Blackbirds and Haunted Houses

“Blackbirds and Haunted Houses”

When my kids were younger I used to enjoy taking them to haunted houses. Nowadays, they’ve outgrown going to haunted houses with mom. I still string a few orange lights around the house and put a couple of pumpkins on the front porch, but it’s not the same. I miss my visits to the Haunted House. In the Dallas Fort Worth area where I live the Haunted House industry thrives in October with such attractions as Thrillvania, The Boneyard and “Cutting Edge.”

In my imagination, they can’t compare with the Haunted House in Pennsylvania we used to visit every year. It was an old farmhouse near Newtown, Pa., for those of you who know the state. Every year an acting company rented it out and set it up to scare the good citizens of Newtown and its environs silly.
On the way in you had to write your name on a ticket and give it to them with your admission fee. You then began your tour of the rooms to a soundtrack of eerie howls and piercing screams. I won’t go into great detail, but I simply pose the question, what is so scary about a Haunted House? You know to expected the unexpected, so why is it so scary? For one thing, the lighting is very poor. I like to be able to see where I’m going. For another, there are some rooms with creepy scenes from horrors of the past: Marie Antoinette on the guillotine, Jack the Ripper, Chuckie, Freddie, Hannibal Lecter – plus other scenes I’ve blocked from my memory. That’s part of what makes it so creepy- it calls to mind scenes you’ve blocked from your memory. In some of the rooms, people approach you you didn’t know were even in the room. They remind me of unexpected, unwanted events that are a feature of everyone’s life.

Then there were the mirrors placed in unexpected spots. I remember creeping down a dark hall, seeing the image of a haggard, frumpy woman waiting at the end. And then, when I reached her, the realization, “Oh, it’s me!” My favorite was the polka dot room. It was dark with glowing white polka dots all over the walls and ceiling. Just as you thought you had gotten through it without incident a person would emerge from the walls, in a black and polka dot camouflage costume that had made them invisible up to that point. Then there was the foam room in which the walls exuded a soapy foam that gradually covered you and from which you could not wait to escape. Yeah, life can be like that.

Finally, when you had toured all the rooms, howls and screams in your ears, you emerged and started through a mock graveyard and thought you were home free. All you had to do was tromp across the gravelly parking lot out back to the safety of your car. Just then you noticed that your name was emblazoned on one of the graves in the graveyard, and at that very moment, the 10 foot tall “tree” by the largest grave began to move. It was the Grim Reaper (a member of the local actors’ guild on stilts) and chased you to your car.
When my son was younger he thought it very cool that his mom was the only mom willing to take him and his friends through the Haunted House. I acted like it was something I did because I was such a great mom, such a good sport. He didn’t realize how much I looked forward to it. The reason I looked forward to it is because I just like creepy stuff. I can’t explain it. But if I were to try to give an existentially profound rationale for why I like Haunted Houses I would say this. It’s a metaphor for life. We walk in darkness. Unexpected, often frightening things happen. They surface unpleasant memories of past events, and at the same time, other, frightening things we don’t anticipate are waiting to happen. As we move from one phase of life to the next, sustaining ourselves on the hope that at least there is an exit point, the Grim Reaper is waiting. I guess two questions could arise if we cared to ponder them. One is “Why would anyone pay money for such an experience and the second I’ll leave to your imagination.

One of my students, Amy Proctor, told this story in class recently and gave me permission to share it on the blog. Amy bears a striking resemblance to the actress who played in ER for years, Maura Tierney. About five years ago, Amy was on an airplane and a man who had had a little too much to drink, engaged her in conversation. “You’re that actress, Maura Tierney, aren’t you? I’m surprised you’re flying coach. May I have your autograph? My wife is a huge fan.”
“I get that a lot, but my name is Amy. I’m not Maura Tierney.”
“I’m sick of you celebrities who think you can be rude to regular people. You’d be nothing without us.”
After another round or two of “My name is Amy;” “I know you’re Maura Tierney,” she finally said, “Ok, give me your napkin,” and only then realized she didn’t know how to spell her name. She wrote ‘Myra Tierney.’
You’re not responsible for spelling your name correctly if it’s not your name.

On a recent trip to the Napa Valley of California, I noticed a few tidbits that could enliven preaching and teaching. There is a saying in Napa, “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes, but you can make bad wine from good grapes.” I sometimes berate myself for being able to make the worst of a pretty good situation by negative thinking, so there is a sting in this saying for me. I’m probably not alone.

Here is a Q and A joke from a winery owner.
Question: “Do you know how to make a small fortune from making wine?”
Answer: Start with a large fortune!”

In the vineyards, black birds are a big problem. So the grape growers put loudspeakers throughout the vineyards and play sounds of blackbirds in distress punctuated by sounds of hawks (who prey on blackbirds) to keep grape- eating blackbirds away.

When your GPS is set on “walk” rather than “drive,” it tells you it will take 18 hours to get somewhere that’s 72 miles away. After an initial shock, you realize the problem is with the calculator and not with the route or the car. But do our spiritual habits ever set us on “walk” rather than “drive?”

About Alyce McKenzie