A couple of weeks ago, after a particularly hard series of workdays, Jen and I copped out on making dinner and ordered a pizza. When I stopped in to pick it up, I noticed a sheaf of brochures on the counter resembling an Iron Maiden album cover. A knockoff of Eddie was shilling the Field of Screams, a haunted house attraction in Pennsylvania, which was billed as the best attraction in the area, featuring two separate haunted houses and a hayride. (However, it’s not on this list of the “13 best haunted houses in America.”)
Feeling adventurous, we decided to rally the troops and check it out with some of Jen’s family. After fortifying ourselves with some burgers, we piled in a car and headed north to Lancaster, where the Field is located. After parking the car in an adjoining lot, we walked a quarter-mile or so to the entrance. From our viewpoint, it resembled a dusty County Fair: a vast field packed with people, surrounding two houses dressed up to look spooky, flanked with refreshment counters, ticket booths, and portapotties. In the center, on a wooden stage, two talentless hacks attempted to battle-rap while disinterested crowds, stranded on line before them, pretended not to notice.
The ticket booth turned out to be on the other side of the park, so we trudged up the hill in its direction, found the end of the official queue, and then followed the line of people straggling down the road behind it until we reached the end of the unoffical queue.
In the next hour, we were treated to the best and the worst of Pennsylvania’s population as we slowly navigated the rope maze: bored yo-boys in hoodies and west-coast-style flat brimmed caps, squealing cheerleaders busily texting their friends instead of advancing the line, pierced couples busily sucking face, overweight couples horsing down pizza that smelled like feet, camoflagued gits comparing about bore size and barrel length, frat-types discussing the parties they were missing, squads of high-school jock types in matching letterman jackets, alterno-punks in standard issue Sid Vicious™ outfits, mothers wheeling strollers, and some of the most hideous sets of summerteeth I’ve ever witnessed. Meanwhile, the crowd decided to stay warm by collectively smoking an entire years’ crop of tobacco and blowing it on us. For some meteorological reason, the smoke didn’t dissipate into the night sky above us, but hung around our heads like fog, giving us all a wicked contact buzz. Overhead, two speakers alternated between the theme to “Ghostbusters”, selections from Blizzard of Ozz, and various 80’s-era dance favorites to “set the mood”.
Once we’d made our way through the ticket line (with 20 minutes to spare before it closed), we entered the park itself and quickly got in line for the first of the two haunted houses, the Den of Darkness. Here the line was about as long as the line for the tickets themselves, and we soon found ourselves stranded in front of the stage again. Mercifully, we missed the battle-rap and instead were treated to a mixture of local advertising, soundless clips from Resident Evil, and Pink Floyd concert footage spliced together to be shown on a large white billboard over our heads. The night got a little colder, the smoke got heavier, and we were getting tired of waiting, but after an hour or so we found ourselves at the door of the Den and ready to go inside.
At first, we were all together, and the opening rooms didn’t bring the scare as much as we were expecting. But when we got to the area where the kid with the circular saw was taking swipes at the legs of passers-by (bladeless, of course) as they stared at the rubber limbs hanging from the cieling, it started getting interesting. Many stairs, switchbacks, turns and short tunnels followed—at one point, I reached out to place my hand on Jen’s sister’s back so that I didn’t run into her, and she shrieked all the way down the hall until her boyfriend and I calmed her down. (That was probably the highlight of my evening, followed closely by two children of ten or so who ran down the exit ramp screaming at a pitch that woke dogs for miles in every direction.) Jen, who is a veteran of countless Texas haunted houses, was expecting people to be grabbing at us as we navigated narrow corridors, but there seemed to be a hands-off policy in effect; most of the scare was implied. The effect was further blunted by the diminuitive size of most of the ghouls on shift; we’d enter a room set up to be spooky, and a 10th-grader in a rubber mask would appear from behind a curtain, look up at us and try to be frightening. I also found myself wondering how the building passed code—at a moment when I was supposed to have been scared by soemthing, I was observing the makeshift construction of a wall or a support beam, festooned with exposed wire and sharp angles.
There were some genuinely creepy moments, though—dark corridors filled with body parts hanging from the cieling, makeshift morgues with corpses open and flayed in blood-spattered glory, the odd shock of canned air to the face, and some perfectly timed entrances by spooks from hidden doorways, who wordlessly invaded one’s space and then melted back into the shadows. Towards the end, we began to smell two-stroke exhaust and found ourselves at one end of a long room where a masked man with a chainsaw waited for us to make a break to the other door. As we ran past, he’d swipe at our legs, and the efffect was such that we missed the guy in the next room, who was painted to match the disorienting checkerboard pattern from floor to cieling, and who appeared from nowhere to chase us back out into the night.
The second attraction was billed as a 3-D asylum, and the effect was pronounced for the first couple of rooms, but by the second floor, it began to get old. The glasses provided worked well enough, but the combination of blacklight and day-glo paint used for the effect began to get garish. A few well-crafted rooms made me slightly claustrophobic, and the clowns up on the third floor got spooky, but overall the asylum was a bit of a letdown from the first attraction.
Across the field as we exited, the queue for the hayride was still miles deep, and we debated the merit of buying tickets and standing in line for another hour, but nobody had the heart (or the warmth) to follow through. So we packed up the car and headed south again, content with our evening’s thrills, and called it an evening.