A haunted house is one thing, but a haunted home can be much worse.
Scarecrows lined our way through the field until we reached a maze of headstones, hands protruding from the soil. “Welcome,” bellowed a woman stepping out from behind a tree, holding a flashlight up to her face. A knife in her neck, she told us she’d been dealing with a “very sore throat.”
Helga led us up the front lawn to the farmhouse. Jack-o-lanterns sat on the porch, as did hay-stuffed figures in jeans and plaid shirts, a few cross-legged in Adirondack chairs with a newspaper across their lap. They must be retired, I thought. When Helga opened the front door and welcomed us inside, one of them, pitchfork in hand, lunged at us and yelled.
It was a jarring experience — not being so close to the armed, hair-trigger farmer, but rather seeing through the doorway an eggshell white sign in black, Rustic font which read simply, “Gather.”
I stumbled backward. I felt dizzy. The house grew larger before my eyes. I had no idea what I was in for.
In the kitchen, three witches huddled over a boiling cauldron. “Double, double toil and trouble,” they chanted, listing the ingredients of their concoction. When one witch removed the ladle and waddled over to my usually ambitious 8-year-old niece, offering her a taste, she hid behind her dad’s legs. Maybe it wasn’t gluten free.
My brother, meanwhile, was repulsed, even gagged — not because of the thought of ingesting the foul brew, but because he had caught a glimpse of a manifesto carved into a polished mahogany plank on the countertop: “Live, Laugh, Love.”
My stomach churned. I did my best to play it cool, telling my brother I wasn’t sure which was a bigger assault on good taste: that piece of decor or the contents of the cauldron. But deep down, I was rattled. I didn’t care what that plank said; this was no laughing matter.
Helga ushered us into a bathroom, where a zombie was chained by one arm to a radiator. It groaned about wanting “BRAAAIIINS,” which prompted my mom to tell my dad he needn’t worry about it coming for him.
The zombie had been flailing its free arm at us, but now it reached into the tub and pulled out a saw. Its chained arm resting on the tile, it yanked the serrated blade back and forth on its wrist, just above the rusted iron ring.
My dad put his hands on his knees, and I felt like I had been poisoned — not due to our intimate view of this gory scene of self-mutilation, but rather a rope of blood that had splattered onto a silver-framed canvas above the sink mirror, which advised us that “Today Is A Good Day to Have a Good Day.”
Was this some sort of riddle? My mind was a blur. Oddly enough, I had forgotten what day it was. My stomach, too, had only gotten worse. I wanted to check the medicine cabinet for some Pepto-Bismol, but any that was there, I figured, would likely belong to the zombie, given its diet. And I was in no mood to talk to someone like that; I was still tired from the election.
In the dimly lit living room, I stood in a corner next to a skeleton. To my left was my brother, still in distress. It was hard to say who looked to be in better shape.
My ears pricked up. “That sounded like a match,” I whispered. “No,” my sister said, “this doesn’t seem like a tennis household.” I sighed. The time for jokes was over; I was close to losing it. Was she immune to all this?
I found the spot of light and saw it drop. Where it landed, a fireplace now roared, illuminating a coffin. Inside, a headless man in a suit sat up and pointed at the far wall. There, three mummies were shuffling our way.
I recoiled, covering my face with my hands — neither due to the embalmed, undead Egyptians nor the poor decapitated fellow, but because of what the flames revealed on the mantle: a cursive invocation to “Bless This Nest.”
My God. It might be time to say my own prayers. Maybe this house had an Exorcist scene where I could pull the priest aside and request my last rites. I wasn’t Catholic, just desperate. On second thought, it would be better if there wasn’t a priest here; there were kids around.
I trudged down into the damp basement. We moved single-file toward the other side of the house, exposed on both sides to whatever lay waiting for us in the darkness: werewolves, vampires, or mannequins donning 2011’s most popular fedoras.
The fluorescent lights snapped on, blinding in their intensity. We took in our surroundings: limbs, torsos and heads were strewn across the grimy floor. A few intact bodies were contorted into almost inhuman positions. “Still more comfortable than flying Economy,” my sister said in my ear. Ugh.
Then, the grind and whirl of a chainsaw. We turned to the back of the line, and, behind my brother, there stood Leatherface. I screamed. I gasped for breath. I screamed some more.
This was the most dreadful sight in the entire place. So loathsome, so ghoulish, it was an absolute travesty to witness. No, not the serial killer who could hack us to bits. It was the half declaration, half disclosure on a lavender matte print behind him:
“In This House We Dance in the Kitchen, We Say Please, Thank You and I’m Sorry, We Laugh Like Crazy, We Sing Out Loud, and We Never Give Up.”
One year later, and I still struggle to move on from what happened that night. The dizziness, nausea and confusion have come and gone. I wish it were long haul Covid; that would be easier to explain.
I had fainted in the basement, I was told later. The next thing I remember, I was lying on my sister’s living room couch. Her place was just two doors down. It took me a while to realize where I was; I hadn’t been there in years.
As I looked around, something above me caught my eye. My heart jumped. Once I sat up to get a better view of it, my bottom lip began to quiver. A tear rolled down my cheek as I read the block-lettered, cast iron sign mounted on the wall.
My sister had labeled the place where she lives. It was a single word: “Home.”