I wrote a short story for Halloween. I’m going to post it in three parts for three days. Here’s part one:

Nightmare House, A Halloween Story

Part One:

Halloween is my busiest time of the year. I work for a haunted house, so that’s to be expected. You’re probably thinking Halloween should be my only time of year for that kind of job, but no. Nightmare House runs all year round. Yes, business is kind of lean in the winter months, but we get a steady stream of customers again in the late spring and all through the summer. Of course, nothing beats the crowds I see in October.

Nightmare House isn’t actually a house. It’s a little plywood shack that travels from town to town. We set it up in parks or empty lots, wherever they’ll have us. I book our appearances, get all the permits, take out ads, hang decorations, print flyers, sell tickets, lead the tours…whatever my bosses can’t do themselves. Yes, that is too much work for one single employee, but I get it all done.

Each night, right after sundown, all the kids line up and I lead one group at a time into the house. I like to take groups of ten in the off-season, but in October, I usually need to take groups of twenty or thirty kids at once. I like to wear dark clothes, a costume cape, and maybe a little stage makeup, if I’m feeling it. I lead each group to the corridor and tell them that they are about to enter a space where their worst nightmares will come true to haunt them. I’m not a natural performer by any means, but I like doing the introduction. It’s the only part of my job that’s even a little fun.

Then the kids walk into the house and I close the door behind them. Right away, they’re disappointed that it’s just a big empty room. They always expect the winding halls and creepy exhibits like you see at normal haunted house. But when their eyes adjust to the dark they notice that we are not alone in here. My bosses are in the room with us.

That’s when the nightmares start to appear. It usually starts with something small, like snakes or spiders. In less then a minute, the room is full of nightmares. Mad dogs, lightning bolts, whatever scares those kids. But, no matter how crowded the room gets, the kids don’t even seem to notice anything except their own, personal nightmare. I stand in the back and watch the room fill up with these awful things. I’m not really sure how it works. Believe me, I try not to ask questions. The simplest explanation is that my bosses are, for lack of a better word, demons.

I’m not sure if my three bosses are literally demons, I just know that they’re not human. They do look sort of human, at least that’s the appearance they take whenever they meet with me. But they don’t look quite right. For one thing, their skin and eyes have these sort of purple undertones that look unnatural. They also have a low pitch to their voice. I’m not certain a human larynx can produce that exact pitch. Actually, these descriptions don’t quite do them justice. Whenever they’re around, I get this feeling of uneasiness, like an instinct that tells me something is wrong. No humans could possibly mistake these guys for members of their own species. That’s probably why they need a human employee. I can sell tickets and book locations for them. If any of our customers had to interact with these guys, no one would ever come near Nightmare House.

I know what you’ve been wondering. When the kids face their nightmares, do they get hurt? Of course not. I’m not exactly the kindest soul you’ll ever meet, but I’m not a monster. My bosses just terrify them for ten minutes or so, then the nightmares disappear, and everyone runs out the exit and into the back lot where their parents are waiting. The first few times I saw it, I expected the kids to tell their parents everything that had just happened. Then the parents would call the police or something and I’d spend the rest of my days in prison for child endangerment. But the kids just talked about fake bats on strings, wax figures, garbled sound recordings from 1973, and all the other regular haunted house crap.

I guess Nightmare House puts some kind of spell on the kids so they don’t remember what happened. I don’t think the magic is perfect, though. When it’s over, the kids always look a little more rattled than they should. And we never get return customers. If I’m in town for a week I don’t see the same kids on Tuesday that I saw on Monday. The spell must not work on adults either. I go into that house with the kids every night and I’ve never seen any of my nightmares. I guess that’s why we only take kids and no adults. That’s another strange thing about Nightmare House. With any normal haunted house, you can be sure that some kid won’t go without one or both parents tagging along or there will be at least a dozen parents who won’t let their kids go in without a chaperone. But when families show up at Nightmare House, the kids just line up at the door and the parents wait at the exit as if it that was the only possible arrangement. Come to think of it, we never see any childless adults, teens or college students either. Like I said, don’t question it.

I think I’ve heard of spells like this before, but only in fiction, of course. They’re called glamour spells. They make people see or think things that aren’t real. As I recall, for the spell to work, the victim needs to be open to the suggestion first. Glamour spells can’t make you believe anything unless part of you wants to believe it. I guess these kids really want to believe that nothing horrible really happened to them.

You’re probably wondering why actual demons would bother using their magic to run a traveling sideshow. Simply put, fear is like food to them. If they stop scaring people they starve to death. I suppose in the olden days, demons would run around terrorizing humans to sustain themselves, instead of finding willing volunteers. That actually makes this whole operation seem a little less nasty, if you ask me. I mean, what other creature can eat without killing anything? These guys just mess with their victims for a few minutes then send them back, physically unscathed and able to go on with their lives. Heck, their only victims are people who are asking to be scared. Sure, it’s lousy that they only prey on children with this arrangement. And it would be better if they didn’t have to scare them quite so much. And, yes, it’s a little unscrupulous that we charge admission for the whole thing, but I have to get paid somehow. I can’t eat fear.

I don’t remember how I started working here. I probably started the way anyone takes any bad job: I convinced myself that I really needed work and I would only do it this for a little while. But then the years piled on, I really can’t remember how many, and now I’m not sure I could quit. I mean, I don’t think my bosses are dangerous, but I’m not looking forward to their reactions if I ever bring them a letter of resignation. And I’m not sure how I would find another job after this. The longest running job credit on my resume would read, “Haunted House Worker.” Add that to the disadvantage of starting a new career at my age. Actually, I’m not sure how old I am. That’s the kind of thing most people remember, isn’t it?

(Part Two will run on Wednesday, October 29)