This piece originally ran October 22, 2014. RIP, David Bowie. -ed.
Brandon Wetherbee is the host of the talk show You, Me, Them, Everybody. He’ll be hosting YMTE Live at the Wonderland Ballroom in D.C. on Friday, November 6 at The Wonderland Ballroom with Allison Lane, Baby Bry Bry, Dee Ahmed, Qualms and Norm Quarrinton.
From mid September, 1999 to October 28, 1999, I worked at The Asylum Experience, a haunted house. It was boring. Extremely boring. The haunted house didn’t close October 28, it ran until November 1, I just quit before their busiest weekend of the year because I thought I was losing my mind.
I did not wear a costume or makeup or chase people around with a chainsaw. I sat in a small space, about three feet wide, three feet deep, behind a black sheer curtain and hit buttons between 4 and 6 hours per shift. I ran the lights and sound effects for one room in a haunted house. It was extremely boring.
I worked at a haunted house because I was 16 and needed money. There aren’t a lot of seasonal October jobs. There aren’t a lot of jobs that don’t require a car. Since I knew someone that had a car and already had a job at a haunted house, my destiny was inevitable.
The training was roughly 5 minutes long. Hit the yellow button when you see people walk in. Hit the blue button when the people are in front of your station. Hit the red button when the people are about to leave the room. Make sure the smoke machine runs every few minutes. Make sure you flicker the lights every few minutes. Make sure you stay awake. It was hard to stay awake.
After an hour of attempting to make people scream, you don’t care about the screams. They become background noise. I wasn’t supposed to listen to music during my shift, but I listened to music during every shift. It was the only way to stay awake. This was before iPods and I didn’t have CD player money so I listened to a tape. I listened to cassette 1 of David Bowie’s “Sound + Vision” Rykodisc compilation hundreds of times. Literally hundreds of times. (The only time I didn’t listen to the tape was when I was the guy that slowly crept out of the coffin to grab people’s arms. I was fine the first few rounds of groups but ended up falling asleep while wearing a demon mask in a coffin. But that’s another story for another Halloween.) I owned more than one tape but I listened to just one tape. Let’s do the math.
The tape clocks in at 62 minutes. I worked everyday the haunted house was open, 4 hours Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 6 hours Friday and Saturday. That’s 24 hours per week sitting behind a black curtain listening to a David Bowie tape. One tape. One tape for nearly 6 weeks. Why did I only listen to one tape? 15 years later I still love “Drive-In Saturday,” so I guess it wasn’t that bad.
The haunted house was successful. Very successful. But for one reason or another, the haunted house producers decided that 1999 was going to be the last year for The Asylum Experience. To thank their staff the owners had a pizza party (PIZZA PARTY!!!) the week after Halloween. Though I quit before their busiest weekend of the year, they invited me. I went because they still had my check.
I met the majority of The Asylum Experience staff that early November evening. I was younger than everyone but my friend. Much younger. Most men and women (there was a surprising amount of female workers) were in their mid-20s, former theater geeks and current undesirables. They weren’t undesirable to me. They were just nice people on the fringes of society. They benefited greatly from being out of high school years before the Columbine tragedy. They were destined to work at GameStop or make the games GameStop sells.
The haunted house workers loved their jobs. Loved them enough that some people were on the verge of tears throughout the pizza party. That’s an odd sight. The place reeked of fog machine liquid, looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years and the lighting would make most offices seem desirable. Yet it was the most special place in the world for 30 kind souls.
The man most affected by the closing of the haunted house played Dr. Frankenstein. The Asylum Experience’s finale was a very large, very scary Frankenstein’s Monster coming to life. The crux of the scare depending on the actor portraying the mad doctor. This guy was good. Scary good. He wanted to perform for one last time for everyone that worked at the haunted house. For a crowd of 29, he put on his lab coat and delivered a performance behind a steel face. It ended in tears. 26 of the people in the crowd cheered and whooped with all their might. Two girls I hadn’t noticed before laughed. I told them to shut up.
I haven’t been to a haunted house in the last 15 years. They’re not scary. They’re a place where former high school theater kids get to scare non-high school theater kids and adults. I’m glad they exist, I just don’t need to be not scared. Besides, I haven’t been able to find that Bowie tape in over a decade.