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FORSAKEN: My Years as an Employee of a Dysfunctional Haunted House  photo

I drove thirty minutes west to an empty expo center used for trade shows - primarily guns and livestock - to meet a man I’d never spoken to named Buck. I was nervous to meet someone from a job posting on Craigslist. I hoped he wouldn't attack me, that this wasn't an elaborate scheme to rape women or harvest organs. When I walked in, Buck handed me a pen with the name of his haunted houses (a name inspired by the fairgrounds where the haunts were located), a clipboard and an application.

“Fill this out,” he said. Buck was a fat man in his early fifties with a red face and large belly. He was bald and covered his head with a black baseball cap. 

He took a pink iPod mini out of the pocket of his black hoodie (over the years I only saw Buck in three colors: black, lime green and orange), placed the earbuds in his ears and paced the room. When I was finished we went into a smaller back room with a desk. 

“Let me ask you something,” he said. “I just had an interview with a girl, and she was talking really weird. I couldn’t tell if she had a lisp or a lip ring or gum in her mouth.”

I couldn’t tell where he was going, but didn’t want to interrupt. 

“So I finally ask her, ‘What is in your mouth?’ and she says it’s gum. So I tell her to spit it out and put out my hand. What would you do if I did that?"

I paused, I knew what I wanted to say but I was on a job interview and didn’t think it was appropriate. I was mostly there as a formality to show my mom I had tried to look for work over the summer before my senior year of college. I had applied to jobs all summer, but school was about to start and Buck had been the only one to call me back. I didn’t really care if I got the job. It was seasonal. I planned only to work the month of October.

“I’d put it in your hand. I mean, ask and you shall receive, right?" I said. 

He laughed. “Exactly right. She wouldn’t do it. She refused, what the fuck is up with that?"

I let out a breath. I didn’t want the job but I wanted Buck to like me. I wanted all older men to like and take care of me. 

Buck told me what a big deal he was in his industry. He started over ten years ago with a home haunt in his garage after an early retirement from the post office. Over the years, he and his wife, Linda, grew their business from their garage, to three professional haunted houses on the same property. The haunted houses were Buck's full time, year round job. Linda had a nine to five in behavioral health, but also worked as the face of the haunt. She did all of the press, media relations and staffing. Buck always told the staff she was the real boss and he worked for her. Linda was Buck’s perfect partner. She was professional, rational and compassionate, while he was a wild card. I had a hard time understanding why she was with Buck until I saw how much he made her laugh.

During the interview he said he’d had lunch with Elvira and Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Later I learned this lunch occurred at a convention at which he had paid for a table. After talking about his accomplishments for ten minutes with his feet on the desk, he said, “Ok that’s it. Get out, we’ll call you.” I thanked him and left.

The haunts were based on a witch and her family. The first and largest looked like a traditional house and remained the same each year with a few tweaks. The second was supposed to be the basement of the house, and was painted black to mess with your senses. Parts of the walls were covered with inflatable bags you had to push through, which made a lot of people claustrophobic. The third was the goriest and based on a stable.

Linda emailed me to let me know I got the job. I had only been to a haunted house once before when I was in high school and hated it. My friend’s mom had driven us in her minivan to Six Flags for Fright Fest. We went into one haunted house. I didn't want to go, I have always hated being startled or scared, but getting left out seemed worse. We came to a room with a really fat clown, he separated me from my friends and blocked the door. Desperate to get the fuck out of there, I kicked him in the shins and ran past him. I didn’t step foot in another haunted house until the day I started working at Buck’s. 

I was quickly welcomed into the fold. Somehow I became one of Buck’s favorites. I wasn’t easily offended. If Buck ever did offend me I pretended not to care so that he’d still like me. A few weeks after I started, Buck pulled me aside. I’d just had my monster makeup airbrushed on. He gave me a hug and whispered into my ear about how he almost sent me a message saying he had masturbated to my pictures on MySpace. I was grossed out and uncomfortable, and joked I would sue the shit out of him. 

