I would describe myself as hot, languishing breath that smells of red-hot gum and cheap string cheese wrapped up in overpriced clothes and a shower of homemade cologne - but, for some odd reason, people have found me a target enough to try and ruin me. My life is an escape room – where they lock you in – and then a crazy person sets it on fire.
A few names have been changed to prevent further threats of frivolous lawsuits.
Late one September night, sitting on the cushy, parlor-esque sofa in the Jillani’s front room - the other end of the couch covered in a layer of tin foil to keep their feral cat, nicknamed Podbert, from an internet meme, from peeing on it – as he had peed on or destroyed a plethora of the other furniture in the house, including scratching out the bottom of a sofa from the early 1800s and proceeding to live in it – I announced to Savannah, who sat next to me, consumed in her tablet, as she usually is, when she isn’t complaining about it not working – “You know, if we did a haunted house, we’d do a pretty great job with it.”
Not even bothering to look up, “yeah, it’d be killer.” She retorts.
Like a phantom, from around the corner, pops Lisa’s head, as if it grew out of the 1970s paneling, announcing “Tim, you know, I ran the haunted homesite at the museum when I was working there!” – and with that, the foundation, windowsills, and iron bars of what would make up The Summoning fell from the sky and landed around us. We didn’t know it yet.
(By the time we figured it out, it was too late – but that’s later.)
After making a pot of tea and passing it out, Lisa plopped herself onto the other end of the couch - after pulling the tinfoil away, and picking up John Bethune, the other cat, an overweight tabby known for eating animals from the yard and their bringing half-corpses into the house – onto her lap, cooing “come here, my fuzzy grandbaby…”
Over the next four or so hours, well into three or four in the morning, our interactive haunted house experience, The Summoning, conjured itself and arrived. The layout was simple – A group of at most fifteen people, led by a guide, on a one-hour odyssey through the attraction, would stop at many vignettes along the line, where professional actors were waiting. These professional actors would play out the scene – volunteers, the scare actors, would then do the part of scaring the tour and causing mayhem in-between each scene.
Looking back on it, is the representation of my life.
The only problem was that we needed a location.
We sat there, mentally grasping for straws. “Well, you know the current director of the museum isn’t going to let us do it there, Lisa drones. Her enthusiasm for the project waning, even though it is ready, at this point. I was aware of the ax flying through the room from Lisa’s mouth, headed straight toward our heads, like a boomerang, it’d finish by taking off her own.
“Well, this isn’t a moment to panic.” I trail off – thinking. “I bet the museum where I interned would let me do it, they love me down there. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Well, hop to.” Lisa said, rising from her position. “I’m headed to bed, call me tomorrow. It was nice seeing you.” With that, she disappeared. A drastic change from today, where if I don’t call enough, I get voicemails of “Oh, you haven’t called recently, don’t know if a ghost or my daughter has killed you…”
The next day, I gave a ring to Tommie, my former supervisor, explained the idea. “Yeah, sure, Timothy!” She exclaims, ever excited for the next weird thing she gets to experience. “Write a letter to the board breaking it down, and they’ll approve it, you can get it done.”
Here is that letter.
“What the Project Is:
The project title goes by “The Summoning” - a two-night haunted trail event.
Currently in Union County, there are two options for haunted trails during October, which have been present for many years. The third option is much farther out at Carowinds, in Charlotte. The project aims to be another option for those seeking Halloween thrills, as haunted trail visitors usually exhaust the two local options and are looking for another – research shows that the event will be in demand.
The team is led by Tim Starnes, former museum intern. The project is being co-led by skilled “Historween” producer, Lisa Jillani, who has arranged and executed “Historween” experiences at other North Carolina museums.
Ticketing and Cost:
Groups will be taken on the tour in sizes of 7-10, and tickets will be priced at $10. Tickets will be pre-sold utilizing a website to control the flow of the crowd. No more than 15 guests will be on the grounds at a time.
Only skilled actors have been asked to join the project, many with either advanced credits in productions they have been a part of, or bachelor’s degrees in theater.
Scene One - The Well
The group first sees the witch standing by the well, dumping something into it.
