In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was known as Franky Dee to his friends and Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker to his enemies, said something profound about fear.
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Roosevelt made that speech at a difficult moment. In technical terms, the economy was totally fucked. But the truly scary thing was democracy didn’t seem to have any answers, and so fascists were gaining power around the world. Scary shit.
And yet, if Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker was afraid of greed-demons, hate-mongers, and fascists assholes, he didn’t let that fear show. Instead, Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker popped another cigarette in his old-timey cigarette holder and uttered the coolest line ever: the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.
Folks, Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker was a badass. But, and this is an unpopular opinion, he was also liar. Because there’s actually plenty to fear besides fear itself. Here’s an abridged list of my personal fears.
Alligators (and the Floridians who are so very cavalier about said gators)
Bad guys with guns
Self-proclaimed “good guys” with guns
Los Angeles drivers
Dudes who believe their tech is the solution to everything
Our eventual robot overlords
OK, I have a lot of fears, maybe more things than the average bear. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts you also fear more than just fear itself. Put that in your old-timey cigarette holder and smoke it, Franky Dee.
Here’s something else I fear: Halloween. With so many things to be fear in real life, I just don’t connect with the idea of a holiday where the goal is to scare yourself shitless. Not that I’m anti-Halloween. If you want to celebrate fear, more power to you. I prefer to stay home with the dog, eat candy, and watch a Marx Brothers movie.
Except, that’s not how I spent Halloween 2021. This year, we visited a haunted house extravaganza. Paying good money to be scared shitless wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in a roundabout way, visiting the haunted house was my idea.
Usually, my brother-in-law, Zak, and I talk about fun stuff like novels, cooking, history, and TV shows. But sometimes we talk about serious stuff. I have nearly two decades of life experience on Zak, who was 15 when Christina and first met. When life gets scary, Zak calls me.
About a year ago, Zak called seeking career advice. We’d been down this road before, and while Zak insists that I give good advice, I’m not sure he actually listens to me. At any rate, Zak’s problem was this: he had a “bullshit” job that didn’t pay well, or offer much of a future. Really scary shit.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I heard a voice that reminded me of my father’s voice. It sounded loving and tough and full of hard truths, so I went with it.
“You’re absolutely right that your job sucks,” I told Zak. “Working in a warehouse is physically brutal, mind-numbing, and if the experts are right about the robots, there’s probably no future there. But what are you going to do about it?”
Zak didn’t have an answer, but I did.
“What about learning a trade?” I asked.
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Zak said.
Zak’s fear was justified. I had pitched the trade thing many times since Zak finished school. I talked about it when Zak quit his job at the hardware store for a gig at a hookah lounge where his friends liked to hang out. I said the same thing when the hookah lounge gave way to a stint in the medical marijuana business. And I talked up the value of a trade yet again when the medical marijuana thing went up in smoke and Zak went to work in the warehouse of a direct marketing agency.
I was a broken record, and my only song was Learn a Trade by Fatherly Advice. I wasn’t trying to harangue Zak, or belittle him, but I wanted to give him the same gift my father gave me: self-reliance. So, I kept preaching the gospel of trade until I was blue in the face. Like all writers, I know the value of message discipline.
Eventually, my message hit the mark. Or, maybe Zak tuned me out, and what happened next was just a coincidence. Either way, I was here for it, and so was Zak.
“A buddy of mine offered me a job at a company that builds amusement park attractions,” Zak said one day. “But I don’t know if I should take it because the job is part-time, so I won’t make as much money, and there are no benefits.”
“Don’t worry about the money right now,” I said. “What skills can you learn there?”
“Well, there’s carpentry and electrical, and they the paint stuff.”
“So, you’re telling me someone offered you a job where you get paid to sample a bunch of trades, discover what you like, and instead of the drudgery of moving boxes around a warehouse, you’re going to build cool shit people love?”
“Well… when you put it like that, dude.”
And so, in the early summer of 2021, Zak quit his warehouse job and went to work at a company that was building haunted houses for Halloween.
