*Note* - "Creating a Killer Homemade Halloween" was originally published in the online journal Hapax, which unexpectedly went offline in 2017. A revised version of the story is reprinted here.
Creating a Killer Homemade Halloween
By: Eric Rasmussen
On Saturday, all of us, Farmer Jerry’s whole crew, spent the afternoon in the farmhouse kitchen giving each other scars and bloody, infected wounds. One of the college girls had taken a stage make-up class, so she walked around and advised everyone. “Add some shading underneath that.” “That’s too much blood, that looks fake.” The guys with the rubber masks stood along the back wall next to the mudroom and drank sodas while the rest of us circled the kitchen table and the counters, squinting at the small mirrors Jerry’s wife had collected for us. “Try adding some dried pus to your cheek,” said the make-up artist. “Use brown instead of black around that bruise. It’s more realistic.”
We had to hurry out to the trail before customers arrived. Jerry pulled up to the back door of the house and let the tractor idle while we climbed up on the wagon. “Y’all look great,” Jerry said. “This is going to be way better than I thought.”
The compliments continued as our ride bumped and lurched up the dirt path that led past the corn maze to the hill. Everyone loved the mummy’s costume. He had ripped four bed sheets into strips to make his tattered bandages. The zombie earned a ton of appreciation, too. Her original plan involved real pig intestines coming out of her shirt, but Jerry talked her out of it. She still did a fantastic job with some rubber tubing.
Haley got the most attention, by far, even though no one could say the real reason why everyone liked her outfit so much. She bought some sort of corset for her vampire costume, and tall black boots, not the rubber kind for mucking out cow stalls, but ones with a heel, and she put on dark eye makeup. She looked like the kind of people we only saw on TV.
“Wow, Haley, your costume is amazing,” said the zombie.
“For real,” said the bloody nurse, “you clean up really well.”
And then some of the other boys had to make it weird. “You’re supposed to scare people, not give them boners,” said Frankenstein.
“That’s the most horrifying cleavage I’ve ever seen,” said the pirate.
Haley put her coat back on and scrunched up into the wood seat. Everyone moved on to making fun of the werewolf for the hair that tufted out of his collar and his sleeves. The mummy asked if all he had to do for his costume was to stop shaving. Then the werewolf punched the mummy on the arm and they almost got into a fight.
Farmer Jerry lined his haunted trail through the woods with little wooden shacks and old outhouses and caskets, and the idea was pretty simple: one or two of us hid in each station, then jumped out as the customers walked by. In between our posts he hung dim lights or planted flaming tiki torches. He bought a whole store’s worth of old mannequins to set in the woods off the trail, just past the shadow line, and in the afternoon light it all looked cheesy and fake, but after dark, it scared the hell out of everyone. One of the guys who worked for Jerry full time dressed as a hockey mask murderer and stood at the end of the trail with a chainsaw and revved the thing and chased the people, and some nights it felt like everyone in the county came out and paid five bucks to shriek and jump and get a cup of hot cider.
I claimed the nylon tent at the top of hill. It didn’t really match my bone-flecked open wounds and serrated machete; what sort of serial killer hangs out in a tent? But I could shake the poles and scrape the walls with my weapon, and then I could spring out through the flap just as folks walked by.
That’s not the real reason I picked the tent. I chose it because vampire-Haley always took the casket right across the path.
The trail opened, and we had a pretty normal night. The first couple of groups had young kids, five- and six-year-olds, so everyone took it easy. The sky wasn’t even dark yet. When the horizon dimmed, the teenagers arrived and the woods swelled with noise. The pirate clanked the chains he had found in the tractor shed. The she-devil opened the door on her shack as slow as she could, so it creaked low and ominous. Up and down the trail the loud screams of the workers preceded the terrified shrieks of the customers. None of us acted in the school plays or joined the choir or anything like that, but out on the trail, we got into it. Our faces grew hot and we understood how monsters and demons really feel when they chase down the living.
Then a woman screamed. Not for fun, for real. She yelled, “Help,” and everyone knew no one was acting anymore. I jumped out of the tent. An old guy lay on the ground right in front of Haley’s casket, with his teenage kids and his wife crouched around him. Haley sat up in her coffin, her corseted chest heaving. She must have scared the hell out of him.