Scene Two - The Cabin
The group is taken into the cabin, where a sweet little old lady is waiting. Her grandchild arrives, and the sweet little lady begins taking a strange turn. She proceeds to try and poison the grandchild, offering the food to the group as well. With the help of the grandchild the group escapes from the cabin.
Scene Three - The Barn
The group comes across two young lovers trying to find a place to mess around – but, the poisoned water has started to affect them. They notice the group and go after them, funneling them down into the woods.
Scene Four - Indian Village
Reaching the Indian Village, the group is surprised by a regiment of longhunters who have entered the village, finding the chaos. They tell the group to escape the village as as possible, and that they are going to hunt down the witch.
Scene Five - The Stage
The witch is captured by longhunters and is about to be put to death. The audience are put off to the side of the stage, to watch. The witch, knowing what is going to happen, summons up a demon who comes from the woods and chases the group back to the museum, ending the tour.”
The museum’s board agreed to the project, signing off on the letter.
We would have full use of the museum and its grounds, in exchange for the museum receiving the proceeds outside of the production costs. We would be reimbursed for them out of the profits. We would do our own accounting, and keep the receipts, to be turned in at the end. I agreed, and we set to work.
For anyone who attended, reading this, they’ll notice that what they got was different from this outline. For the next month, we toiled away.
Are You Looking?
To be ready to knock this thing out of the park, we needed to go check out the competition, . The museum’s usual “haunted trail” would be the weekend before ours. We packed off into Savannah’s rickety station wagon for a visit.
After talking my way into three free tickets, we gathered outside with one of the larger groups of the night, the 9 pm tour, huddled together in the October cold. Around ten minutes after, up from the darkness came one of the more frequent volunteers, dressed as a budget Elvira, to the best of my assumption, some red makeup stained over her mouth like she’s either made out with a clown, or attempted to do vampire effects. I vote the first option.
We were strung along to the first tour stop, a makeshift graveyard made of the cheap lawn crosses made of plastic and stuck into the ground with two small metal prongs, like you’d see in a budget pauper cemetery – in the front stood an older woman, dressed the best I can describe as a gravedigger wench gypsy.
“Do you all know the story of Mr. Edward Teach?!” She exclaims, waving around her battery-operated lantern. “The fearsome pirate who tormented the North Carolina coast!”
“Waxhaw, North Carolina has been completely landlocked town, as far as I know, but I’m not too sure about during the age of Pangea. How he has anything to do with this area, I have no idea.” I think to myself, squeezing to the front.
“I would know all my facts for sure, as I am this second wife!”
“Must’ve been a suicide…” I continue thinking.
After telling us about Blackbeard, the lady pulls a mysterious object from a bag behind her, draping it from sight in her lengthy gypsy shawl. Without much pause, she launches into her second story, about the Civil War – I give her credit, at least this is a bit more applicable to the region of the Carolinas we are in. She proceeds with a rather nondescript story that I won’t repeat because I don’t want you to stop reading.
“As you know, they would ship the bodies of soldiers back by train. They opened the door and out came the widow’s husband’s head!” - she reveals what she is holding in her shawl – a blank, white styrofoam wig head, one you’d find in any beauty supply store. She rolls it across the ground as if it is a bowling ball, rolling, stopped after two turns by the nose, like a doorstopper, somewhat near our feet.
The guide summons our attention and walks us toward the cabin on the property. She whispers to me as we walk, stumbling in the dark. “You’re going to love this next story.”
As we meet with the edge of the treeline approaching the cabin, we begin to hear what you would assume to be the soundtrack to a Huckleberry Finn musical bellowed from the woods. “Lordy be, now I’m free!”
The lights of the cabin begin to become visible like a desperate lighthouse.
On reaching the front gate of the cabin’s yard, we spot the museum director standing on the porch, gripping a broom. “Do ya’ll hear that!?” she drawls, crawling over the line of bad southern or offensive mammy impersonation.
“Oh lordy be!” – from the woods.
A typical ghost story follows, but what is not typical is the drawn-out length, with each sentence paused with a lengthy, drawn out random fact and pause.
“It was September… and it was cold…!”
“He was strong, but it was… cold…!”
“The carriage ride took around two days… and it was… cold…!”
From the woods, another belted out line of showtune or statement of exasperation.
“Why me lawdy!?”
