(All collages by Marta Parszeniew)
A couple of years ago I applied to be an actor at one of Edinburgh’s haunted house-style tourist attractions. How I got the job, I don’t know. I guess, thanks to my complete lack of acting experience, I was perfectly suited to the style of theatre they espoused. That, and the big lass at the head of recruitment fancied me (she really should have said, as I’d have been on it in a heartbeat). Turning up for my induction I stood outside the tacky-looking building in the former station car park, with no money in the bank and nothing to do all summer, and walked into my first day of the job.
The overall commander of this dump was John. John was one of the worst kind of managers. One of those folks who is truly defined by what he does, which – in this case – is to manage a branch of a popular chain of what I would call “haunted houses”. Everything he talks about relates to the job that we all hate, and consequently everyone hates him.
Another morning beset by a collective sense of hangover and John won’t stop talking about sales predictions and quarterly profit margins. The actors sit, stunned, in the neon room. They dread the distant squeaking of European college groups that heralds the arrival of another hellish day spent underground, frightening people for a living.
Next door to the staff’s quarters is the make-up room. Festooned with a plethora of cheap slap and comedy clothes that make a mockery of the £20 entrance fee, the make-up room is the saddest place in the building. The morning ritual of caking oneself in low quality daub really brought home the prospect of where you were and what you were about to do. It effectively locked you in behind a wall of eye shadow, sealing your fate for another endless day.
The mathematics of the place were mind-altering. On a busy day – that being a day when it was raining a little more than normal, and thus folk flocked unimaginatively to a haunted house built in an old station car park – we could expect to “serve” at least 1,900 people. One tour of the attraction could take a maximum of 30 punters due to the temperamental nature of the boat ride, which tended to not function very well when crewed by an excess of 30 people.
Of course, in practice people tend not to wander about in packs of 30, so you'd find yourself “performing” to crowds of three or four when company policy dictated it. Incidentally, company policy stated that tours were to leave every six minutes in the busy months, meaning you were looking at up to 100 tours per day, playing all the parts from mad doctors to cannibals, hamming up a Scottish accent for the benefit of anyone and everyone.
The author doing his scariest face
The place was literally falling to bits, as one would expect from a car park-turned tourist trap. Symptomatic of the decay that infected the place was the boat ride, four and a half minutes of simulated nautical horror with some strobe lights and occasionally functioning water jets. There was also a witch in there. (When I say “witch”, I mean a coat hanger wearing a torn dress and a witch’s mask.) Two minutes into the boat ride the witch would move about a metre down a chain, with the idea of frightening those below.
The only issue was that the light didn’t really work in that room, so you couldn’t actually see the terrifying flying sorceress above. One day, I suppose after she’d grown tired of the unprofessionalism of the place, the witch broke her moorings and sailed off the chain, over the oblivious heads of those below and into the fetid water of the ride.
The worst thing of all was when the boat broke down with passengers aboard. Essentially a large block of fibreglass being pulled to and fro by a chain, the boat was simply not built to cater for the amount of people management wanted to dump in it on a daily basis. Midway through summer, she finally gave in.
It was the screaming that alerted us to the potential difficulties. The ride was many things, but scary was not one of them, so any cries of anguish probably pointed to genuine peril rather than the efficacy of the attraction. Mind you, it was only after some garbled communication that it became evident the vessel’s hull had been breached and that it was indeed sinking.
The decision came from above to turn the lights on. In darkness there was the tiniest chance that visitors wouldn’t notice the rubbish nature of the place, but illumination vanished any such mysteries. Those who’d been screaming in terror mere seconds before soon saw the true nature of their plight in halogen reality. The “ride” was a pool of stagnant water, four metres long and 30 centimetres deep. In the water we counted a condom, a plethora of anti-legionella pellets and, confusingly, a loaf of bread. Through this puddle waded the techie, who brought with him a large board so passengers could disembark the craft without the risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease and an STI, or bumping into floating bakery produce. The management then forced us to continue the tour so that the intrepid travellers couldn’t get their money back at the end.
By this point I’d started drinking on the job: lunchtime beers and a flask to keep me going through the day. "Never break character," was the mantra of the mid-level management. A mantra that’s hard to abide by, especially if the mother of young children is reprimanding you for smelling of whisky at 11AM while you're dressed as a cannibal.
Another huge issue was the cabin fever. Being locked underground all day with the same people led to an uneasy sense of proximity between colleagues. This, coupled with the stress, boredom and constant drinking, meant that it took little time for members of staff to start fucking each other. Tourist groups would weave in and out as sheepish staff scuttled off, their deeds belied by a distinct lack of make up around the mouth. Everyone paired off, switched, then paired on again without ever really thinking about it or how it affected the job. For whatever reason, when you’re drunk and occasionally fucking in the disabled bogs, the idea of doing a badly scripted show for 30 Italians doesn’t jump to the forefront of your mind.
August came around and brought the added joy of the Edinburgh festival, with more and more people seeking an expensive thrill at a generic tourist attraction. In an act of final desperation some of the acting staff began to hook up with the management in search of a better deal. Unfortunately, not being a woman, I found myself on more and more of the terrible shifts until the pressure all got too much.
After a night of drink, drugs and a handjob in a nightclub, I found myself on the bus towards work. I don’t remember going into the haunted house itself, but the trail of sick down the stairs is testament to the fact I did. For some reason I have a fairly decent ethic when it comes to doing whatever job it is I’m employed to do; no hangover or crashing comedown has ever inspired me to pick up the phone and pull a sickie (for this due diligence, I have been sacked no less than three times so far). In this case, I’d even attempted to put my make-up on. ‘If Alice Cooper could do it after two bottles of bourbon,’ I thought, ‘what’s the issue?’ The issue was that Alice Cooper had neither a line manager nor a gross misconduct clause in any contract he ever signed. I did, and was promptly sent home with a disciplinary meeting scheduled for the next day.
Disciplinary meetings always follow the same format. I sit there with the big boss and one of his lackeys. Usually the lackey has once been at my level of employment, but through a committed campaign of brown nosing has been elevated to this position, now earning 50p more an hour and gaining a yellow T-shirt in the process. This particular meeting was no exception.
From what I’ve been able to gather from these disciplinary hearings, the accused is supposed to grovel and grope for a last chance at resuming their job – a job they hated enough to find themselves in this position in the first place. In this case the furore revolved around the fact I was supposed to be operating the drop ride, despite the fact I’d tanned a bottle of vodka before coming into work. Apparently “drinking and fairground rides don’t go hand in hand” – a statement I knew to be untrue having recently attended Leith Links carnival.
After 20 minutes of being demeaned by the big boss while the lackey nodded along like some bastard Churchill dog, the immortal words were uttered: “Do you have anything to say on the matter?”
There are many things that one could say on the matter, and no page is long enough to list them all. In any event, I stuck to my old standard, telling the man his job was shite before calling him a cunt. I was sacked immediately.
My locker was just full of empty cans, giving me no need to empty it, so I ascended the stairs that a few months before I had tentatively descended, escaping into the torrential rain of Edinburgh in the late summer months.
Conveniently, the following year I spotted a job vacancy doing exactly the same thing for another haunted tourist attraction, and they took me on with open arms. After all, I had experience.
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