Horror Business

A rattlesnake nesting within a bleached desert cow skull

We’ve arrived at that magical time of year when leaves change color, nights get longer, and the depressing empty storefront of your town’s most recently shuttered business transforms into a bustling Halloween market for a few weeks before turning back into an empty storefront and then probably a tax preparation service. To mark the upcoming holiday, I thought it would be appropriate to open this one with a ghostly excerpt from Master of Horror and New England colloquial dialect fetishist Stephen King:

He had turned around and was watching the Free-Vee again. Half-time was over, and the game was on again. This wasn’t one of the big ones, of course, just a cheap daytime come-on called Treadmill to Bucks. They accepted only chronic heart, liver, or lung patients, sometimes throwing in a crip for comic relief. Every minute the contestant could stay on the treadmill (keeping up a steady flow of chatter with the emcee), he won ten dollars. Every two minutes the emcee asked a Bonus Question in the contestant’s category (the current pal, a heart-murmur from Hackensack, was an American history buff) which was worth fifty dollars. If the contestant, dizzy, out of breath, heart doing fantastic rubber aerobics in his chest, missed the question, fifty dollars was deducted from his winnings and the treadmill was speeded up.

Ah shit I picked an absurd capitalist dystopia one from The Running Man, the novel where desperate TV game show contestants agree to be hunted in order to win a cash prize, instead of one about a haunted hotel or a haunted Plymouth sedan or a haunted Polaroid camera. Let me try again:

“The rules are simplicity themselves. You - or your surviving family - will win one hundred New Dollars for each hour you remain free. We stake you to forty-eight hundred dollars running money on the assumption that you will be able to fox the Hunters for forty-eight hours. The unspent balance refundable, of course, if you fall before the forty-eight hours are up. You’re given a twelve-hour head start. If you last thirty days, you win the Grand Prize. One billion New Dollars.”

Damn it I did it again, sorry about that, I don’t know why that keeps happening, let’s just move on I guess.

Last October, a few different Six Flags theme parks in different parts of the country held a contest where participants could win $300 and park passes if they spent 30 hours locked in a coffin. When I read about it last year I thought $10 per hour seemed like an extremely low reward to essentially volunteer for mild torture, in addition to it being a real kick in the taint for the employees at those parks, who in most cases make even less than that. Nobody wants to hear that the labor they’re performing is less valuable than lying in a coffin and feigning death would have been. 

Thankfully, Six Flags spent the past year taking stock of these and other considerations, and this year they raised the cash prize to $600, an amount that neither adequately incentivizes the claustrophobic anxiety of the contest participants, nor addresses the financial needs of the park’s employees. Now everybody’s happy! 

We will select six individuals to take on this terrifying challenge. Do you have what it takes? The six selected challengers will enter their coffin on 12PM Saturday, October 12 and “hopefully” remain until 6PM on Sunday, October 13. Trust us, you will be SCREAMING for this 30-hour ordeal to come to an end.

That SCARE-agraph (sorry) is from the Six Flags New England website explaining their regional coffin challenge, which I guess is the one Stephen King would do if he really needed $600. It goes on to explain that contestants in last week’s contest (at least in New England) would also have to randomly complete challenges that included eating a chicken liver, eating a dried cricket, and holding a snake for a full minute, and while this is relatively tame stuff compared to a lot of Halloween gross-out challenges, it’s still a gauntlet that really highlights how underpaid all these people are. Six Flags proudly announces on its own website that it made $1.5 billion in profit last year. $600 represents 0.00004% of that, which is an insane prize, a sarcastic Fuck You prize.

But realistically I guess even if they wanted to, Six Flags couldn’t actually raise the cash prize to much more than that, because then the contestants would be people with staggering medical debt or student loans or any number of other grim financial motivators that would be a crushing bummer at what’s supposed to be a fun, lighthearted Halloween party. By keeping the payout low, Six Flags ensures that the competitors who sign up aren’t going to have tragic backstories that might distract from the free PR a contest like this provides; these are people who can already afford to spend 30 hours locked in a coffin.

I know I’m being really hard on a theme park just for having the temerity to run a silly Halloween contest, but all this horror junk is supposed to be an escape from the unrelenting nightmare of capitalism, not an additional confrontation with it. All the vampires and zombies and C.H.U.D.s are meant to, at least in part, provide a healthy opportunity for people to manage their real-life fears and anxieties in a controlled environment for a couple of hours before they have to return to the endless harrowing stress of just making ends meet. It really ruins the illusion when all of the monsters shambling toward you have big price tags still dangling from their mouldering funeral attire.

