Real horror-show: One (more or less) fearless writer's quest to conquer the haunted house

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I spend at least fifty dollars every year to feel like somebody is going to kill me. I spend it to run into walls and give myself bloody noses, to stand in line with a bunch of juggalos in the suburbs outside a warehouse of blood-curdling screams and crying children.

And it is worth every hard-earned penny.

As a young child, I remember clutching onto a sweaty hand for security and walking through the dark hallways of an amateur haunted house in Ohio only to realize after about ten minutes that I'd somehow switched hands with a stranger. Whose hand is this? Totally not my dad's hand. Panic set in and there I was, running around and hyperventilating tears of pure terror.

Years later, I tried again. This time I made it through the first two rooms of an abandoned Walgreens before running straight into a hardwood door. Warm blood rushed down my face and some medics squatting in the dark rafters jumped down and escorted me to the parking lot, where I shamefully waited while my teenage friends got their money's worth.

Another year later, I thought I was all kinds of grown up, and maybe this time, I could find some comedy in the creepy black-lighted corridors and laugh in the face of a self-righteous carnie acting like a gimping troll. But I took off sprinting into the dark again. This time I took the entire wall down with me. I blame the poor construction mostly, but the point is that I am what haunted house professionals would call a "runner."

People who laugh off haunted houses have probably never been to the real deal. And if you have, you most likely fall into one of the following categories: Perhaps you too are a "runner." Or maybe paralysis takes over and you're crouched in a corner, unable to muster the stomach to walk into the next psychological trap. Some people simply close their eyes and cover their faces, feeling their way through the alleys of manufactured terror like a blind person. I've witnessed those who immediately resort to violence. You scare me? Consider your face karate chopped. That's always a riot because it's usually some roided-out jock who punches fists into the air, using his screaming girlfriend as a shield while he makes his escape. And there's nothing like watching a grown man mumbling encouraging words to himself more than his children while his voice cracks and his balls shrivel to the size of candy corn. The middle-aged father of three tripping over his penny loafers as he runs through a corn maze, looking behind his shoulder the whole way for that darned chainsaw guy.

Or else you've simply seen too much and you're just unscareable; this in itself is a scary thought.

A few years ago, I spent some time making a short video where I interviewed the employees of several haunted houses around Denver. I had the privilege of talking to a man who proudly claimed, "I've been the chainsaw guy here for over twenty years now," like this was a really big deal. Which it really kind of is.

It's a huge industry, this scare business. I met a few teenage actors who came from Wyoming for their seasonal cameos as psychotic ghost children who clutch raggedy dolls while enacting menacing fits of epilepsy. Behind these scenes, there is a competitive world of enthusiasm for scaring us civilians--and a strange sense of hierarchy that I pretended not to detect. These hardcore denizens congregate in darkly lit corners of empty warehouses, or in wooden shacks in the middle of corn fields, to apply layers of make-up to each other's faces -- details that "runners" such as myself don't take the time to notice.

Some less seasoned actors just lurk around the lines at the entrance to the haunted houses, putting the first coat of fear onto groups of unnerved patrons who begin to question their fortitude. It can be laughable at this point, but I swear to god the fear is contagious. (I had a boyfriend who took this opportunity to "forget something" in the car and had to be coaxed back into line. This is when I learned that the biggest scaredy-cat is usually the last person you would expect. The mere anticipation of it all polishes many people a pale color of white -- a ghostly version of their usual tough, fearless selves.)

And there are the teenagers who aren't getting paid to be there, but wait around the corner waiting to scare the shit out of you for free, whispering schnapps-stinking breath behind your ears and sometimes fumbling to brush up on a stranger's boob. I've yelled at these dweebs too many times, but I think their presence is probably just as necessary as the old grannies parked out front in their lawn chairs, taking in the whole spectacle because their heart palpitations preclude their participation.

As a seasoned "runner," I've managed to slow down my gait and appreciate many of the local gems in the Denver area, but there are a few haunted houses I've yet to conquer. The 13th floor advertises itself as one of the scariest in the country, with the confidence to go as far as to refund your entrance fee if you make it to the end. I think you even have to sign a waiver. I've heard plenty of stories, but I'm just going to have to see it to believe it.

Editor's note: This is the first in a coming series by Maggie Moody, in which she'll visit the most serious haunted houses around town and report back. Stay tuned to Show and Tell until Halloween for weekly updates on her various "runnings."

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