhibited amazing ingenuity for two fourteen-year-olds on a limited budget ($4.99 for a spooky music CD). The lights and sound were connected to the breaker switch in the basement, so that the horror could begin with the flip of a switch. They had hung blankets up to wall off the walkway and block the streetlights shining through the windows, and had used an old mask and a wig stand for a decapitated head, lit in gory detail by a dim green light bulb. After passing this creepy part of the exhibit, they had arranged for a cymbal to crash to the floor behind the unsuspecting guests. I helped them create a spooky spider web out of some quilt batting and a genuine floating ghost on a pulley system that allowed it to fly at people. I didn’t think anyone would notice that the ghost was made from a piece of pale green fabric (the “ghost” on our front porch was wearing my one and only white sheet).
Ozzie made signs for the front door, advertising his free haunting, but early on, there were very few takers. The little kids and parents were out in force, and all the kids wanted was candy; just being out after dark was scary enough. Finally, a group of girls who knew Jason from school agreed to take the tour. Screams and giggles and Jason’s evil “boowahahaha” echoed through the house and out the front door, scaring a few little goblins and their parents right back down the driveway.
It wasn’t long, however, before word got out that there was a “real spooky house” on the corner of Paperjack and Bilmar, and I found myself playing doorman to an odd collection of creatures waiting in the hallway for the signal. Jason would shout “ready!”, the first strains (or groans) of music would begin, there would be a riot of screams and laughs, and then I would usher to same creatures out, while directing the new ones to wait on the stairs. Two other young ladies of Jason’s acquaintance enjoyed the haunting so much, they decided to stay and help him for a while, with a new attraction: grabbing feet as they passed by the pool table.
There was a long lull in the haunting business after that. I was writing at my desk at the top of the stairs, so that I could see any trick or treaters. I could hear the muffled giggles and planning in the basement, and I vaguely thought I should really go down and make sure that all new attractions stood up to my safety standards, but I had a column to write. I heard a car pull in the driveway and my little basement ghouls hurried up the stairs. They conducted a long, shouted discussion with the parent in the car, about whether the haunted house would be too scary for the children. Finally, the parent gave permission, and the guests were instructed to wait in the stairwell. I listened to the conversation, gathering that there were two boys and two girls all around age 9 or 10. “We’re men,” the boys kept assuring each other. “We can take it. We’re REAL men.”
The o.k. was shouted, and again the ghostly music floated up the stairs. I could hear the usual chorus of screams at the appropriate places, as well as the “spooking” screams of Jason’s two assistants. Then I heard a sound that I couldn’t immediately identify because I hadn’t heard it at any other time in the evening: sneakers hitting the floor at top speed. I got up to investigate and made it to the top of the stairs in time to see the “real men” making their escape, screaming into the night. Their companions, looking dainty and sweet in their princess costumes and tiaras were slowly ascending the stairs, just like, well, royalty. “Where’d they go?” one of them asked. I gestured to the door and they exited, laughing.
I had a good laugh with Jason and his crew and then sat down to write one of my all-time favorite columns.