"You want to know who wins law suits, little girl? The one who has the most money. I would destroy you,” he laughed afterwards like he was joking, but it was the kind of laugh you do when you’re not joking at all.

Haunt season was roughly from the last week of September to Halloween, and during “season” Buck had rules.  The biggest rule was that no one was allowed to approach him. He would come to you if you were to speak to him. Every night after I got into costume and makeup, Buck would walk to the picnic table where I sat and talk to me. He gave me long hugs in front of the others, but would tell the other employees not to fucking talk to him. I started getting invited to go out for drinks with the other actors outside of work. We'd go to Denny's after our shifts, and then to clubs and bars when the season ended. The favorites hung out together and bonded over secrets from the haunt. These get-togethers often turned into pissing matches over who Buck had told the most to, and who got the most attention.

I loved the attention but was always scared Buck would turn on me or that I’d say the wrong thing. Buck had a volatile temper that reminded me of my father’s, and so I danced around so as not to trigger it.

Both Buck and my dad would explode when they got angry, yelling, screaming and swearing at people, obliterating anyone in their path. Afterwards they pretended like nothing happened, as though their outburst had been completely acceptable or even your fault. This is what drew me to Buck, he scared me but it was a fear I was familiar with. I liked how I didn’t set off his temper. It was validating that I got that level of affection from a man who didn't give it freely, from whom it had to be earned. I loved having a new father figure.

My own father hadn’t been around much. He traveled two hundred and fifty days a year. My parents divorced when I was seven and had joint custody of my little sister and me. After that, we saw my father even less. Because he parented us so infrequently, he had no idea how to do it. His house didn’t have toys for us to play with, so my sister and I painted clothespins to look like dolls like the sisters in Little House on the Prairie. I didn’t like going over there.

The extra attention Buck gave me was addictive. He told me secrets about my coworkers or his plans for the season, like who was getting fired and why. Any information about staff issues was reserved for the managers. We once had an actor who was placed in the nursery; his job was to act like a zombie baby. He wore a diaper and baby bonnet. During his shift, he told a group of kids he was going to skull-fuck their grandma, someone complained and he was fired. We were allowed to improvise but supposed to keep what we said family-friendly, especially when there were kids around. Only managers were allowed to know about employee disciplines and terminations. Most of the time the rest of us had no idea what why someone was there one week and gone the next. Knowing what happened made me feel powerful. 

I hated working in the haunted house. It was dusty, and cold. Each haunt was located in a barn and even with the artificial walls they put up to create the rooms it was drafty. Every night I wore leggings, black jeans, a black tank top, a black Underarmour thermal, a black t-shirt, gloves, a gauzy shirt, green corset, velvet skirt and a black cape. A lot of people would put disposable heating packs in their bras and shoes, but I never thought they stayed warm long enough. It was hard to tell what I hated more, nights when we were busy or when it was slow. Nights we were busy, I had to do my act of dropping a panel with a portrait on it and climbing out from behind it, about every 15 seconds. It was exhausting, and because a lot of our patrons were drunk, it was also annoying. The drunk patrons liked to hide in corners and try and scare the actors. They were the most likely to try and grope or punch you. When it was slow, we could go minutes without seeing a customer. It was nice because I didn’t have to do anything.

Each haunted house had one to two managers, depending on its size. The managers walked around their assigned haunt all night, checking up on the actors to make sure they had enough water or to allow bathroom breaks. They were also the ones who threw out the aggressive customers when needed. If the night was slow, a manager would stop by behind my wall to catch her breath, get a drink of water or just talk. I thought about applying to be a manager a few times, but I didn’t want to have to walk around in character all night or to confront angry customers.

