Horror has always fascinated me — the freaky, the spooky, the macabre, the swimming pool dug in the old burial ground causing the long-dead to haunt the unwitting inhabitants of the new neighborhood. In sixth grade, I memorized The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. The Telltale Heart kept me rapt in English class, and when required school reading took a more mundane turn, I ignored it for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Christine. They gave me nightmares, but I couldn’t stop; I’d read deep into the night, gripping the book with white knuckles. I’d watch every frightful moment of the film through the grill of my fingers.
My teachers looked down their literary noses at the so-called trash I read, but at 45 years old, I’ll stand by what I thought when I was twelve: It takes a true master to craft a story so suspenseful, so chilling, you can’t look away, even though you’re terrified. I don’t mean Texas Chainsaw Massacre slasher stuff that grapples for your attention with new heights in blood, guts and torture. I’m talking artful weavings of spooky, uneasy suspense and stories of baser human urges or warped dimensions of time, space and humanity no one likes to talk about. The kind of thing you might glimpse in the gutter at dusk or lurking in the corner of your dark bedroom at night and think what if…
I’ve never written horror. Maybe my early reverence of its masters intimidated me. But when my friends down the street, Liana and Brian, asked over beers in the pool one day, “Could you help us flesh out the backstory for our haunt?” I rubbed my hands together with murderous glee.
Starting around the first part of November every year, you’ll find Brian and Liana in their garage, already building for next year’s haunt. Brian crafts enchanted wells, and Liana creates gruesomely detailed monsters out of plaster and latex. They recruit live actors for certain parts. It’s not just a collection of peeled grapes for eyeballs and spaghetti for brains. Every haunt has a story, a theme that ties it together and carries you from one trepidacious room to the next. They employ much more than the element of surprise; last year, we traveled through the house over and over and were creeped out and delighted every time. It’s not just horror; it’s art. It’s spooky and subtle and freaky and in-your-face all at once. Come the season, the Robinsons’ average suburban house becomes unrecognizable. It transforms into the haunt, into Mortis Manor.
Liana already had some insight into what had happened at the manor. I teased out the details, pulling the story from my own muses, who were familiar with the Mortis family and their…circumstances. A few back-and-forth exchanges later, and we had unearthed the mysterious and chilling history of Mortis Manor. What we found, the truth behind the notorious estate, made our skin crawl. Mortis Manor seems abandoned, but it’s not dead.