“I think it’s his heart,” said the wife. She grabbed her husband’s hand, then touched his forehead, then his chest. “Oh my God. Please get help. Please.”
The pirate ran down the hill to tell the chainsaw killer, who sprinted down the dirt road to the farmhouse, because no one’s cell phone worked out there. Everyone on the trail quieted down and wandered up the hill to see what was going on. They circled around the man, far enough away to be respectful, but close enough to satisfy their curiosity. The only light came from the torches on either side of Haley’s casket, and the night felt colder than before. The guy’s son pushed on his dad’s chest for ten minutes before we saw the ambulance’s flashing lights race down the highway and pull into the farm. The EMT’s didn’t make it to the trail for another five minutes, the amount of time it took Jerry to cart them out on the wagon.
The first responders went to work on the guy right away. One pushed the family aside and continued chest compressions. Another kept checking for a pulse. The third held a flashlight. The customers backed away and left the scene, while all of us employees formed a little circle in the dark.
Somewhere between Haley scaring the guy and the EMT’s showing up, he died. He didn’t offer a final gasp or any last words. He turned into a corpse right before our eyes, and he didn’t look anything like any of our costumes. He didn’t look scary at all.
We were as sad as we could be for a stranger.
“I can’t believe it,” said the zombie.
“You never know when your time will come,” said the she-devil.
After the EMTs loaded the guy’s body onto the hay wagon and Farmer Jerry drove them all back to the ambulance, the werewolf stood up straight and took off his mask and smoothed back his damp, boy-band hair. He started smiling before he delivered his line. He was too dumb most of the time to say anything clever, so he seemed especially proud of himself for coming up with something funny. He turned to Haley.
“I bet your boobs killed him,” the werewolf said.
A bunch of the other girls gasped.
* * *
The TV stations sent reporters to the farm the day after the tragedy, but there wasn’t much of a story. People die all the time. One week later, we pretty much forgot about the whole thing.
We all gathered in the farmhouse again the next Saturday, but this time the makeup went on faster. The werewolf kept the fur that peeked out of his sleeves, but he abandoned the stuff in his collar. The demon forgot his robes, so he wore his mask with jeans and a flannel. Haley traded her corset for a red shirt and a black cape. Unlike the previous weekend, it all felt like work.
Then Farmer Jerry came through the back door, eyes wide, cap in hand. “You’re not going to believe this.”
We stood up and gathered around the windows. The trail didn’t open until 6:30, but at 4:00, cars filled the small parking lot field and had started pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. A line formed at the ticket booth, but not with the kinds of people we normally saw at the haunted trail. Some wore all black, others were in costumes of their own.
“What’s going on?” asked the she-devil.
“They’re here to see the trail that’s so terrifying it killed a guy,” said Jerry. “I hope you’re up for the task.”
We all hoped so, too.
Out on the trail, I snagged the tent again, and I tried my hardest give the people what they paid for. Everyone else did the same. The chains clanked louder, the screams sounded more painful. The ghost did this thing where he half-crawled, half-ran at people, and it was terrifying. We revved up almost as high as the killer’s chainsaw and prayed we wouldn’t run out of gas before the night ended.
Just after 9:00, I peeked through the tent flap to see my next victims, and to watch Haley perform her act. Across the trail a group of four people, normal kids, nothing weird, approached the worn wood casket sitting on the big pine logs. Haley waited until they all gathered around the head of the coffin and started speculating about her. “I think this one’s just a mannequin.” Then Haley sprang up, eyes wide, teeth bared, gasping and shrieking like someone possessed. The group jumped back, but just a little, not near as much as most did, and waited until she finished her scream.
“Sorry,” said one of the girls in the group. “I know you’re not supposed to break character, but is this where it happened?”
“Where what happened?” asked Haley.
“This is definitely the spot,” said one of the boys. He took off his glasses, and closed his eyes. “I can feel his presence.”
The other girl fell to her knees and grabbed clumps of dirt and leaves from the trail. She looked up to the sky as the boy with the glasses put his hands out like they did in church.
“He’s still here,” said the girl on her knees. “His pain is all around us.”