Last month, a man authorities are calling the “Mummy Marauder” walked into a Houston First Convenience Bank with “mummy-like wraps covering his face and hand” and threatened tellers before making off with an undisclosed amount of money, according to ABC News. I guess they keep that robbery take undisclosed to avoid inspiring copycat mummies, but when I was a bank teller in 2006 I remember I tended to have $10-15K in my drawer most of the time, so we can probably assume that Baby Face Imhotep got at least that much from each, and probably more if the bank had a teller window designated for business accounts. Ah shit I disclosed it.

He didn’t show a weapon but threatened the tellers, Connor Hagan, a spokesman with the FBI in Houston, told ABC News. No one was hurt.

“We’re not going to tolerate this guy -- even if he does dress up as a mummy -- terrorizing our citizens,” Hagan said.

“We are hoping to wrap this case up quickly,” he joked.

“You’d think if this guy was gonna commit a crime it would have been a pyramid scheme,” the Catskills FBI guy probably continued. “We’re gonna send this mummy fuck to Anubis, just like we did to Dillinger.” It’s heartening to see that the FBI seems to be depending on tip line information to solve this one because obviously I’m rooting for the mummy over some awful parasitic bank, but there’s just one problem: he doesn’t look much like a mummy.

Mummies tend to be wrapped head-to-toe in long individual strips of rotting linen. This guy looks more like a Rastafarian Darkman, or possibly Clifford from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. So either the Houston field office is full of agents who’ve never seen a Boris Karloff movie, or the FBI’s strategy is to turn this into a wacky monster bank robber story that goes viral to increase the chances that someone who knows the mummy will see it and rat him out. Ah shit and I’m sharing the story now too. Sorry, Mummy Marauder.

“The other aspect of the program--”

“The stoolies and the independent cameramen. I know.”

“They’re not stoolies; they’re good North American citizens.” It was difficult to tell whether Killian’s tone of hurt was real or ironic. “Anyway, there’s an 800 number for anyone who spots you. A verified sighting pays one hundred New Dollars. A sighting which results in a kill pays a thousand. We pay independent cameramen ten dollars a foot and up--”

“Retire to scenic Jamaica on blood money,” Richards cried, spreading his arms wide. “Get your picture on a hundred 3-D weeklies. Be the idol of millions. Just holograph for details.”

“That’s enough,” Killian said quietly.

Remember that scene in The Shining where the haunted hotel floods with a giant torrential wave of disgusting blood? That more or less actually just happened to a family in Iowa when they noticed their basement had taken on five inches of blood, fat, and bones, a terrifying development they later found out was the result of a drainage issue at a neighboring butcher’s meat locker. From KTIV.com:

Nick Lestina and his family of seven were getting ready to put their house on the market until their basement was flooded with animal blood.

Their basement was filled with nearly five inches of animal blood, fat and bones as a result of drainage from a meat locker next door.

For the last 10 years, the family has lived next to Dahl’s Meat Locker, but have never had any problems until recently.

Lestina said his neighbors were dumping hog and cattle remains down a floor drain which is connected to his pipes.

You have to imagine that the moment the Lestinas realized that their gory haunted basement was actually a result of corporate malfeasance and not angry spirits exacting gruesome revenge must have been a relief, but not that big a relief because now they have to figure out how to clean up all that boring not-haunted animal blood. Dahl’s Meat Locker’s initial response to the situation might be less horrifying than a basement full of mysterious blood, but it’s definitely more evil.

The [Iowa Department of Natural Resources] said the meat processor has been cooperating with the investigation, however, Lestina says Dahl’s, so far, has not been a good neighbor in this situation.

“They haven’t reached out at all. In fact, they haven’t taken any accountability for it,” said Lestina. “They say it’s not their fault and told me ‘good luck.’ If I want to do anything about it, it’s on my dime and my schedule.”

Dahl’s Meat Locker was contacted for a comment, but it appeared they were closed.

In this follow-up story, Dahl’s owner Kaitlyn Dahl now says she’s “working with [her] insurance company to take care of reimbursing the Lestina family. But if it can’t get covered [she] will ‘absolutely help’ with the cleanup costs.” And while this is a welcome improvement on the previous offer of “good luck,” it still doesn’t quite inspire total confidence. What does “help” mean, exactly? Is she going to compensate them for just a few of the inches of blood, but not all of them? How much responsibility is she implying the Lestinas should bear for their crime of owning a basement downstream from her blood fountain?

