Every summer for the majority of my youth, the family would load up in the minivan for the trek to my grandparents' house in Pennsylvania. This drive took approximately 15 years to complete and I was always convinced that by the time we arrived at our destination, I would be old enough to buy lottery tickets and watch “big people” movies.
Furthermore, since I can neither read nor sleep in cars, there was little distract me on the drive. The route up to Pennsylvania is not especially noteworthy aside from the fact that you can make a game out of counting police cars in Virginia. Oh and also that gold ball building thing in Knoxville from an old World's Fair that my mom pointed out every single trip. Eventually I discovered I could pass some time by trying to balance action figures and other small toys on my sleeping sister, though eventually I wasn't allowed to do that for silly parental reasons like “safety” and “respecting peoples' personal space”.
Finally I just started memorizing the exit numbers for tourist traps things off billboards. (This will be relevant later.)
One summer, my dad was not making the return drive back with us for some reason that I do not remember and is helpfully not relevant to this story. Being as I was 12 and my sister was 4, we couldn't do a whole lot to help lift the driving load off my mom, so she decided to break the trip into 2 days, and we would post up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a night.
From my earlier intense study of billboards, I knew that Gatlinburg was pretty much filled to the gills with tourist things. On of these was Ripley's Haunted Adventure, another attraction from the Ripley's Believe or Not folks. Before moving on, let me explain a bit more about my 12-year-old self.
In short, I had determined I was a badass. I wore almost exclusively boys' clothes in mostly black (Ok, honestly? I kind of miss being able to wear boy's shorts because those tend to be longer and have way more pocketses. I wore them well into college before my body decided “Ha ha! You're going to have lady hips now!” and ruined everything. Anyway...), watched a lot of sports, talked in a slightly deeper voice than I actually had, and wore thick, black wrist cuffs. I also was a bit reckless/clumsy and kept finding new ways to minorly injure myself. And while the wound itself helped to feed my “tough gal” image...well, we also had a 4 year old in the house, so I had Blue's Clues and Sesame Street band-aids. Not as tough. It was also kind of funny because I didn't swear at all (I had several friends who did...I have no idea what the “normal” age to start cussing is), but still wanted to be a badass, so I actually called myself “so bad-a” and then just sounded vaguely Canadian.
So here I was, a “touch chick”. Right before we left on our trip, one of the cable movie networks had shown all of the Halloween movies in a weekend marathon. I watched them all and giggled my way through, further inflating my tough self-image. (I have since watched them again and realized I wasn't scared because watching old horror movies in the day time with commercial interruptions is pretty much the least effective means of viewing a horror movie.) Now I felt like nothing was going to get to me.
So we're headed to Gatlinburg, and I'm pushing to my mom why I should be allowed to go do the Haunted Adventure while she and Julia do “lame stuff” like go to antique stores and get ice cream. She said we'd check it out once we arrive. I spent the next couple hours in the car talking up what a joke haunted houses were, and how I'd be fine due to my supreme 12-year-old toughness.
We arrive in Gatlinburg, which is as touristy-looking as you would expect. The main drag is full of signs and ads for all manner of everything, but I was on the lookout for my quest. I was going to show Ripley how tough I was and embarrass them for making a haunted house a pre-teen could traipse through. I found it a couple buildings down from the big Ripley's museum, waiting for me to show it how awesome I was.
It looked surprising innocuous for something that was really playing up how intense it was. You had to be 12 to go in without a chaperone. There were warnings and wavers and doomy music all about how you would probably die of fright just for looking at it funny. But to me...it looked lame.
(I think they've downplayed the “you'll die of fright” in recent years, probably because they want to appeal to more people. Also, I'm amused they're Gatlinburg's #1 haunted house as I don't remember there being any other haunted houses in Gatlinburg).
So I stroll up to my mom, chest all puffed out, saying I don't need a chaperone, it'll be a cakewalk, and I'll see them in a hour. She does that “Oh...let's just see how you feel in a hour” thing that moms do so well, but signs off for me to go in. I group up, give a confident “yeah, I got this” smirk, and wave bye to mom.