Toward the end of September, I asked how things were going. Zak said he was learning new skills. He hadn’t picked a trade, but he had eliminated a few options.
“Painting sucks,” he said. “You spend half your time doing prep and half your time doing clean up. The fun stuff goes fast. Plus, it’s super messy. Carpentry is all right, I guess. But I’m sort of leaning toward electrical, I think.”
“The thing is,” Zak continued, “I’m getting a little frustrated. Everyone is super nice, but I don’t really understand how what I’m doing fits into the big picture, you know?”
The big picture? I was tempted to point out that with nearly 8 billion humans on this planet, even the people who think they see the big picture are probably full of shit. But I didn’t think that would help, so I asked if Zak would get a chance to see the haunted houses fully assembled.
“No, they get loaded onto trucks and final assembly is on site.”
“Do me a favor. Find out the location that’s nearest to you, and go see what you built.”
“Yeah, OK. But why?”
“Because you’re part of something that’s bigger than you,” I said. “You’ve contributed to making a thing, and you should see that thing.”
“I don’t get it. Why?”
“Because seeing the finished thing will give you perspective. Right now, you’re in the weeds. You’re working hard, but you don’t know how, or if, it’ll pay off. When you see the finished thing, you’ll think about all the hard work you did, and you’ll see that work in a new light. Maybe you’ll think, that was cool, but it’s not for me. Or, maybe seeing the finished product will light a fire under your ass.”
“Let me guess, you’re rooting for fire under my ass.”
“With the intensity of a thousand suns. Now, where’s the closest haunted house?”
A few days later, Zak got back to me. None of the haunted houses were slated for Florida, where Zak lives. But three of the haunted houses would be part of something called Howl-O-Scream in San Diego. Within minutes of hearing this, Christina bought tickets, booked a flight for Zak and his fiancé, Dylan, and invited our friends, Becky and Rob, to join us for what was advertised to be a night of scares and screams.
In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I tried not to think about my fears. But the more I tried to block out haunted houses, monsters, and spooky vibes, the worse things got. In my waking hours, I’d dread the “jump scares” at Howl-O-Scream. At night, fear darkened my dreams. It was a little like that scene at the end of Ghostbusters (a movie that’s right on the line of my personal scary threshold) where Gozer the Gozerian says, “choose the destroyer.” Except, I couldn’t think of something sweet like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. My mind was an all-you-can-eat fear buffet.
Zak and Dylan flew into town the Friday before Halloween. Over Chinese dumplings, I tried to tell Zak how excited I was to see the haunted houses he helped build, but I couldn’t find the words. My excitement was about Zak, not Howl-O-Scream. Then Christina shared a funny video that put everyone in a spooky-scary mood. Well, everyone except for me.
“At least I’ll be able to binge-eat candy, then work off the calories at Howl-O-Scream,” I said, trying to find the silver lining to this scary situation.
“Honey, do want me to buy you a ‘no scare’ necklace?” Christina asked.
“It’s a special necklace you wear so that the haunted house actors know not to scare you,” Christina said.
“Actually, the necklace doesn’t work inside the haunted house,” Zak explained. “The necklace is for the scare zones around the park.”
“There are scare zones!? As in, there are places in addition to the haunted houses where they scare the shit out of you?”
“Yeah, dude, it’s Howl-O-Scream,” Zak said. “The haunted houses are the main attractions, but the whole place is going to be decked out for Halloween.”
Eventually, it was time to face my fears. Which is to say, it was time for Howl-O-Scream. I declined the “no scare” necklace for two reasons. First, if the damn thing didn’t work inside the haunted houses, it was kind of like wearing see-through pants — technically you’re covered, but in practical terms those pants are pointless. Second, the “no scare” necklace cost an extra $15, which is sort of like going to a bar and paying them not to serve you. Instead, I made my own anti-fear plan.
Always hold someone’s hand. Ideally, hold Christina’s hand, but any hand would do in a pinch.
Eyes open at all times! This wasn’t like watching a horror movie where you can just close your eyes and pretend nothing is wrong. This was a full-on horror experience. So, eyes open to spot the scary shit before the scary shit spots you!
