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The Terrors in LA's 'Existential Haunted House' Are Inside Your Own Head

Because reminders of your mortality are spooktacular!

by Justin Caffier
30 October 2014, 12:00am

Check-in. Photos courtesy of the author

As the real world becomes increasingly scarier than any horror film, those of us who enjoy the thrill of a Halloween haunted attraction need to keep upping the ante. We're all just trying to chase that ever elusive scare dragon, all just trying to feel something. LA has a plethora of options for spooky theatrics that go beyond your typical haunted hayride. In the past, I’ve paid my hard-earned money to walk on “cum”-filled condoms, watch someone be “raped,” and have “used” tampons dragged across my face, all in the name of hopefully being frightened. This year, I went to Alone: An Existential Haunting in the hopes of peeling back some onion layers of my psyche and damaging myself on a more core level. 

This event, which claims on its website that it "places you as a participant in your own nightmare," is ostensibly designed to redefine the very idea of scary. It supposedly taps into your psyche, and triggers a full-blown, Fukushima-level meltdown. However, with limited information about the experience online and the event site itself acting all cloak and dagger about what it is they even do, I was left wondering if this would end up being more Krueger than Kafka. 

I arrived at the location in the heart of Skid Row in downtown LA. I had a friend accompanying me despite knowing we’d have to do the entire half-hour experience solo. We took some "before" pictures because the experience had to be documented visually, and phones and cameras were not allowed inside the attraction. I tried my best to look natural in this picture, but I ended up in some cut-rate version of an Urban Outfitters catalog crossed with the cover of a Crystal Castles album anyway. Sorry.

Before being existentially haunted

Our names were called and we rode a freight elevator up to a room where we filled out forms explaining if we’d ever taken psychotropic drugs or worn copper jewelry. I started to worry that I might need to be predisposed to belief in new age or supernatural hokum for this thing to have any impact on me. Right after I had this worry, we were led to a room to do warm-up yoga before the scaring began. Fuck. Was my lack of belief in anything going to prevent me from enjoying this as intended? Why couldn’t I just will myself to let go and be open to this stuff being real?

A few minutes into our breathing exercises, a bag was roughly placed over my head as I was yanked backward. Nice! Threats grounded in the real world! Maybe I’d be scared after all. White noise earphones were placed over my ears and I just stood immobile for a few minutes listening to a Nicolas Jaar track or something. It was a soothing, cicada-like beat. I started wishing I had any kind of talent for music. So many of my friends make things, complete projects, advance their careers. Meanwhile, I’m just begging for writing scraps to make rent. People constantly tell me, “It’ll all work out for you, Justin.” 

A bulky man started touching my shoulders and ladled me a cup of water (I think), which I drank without hesitation. Is my yearning to be scared having me put myself in dangerous situations? Do I have some sort of death wish? Is this why I seek out such experiences? They never seem to deliver, either. I went skydiving once in an effort to get the adrenaline rush I’d been craving, but due to the myriad safety checks and being strapped to a pro, I felt nothing as I plummeted to the ground. Like, oh this is a nice view and all, but no real exhilaration. 

I crawled to a man in a yarn mask and sat in a little pillowed grotto as he smeared war paint on my face. Once finished, he handed me a long braided strand attached to his mask. He gestured to me with a nod. Was I supposed to pull this piece off and take it? I didn’t want to ruin his mask. What do I do here? Am I the only one who didn’t get this? I started to move on to the next room and he pulled me back. Great. I really did fuck this up. There’s something I’m supposed to do here. A few seconds later, he pushed me away. I guess he just gave up on me. He wouldn’t be the first in my life to. Nor the last.

I was sat in a chair across a hallway from three hoodie-wearing figures, their faces obscured by the lone light behind them. Was this a commentary on Trayvon Martin and meant to prey upon white people’s fear of “unknowns”? Before I could formulate a real thought about this, the first figure ran up to me and raised his hand to strike me, but ended up landing the blow as a tickle. Great. Not this again. Another instance of being a poor tickling recipient that would probably make the tickler feel inadequate. It’s not your fault that I’m dead inside, friend. Just finish what you’re doing and we can both move on.

