The sound of blood curdling screams fill the night, while unflinching hordes patiently line up for their own turn to be terrorised. One queue in particular is informed there is a 180 minute wait to wander through a maze of monsters ready to leap out at regular intervals and provide them with the shrieks they’ve come to expect. Good money has been paid to file through a room where a gigantic head bursts through a wall and eats a child lying on a bed.
Welcome to the world of ‘Haunts’ - what initially began as a uniquely American experience before squirming its way across the world - heavily designed houses filled with creatures on the palatable side of horrific, fake corpses, and the requisite brutal scenes of death and destruction. For horror fans, Haunts are the Holy Grail of Halloween entertainment, and there’s cash to be made in giving the people what they want.
Even though our little nation gave birth to the holiday through our Samhain festivities, it’s pretty much safe to say there’s no country in the world that can ‘do’ Halloween quite like America. We’ve all been raised on images of lawns and houses decked out to the nines in cobwebs, tombstones and jack-o-lanterns (pumpkins, to you and I) as the USA found the best way to commercialise a Celtic Pagan harvest celebration. For these reasons, travellers flock to the States to get a taste of their Halloween. Especially LGBTQ+ travellers, because no matter what you might like to believe, a huge chunk of the queer community love horror. There’s the rub - queer people are going to a country to be frightened as a form of entertainment when the queer people who live in that country know there is a real reason to be frightened.
Within the last year, a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been passed, attacking Trans people (including banning student athletes and barring gender affirming health care for children), outlawing mention of LGBTQ+ issues (Florida’s toxic ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, amongst others) and now, since the hideous row-back of Roe V Wade taking away pro-choice healthcare, the right to same-sex marriage could be next on the chopping block.
Shane Vigil, a major horror fan and Chicago resident who works in the field of HIV support, shared, “I think that if you travel to the United States, and you have this idealised vision of what your experience is going to be, you’re probably in for a very rude awakening. I don’t know how much media trickles out into other countries, but it’s scary as hell here, whether it’s women’s rights being rolled back, and queer rights at the same time. I think you could be ignorant of all of that stuff, wilfully ignorant, and have a grand old time. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the right way to experience a new place. I think that it’s important to get that whole picture, because it informs everything else.”
As one of those travellers coming for the Halloween experience, there were admittedly moments I was very much aware of the Progress Flag badge on my jacket that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to back home. Although I’m a seasoned enough Haunt attendee not to be a total shrieker when homicidal clowns clutch at me, I did have a few moments of checking myself before fleeing with the crowd down a dark corridor. LA and Chicago were also more than enough for my horror tour, because, put it this way, I wasn’t heading to Florida to get my fill of October-related activities.
Nick Pittenger has a very unique outlook on all things fear. A few years ago, Nick actually worked in one of the big Californian theme parks where families would go to for Halloween, although he is admittedly a little squeamish himself. Nick, himself a proudly queer Twitch streamer under the moniker of PittInjury, shared, “There’s a disparity between Florida, for example, which is great for nightlife in Miami and Orlando has the theme parks, so it’s very queer-centric in terms of those sorts of activities, but then the government puts out a bill that says in schools you can’t talk about being queer or part of the LGBTQ+ community. There’s this contrast where we have these queer areas, but kids can’t even talk about their identities in the same State. How can I, as an American, even recommend going to these places when their own citizens aren’t protected?”
I asked both men the same question, already suspecting the answer but putting it out there all the same - ‘As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, do you feel like your government has your best interests at heart?’
“Oh, absolutely not,” Shane replied. “The government doesn’t care about us at all. The government has enacted policies that have actively tried to kill us for generations, through either action or inaction. It’s just the unfortunate reality of living here. I work with queer and marginalised communities so I see the effects of this every day. It’s hard not to be impacted by all of this, whether it’s something happening in Washington that may trickle down to you, or whether it’s people in your neighbourhood or in a neighbouring town that are getting beaten up or killed for the simple fact of their sexuality or their gender identity or expression. It’s something that is always present in our lives.”
Nick echoed this with an example of how the easy scapegoating of the community is far from a thing of the past. “Look at the monkeypox situation in the United States - the government had even notified citizens that it was almost like a queer disease - we were labelled as the ones who were getting it the most. But what happened here in the United States was that it was, again, a grassroots community effort to deal with it. There was a public health individual who was creating a Google document for every location, or every major metropolitan area, and how you could obtain a monkeypox vaccination.” Nick continued, “When I called the Department of Health for my county in Southern California, they said you had to fill out a questionnaire which basically read: ‘Do you identify as male? Do you have sex with men? Have you been to any gay clubs, bars, bathhouses or been in contact with multiple partners with unprotected sex?’ This was a questionnaire that the Department of Health was giving to people to see if they qualified for the monkeypox vaccine. “It was just so profound to me that I had to tell my sexual orientation and my sexual activities to the government just to get a vaccination.
“Now, there are articles from the news that are saying monkeypox is on a decline in the United States, and nobody knows why. It’s funny, because everyone’s like, ‘we know why, because we organised!’ Much like during the AIDS epidemic, the queer community organised themselves to make sure that people were getting vaccinated. It shows that they think we are to blame, but never credited for the solution.”
Viewed in retrospect, did I feel naive over being one of those people handing over cash to a country where I could possibly be run out of certain towns because of who I was? It would be fabrication to sum up a pat answer when, until my conversations with locals, I was ignorant to just how deep the injustice ran. We can read these things in the news, but it’s completely different from lived experience. It certainly made me more aware. So as I trailed around mad scientist’s labs, mummy’s tombs and farm houses taken over by monstrous scarecrows far slower than everyone else as I wanted to get a good look at the props, I did see the irony in welcoming monsters from ‘beyond the border’ during one of the Haunts celebrating a spirit from Mexican folklore when a sizeable portion of the population don’t welcome the people.
As a lifelong horror fan, I’ve been asked many times what possible enjoyment I could get out of being terrified. I usually tailor my answer to the person who asks just to get them off my back so I can enjoy more jump scares, but Nick said something that particularly resonated when asked the same, admittedly annoying, question about Haunts. “It is a controlled environment. We are so fearful of our own lives here in the United States and are so fearful of the reality of the situation here, that this manufactured fear is just an emotion that we use as a form of escape.”
Although in a different State, Shane concurred. “Horror, I think, is inherently queer. As queer people, we we want to imagine a different way of being in the world and I think that horror does that for us. We see horrors every single day. We’ve been seeing horrors for decades, for generations. Whether it’s our friends and our family and our forebears dying, whether it’s people getting beaten up just for being who they are, or children trying to express themselves and being told that they’re wrong or they’re going to go to hell for it. I think that it’s interesting that while we live these horrors, a lot of us seek our comfort in other kinds of horrors in a more controlled environment.”
Perhaps it is indeed wanting to grasp some level of control while the world spins out of it around you which has allowed horror to flourish. Perhaps it’s the answer I can steal the next time I’m asked what possible joy there is in manufactured nightmares. That’s something to ponder the next time I’m chased by someone with a chainsaw through a corn maze. Perhaps that dark field filled with screams is, oddly, my safe space.