The slower it was, the less I moved, so it would get cold. I’d often jump up and down, or dance in place just to keep warm. I’d get so bored I would sing songs in my head, ones I knew all of the words to so to maximize the time. Songs like Lil Wayne's "A Milli" or The Mountain Goats’ “No Children” would play over and over in my head to pass the time. I never wore a watch in the haunt, so I never knew what time it was unless a manager was walking around and heard me say, “Time check?”. In retrospect, I guess I preferred it when it was slow. I felt like an idiot in front of customers. I didn’t feel scary, and I hated acting. I had never done it before, and the haunt didn’t provide any training when I started. Later, minimal training was provided for the new employees but I never went because I was too embarrassed to act in front of people I knew. The only asset I had on my side was the element of surprise, otherwise I was terrible. I hated doing a monster voice or using an accent, so I just yelled at people to startle them. I spent most of the time embarrassed. I could never just let go and have fun with it like everyone else seemed to be able to.

After my first year, Buck and Linda invited my friend Liz and me to events outside of the October haunt season. We had dinner at their house, which was boringly beige, and Buck made lasagna for us. He told us if we ever needed anything from him, including money, we could always call and ask. He said he wanted to be there for us.

“I know you girls won’t work for me forever, but we will always be friends. You know Buck loves you, right?”

I believed him. When I started dating my boyfriend, Dan, I asked Buck and Linda if they would meet him. I wanted their approval and was more nervous for them to meet Dan than I was when he met my actual parents. They interrogated him to find out if he deserved me, and asked questions my parents never would have because they wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass me. Buck didn’t care if he embarrassed me if he thought it was for my own good. He told Dan he would have him killed if he didn’t treat me well.

“I can do it, too. I was in the military,” he said.

I felt protected and loved. It was something a sitcom dad would say.

Liz and I were invited to work at a trade show in St. Louis with them. The trade show was for business owners in the haunt industry, and the largest of the year. Haunt owners from all over the country would come to buy make up, animatronics, costumes, and sets for the upcoming season. When people weren't on the trade show floor shopping and networking, there were seminars they could attend to learn from other people in the business. 

At the trade show, Buck and Linda were in charge of running the different seminars. Seminars ranged from topics on how to build the walls and facades, to monster makeup, to tips on dealing with your local fire marshal. I wouldn't have hated it so much if Buck hadn't told us how much he got paid to host and run the seminars. He and Linda brought three of us to help them with checking the attendees in and out of each seminar. He always told us he negotiated us a big deal, and they would take care of us, but instead of getting us an hourly wage, they negotiated a lump sum to split. Once we divided up the rate per hour, we got less than minimum wage. To be fair, we were compensated with a hotel room. The first year we were put up in same hotel as Buck and his wife. They got a huge suite, and the rest of us shared a room. The next year Buck and Linda were put in the same suite, but we were moved to a much cheaper hotel down the street. 

I always felt grateful for getting asked to do these extra jobs with them even if it was something I didn’t want to do. I felt like I couldn't say no to anything they asked of me.  

“Why are you doing this?” My mom would ask. “You can tell them no."

I always told her I couldn’t. I felt obligated because I thought they cared about me. They felt like family.

Buck and Linda treated requests like they were bestowing gifts upon us, but they were just getting us to work for free. Asking you to be in a news segment to promote their haunt meant getting up at four a.m. after working for them until at least midnight the night before, to drive down, get back in makeup and a costume, and sit around until the segment was ready.

Building the haunted house started every year in August, and once all of the walls were in place by the build team, Buck would invite some of the actors to volunteer to paint the exposed wood so it wouldn't stick out in the dark. Once, Buck called me before season.

“You’re one of my favorites and people are starting to take notice. You’re going to need to come in and paint on the weekends so the others don’t think I’m treating you unfairly,” he said. People probably did notice I was one of Buck’s favorites. During the season I spent a lot of time in his office with Linda and him, but no one seemed to care that much or question it. He just wanted more painters and was trying to guilt me into helping.

My weekends hours were spent working for free so that I could see the haunted house before the rest of the staff. Seeing the haunts early was exciting because they changed every year. The biggest one had slight changes, a new room or different layout. Sometimes the second two haunts got new rooms, but often they were completely new concepts. Looking at the haunted houses was one of the few parts of the job I liked. Walking around during the day gave me time to look at all of the small details I would have missed at night when customers were coming through.