Lyrical line to Old Man River redacted to prevent copyright issues.
From here, another tour guide joins the crowd. She approaches, shouting - “Do any of you know what the trail of tears is!?”
“This.” I respond out loud, intending to only run it through my head. The crowd cackles, throwing the storyteller off track.
As we’re dragged into a clearing in the woods, where a campfire is burning amongst a shabby Native American village recreation, the most Native American-looking children the museum could find are standing around the campfire, draped in Native American-esque burlap throw rugs from Pier One, as if in a police lineup.
After getting us settled around the other side of the roasting pit, the storyteller sets the scene, informing the less-versed on what the trail of tears was, and what happened during it.
There is a call from the woods. “Get on out of here! Get, get!” A troupe of middle school boys holding prop rifles, clad in what looks to be revolutionary war militia gear traipse forth from the woods, pointing the orange-capped weapons at the children, still lined along the fireside.
“We don’t want to go; this is our land!” They call out, squinting in the darkness to see the boys.
“We don’t care, go!”
The boys then chase the children up the path away from the campfire, shouting “get, get!” all the way. We follow closely after them, the tour being over.
It was a quiet ride home.
Gathering Salt, Candles, and Fresh Underwear
On the way to a creative meeting at the museum, an argument erupted in the car, originating from Savannah’s mouth – positioned between Lisa, driving, and I in the passenger’s seat, hunched over to talk to us from over the console.
“What we need is a clown.”
“No, Savannah, we aren’t having a clown! Especially after you poo-poo’d the spider.” – You can bet who said this line. Lisa had insisted early on that a large prop spider be dropped onto the group at some point while on the wooded trail, however, it was cut due to concerns of it not being dropped and instead looking stupid, dangling in the air. I presume she was still mourning the loss.
“Well, I don’t know, Savannah. What makes you think it would work?”
“Clowns are all over Facebook and the internet! You haven’t seen “killer clowns” attacking people?”
“Well, I have…” I respond.
“Well if you two are intending to have clowns, I’ll drop out.” Lisa throwing a fit, as usual. I ignore her but use the bad attitude to my advantage.
“Well, if you let us have the clown, we’ll put the spider back in, and if the clown doesn’t work, we’ll drop the concept on night two. On the first, if we find out soon enough.” I retort, gears of my mind spinning at the speed of a turbine in a hurricane named “Myway.” Category 5.
“Well who is going to play the clown?” Lisa asks indignantly.
Savannah pipes up. “Madison” – her sister.
“Don’t you have a clown costume?” Savannah asks, I don’t have one, so she’s obviously asking her mom.
“That is true, weren’t you a Christian clown back in the day?” I ask.
“Yes…” Lisa sighs. “Back in the day to make some extra cash, when we were poor.”
I laugh, not at the poor part, but the Christian clown part. “A cross for the nose and all?”
“Yes. I was Curly the Christian Clown.”
“I thought you hate the Three Stooges?” I ask.
“I do, but it was named from the wig, Timothy.”
After the meeting Lisa found the costume, and Madison agreed, on one condition. The condition was that I would provide a copy of the script for a low-budget animated children’s film that I worked on years prior. One that I have tried, desperately, for years, to remove from my memory. I agreed to provide it after the project ended.
It still has not materialized. If it ever does, I’ll threaten her with the fact that I’m legally bound to not share it – and if it gets out, I know where she and her fiance live. Mainly because they live in the family home with Lisa. Just don’t check my external hard drive.
Quinn, one of Lisa’s historical reenacting club pupils, would join each group as the plant. At the beginning of the tour, before they set off, I would bring out a lantern and ask for a volunteer to hold it. He would naturally be chosen.
Jade, a recruit off craigslist, would play the tour guide, when her initial trial as the witch didn’t quite work out.
The other actors were directly recruited from my personal Facebook friends list. Work in exchange for pizza and soda. My internal capitalist demon smiled widely.
On one occasion I had the waiting crowd clap for a woman that was holding up the tour from starting, as she was in the bathroom, when she returned. I told another family, as I handed them tickets, to please hold onto them, as I needed to be able to “quickly distinguish them from my employees if something went wrong.” The humorless mother snatched them from me, saying “sure.” She left crying when it was over. The twinkish chemically beach-blonde teenage son leaving with her seemed thrilled.
