I'd never been to a haunted house before, so when I heard Rob Zombie was bringing his Great American Nightmare to Scottsdale, I figured I'd check it out.
After reading some of the descriptions ("a hallucinogenic trip... designed to twist the mind") I decided to explore the attraction exactly the way they seemed to be encouraging... on acid!
Placing an LSD-laced Sour Patch Gummy on my tongue, supposedly dosed at 128 micrograms (who really knows?), I headed over. What follows is sure to contain spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
We were already about two hours deep into the trip when we arrived at WestWorld—an enormous, blobbish multipurpose tent normally reserved for boring shit like classic-car auctions. Today, it facilitated the B-movie director's grotesque pet project. It looked dystopian and menacing. I kept pacing, unsure I was ready to go through with this.
The most important guideline of any psychedelic trip is the setting. Ideally, you should see pink elephants in a cozy, familiar place, ensuring you won't lose self-control after overstimulating yourself. In other words, a terrifying public attraction is the last place you want to be if you start freaking out. I consider myself an experienced (but by no means professional) psychonaut, but even so, I was a little concerned I would tumble down the rabbit hole, never to return.
Waiting in line, I heard ominous, swelling drums (mixed with fog horns, for some reason) as the PA system repeatedly squelched, "Go to the merch table." But my mind was on what the eyesight of mosquitoes is like, for some reason, and I kept watching the bugs attracted to the stadium lights, probably because I was seeing lots of colors I'm pretty sure weren't there.
Outside the tent was a corral of vendors and gigantic animatronic monsters that people were snapping selfies next to. Nine Inch Nails blared over the speakers. Ads were everywhere. The general vibe was no more spine-chilling than a corporate BBQ in Chandler, Arizona.
Because we held VIP passes, we were let in before everyone else. As we entered, a girl clipped our wristbands, telling us, "Actors cannot touch you, do not touch the actors." I took a deep breath, then stepped inside.
The first house or segment or whatever was called "Lords of Salem in Total Black Out," which I think is a reference to a movie Rob Zombie directed.
At first, it was mostly dirty Victorian-style hallways. Every so often, faceless dudes in white chef uniforms would lunge out of the shadows at us, but, probably because of the acid and because I'd been told they weren't allowed to touch me, I only stood there, grinning uncontrollably, until they stumbled onto the next victim. I'd expected to be a lot more freaked out, but so far I was keeping calm. Then I rounded a corner into complete darkness.
It felt like I was walking in circles. I tripped once or twice, my hand pressed against the wall for balance. Was it supposed to be this dark? Or had I accidentally walked off set? I thought I was lost. I kept poking strangers in front of me, then apologizing for touching them. I was more afraid of accidental physical contact than the darkness. A flashlight flickered on, a creepy face appeared, then disappeared. Some people screamed.
A face suddenly appeared that I recognized from the billboards. "It's you!" I said and then giggled. Next thing I knew, we were out of the dark and in line again.
While waiting for the next segment, "Captain Spaulding's Clown School in 3-D," I observed the trippy posters hung on carnival stages, promoting things like "elephant skin baby" and "shrunken heads." Hey, I have a shrunken head, I thought. It made sense at the time.
As I looked at the carnival posters, they started breathing and leering out at me. We were given 3-D glasses, making everything mildly more vivid. I snapped a few shots on my phone before a little person rolled by in a wheelchair, hissing to "put it away!" I wondered what her job was really like and what all the other actors jobs were like, and I wondered why anyone would ever be afraid of clowns. It's just makeup. Everything felt hyper-fake, like the cheese they put in pretzels.
As we were herded through this hypnotic maze of black lights and neon stains, a fat clown in a grease-smudged shirt made come-ons at all the women passing by. "Hey, baby," he said. "That's sexist," one girl responded. We rounded the corner into a "classroom" with desks glued to the ceiling. A girl clown in a satin tutu was lit up like a Christmas tree. I told her she was beaming, and she asked if I wanted to get ahead in her class. How? "Well, how do you want to?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Oh. A porn script. I didn't respond, so she and another clown backed me into a corner, mocking me. Their faces were contorting in to sinister fisheyes, but for some reason (guess) I couldn't stop laughing. The clowns seemed to know; maybe they're used to handling people who were stoned. Bored, they moved on.