Buck did a good job making his team compete with one another. Within our haunt family we had our own caste system. If you were a favorite, everyone knew it. If you pleased Buck enough, then you were given spooky haunt nickname like Blade or Slash. A haunt name was a status symbol, and typically after you earned one you were given a baseball cap with your new haunt name and the logo on it. Buck gave me a haunt name, Forsaken, but I never got a hat. Every year the new haunters would ask you where they could buy a hat, since we always had the yearly sweatshirt and t-shirt for sale.

“Oh, these aren’t for sale. You have to earn them,” we’d respond.

“How do you earn them?” they’d ask.

None of us really knew the answer but the common response was, “Don’t piss off Buck.”

The hats and haunt names were presented at the end of the year at the cast party in January. The party was held at a family restaurant in the back banquet hall. Almost all of the employees would attend, the managers, the actors and the security staff. There would be a pasta or taco bar for dinner. Employees who were over 21 could order drinks from the bar, but we had to pay for them ourselves. Buck would pick someone, usually Liz, to be his drink runner to ensure he always had a 7 and 7 in his hand. After he got drunk, Buck would buy a round of drinks for the employees near the bar. He would get increasingly more inappropriate as the drinks and the night progressed. One year he kept grabbing a manager's ass. She was so uncomfortable she quit the next day. 

At the party there was a small awards ceremony where awards for “Actor of the Year” and “the Spirit of Halloween" were given out, and, after that, the hats. Once in a while, Buck would give hats out midseason. Some people earned them after one year, others after four. There didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. Despite being one of Buck's favorites, I never won an award. I never got a hat.

Before my parents got divorced, I slept with the light on. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to my mom and dad shouting at each other. Buck and Linda had a rule: when fights got too heated between them, they turned off the lights and weren’t allowed to fight anymore. When they told me this I said, “I wonder what would have happened if my parents did that.”  Liz, also from a broken home, joked, “We would have spent a lot of time in the dark.”

In the haunt we spent a lot of time in the dark. I adjusted and developed excellent night vision. Our customers often ran into walls or the actors and seem baffled that we could navigate through the winding spaces with ease.

I was anxious every time I was in a room with Buck. I wouldn’t laugh until he laughed, and I was always scared I was going to say the wrong thing and set him off. He thought I was filter-less, but everything I said to him was calculated. I didn’t want to lose the status of favorite and felt that if I set him off and he got mad, then he wouldn't care about me anymore, and that sense of love and adoration I got from him and his wife would be over. 

Walking around Buck’s emotions was similar to how I felt around my Dad as a child. Perhaps I needed or missed that in my life. After I grew up some, I got sick of watching everyone else be scared of my father and decided I needed to be the one who told him when he was acting like an ass. I had tried to control him since I was a child. It was my role in our family. When I was twelve, I told my dad when my little sister and I were at his house he was not allowed to drink around us. 

“You’re an alcoholic and we won’t be around you when you’re drinking,” I said.

I’m still shocked he agreed.

From then on I decided to confront my dad whenever I thought he was out of line. My dad treats other people like shit: waiters, customer service people, my mother, my stepmom, I decided not to take it and just throw it back at him. I started telling him when he was being rude, or that he couldn’t speak to me that way. It made me feel powerful to do this, but I’d often cry, sweat or have an anxiety attack during or after. It was always hard for me to stick up to him, but I was able to because I thought I was protecting myself and everyone else.

It took me six years to reach that point with Buck.

My third year working with Buck I began to see how manipulative he was, but I liked it. I thought I had progressed because I could see what he was doing, even if I still fell victim to it. I left working at the haunt three years after I wanted to. It was a slow breakup period. I started to fall out of favor, too, which made removing myself easier. Buck and Linda started to prefer Liz to me, and I became number two. He offered to mentor Liz, and would call to check up on her, which he never did for me. Once he deleted me from his Facebook friends without explanation, but kept Liz. It confused me because Liz and I had always been a packaged deal since we met.