On departure from the museum, the group would first walk to a well – I’m not sure if it was a well, but for our sake it was, it looked close enough. A generic, boring historical spiel by Jade would start on families getting fresh drinking water during the Revolutionary War period. The Witch would approach from the woods, slinking along the edge of the driveway to the museum, chanting something. Jade would attempt to stop her, asking if she’s lost, only to be ignored as drizzles something into the well. Acting fast, Jade pulls the group away and begins to head toward the woods, taking a path up the museum driveway, across some of the parking lot, and down the hill to the opening of the wooded pathway to the Native American village.
There would be a pit stop.
Madison, clad in her knockoff Pennywise gear would position herself directly underneath the single glowing streetlight in the corner of the parking lot, close to the makeshift graveyard from the year before, where the styrofoam head incident took place – holding a “You are #1” balloon and gently waving to the crowd – not moving toward the group, or saying a word. Jade would then act as if she had called me on the phone, and I would come outside, looking at the clown from the front patio. I would motion for them to keep moving and dial the phone, presumably for the police. Madison would run behind the museum to hide until the group had moved out of sight.
Some groups offered to call the police. The clown gag stayed in.
Now panicked from seeing a clown, the group arrives in the Native American village, and are circled around a crackling fire pit. All is quiet until, from all sides, enter our cannibals – strung up and down with spaghetti dyed with extra red food coloring in the jarred sauce and cherry jell-o. Suddenly grabbing Quinn and dragging him into one of the timber shack, screams of agony follow, with Jade picking up the lantern, which was dropped, thrusting it onto on of the surviving tour attendees.
On multiple occasions she had to thrust it onto a few different people, as many refused to carry the now “cursed” lantern.
The group escapes, fleeing the scene.
Fleeing up a hill, the cannibals close behind, now able to leave their station to chase the tour for the rest of the trip, the group encounters Lisa with the other longhunters in a fake cemetery, complete with styrofoam graves (the museum’s, not ours. We’re not that tacky.) This is where Lisa explains that the group will need to turn around and escape back through the woods, as they're surrounded. Another longhunter arrives from the darkness, confirming that in fact everyone is stone dead or have been turned into cannibals. The only way out left clear is through the woods along the outskirts of the village. The group departs.
Once far enough into the woods, Lisa would shout “get back, get back!” from her position in the cemetery and let off a round from her historical reenactor-grade black powder rifle, the sound echoing through the small valley the group was traipsing through. This thunderous crack would signal to Savannah, hiding in a nearby cabin outbuilding, to start the second part of the soundtrack, being played from a CD boombox.
Going down one offshoot path deeper into the woods, Jade would shout “wait, wait, I’m confused, this is the wrong way!” as cannibal wails and screams close in from behind. She would rush forward, effectively flipping the group around. This was an unintendedly genius move, as human nature would cause the easy to scare individuals to group at the front with Jade, and the ones who are a bit more immune to stay at the back. This tactic would infect the entire bunch with panic, as the terrified victims at the front would now be at the back where the cannibals have closed in to run-by scare them from the dark woods stretched out behind.
Once reset, the group would find itself at the base of a small hill leading out of the woods and to the cabin.
One group refused to enter the cabin for a good five minutes, debating among themselves on if they should or not. Another group had to elect a leader to go in first. Yet another group set pandemonium loose once in the cabin, the door closed behind them, as they became convinced that someone was underneath the rope bed against the back wall (there wasn’t) and began to attempt and claw their way out, or at least away from grabbing distance of the bed.
There would come knockings from all around the walls of the cabin, from the outside. The shuttered windowsills, the walls, the closed door. After some advanced beating on the door, it would swing open, revealing the witch. The group inside now recoiling away from the doorway, pushing backwards to avoid her, would press against the walls as she entered. However, before anything could happen, Lisa and the Longhunters appear, grabbing her and pulling her outside.
The group, following, would witness the witch put through a two-minute kangaroo court while confined in a stockade. “Come to me, Satan! Come to me!” She cries, attempting to write out of the wooden hug. From behind the cabin is a flash of strobe light, Savannah stepping forward, clad in a demon costume, Baphomet mask and all. She begins to run forward toward the group, galloping in a pair of high-heeled black pumps turned to hooves with the magic of leather, proceeding the chase the group back to the museum.
