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       Skull City, p.1

           Vince Darcangelo
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Skull City
Skull City

  By Vince Darcangelo

  copyright 2012 Vince Darcangelo

  Welcome to Skull City. You must be the new guy. Gary from Community Works, right? Sorry to keep you waiting out here in the cold. It’s opening night, so things are a bit crazy inside. Oops, I got some blood on your hand. Don’t worry, it’s fake. We keep the real stuff inside. Just kidding. I’ve been doing this so long I forget I’m in costume and dripping stage blood everywhere. You should see my car. You’d think a crate of tomatoes blew up in there.

  I’m the host of this joint: Dr. Otis B. Grim, your basic freaky mortician. Made this costume when I worked the old Spooksville Sanitarium up in Monroeville. That got shut down in the late ’90s, but I kept the outfit. What do you think of my hair? Mad scientist wig, right? Wrong. It’s my real hair. I pour in some gel and Manic Panic to get it all black and gray and spiky like this. I could get away with wearing a wig, like those pussies over at the Creepy Corn Maze or whatever they’re calling it this year. But this here’s Skull City, and we do things the right way. Most realistic Halloween attraction in Pennsylvania. What makes us the best? We encourage our employees to really explore their darker natures. You’ve got to know terror before you can terrorize, am I right?

  I’ve been in the haunted house biz for more than 25 years. Started working with my brother Jeff as teenagers. You won’t be meeting Jeff—he’s what you’d call a silent partner these days. Doesn’t do character work anymore. Leaves that to me ever since the Haunted Castle got shut down back in ’05. You hear about that? Those were dark days for us. Real name’s Phil, by the way, but I answer to Philthy, like the drummer from Motörhead. You remember Motörhead, right? You look about my age, 43 or so. Old enough to know better. I can tell you and me are going to hit it off. So call me Philthy. I’ll also answer to Otis—Dr. Otis B. Grim. We like to keep it loose around here, Gary.

  If you don’t mind my saying, I see you’ve got some bulk to ya. What are you, six-two, six-three? That’s a tall drink of soda. Have to call you Big Gulp. That’s cool. We like big around here. You’ll make a great monster. Have the kiddies shittin’ bricks by six. Speaking of, we’re already running behind, and it’s cold out here. No sense standing around holding our dicks. C’mon. Let me get the door for ya…


  We’d best start at the beginning, Gary. This here’s the lobby. Ticket counter’s over there, and you enter Skull City through that door with the orange spray paint. ‘Enter: If You Dare.’ Doesn’t look like much now, but wait till we crank up the black lights. I carved up the walls with a hunting knife—bunch of pentagrams, trip-sixes, things like that. In an hour customers’ll be mobbing this room to get through that door at ten bucks a pop, lined up outside, even, to meet Dr. Otis B. Grim. Just to have the pants scared off ’em. Ever wonder why that is?

  Sorry, you’ll have to speak up, Gary. Oh. All the folks you see running around in here, these are the actors doing last-minute prep work before they get into costume. We’ve got to get you in character soon, too, so we’d best get on with the walkthrough. We were initially going to put you in makeup, but now that I’ve met you, I don’t know that we need to. That’s a nasty scar you’ve got on your cheek. Looks like someone tried to carve you like a turkey and sewed you back up. A scar like that, you don’t want to bury it beneath a bunch of greasepaint. No sir. We want that center stage. So what’s the story, Big G? Where’d you get that scar?

  Somerset? No shit. Yeah, I know of it. I did some time in Coal Township State Pen. That’s more on the eastern side of the state. Got out in ’95 and moved back to Pittsburgh. Somerset, huh? Explains how you ended up in the Community Works program. Doing the halfway house deal. How long before you’re off paper? Three years? Not too bad. Let’s get on with the walkthrough. Follow me…


  This is the autopsy room. Probably the most important room in Skull City because it’s the first one the customer experiences. It sets the tone for the rest of the show. You’ve got to come out with both barrels. Built the morgue myself. Most houses are content to bring in some high school art student to paint the walls. Not me. I actually tiled these walls, just like in a hospital, even rigged a light switch. Then I splashed some red paint here and there. Bloodied it up. See that palm print? That’s mine. Looks like one of the stiffs woke up and tried to get out, right? Got that ceramic sink from the junkyard, and built that countertop with some scrap lumber.