Overall, the clown section was pretty un-scary in my drugged state. Each time sections of the wall popped back so clowns could poke out and go "Boo!" I laughed harder. Some actors wore dark Morphsuits taped with cotton candy or balloons, so they could hop out of the backdrop unexpectedly. I oohed and ahed because frankly it was incredibly visually stimulating. Something I appreciated right then.
Back in line, I became too high to remember to take photos (sorry). I was in some lot with police cruisers surrounding a dilapidated farmhouse, somehow vaguely related to The Devil's Rejects. The "cops," who kept sparking cattle prods in the air, made me more uncomfortable than anything else all night. Then, on cue, they staged an incredibly loud, incredibly hokey "shoot-out" with unseen murderers in the farmhouse. When it ended, I noticed I was the only one clapping, like an idiot. I stopped.
Before being filed inside the final house, a dead-eyed girl dressed like a skeleton appeared from behind a curtain to ask another employee about her break or something.
The final section was the last chance to get a rise out of people, so it employed every phobia not already covered: gross clothing, insects, sirens, whatever.
I was having trouble focusing on details, but each room was dressed up like fresh crime scenes. Blood splattered everything from the curtains to the rugs, with mannequins arranged to appear raped and eviscerated. One toilet, filled with vinyl intestines, glowed like a pink moon. I leaned in for a closer, dumbstruck look, and it sprayed me in the face.
At one point, we reached a three-way fork. A hillbilly, noticing me, accused me of trying to hide (I wasn't), then pushed me into a room separate from my friends. The door closed, leaving me alone with a shotgun-wielding redneck in a bloody wifebeater. "You're not getting out of here so easily," he said, shutting the other door.
Scenarios like this made it feel like walking onto the middle of a movie set when it was your turn to deliver your lines. I was forced into a role, but I didn't know what it was, so each time I said nothing. Should I try to run? Fight? Am I the hero or the victim here? After a few moments of silence, the redneck said, "All right, you can go." He then opened the door he'd closed just ten seconds earlier. Well, that was easy.
While walking through some tunnels or hallways, the noise level would suddenly drop—the part in the scary movie where something freaky jumps out. Inevitably, this happened, but I was far too gone to anticipate it. I was too busy having trouble discerning between what was and what wasn't an auditory hallucination. Were the screams around me real or looped?
The one time I actually jumped and went "Ahh!" was when I was being herded through a fog-machine mist accented by strobe lights. Suddenly, a hillbilly face appeared above me. "Ahh!" I said.
Otherwise, nothing ever made me feel like wetting myself. I appreciated the immaculate set design, but while walking past scenes of mental patients tied up or a suicide victim cut up in a bathtub (before she'd jump out at you) all I could think was This is entertainment? And that made me depressed.
Back outside, I reflected on what had just happened. The acid seemed to take this event very seriously, like it was somehow representative of all American culture. By paying admission, I felt complicit in the extortion of psychological abuse and murder/rape fantasies that went into this project. I already see enough of this splattered on the news—why was I ever worried this attraction would scar me for life? If anything, the acid was the only thing keeping it interesting.
By the merch tents and beer garden, costumed actors wandered around while people scrambled to get pictures with them. One woman—who was dressed as, I guess, a stripper that had been set on fire and then drowned—kept flossing some stringy, bloody gunk from her mouth. An dude in a polo and shorts tried taking a selfie with her, then dropped his phone. I laughed so hard my sides throbbed with pain, but that, to me at the time, illustrated exactly what is abhorrent about modern America: Regular dorks getting to laugh at the real cruelties of the outside world, which we are all sufficiently insulated from.
A few days later, when my equilibrium returned, I got over myself. It was just a ride. The Great American Nightmare wasn't some metaphor for an America gone awry, I was just really, really fucking high.
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