“What are you doing?” asked Haley, but they ignored her. She looked down the trail, but the next group was still a minute or two away. She looked at the kids, and then at me, catching my eyes just above the corner of the tent flap. Her face seemed scared and upset, like she needed help, but I got nervous. I had to look away.
When I glanced up again, she was climbing out of the coffin. All four of the freaks knelt in the dirt, so they didn’t see the way her skirt inched up her thigh, or the way her shirt scooped low as she bent forward to swing her back leg out of the casket. She took a step toward the kids, then back toward her post, then she tensed and shuddered. She took a few strides down the trail, then broke into a run.
I tore open the tent flap and chased after her, past a group of girls screaming at the zombie crawling out of the outhouse, and past a few older couples laughing at how much the werewolf had scared them.
Hockey mask murderer lowered his chainsaw as I raced past him. “Is everything okay?”
“I think so,” I shouted.
I found Haley standing by her car in front of the pole shed behind the barn, her face in her hands. I paused in the middle of the lot. When she didn’t do anything, I crept closer.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
It was too dark to see her face, but I could hear her sniffling. “I’m fine.”
I took another step. “Was it those idiots on the trail? Did they say something?”
“No. I mean…” She breathed in wavering gasps. “I didn’t kill that guy.” She started to sob.
“Of course you didn’t,” I said. “For sure. No one thinks you did.” I wanted to touch her arm, or something, to be comforting and friendly, but I couldn’t see her at all. “He was just old, and that’s… that’s what happens to old people sometimes. It’s totally, totally not your fault.”
“Maybe if I had…”
“Please don’t.” I moved close enough that I could feel her heat in the chilly fall air. “There was nothing you could have done different. If you had stayed still, the next person would have scared him too much. That would have been me, I guess. But it wouldn’t be my fault either.”
She hugged me. I wasn’t ready, so my arms were still at my sides, and girls are supposed to put their heads on guys’ shoulders, but Haley couldn’t because she stood taller than me in her boots. After a moment I wriggled my arms out and hugged her back. She cried for a few more minutes, and I managed to relax. She needed someone, she needed me. I had to be strong for her. I could do that.
“Do you want to get some… coffee or something?” I asked. “We could get some food.”
We separated, and she sighed. “You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I want to,” I said. “You could use a friend.” From across the corn maze the chainsaw echoed around the farm. It sounded scarier from far away than it did on the trail. “Or…or just someone to talk to. If you want.”
“Sure,” she said. “That sounds good.”
“Can you drive though?” I asked. “My dad gets all weird if I take his truck into town.”
“Okay,” said Haley as she wiped her eyes. “I can drive.”
We sat at the truck stop restaurant by the interstate for a long time, and discussed our childhoods and parents and school and graduation and whatever. Talking to her was so easy. She didn’t order anything, but I had two pieces of pie. We could have stayed there all night, but I didn’t want to make my parents mad. When she dropped me off at the farm to pick up dad’s truck, the parking lot field had emptied and Jerry’s house was dark. We sat in her front seat and I told her again that it wasn’t her fault. I tried to kiss her, but instead she turned her head and went in for an awkward hug. I exited her car and stood in the glare of her headlights and waved until she pulled onto the highway.
* * *
Haley put the corset back on for Halloween night, which was great for a lot of reasons. It was great for her because it meant she believed that nothing she did killed that guy, not her actions or her clothes or anything. It was great for me because I got to watch her sit up in the coffin all night long wearing the thing, and it was great for Jerry and the trail. After the previous weekend, we all needed to give it everything we had.
Because none of us expected the mob that descended on Jerry’s place on Halloween, even after the crowd that attended the previous weekend. The cars lined the highway for half a mile. People came from out of state; they drove three hours or more to see the deadly haunted trail. Jerry hired the local theater group to help, and they arrived in their fancy costumes while we went through our preparation routine in the kitchen. Earlier in the week, a TV producer from America’s Most Haunted Places called Jerry and asked if they could conduct an investigation, so while we put on our makeup, a group of professional paranormal researchers scoured the trail, taking readings and setting up instruments. There were people everywhere.
“Alright everybody, we better get going,” said Jerry.
