I had what many people would call a warped childhood. Many children are raised on nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and Dr. Seuss. And while my childhood did have these memories, my mother included another genre in mine and my sister's upbringing: horror.
I cannot count the number of times when my sister and I were reading some of Stephen King's short stories for bedtime rather than a more common children's story. (“Popsy” was always my favorite.) I grew up watching the classic horror movies and being told ghost stories.
Many people when I tell this to them ask me if I had a lot of nightmares as a child as a result. But the truth is quite the opposite. I was not afraid of boogeymen or ghosts. To me, ghosts and goblins were simply fictional creatures that are only in books, movies, and in stories told around a campfire.
The horror genre was simply a part of my life. I loved the feeling of being scared. So, naturally, Halloween was one of my favorite times of year.
I remember one Halloween many years ago... I was young, but not so young that I don't have firsthand memories of the events soon to follow. There was a Halloween attraction that was running just down the street from our house. It had been going on every Halloween for a few years, but my parents had never let my sister and me go before. And then, one year, we were finally given permission to go to this haunted attraction.The attraction was built into an old and abandoned manor house, just the sort of place where you would expect a Halloween attraction to be built. I remember being very excited as I waited to get into the house, because lots of people that were coming out were raving about how scary it was, and I was highly anticipating having my own time inside.
Like most Halloween attractions, they let the people inside the house in small groups. Because my sister and I were only children, the attendants at the door made sure that we were put in the same group as our parents. Finally, we stepped inside.
Inside it could have been any haunted house in America in the 90's: full of fake fog and grease-painted actors. I wasn't overly scared, because my mother always reminded me that the actors are not allowed to touch you. But I jumped and screamed along with everyone else when a monster jumped out of the hidden nooks and crannies of the old manor house.
Eventually, we made our way down into the basement, which had been changed into the stereotypical 'mad doctor' setting common in a lot of haunted houses. Needless to say, there was a lot of fake blood everywhere. But I'll never forget that basement because something seemed just a little out of place.
Sometimes even the most normal things can become diabolical if you alter the perspective. It's something you see in a few modern ghost-hunting shows in B-shots. There was nothing that immediately jumped out as being evil. There was certainly nothing like "The Exorcist" happening to tip me off that something was wrong. It was a simple sight, but that made it much more unnerving because it stood out against the overt horror backdrop of the decorated room.
In the midst of the bloody carnage of the mad doctor's operating room, I remember that an old woman was sitting in the far corner of the room. She looked to be in her eighties, had thinning grey hair, and was very thin. I would be lying to myself if I said that she didn't scare me more than the rest of the attraction combined.
At the time, I didn't have much understanding of the effects the different physical ailments can have on a person, but looking back now I would say that she was the victim of a bad stroke. Sometimes a bad stroke will leave the person with one side of his or her face paralyzed. And that's exactly what had happened to her. One side of her face was drooping and saliva was leaking for the corner of her drooped mouth. She was talking, yelling, at us as we passed by. Her words were badly slurred because of her paralyzed face. But I could make out what she was yelling: “Stop! Get out!” Over and over again. Even passing through the basement and going out the other side, I could still hear her screaming in that awful slurred way up the stairs.
I was extremely disturbed by the sight of the old woman. But as I got away from her, I began to feel better. She was obviously an actor who was working for the attraction. Most of the attraction worked on jump scares, and she was obviously there to cater more to psychological horror. Well, in any case, it worked. It certainly worked on me.
We emerged out into the night once again and got that instant sense of relief that makes horror so addicting. The "we have survived" moment. My sister instantly began to talk about which part was her favorite. An actor who jumped out at her in a werewolf costume had been her favorite. When it came my turn to share, I could think of nothing besides the old woman I'd seen, and I told my family about how the old woman in the basement had scared me the most.
“What woman in the basement, Ashley?” My mother asked.
Shocked, I began to describe as well as I could what I'd seen. When I had finished my mother said that she hadn't seen any woman fitting that description down in the basement. The rest of my family agreed with her.
I put the incident out of my mind. Like I said, I didn't believe in ghosts and didn't believe that they were real. I tried to rationalize why they had missed the old woman and her screams. Each attempt to do this was more pathetic than the last, but I knew that ghosts couldn't be real.
The next year, I was eager to step foot in the old manor again, but I was horrified to discover that the haunted attraction had been shut down and would not be opening again. Since I lived so close to the haunt, a few people in my neighborhood had taken up jobs there and I asked around with them about why it had closed.
The few people that would talk told me that the old manor house was really haunted with real ghosts and that too many people were refusing to work there again because of the paranormal activity going on there. Their stories ranged from objects moving on their own, to apparitions, and even to physical attacks against the living that entered certain parts of the house.
I laughed it off. People were just letting the atmosphere of the Halloween haunt mess with them. It was probably just a couple of pranksters messing with the workers. But no matter how much I tried to explain to the workers about how it could be a couple of jokers messing around, they kept insisting that it was impossible for it to have been any human activity.
But even as I tried to convince them, I couldn't help but remember the old woman that I had seen in the basement that no one else had seen. I was kind of nervous about the whole thing, and I wanted more information about the house.
These days, you can look up anything on the internet and have an answer in seconds, but the 90's was not like that. Few people had internet at the time, and my family was one that did not have internet access, so I went to the next best thing: my mother.
I asked her about the old manor house. At first she was reluctant to tell me, which unnerved me more than anything because she had never shied away from telling us things of that nature before. Finally, she told me what she knew.
The manor started out as a private residence built in 1922, but the original owner lost the house in foreclosure. After that, it became a sanitarium, which is something like a small hospital. Just by virtue of being a hospital in an area where it was the only hospital around at the time, a lot of people passed away within the walls. In fact, there are some reports that say that there was at least one death a day within those walls during this time.
But that was not even the part that my mother was reluctant to tell me. She told me that afterward, it was turned into a nursing facility. And they would have taken care of sick older people just like the old woman I had seen during my walk through. But the records of abuse that came out of that place were numerous. Many ex-employees confessed that they quit soon after being hired because of the vast amount of malpractice that happened there. My mother remembered all this because it was in the newspapers when it was going on, and was a huge deal in the community. It made me feel a little sick to think about how those people, those human beings, were treated in that horrible place.
And that's not all. Local legend has long said that the building was haunted by the tortured souls of the people who died under the horrible conditions there. The man who built the Halloween attraction there knew of the history and the legends surrounding the place and built the attraction with the sole purpose of playing off those stories.
It was then that I knew that I had seen the ghost of a woman who had died in the building. She just wanted to spend her afterlife in peace, but instead every year she and her fellow ghosts were interrupted by the living storming through their place in the thousands, turning their situation into a joke. And, for the first time ever, I began to treat ghosts and spirits not as fictional creatures only meant to frighten and scare, but as a real physical manifestation of a force that humans are not capable of understanding yet.
The house, to this day, continues to be a hot-spot for paranormal activity. The owner lets in a local paranormal group at least once a week, every Friday night, to do an investigation. Several ghost themed television shows have filmed at the location. One show brought in a psychic-medium, who claims that the years the house spent as a Halloween attraction has forever scarred the house and the spirits who reside there.
One thing is for sure... I'm now a lot more careful about checking out the history of any Halloween haunt I go to. Ghosts are everywhere, of course, but I'll never go to a place with such a sad history attached to it.
And I haven't been able to get scared inside a Halloween attraction since. I don't scream, jump, or run away as the actors jump out at me. Nearly all of my friends have commented on my bravery in the face of these Halloween attractions.
But I'm not brave, not really. It's just a lack of fear. Because it's hard to get scared by actors in make-up when you've been inside the real thing...