  See all those jars filled with internal organs and fetuses? Made those with polymer clay, rubber cement and a dash of Coca-Cola. And you bet your ass the medical equipment is real. Had a nursing student working Skull City two years back. Procured the items from his school, don’t ask me how. Don’t ask, don’t tell, am I right?

  Check out the stiff on the operating table. My pride and joy right there. The guts spilling out of the guy’s stomach like leftover Chinese? Made those with foam sealant and acrylic paint. Doesn’t look like much now, but check this: I coated everything with Vaseline. That surgical lamp is a black light, and when we kill the overheads the body parts glow like Radium. Bet you didn’t know that about Vaseline—it glows under a black light. And to think we use that stuff for sex jelly. You work in the biz as long as I have, you learn all kinds of tricks. I should move to Hollywood and work on movies.

  Anyways, we fill this room with smoke, and when the marks—that’s what we call the customers—when the marks come in Dr. Otis B. Grim emerges from the fog with a hatchet and a bone saw and bad intentions in his eyes. Rawr! Just like that. I’m just messing with ya, Big Gulp.

  So that’s the morgue. Each room here has a theme—vampires, aliens, graveyards. Some attractions have a plot that runs throughout—a narrative, they call it. Ever been to one of them Hell Houses? They’re the ones put on by churches. You could say those are examples of the narrative style. The whole trip is a slow descent into hell—got rooms about gay marriage, abortion, AIDS, all that stuff—until finally you’re actually in hell and then a bunch of angels bust in and rescue you. Pull you into a room where Jesus comes out and talks at ya.

  There’s a narrative there, but if you ask me, it’s mostly an excuse to get away with some sick shit. No lie, I seen children chained to the walls in those places. They’re so hardcore that they won’t let you bring in a camera, and they frisk you for weapons. The city shut down my Haunted Castle for one mistake, but they let the Christians chain kids to the walls. How’s that a fair shake? They think they know hell? I’ve seen hell, brother. I can tell you all about it. Anyways, I got sidetracked there. Sorry, Big G. Let’s move on to the next room. It’s right through this hallway…


  You’re probably wondering about the kids you’ve seen running around. We call them prods—they’re the ones that put on masks and jump out of the shadows. Herd folks from room to room. See, the secret to a good haunted house is to keep people moving. You want to let people digest each room, but not so much that they start deconstructing ’em. It’s like a movie. You want the marks taking in the gestalt of the room—there’s a ten-dollar word for ya, Jack. Learned that one in prison, from the staff psychiatrist. The gestalt is the overall shape of something. You want the marks to get the idea of the room and move ’em out before they start trying to add up its parts. Else they realize they’re looking at a bunch of plastic props, red food coloring and grown men in costumes. You gotta keep ’em moving before they have time enough to think.

  So we’ve got prods, and we’ve got actors, the folks that perform in the set pieces. That’s you. Your character is the King of Skull City, Big G. Choicest job in the joint. You’ll see when we get to the end.

  What do we do with the women? Good question. It depends. If they’re not much to look at we’ll paint ’em up like witches, or even zombies so
metimes, but the pretty ones we dress in something slutty and stick ’em out front. Nurse Naughty. Diana the Dominatrix. Elvira. Isn’t Halloween great? The one time of year you can slut-up 16-year-old girls like strippers and get away with it. Like those girls out front, know what I’m saying? No, no no, you’re right not to say anything. It’s your first day, and you don’t want no trouble. I dig. You don’t know that you can trust me yet. I could just be setting you up, couldn’t I? But trust me, I’m not. You and me are gonna be tight. You and me, we’re a pair of aces.


  This here’s the torture dungeon. Built the stocks with my own two hands. Used a blueprint I found online. Even constructed the animatronic man locked between the boards. Not as hard as it looks. Just takes some gears, a servomechanism and a little ingenuity. And some elbow grease. Going to have one of the girls dressed up like a fem-dom, and she’ll be putting the whip to the animatronics. Some real kinky BDSM shit. Kinda makes you want to be a robot, right? There’ll be an audio track of screams and wails, ropes tightening, mysterious creaking. The usual stuff. Kinda dark, but you want to let people know you mean business. This ain’t no pussy Creepy Corn Maze. Have you seen that place? They have a corn maze every October out near the highway. Attracts all the suburban types. They wouldn’t know horror if the goddamn Children of the Corn themselves came outta that field. Malachi, am I right?