They take you into the house in groups of 8-10 people. Notable other people in my group are Tough College Boy (TCB), Ditsy Girl (DG), and Large Biker Man(LBM). Once your group is introduced to one another, you board an elevator which goes up at an angle (I learned later this is to disorient you before you even get in, but back then I just thought it was poor design). As you ascend, the scary employee person lines up your group. To navigate the house, you form a conga line of doom, with each person putting their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. TCB, having been acting tough and tooly to impress DG, is tasked to lead the group. I, being at least 10 years younger than anyone else there, am placed at the end while scary employee cackles at me. LBM is in front of me, which is a problem, for I am short now and was even shorter at 12. I cannot effectively reach his shoulders to stay attached to the group.
Finally, we make it to the top and are led into a dark room. Scary employee makes some “boo” noises, spins everyone around, and sets us on our way. It goes pretty smoothly at first. TCB feels his way around the room (and around DG) and we make it aways through. I don't remember it being particularly scary – it was dark, things jump out at you. They have live actors who pop out in crazy makeup and try to spook you. It was slightly off putting, but nothing scary.
As we progress, TCB leads us to an awkward corner of a room that we can't see in. The terrain was kind of like a bunch of uneven sized steps. As we're fumbling through, something terrible happens. DG...breaks a heel. She's ranting and raving and slapping TCB upside the head for breaking her shoe. Her shit fit gets the attention of an employee and she demands to be taken out of there because she was not following “that idiot” anymore. So the employee opens a side door and takes her out. In doing so, he let a TON of light into the room and completely ruined the atmosphere you were going for. It's like when you're riding Space Mountain and the lights come on – the experience is blown for the rest of the ride. (Or you become all too aware of how close the cars come to each other and the structure, which again, ruins the experience). I'm wondering how this is even going to make me a tad scared now that we've seen all the nooks in this rather large part, and from that can extrapolate the rest.
So we're going along, and everyone is joking like we're just hanging out playing Scrabble. We reach the “spooky insane asylum” part of the house. There's lot of little rooms where the live actor doctors are experimenting on live actor patients and it's actually kind of unsettling since that kind of stuff actually did happen, and I start to get a little weirded out. (In general, the only kind of horror movies that every really scared me were those set in old style insane asylums because again, a lot of that actually happened to some extent). However, then one of the doctors threw a “heart” at us and it comically bounced as it hit the floor.
As we are about to round the corner out of the asylum, you pass one last actor in a cage, alternating between quietly asking to be let out and then screaming about “them” at you. He was actually pretty good (for the 2 minutes you see him, anyway). We move on to another “disorientation” type room.
Here, the “short arms” problem gets exacerbated by the wonky room design, and I lose LBM for a bit. I honestly get a little scared here, some knee-jerk reaction to being abandoned. I rush to catch up, and start hearing a lot of weird breathing behind me. I first wonder if we've gone in a circle (it had happened before), and this was just TCB, but then I hear him aways ahead. Now I am actually starting to freak out because his voice seems very far away and parts of my brain are realizing that I am 12 and it's okay to be afraid and besides, I don't know these people anyway. I try to tell myself the weird breathing is just me, sounding funny because I don't expect to be freaking out. I hurry more to find LBM. Then...everything happens at once.
1) I locate LBM's shoulder (he had a leather vest, so he was easy to determine) and feel relief.
2) Something touches my shoulder
3) Someone whispers “I'll just give them you instead” in my ear
4) Brain realizes it must defend itself and initiates action
5) Brain realizes one second to late to do anything the situation and origin of voice
So yeah...In short, I panicked and assaulted an attraction employee. In the worst way possible.
I screamed out “I'm sorry!!” but I think the guy had disappeared to go take a breather. I pretty much push the line the rest of the way out of the house. In the last room, someone chases you with a chainsaw, but I blaze away from him before he even gets the chance to try to get in my face. I almost tackle LBM in a mad race to flee. I am in full on panic mode when I reach the sidewalk outside, hyperventilating, desperately trying to find my mom. (I honestly can't tell you which scared me more – that guy making me jump out of my skin, or the possibility that I would get in trouble for kicking said dude in the jewels) However...there is no mom. I curl up on a bench and some squirrel gets all up in my business as I wait there, telling myself I am just the worst badass ever.
Finally, my mom arrives, jokingly commenting that their “lame things” took a little longer than expected. She ask me how it goes and I say that we just don't need to talk about it ever. She smiles that knowing mom smile, and asks if I want ice cream...or is that “too lame?”.
I ate the hell out of that ice cream.