Haunted Houses 101: Q&A with Stephen Graham Jones

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A known proponent of all things spook and horror, Stephen Graham Jones is a professor of writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. Highlighting his curricular activities this past summer: ENGL 3246 -201: Zombie Renaissance - Pop. Culture.

If he's able to bring that into the halls of academia, think what he's left on the outside: twenty books and a hundred-some published short stories, with titles ranging from The Meat Tree to Zombie Bake-Off, Demon Theory and Growing Up Dead in Texas. And he makes a point of visiting a host of haunted houses every year. So we talked to the man who knows best that "welling up in the back of your throat [that] could be a laugh [or] could be a scream" on how he approaches his favorite season.

See also: Five tips for visiting a haunted house

Westword: How (or) do you take someone to a haunted house that's "too scared"? They seem ideal, in the spirit of the house, and their fear definitely ramps up the experience. Are there any houses you've been to that cater to a mixed bag of lovers and can't-do-its?

Stephen Graham Jones: The best way to take them is to tell them you're going to get ice cream, of course. Then tell them this is the ice cream line. Everybody up front, they're all screaming for ice cream, of course. This gives them a pure experience, I think. No expectations, no hesitation. However, if whoever you're trying to take sees through your ice cream ploy, then guilt's next: Come on, Halloween's just once a year, this'll give you all kinds of cred, you don't want to die not having lived, do you? But again, your invitation might still get politely declined. Last, I guess, is just the challenge -- the, Yeah, they're fake, it's all fake, let's go see the zippers on the costumes, and watch all the other people screaming their fool heads off. Or, really, the best tactic might just be to offer to pay. That'll get most people in line. As for rational reasons, though, real arguments that might actually convince and compel? There aren't any. Some people are born for Halloween, and some are just counting the days until Christmas.

The storyline issue: How crucial is a cogent, followable story to a haunting's success? Have you experienced an "introduction" to the house or is it mostly being tossed into the fray? Are there any houses that are particularly intent on story?

I prefer the no-story ones, just being thrown into something I have no idea what it is. Just because if the barker up front's telling you how some mad dog killer escaped on this full moon night or whatever, then they're basically asking you to make-believe, aren't they? No matter how well they sell it. However, if you just get shoved through some black crepe paper into a dark room, with no idea what might happen, then every sense is painfully alive. You've got something welling up in the back of your throat, and it could be a laugh, it could be a scream. If there's anything better than that, then I don't know about it.

What elements of a house strike the most fear? Pop-out surprise seems essential for screams, but what other elements of noise, light, costume etc seem to pull you in the most? If you're able to cleave the elements of atmosphere into categories, are there any standouts in particular arenas?

Man, the quiet rooms seem the most scary, usually. In the pop-out rooms, we always know something's springing up from the coffin. But in the room that's just a hallway to the next set-piece jumpscare, if there's a hidden door some creepy dude can sneak out of, just to step between you and whoever's behind you, wait for you to turn around--that's the best. When you look up into their latex face, your rational mind's already registering the mask, the set-up, all of it, but you're not a rational creature anymore, either. You're visceral, you're instinctual. Your eyes might tell you this is latex, but the lizard part of your brain is insisting you run, you scream, you do whatever you have to to live. And the lizard always goes first.

Have you encountered any unique settings apart from the house? We've heard of cornfield/house combos, dairies... but silos? Churches?

Yeah, the cornfields are the best. I'm a big fan. Not because they're inherently scary--they are tall enough to isolate you pretty well, though, in spite of the 'walls' being so permeable--but because there's always the chance there's a real maniac out there. That somebody paid their ten bucks and they're just going to camp out in the corn, see what-all they can accomplish before the corn cops call in the helicopters. Also, in a haunted house, though you don't know the layout, still, there's one exit door in every room. In a corn maze, though, you're honestly lost. It's funny at first. And then it's less funny. Dressing up for a house- you can't go to your whole list on All Hallows when everyone's dressed up- what do you wear on those pre- and succeeding days? does a jeans-and-sneakers attendee lose anything that someone in the spirit of things has?

Jeans and sneakers are definitely best for the haunted house. They usually won't let you in with a mask, even. It makes sense. They need to be able to tell who the rubes are. And, sneakers are good because the ground's uneven, and you're running and falling and stepping on the slower of your friends. But, yes, always dress up the day before, the night after. That's what the season's all about. And, even in the haunted house, it's dark, you're anonymous--you're still dressed up. Just, this time, as the shrieking victim.

For that matter- how would you describe 'in the spirit of things'?

You have to want the haunted house to scare you. It completely steals your money to go through with one of those people who shrug it all off, who touch the monsters' faces to show they're fake. I mean, I feel sorry for them, of course, their imagination muscles seem to be broken, or else they can't temporarily reassign their belief. But I don't want them stealing my experience, either. Leave those people at the bowling alley. Come to the haunted house with people who are already holding your hand in line.

Pricing. We imagine a concern for some is that going to a haunted house and paying, they're going to be thinking what's my scream-for-buck. How do you navigate ticket prices? Have you found a difference between a free and a priced house? Have you found a free house?

I haven't found many free, outside of people's driveways and the like. Even the churches ask for a donation. Which is great. People shouldn't go broke, making a haunted house. Or, we should pay for our enjoyment, definitely. Me, I usually try to nab an early ticket pack of some sort, and I usually upgrade so I can zip to the front of the line. It's not cheap, but, come on, it's Halloween, right? It only happens once a year, and what you do then has to last until next time. So do it right.

A list, if possible, of where you plan to hit this year?

Hard call. Thirteenth Floor, likely, maybe that Field of Bodies or whatever it is over towards . . . is it Wheat Ridge? And, if Erie's got the maze going on, then that one. I think last year it got too muddy or something. Broke my heart. But Denver and Boulder and everything in between, we're stacked with quality haunted houses--with people who believe in Halloween, and have been planning these scares since last year. They deserve our money, and we deserve to get to scream like we're dying for a night or two. There's plenty of time to be rational. The whole world wants you to be rational, to make sense. Step into a haunted house, though. You'll see there's another way, a better way. And you might just want to find a corner, hide, run away with the carnival.

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