They say that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love. Once you’re emotionally invested in something, it’s surprisingly easy to transfer the intensity of that emotion across the spectrum. When a childhood hero does something less than heroic, we tend to have a much stronger negative reaction than if a random acquaintance were caught up in the same scandal. It’s human nature. We can turn hate into love, love into sadness, and sadness into…fear?
When you’ve run out of ideas for purely scary characters and exhausted your options for mutating benign characters like clowns into hellions, it may be time to turn to characters from our collective past that make us sad. This isn’t using storybook villains – that’s been done. If anything, this is using the tragic heroes that gave us our first fictionalized experiences with pain and death and telling their stories the way we all wished they’d ended. Hopefully, simply the “sad = scary” line of thought gives you some creative fuel, but here are three characters that I feel deserve a second chance at…life?
Caution: post contains spoilers of stories that I’m assuming you’re supposed to have had to read by now.
After discovering that multiple holiday traditions involve a horse’s head, I am surprised that I’ve never seen a horse in a haunted house. There are plenty of skeleton horse animatronics and yard ornaments, and I’ve seen a horse’s head used in a scene a la the Godfather, but I’ve never been surprised by a horse in a haunt. This is a shame, given the emotional attachment we as a society have to Black Beauty.
Black Beauty has the happiest ending of all the books I’ve read from Goodreads’ The Dog Dies list, but his life holds plenty of agony. The descriptions of Darkie’s suffering at the hands of humans consistently lands this story on “greatest social protest novel” lists and deeply affected every child that found this book on their reading list.
The “peaceful retirement” ending is supposed to leave the reader at ease, but I would prefer to imagine that Black Beauty goes on to rise again as a terrifying zombie-horse and seek revenge on all perpetrators of cruelty.
The image of a jet-black horse bloodily frothing at the mouth certainly has my attention. The current lack of equine evils may be due to practical limitations – horses are large animals and their motion is difficult to mimic with motors or even actors. So, the key to this character would be to minimize the body area exposed to guests. You could achieve this by having an actor in a horse-head mask pop out in a picture-frame hallway (let’s be honest, no one would expect to see that!), or put the mask on a stick that an actor could push against a faux stable door as guests pass. A pin-spot pointing straight down at the door would let the “horse” appear very suddenly, and perhaps slam the heavy hardware of the aforementioned bearing rein against the door for added effect. The horse noises will obviously be critical to executing this scene or character, so spend some time on a free sound effect site like zapsplat to find that perfect combination of snorting, blowing, and whinnying.
Dead Dumb Guy – Not So Dumb, Not So Dead
Does anyone else find “Of Mice and Men” a questionable lesson to be teaching children? We were doing so well with the “we can always talk things out” concept, but then, well, sometimes the bad people are coming and you’ve just gotta shoot your best friend in the back of the head.
Now, I will admit that the idea of this story ending differently, or at least continuing beyond the known ending, has already been done. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow”, a 1981 made-for-TV movie, centers around a mentally disabled man that was killed by an angry mob for his supposed crimes against a girl. Sound familiar? Luckily, “Scarecrow” chooses to give its audience poetic justice more in the style of Tupac than Tennyson.
So, how can we use this character effectively in a haunt? I would say this is a prime example of “less is more”. If you have an actor with the right physique, throw him in a set of overalls and leave him completely free of masks and makeup, save for a single oozing bullet wound that has shattered the center of his forehead. Don’t white out his face, give him dark under-eye shadows, or do anything else to distinguish him from the living. This character is perfect for hallways you aren’t sure how to use – have him move down the hall slowly against the flow of people and make wordless eye contact with as many of them as possible as though he’s looking for his shooter. The lack of other distractions will force them to look straight at the (hopefully) horrifically realistic bullet wound and wonder what on earth happened to this guy. Accessorize this lost, angry soul with a small bouquet of ratty flowers to pay homage to “Of Mice and Men”, “Flowers for Algernon”, and “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” in one fell swoop.
Some Pig Spider
Charlette’s Web had so much potential. Beings of two terribly misunderstood and stigmatized species forge a bond, one helps the other escape death…then dies. Bummer. I would like to propose an alternate ending:
Charlette doesn’t die after saying goodbye to Wilbur. Rather, she hides away to molt. She emerges slightly larger and decides to make the county fair barn her home, but has a jarring encounter with a stable boy that tries to squish her. Terrified, the spider scuttles away and escapes through a crack in the cobblestones, discovering an elaborate network of caves below the barn. In this cool, dark habitat free of predators, Charlette continues to molt every so often and slowly grows to an unbelievable size. After all, spiders will just keep growing if they have adequate nutrients and are not killed!* With the seemingly infinite supply of insects and rats that occupy her lair, Charlette leads a happy life for decades until a construction crew breaks through the barn floor and humans begin to invade her once-peaceful domicile. She quickly begins to spin new words into her webs, words of warning…
*No, that’s not how that works.
Spider web rooms are nothing new. An excellent example is one built byMarkCK in 2006, complete with cocooned victims and SIF (Stuff In Face). However, I’ve never seen a spider web room with warnings written into the webs! Charlette would be spinning some pretty heavy-duty webs if she were huge (perhaps huge enough to have an abdomen roughly the size of a filled ?), so you could reasonably use white and grey yarn to spell out words rather than try to wrangle fiddly polyester webbing into recognizable shapes. Hide a few cryptic web-assges in rooms leading up to this scene for a little foreshadowing!
Words in a web is a symbol no one can disassociate from Charlotte’s Web, and thus from the sadness we experienced when watching her die for the first time. We have the same reaction when we meet a character like Lennie that is clearly not going to have a good time, or see a dog that looks like Old Yeller. Whether or not we immediately recognize the source, these common “triggers” evoke an uncomfortable feeling. Take that visceral reaction, as melancholy as it may be, and use it to create scenes and characters for your guests that will bring tears of terror to their eyes.