  You want to know horror, try having your old man tie you to a post like a scarecrow and leave you out in the field for three days. Some people are like that. They’ll do that to a kid. You haven’t met me and Jeff’s old man. He’s passed on now, but he’d do shit like that. What do the Crazy Corn Fuckers know about that?

  Anyways, we gotta keep going. You’re probably wondering how we constructed the hallways. It’s all plywood panels with a reinforced base. They’re bolted together, but with hinges. I’ll explain why. To be a legitimate haunted attraction, you’ve got to have a fire plan and a panic plan in place. The fire safety’s obvious. But the panic plan is key. Occasionally you’ll get some college girl that drops acid for the first time and flips her lid. Guys too. Freak out right in the middle of some room. Screaming over plastic and food coloring. People with mental problems will wander in, folks with bad hearts. Epileptics. Whatever. If someone’s having a bad time of it, we’ve got to be able to get ’em out of here in a hurry. The actors have pagers they can activate if they see a mark in trouble. The pagers are numbered, so we know where to go if there’s an emergency.

  A hallway runs behind each wall, gives us access to all the rooms. A pager goes off and pow, we’re there in seconds flat. Because the panels are on hinges we can crack open a wall and pull the mark backstage before anyone realizes they’re gone. Panel just swings back into place like a trapdoor and nobody’s the wiser. If you really felt like it, just for a gas, you could abduct somebody from one of these haunted houses. Shanghai Surprise, am I right? Someone could just disappear, and who would think anything of their screaming in a place like this? Wouldn’t think twice. It’s all part of the act. It’d be weird not to hear someone screaming for help in a place like Skull City.

  But seriously, you’ve got to have a plan in place. Otherwise, they’ll shut you down in a heartbeat. What’s that? No, no, that’s not why they shut us… Uh-uh. No, they shut us down for other reasons back in ’05.

  Say, have I told you about your costume yet? So, here’s what I have in mind for your role. We got a big finish at the end. The main attraction: the actual Skull City. It’s some twisted shit. My pièce de résistance. Skulls everywhere. Some bloody, some dirty, some bashed into pieces. Hell, skull furniture. Then there’s you, Big G, all six-foot-three of you freaked-out in a tattered white straitjacket with the arms ripped free like you just sprung out the loony bin. It’s covered in blood and gristle. You’ve got a big sledgehammer—a real one, it’s got to be real to make the right sound—and you just keep pounding it against this cinder block like you’re tenderizing some poor sap’s leg. That’s your job. Just keep pounding…


  Alright, let’s move onto the next hallway. I don’t want you getting too excited around all this torture equipment. Teenagers and a torture dungeon—that could spell trouble for you. That’s the fast track back to Somerset, my friend. Somerset, that’s medium security, right? So what did you do anyway? Couldn’t be murder. They’d send you to max for that, but it was something too serious for minimum. So ’fess up.

  Ah, not much of a talker now, eh? You and me, Big Gulp, one in the same. Pair of aces. I could tell that the minute I saw ya.

  Now here’s where Skull City really starts to get trippy. Note the size of this hallway—it’s longer, and check out the width of the walls as we walk toward the other end. You go first. I’m right behind you, Big G. Keep going. There you are. Feel that? I’ve set it up so that the walls narrow at a slight angle until they’re pressed up against you on either side—it’s like being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste. Took me days to get the angle just right. Not to mention that we’re blasting a huge strobe light into your face the whole time. Gets the marks disoriented. People are so focused on the light that they don’t realize the walls are closing in on ’em until the hallway’s the size of a coffin. Freaky. There, you see? Someone your size, with those broad shoulders and python arms, you’ll realize it sooner than the others. Here’s where it pays to have a smaller frame.

  You know that panic plan? Guess who we pull out of this hallway? Guys like you and me, Big Gulp. Not the little kid or the scrawny girlfriend. It’s the bikers and defensive ends. They flip out, man. Can’t stand not being in control.