Imagine an alternate version of The Shining that plays out exactly the same up until the moment those elevator doors open and the blood comes rushing out, and then the rest of the story is dedicated just to Jack, Wendy, and Danny having to deal with cleaning all that shit up. No Grady twins, no woman in Room 237, just scene after scene of the Torrances scrubbing floorboards and applying foaming carpet cleaner as they bicker about how much of Jack’s caretaker pay the hotel administration is going to withhold over the damages. This hypothetical movie would probably not enjoy the same status as Kubrick’s horror classic, but it would still be just as stressful and upsetting.

It’s tempting to get mad at the meat company for flooding a family’s house with disgusting and potentially hazardous animal parts, doing the minimum to coordinate with health officials in order to avoid legal penalties while initially refusing to compensate the family for damages or otherwise help with cleanup, and then avoiding the press when they tried to report on it before issuing a late, half-assed pledge to help after the story already went viral, but I think this is short-sighted. What Dahl’s has actually done is provide us all the opportunity to look at The Shining with fresh eyes, to truly appreciate its less obvious horrors. Most of us will never encounter a malevolent naked lady ghost who haunts a hotel bathtub. All of us will eventually be fucked over by some indifferent corporation.

Down a white corridor, their footfalls echoing hollowly — alone. All alone. One elevator at the end.

“This is where you and I part company,” Killian said. “Express to the street. Nine seconds.”

He offered his hand for the fourth time, and Richards refused it again. Yet he lingered a moment.

“What if I could go up?” he asked, and gestured with his head toward the ceiling and the eighty stories above the ceiling. “Who could I kill up there? Who could I kill if I went right to the top?”

Killian laughed softly and punched the button beside the elevator; the doors popped open. “That’s what I like about you, Richards. You think big.”

In fall of 2005 I worked at one of those Halloween stores that makes a home in the vacant storefront of a failed business, like a rattlesnake nesting within a bleached desert cow skull. This particular Halloween store had been a Brazilian steakhouse months earlier; we kept overstock costumes and make-up kits and plastic swords in what used to be its kitchen. The job was fairly miserable, but not significantly more miserable than any other temp holiday retail job. For the most part, anyway.

One night I was helping customers at the wig counter when a middle-aged woman and her husband approached. She asked to see a shoulder-length curly brunette wig, and when I handed it to her she sort of cringed and asked if we had a dressing room where she could try it on in privacy. Sorry, I told her, we didn’t, but we did have a few different mirrors right there on the counter (My boss had been real specific about this: wigs were not to leave that counter unless intended for purchase). She cringed again, asking if I was sure there wasn’t a back room she could use, just for a minute. Sorry, I told her, we don’t have any fitting rooms back there. This used to be a Brazilian steakhouse, I added, thinking that maybe this was the information she needed before she’d finally get it and either buy the cheap wig or go away.

Instead, she told me that she had cancer. She said she was going through chemotherapy and that the more “professional” wigs she’d looked at were very expensive, more than she could afford with all the other costs piling up. She said she knew it was a long shot but she wanted to check out the Halloween wigs and see if maybe there was an affordable one that looked okay, and that she’d really appreciate it if I could make an exception and find her a private place to try it on. I stammered an apology for what felt like forty-five minutes and then found her a private corner in the back room, the one that used to be a kitchen. She didn’t end up buying the wig.

I think about that woman around this time every year. The Halloween store rolls into town, TV stations start playing creepy movies, and the scariest thing on my mind is the treadmill we’re all trapped on, all year long, huffing and running in place and hoping it doesn’t pick up any more speed. When you have to spend every waking second focused on keeping up the pace and answering the trivia questions to earn cash prizes while also somehow not having a heart attack, you barely even notice all the ghosts and goblins.

In the ludicrously over-the-top 1987 film adaptation of The Running Man, representatives of the dystopian TV network insist that, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, some previous competitors have actually won the game and gone on to lives of leisure, sipping tropical drinks on sandy beaches. The movie version of protagonist Ben Richards eventually finds these supposed winners’ corpses hidden at the TV station and realizes the network was lying about the odds all along. In the book, the relatively grounded and realistic version of this story, the network doesn’t even bother to lie. No one ever wins.

“The program is one of the surest ways the Network has of getting rid of embryo troublemakers such as yourself, Mr. Richards. We’ve been on for six years. To date, we have no survivals. To be brutally honest, we expect to have none.”

“Then you’re running a crooked table,” Richards said flatly.

Killian seemed more amused than horrified. “But we’re not. You keep forgetting you’re an anachronism, Mr. Richards. People won’t be in the bars and hotels or gathering in front of appliance stores rooting for you to get away. Goodness! No. They want to see you wiped out, and they’ll help if they can. The more messy the better.”