I’m Messed Up.
For one, many parents complained that the experience small-scale traumatized their impressionable children. You brought them, cry me a river of cheap crÃ¨me makeup in clown white.
Savannah, clad in her demon costume, often lagged too far behind in the darkness due the clunkiness of her demonic drag queen shoes. This prevented her from being seen for a decent length of time before the group began to run.
The spider drop wasn’t mentioned. Did you notice? It was cut after the first night after failing to drop during two of three performances. Most people saw it before the trap launched anyway. The pipe-cleaner legs glittered in the darkness. The fake spider web during this segment did work, though. The fine-textured fishing line draped from tree limbs spooked plenty of arachnophobes. It stayed in.
Caught with Their Breeches Down
Sunday morning, the morning after, as the Maureen McGovern song goes, or maybe the classic Maroon 5 song, comes. Savannah and I find ourselves at the Renaissance Festival with an early start.
$50 to walk past the front entrance, a mud pit, then $10 for paper cups of hot chocolate and $5 for chicken tenders skewered on sticks, given forth from mildewing papier-mÃ¢chÃ© facades.
While people-watching with a plugged nose, I keep my cell phone on silent. On our trek back to the car, I discover that I have several missed calls and a voicemail.
“Tim, this is Samantha with the museum. We need to talk. Call me.”
I knew that it wasn’t going to be for receiving a statue on the grounds for services to the community.
“The board never authorized you to collect money on its behalf. I’m going to need your email list, the total, and we will not be paying you for your expenditures.”
I go to speak but am cut off.
“Can you give me a second to talk, Tim?”
I ignore her. “You can’t enforce a rule that was never mentioned.”
“Right, well, I need everything handed over by the end of the day, or we’ll have to take a look at other actions.”
She never received the email list, only an expenditure list that did get paid up after sticking to my proverbial black powder rifles for a few weeks. They did receive their part of the funds from ticket sales, as promised.
Cleaning Up the Blood
A year later, 2017, the museum unveiled a new poster, and began using Eventbrite for the first time ever. I came across it while putzing on Facebook, as I'm known to do a few times a day.
Once I was able to catch my breath from the shock and laughter, I immediately called up Lisa.
Me: “Savannah is famous!”
Lisa: “Oh god, what? What have you done?”
(I’ll take credit where I can get it.)
Me: “Are you at your computer?”
Lisa: “Damn it, Tim. No, hold on.”
Me: “Pull up the museum’s Facebook.”
Lisa saw it as soon as the page popped up, the poster highlighted across the top of the page like a war banner.
Never wanting to lose out on cheap laughs, Lisa, Savannah and I packed up into the station wagon and went to the museum to see the improved trail. If they’re smart enough to try and stick a banana in our tailpipe and steal our carbon monoxide, they would do up the spectacle.
Noticing that the volunteers selling tickets weren’t the usual crowd, I acted as if I didn't know any better. “Is this the same that the group who came here last year? Is it the same people?” Leave it to me to be a classic smartass.
The overweight lady at the counter looked at me as if my body had turned inside out. She developed a faint line of sweat and turned a deep pale. “No, they aren’t affiliated with us.”
“Oh, ok.” I reply. “That’s too bad. It was good.”
“Yeah, ok… Here are your wristbands.”
The tour was the same as the year before. If you’d like to hear a recounting of it, go a few pages back and reread the section about 2016.
We have not worked with the museum again – in fact, we were informally banned. The banana in the tailpipe failed, it rocketed from the clog and shot them through the foot.
In June 2017, celebrating my birthday, I was blindfolded and brought into (after he accidentally walked me into one of the French doors to his living room) the party a friend was hosting, to have the blindfold ripped off, revealing twenty-two “Happy Birthday!!!” balloons floating around the room, for my twenty-third birthday. The one odd balloon out was the exact same “You are #1” balloon.
“Sorry-” He stammers. “One of them popped when I got home, and I had to get a replacement real fast. They had that one blown up already, so I took it.”
I didn’t say anything.
If you’re aware of a venue in Charlotte, North Carolina that won’t ban me, give me a call.