We crammed onto the wagon and rode out to the trail. We hid in our sheds and port-a-potties and caskets, our boxes and corners and shadows. We gave each other thumbs-ups and crouched like hungry creatures, like fiends who had no choice but to give in to our evil urges, our terrible hungers. Then our victims came pouring down the trail.
It only took twenty minutes before some jerks started in on Haley again. Haley sat up and shrieked, and three college-looking guys were ready with their phones to take selfies with her.
“I can’t believe you killed that guy,” said one of the guys.
“That is so dark,” said another. “Kind of turns me on.”
All three laughed. Haley rolled her eyes and laid back down. I unzipped the entire tent flap and stood up. The machete fell to my side as I crossed to the group.
“How about you guys move it along,” I said.
That was enough to startle them. They looked at me like kids look at a mall Santa removing his fake beard, or life-sized Elmo taking off his giant costume head.
“Take it easy,” said one of them.
“Are you supposed to be talking to us?” asked another.
“I’m supposed to make sure everyone has a good time, and I think you need to keep moving,” I said. I gestured down the trail with my weapon. “She didn’t kill anyone. That’s a pretty shitty thing to say.”
“Are you her boyfriend or something?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, no.” Maybe if I looked at Haley, she would give me a different answer to the question. Maybe that would be my reward. But I couldn’t. “Just get going,” I said. “No one wants any trouble.”
They made sarcastic faces, but it worked. They walked away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Haley. But she didn’t smile. She didn’t look at me with rescued princess eyes.
“I know,” I said. “I’m just trying to help.”
Her face softened a little. It was hard to tell in the torchlight, but I think she looked thankful. I climbed back into my tent and zipped the flap closed. For the next group, I would scream louder and jump farther. I would grab them, even though we weren’t supposed to touch the customers. I wouldn’t let up, no matter how hard they tried to get away, no matter how much they asked me to stop. Hopefully more assholes would give Haley a hard time, would accuse her of killing that guy, and then she would see just how far I was willing to go for her.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but as I waited in the tent, I felt the dead guy’s spirit. The desperation he must have experienced as he laid there with his family cowered around him rushed through me. Maybe that’s stupid, but for a second, we connected, and I knew at least one good thing came of his death. His night on the trail ended as bad as it could have. I was going to make sure my night with Haley made up for it.
* * *
The last groups of customers got a special show. They saw what happens when a group of exhausted teenagers nears the end of a very strange Halloween. The werewolf kept running up behind the mummy and humping him and howling. The zombie and the troll couldn’t stop laughing about some private joke. Frankenstein produced a case of beer, and the monsters and remaining regular folks mutated into a demonic after-party in the forest on top of the hill.
“None of your parents are going to hear about this, right?” asked Farmer Jerry as he cracked a beer too. The whole group talked and danced and drank and huddled together against the cold. Some of us would come back to work at Jerry’s the next day to take the trail down. Some of us would stay on through the winter to help clean up his fields and tend the animals. But the season, the year, ended that night, in a lot of ways.
I pushed Haley’s coffin off the row of logs so we could sit. She sipped a beer while I finished my third.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” I said. “I can’t wait for next season.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “This year might have been too weird for me.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “You’ll forget about all this by summer.” I put my hand on her knee, on the rough lines of her fishnets. “You look really good tonight. And you did a great job scaring everybody.”
“Thanks,” she said. She looked at the ground, then down the dimly lit trail.
“I hope it’s okay that I dealt with all those jerks for you.”
“Sure,” she said. “That was fine.” She pulled her elbows into her body and huddled forward over her knees, but I still had space to slide my hand a little farther up her thigh.
“I’d really like to… hang out with you more.” My hand shook as I rubbed her leg a little. “We could, you know, be together. If you wanted.”
Haley didn’t say anything. She just stared into the black mouth of her beer can. Maybe this was just like out on the trail. Maybe she waited for me to get close enough before she sprang up, to see if I was serious, to get the maximum effect. I leaned towards her, to try to see her face. I smiled at her, but she stayed still.
I took my hand off her thigh. “Sorry. I was just kidding.”
After another moment of silence, I stood up, where I could only see the top of her head. “I thought I did everything I was supposed to do,” I said. “What else do you want me to do?”
This was still the best job I would ever have, but as I stood over Haley with no idea what to do next, I knew how the dead guy felt. She was breaking my heart, too.