More crawling in the dark and I was spat out into a diner where a feral, long-haired Ring girl was scurrying around. She pulled me to a booth where we played with salt together. Some people love doing this sort of shit with their toddlers. Why don’t I want children? Is it just a lack of desire for them now or am I permanently, fundamentally broken? Millions of years of procreation stopping with me just seems like such a tragic failure.

I was led to a dining room table where an old man in a suit did a little monologue meant to creep me out in a Twin Peaks kind of way. This guy had the best chops of any of the actors yet and I started to wonder about the path that brought him here. Did he arrive in Hollywood off a bus in the 60s, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed expecting to make his mark in the world only to wind up here, decades later, an unknown, doing seasonal bullshit like this to make rent? Would I have a similar journey toward a disappointing outcome? Probably.

A woman grabbed me from behind and marched me to a door. She told me to head downstairs and look for Pablo. At the bottom of the stairs, I exited to an alley behind the building. A crew member told me the exit was ahead on the right. Oh. It’s over already? Probably not, but even so, I needed to collect my things from the front desk. As I rounded the corner, a bum asked me for change. I gave him my usual “Nah. Sorry, man.” He asked again. Wait, was this still part of it? He then asked for the watch I wasn’t wearing. I see. Well, if they wanted this part to be scarier to other people—not me—they should’ve used a black guy in a dirty old jacket instead of a white 20-something dressed like a painting of the hobo-clown Emmett Kelly. Was it racist of me to think that just now? Is my understanding of other people’s racism somehow in-and-of itself racist? Am I not appreciating my white privilege enough? I know where it manifests and subconsciously get it. But I don’t actively consider it in my day to day life. I’m sure I’m part of the problem to some people. This Norman Rockwell-style tramp corralled me back into the building and I continued to feel a troubling lack of fear.

I soon found myself in a strobe-lit room. A woman danced around the floor, which was covered with feathers. We playfully waltzed and she pushed me against the walls and then had me lie down on the cold concrete. She rested her head on my chest and I stroked her hair. This was the most intimate moment I’d had in days. Will I ever be loved again or even let myself experience love? I didn’t want this moment of the attraction to end. But, like all relationships, it eventually had to. I trudged off to the next room truly alone for the first time that night.

A Zulu warrior in a grass skirt jumped out of the darkness at me and herded me toward the real exit. Zulu? Really? Was this meant to scare people like my dad? I’m sure he’s disappointed in me. How could he not be? I haven’t lived up to my potential at all. My parents have watched me fall from grace so many times, only to be scraping by with no upward trajectory in sight. On the one hand, I hold their generation in contempt for stacking the deck against my success. On the other hand, I know it’s just as much my own missteps that have left me in my current fruitless predicament.

I was given a complimentary Dos Equis in the exit lounge while I waited for my friend to finish. I’ve been drinking more lately. Am I self-medicating? Trying to blind myself to the wolf at the door? Jesus, I’d probably have to kill myself if I got a DUI. There’d be no coming back from that sort of debt. I realized that it would be better to stick with just one beer here and drink more at home.

After the terror

A woman started painting a masquerade mask that I had been given. We chatted about my favorite parts of the night and she took off with a “See you around!” Why are connections in LA so superficial and fleeting? Of course I wouldn’t see her around. I barely see half my friends anymore. I know they’re all busy trying to survive their own lives, but it’s impossible not to feel cast aside and unwanted. Like I was never part of the group to begin with. I’ve never had trouble fitting in in any sort of clique, but when you’re such a social diplomat, it’s hard to feel like you truly belong anywhere. A nomad without a home.

I was hoping to be broken down with some enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo Bay-style, given the release I had to sign at the beginning, but, yet again, was left just as unaffected as in years past. Alone might be scary if you’re spooked by modern horror movie tropes that play into eerie aesthetics, but if you’re a bit more traditional with what raises the hair on the back of your neck, a much cheaper haunted hayride is probably more your speed. What am I doing with my life? Does this article suck?

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