Use the wise words of Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker as my mantra: the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.
As soon as we entered the park, I knew I was in trouble. The sadists who designed this experience had placed scare zones around the haunted houses, which meant that if I wanted to see Zak’s work, I’d have to navigate a horror show of scary shit.
There were zombies, monsters, ghouls, and half-dead carnival freaks that looked like they were on a multi-state murder spree. There was some kind of bandaged giant on stilts who looked like he had escaped from an asylum, a maniac with a chainsaw, and clowns.
Holy shit, the fucking clowns!
At one point, I saw a clown walking straight toward us. I grabbed Rob by the arm and held him close.
“I am not down to clown,” I told Rob.
“Michael, I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s also a clown right behind us.”
I screamed and walked as fast as I could. Scared shitless fitness.
The first haunted house was called Death Water Bayou. The cajun horror vibes gave me the willies. Each turn through Death Water Bayou featured a jump scare. Again and again, I’d scream, squeeze Christina’s hand, then keep screaming until it was time to move on to the next jump scare. Finally, mercifully, the experience ended.
Becky and Rob, who easily watch more than one hundred horror movies a year, said it was a “solid” haunted house. Dylan agreed. He was scared, but for reasons I’ll never understand, that made him smile. Christina also enjoyed Death Water Bayou, but she worried that each jump scare had taken its toll on me.
“How you doing, baby?”
“Scared shitless fitness,” was the only response I could muster.
We found a bench near some concessions carts. I wasn’t sure if the concession area was in a scare zone, but I figured that even though the Howl-O-Scream people were clearly demented, they were still capitalists, which meant concessions were probably safe because it’s hard to sell churros to someone who just shit their pants.
“What did you think?” Zak asked.
“Very realistic,” I said. “You did a good job.”
And that was the truth. Zak had done a good job. The haunted house was scary. I was proud of him. The only trouble was, we still had two haunted houses to go: Simon’s Slaughterhouse and Nightmare Experiment.
“Honey, maybe you should sit the rest of them out,” Christina suggested.
I looked to Becky and Rob, my horror show sherpas.
“A slaughterhouse is gonna be super gory,” Rob said. “You don’t do well with gore.”
“And the other one is a creepy hospital,” Becky said. “Michael doesn’t do well with creepy hospital stuff either.”
“I’ll be OK,” I said.
“Will you?” Christina asked.
The answer was clearly no. As Marsellus Wallace said, I’d be pretty fucking far from OK. But I made a promise to myself in Death Water Bayou. No matter what, I would run the entire haunted house gauntlet, not because I was brave (I wasn’t), or because I enjoyed being scared shitless (I didn’t), but because I love Zak and I’m proud of him.
So, we ran a gauntlet of scare zones to get to Simon’s Slaughterhouse, where once again I screamed and then screamed some more. Then we hit Nightmare Experiment. I thought it was terrifying, but Becky and Rob said was “OK.” I didn’t care. I had faced my fears and survived! Now, all I had to do was get the hell out of Howl-O-Scream.
“Is there a way out of here that doesn’t go through any scare zones?” I asked.
“No,” Zak said. “But we’ve been through these scare zones already. No big deal, dude.”
I didn’t agree. Then I remembered my mantra. I had plenty to fear, including fear itself. And I had faced those fears (some of them, anyway). Franky Dee’s wisdom had helped me. But it wasn’t the first part of Frank Dee’s quote that helped me find my way through the terrifying maze that was Howl-O-Scream, it was the second part, the part nobody quotes.
…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
That’s all I had to do: advance in the face of fear. Heck, advancing in the face of fear was basically a version of the career advice I had been giving Zak for years. Now, all we had to do to escape Howl-O-Scream was… advance.
I held Christina close. Zak popped a piece of candy into his mouth, then veered off from the group to toss the wrapper in the trash. And that’s when it happened.
The final jump scare of the night. But I wasn’t the one screaming, not this time. That honor belonged to Zak, who moments after declaring the scare zones to be “no big deal,” nearly jumped out of his shoes at the sight of a ghoul that popped up from behind the trash can.