That year I had a panic attack in the haunted house. I was working in a dark, almost pitch black maze. We had limited square footage in the barns, so to make the haunt seem larger, there were many choppy hallways. I was in a clear, acrylic drop box after many sharp corners. This haunt had one fog machine, but because there wasn’t a lot of large spaces and airflow, the fog didn't have anywhere to disperse and it would build up in my area. Night after night I watched people walk head first into the walls and not know where to go. It was so hard to see that even Buck and Linda walked into the walls they had designed. Because people couldn't see anything in front of them, they went towards any light they saw, which often led them into my three by three foot box, walking straight into me.  Customers’ senses were already heightened, and because of their fear, acted dangerously and erratically. I was touched, groped, pushed and sometimes had to strong-arm customers out of my space.

One night it became too much for me. The customers kept coming in spurts. Minutes went by where I wouldn't see anyone, and when customers did appear they were clustered in groups of twenty. The customers kept invading my space looking for the way out. They yelled and tried to push past me but there was nowhere for any of us to go. I kept yelling, "Wrong way, turn around!" until they left my section. My heart started beating fast, and I had trouble breathing. I couldn't get enough air and thought I was going to pass out. For a minute or two I worried I was dying and started to cry. I finished out the season because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what happened. I worried Buck would think I was a pussy.

The next two seasons I worked in customer service. I didn’t have to play a character or wear a costume and could talk to customers as myself. My job was to let people into the haunted house in timed increments. Slow nights, I let groups of two to six in every five minutes. On busier nights, we bumped the time up to every 30 seconds. I wore a Walkie Talkie and Linda told me how fast she wanted the groups coming in. The job was a lot easier, and I was good at it but I resented spending every weekend in October there.

My last season I cut my availability down to one night a week. I wanted to test leaving. I worried I would miss it, which was weird because I hadn’t enjoyed the job in a long time. Buck asked me why I wasn’t working as much and I blamed my day job.

My therapist says that power is an illusion and that no one can truly take it away from you. It can only appear that way if you let them. I’m still not sure if this is true, but I’m experimenting with the idea.

When I was little, I desperately wanted to collect father figures. I had a neighbor friend, Kendall, growing up and when my parents were divorcing I spent a lot of time at her house. I’d go with her family on trips to Galveston Island, and Kendall’s older sister would babysit. Once her parents took us to Moody Gardens in Galveston to watch her older sister compete in a beauty pageant. Kendall asked her dad if I could call him dad, since I was around so much. He said yes but I never did. It didn't feel quite right, but I was so happy he said yes. I longed for it. I wanted to feel acceptance and love from a family that wasn't my own. From people who didn't have to love me because of biology. 

I quit over Facebook. I knew I wasn’t going to come back at the end of my last season, but I waited until the next September. Linda sent me a Facebook message, which felt too formal given how long I’d known her.

“I feel so out of touch with you this past year! Just thought I’d touch base to see if you are planning to return this year. I know life has gotten busy but am hopeful you can carve out some time for us,” she wrote.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I debated if I should call her or Buck, but in the end I decided to send a Facebook message back. After all, she hadn’t called me and I hadn’t seen them all year. I told her I couldn’t commit, but I had loved getting to know her and Buck over the past six years and hoped we could stay friends. I asked if we could get together after October ended and life got less busy for them. 

“Thanks for letting us know, Amanda. We do miss you. Hope life treats you well! Stay in touch and take care!”

I felt relieved. I thought there would be more of a fight, or they would ask for more of an explanation, but they seemed fine with it.

My fear of missing the haunt was unwarranted. It was nice not getting home at two in the morning on the weekends after being out in the cold all night. I didn’t miss the bruises or how sick I got every October. I didn’t miss Buck or Linda much either.

Two months after I quit, I reached out to Linda after her mother had a stroke. I messaged her again on Facebook to tell her I was thinking of her and her mom, and she thanked me. I haven’t talked to her or Buck since.