The haunted house that made me a scaredy-cat
Special to Stars and Stripes October 27, 2023
It was a small-town fundraiser during a cool, clear October in the 1970s, but it’s a night that I’ll never forget.
Back then, Halloween activities involved more than a one-night candy-grab. To start, there were pumpkins to carve, without the benefit of kid-safe carving kits or elaborate stencils. On a bed of newspapers, we wielded sharp knives, piercing flesh, scooping guts, and carving orange skin into faces using triangles and squares. Lit up on front porches, Jack-o-lanterns gave off an eerie glow, along with the sickening stench of pumpkin meat cooking over candle flame.
Furthermore, Halloween costumes had to be planned, especially if you had to make your own like I did (which explains why I was “A Hobo” or “An Old Lady” year after year). But also, the phrase “Trick or Treat?” was taken quite literally back then. Just in case someone picked “trick,” kids practiced magic stunts, knock-knock jokes and dance moves before Halloween.
But on the night of the fundraiser, I wasn’t carving pumpkins, planning my costume, or practicing my trick. I was in my parents’ station wagon, on our way to the U.S. Junior Chamber (aka, Jaycees) “Haunted Jail House” event. Too young to stay home alone, my parents brought me along so they could help out. My mother volunteered to sell hot cocoa and cookies in the concessions booth and my father volunteered to play “Igor,” the hunch-backed assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.
After my father parked, we walked up Eighth Street toward the “Old Jail House.” All I knew about the creepy abandoned building was that it was our town’s jail back in the olden days.
Later in life, Google helped me learn that the ornate brick Italianate structure was built in 1887 to house the Sheriff and his family in the decorative street-side of the building and to imprison up to 32 criminals in the back. The main cells were located on four floors with long vertical barred windows, and the solitary confinement cells were in a basement dungeon.
“Typical of small town jails, [it] provided, in the same facility, overnight housing for drunks, fighters, vagrants and committers of a myriad of other minor wrongs, as well as those tried and convicted of major crimes . . . On fewer occasions, jail residents were awaiting the carrying out of the ultimate sentence of the courts — hanging,” the historical records read, explaining that the last execution took place inside the jail on November 23, 1913.
In a jovial mood, my father met up with other Jaycees, his hunting and golf buddies. He put on his burlap Igor costume and offered to show me around the old jail before the event started. “OK, Daddy,” I reluctantly agreed, sensing that he wanted me to be gutsy.
The next part is foggy, but I recall dark, filthy concrete walls. Metal bars. Rust. High ceilings that dripped. Echoing staircases. Insect carcasses. The smell of mildew. My father laughing. The undeniable feeling of agony, pain and fear.
I knew the people dressed in horrifying costumes in the old cells were just Jaycees pretending to be zombies, monsters and ax murderers. I knew the blood, guts and gore were fake. Regardless, it felt real, and it was the most terrifying moment of my young life.
The next thing I remember, I was sitting on the curb outside of the concessions booth, with my back to the jail, holding a cup of hot cocoa given to me by my mother. I had stifled my tears and screams in the jail, afraid to disappoint my father, but now, I gripped my cup tightly so as to hide the tremble in my hands. While people streamed in and out of the haunted jail that night, laughing and enjoying themselves, I waited stiffly, refusing to look back.
I’m not sure if I was simply too young, or if the old jail really was haunted, but the fear I experienced that night stayed with me. Nowadays, this scaredy-cat carves happy rather than angry jack-o’-lanterns. I wear funny rather than scary costumes. I watch psychological thrillers rather than horror.
And always, I pick hayrides over haunted houses, every time.
Read more at themeatandpotatoesoflife.com and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email: email@example.com