  That’s what makes running a haunted house an art. It’s not just people in masks and a bunch of props. It’s creating tension with all the senses. We’ve got the pretty girls up front to get you aroused, and then the horror shit to gross you out. The music is just right, so subtle you don’t even realize it’s there, but subliminally, it’s keeping you on guard. Can you hear it? You probably didn’t even notice it before. There’s a constant howling wind, demonic laughter, some pipe organ and the random scream. Now that you’ve noticed it you won’t be able to tune it out. It’ll haunt you the rest of the night. Drive you crazy if you let it, like carols at Christmas. Ever worked retail over the holidays? You know what I mean. Then we mess with the lights. Black lights here, a spotlight there, and then the strobe exploding in your face. Now the walls are closing in on you and we’re using physics to fuck with your head. Physics, Big G. Know what I’m saying? You can’t top that. When you’ve got something this good you don’t need a tweener in a hockey mask coming at you with a plastic machete. You don’t need a bunch of homos running through a cornfield, am I right?

  This is the good shit, huh? I bet you didn’t expect it to be so sophisticated. Just wait till you tell all the boys back at the halfway house. Your pal Philthy Phil is an evil genius. I tell ya, if I hadn’t gone to prison I could’ve been an engineer. But with an old man like mine… Me and Jeff, we had it bad. This horror show ain’t got nothin’ on our house growing up. Just the three of us… Just hang on there a sec, Big G. I know you’re stuck. I’ll get you out of that jam in a minute… I told you about the scarecrow, right? The old man just tied me up and left me out there for three days, like I was Jesus-Fucking-Christ on the cross. Might as well have told me to wait for god. There wasn’t no hayride and apple cider out in that cornfield. No god either.

  Sometimes I think those sick fucks at the Hell House got it right. Did I tell you ’bout Hell House? Those children chained to the walls in the basement? They got devils running around stabbing at ’em. Kids made up like they’re dying of AIDS. Kids learning ’bout sodomy in there. That sounds ’bout right, I suppose. More like the way things actually are. Closer to reality than that Cooky Corn Creep down the road. Closer to how things were done in our house. One time the old man caught Jeff messin’ with his tools. Took him down the basement and beat him stupid with a wrench. Left him down there a week. Jeff nearly d
rowned on his own blood. They should put that in Hell House.

  Guess that’s why me and Jeff look out for one another. Have ever since, or else we wouldn’t have made it out alive. We protect each other, even at our worst. No matter what the other does, no matter how awful.

  Here, Big Gulp, let me help you out of that jam… Told you these walls were narrow. Philthy Phil is an evil genius… Look at ya. You’re stuck like a ten-inch turd in a six-inch pipe… Turn sideways… We can just… Yep, push that wall to the side a little bit… Almost… There you go. Alright, then, we’ve got to keep moving…


  Another trick to running a top-notch haunted house is keeping up with the trends. This next room is the vampire bar. It’s new this year. All the books and TV shows are about vampire’s fucking, so here we are. But that’s a fad. Every year it’s something. A decade ago you had to have at least one actor wearing that mask from ‘Scream.’ Nowadays you’d get laughed at for it. Now you’ve got to have that creepy little fucker from Saw running through the hallways.

  Every year it’s something new, but it’s something old, too. Something primal. I don’t know how else to explain it. You ever wonder what we’re doing here? Why it is that people come out to haunted houses, scary movies? Why do people go to see children chained to walls? People like you and me, like my brother Jeff, I guess we get into all this Halloween stuff because of the shit we been through. Why do the marks come to these places? No idea. Maybe someone could fund a study giving personality quizzes to all the folks come to these attractions. See if the same people are coming to Skull City that go to Hell House and the Creepy Cornhole.

  This business is what’s kept me from going back to Coal Township. Also, I handle my business, cover my tracks better now. You learn that in the joint—you learn how not to go back. You learn to hinge a wall. Am I right?

  ’Course, these days we can’t get away with the cool shit we used to do at the Haunted Castle. Didn’t piss around with no vampire bar—kiddie stuff. We had cannibalism. Satanic ritual. Necrophilia. Stuff even Hell House ain’t thought of. One year we had this chick all gothed out and her role was to hump this mannequin in a coffin. She cut herself during the act. For real. Not scripted. Just pulled out a razorblade and started hacking at her arm. Said she didn’t want to hump a mannequin. Wanted a real guy in there with her, but nobody would do it. We were all afraid she’d start hacking us up, too. Not sure which bus station my brother found her at. She was bat-shit, know what I’m saying? That’s where I drew the line. Didn’t need us getting shut down for that.

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