Out of the Haunted House

Three days before the election, we drove out of Obama territory into McCain country. Noah had a four-day weekend, thanks to a teacher grading and planning day on Monday and the election on Tuesday. (His school is a polling place.) The kids hadn’t seen Andrea since our visit to Wheeling at the beginning of Noah’s summer break so it seemed like a good opportunity to meet up with her. We chose to stay at the Wisp ski resort (http://www.wispresort.com/wisp/index.aspx) in Western Maryland, which is located in the scenic Laurel Highlands somewhere between our neck of the woods and Andrea’s. Andrea insisted on paying for everyone and said she didn’t want “to hear any backtalk.” So, I’ll just say thanks.

The transition from Obama-land to McCain-land was not subtle. Either that or I missed it while I dozed briefly as June napped in her car seat and Noah watched downloaded episodes of his favorite shows on Beth’s phone. Before I closed my eyes there were Obama-Biden signs everywhere. When I opened them it was nothing but McCain-Palin as far as the eye could see, including those annoying ones that say “Country First.”

When I commented on the shift, Noah looked out the window long enough to spot one. “That’s the first McCain sign I’ve seen in my whole life,” he noted. He wanted to know why it is that people who support one candidate or the other tend to live clustered together. We didn’t have a good answer for him.

Sometimes Noah has seemed indifferent to the election. He told us a few weeks ago he didn’t care who won. Other times, he was interested in how the electoral college worked and how voters make their choices. When his morning class had an election recently, he considered running for office, though he ended up deciding against it. (Sasha was elected class secretary.) For a while, he was pretending to run for President of the United States against Beth. They both wrote a stump speech. His was remarkably civil and even-handed, perhaps because he was running against his mother. Here it is:


I think we might be better off as a country if all candidates for elected office were half as generous.

It was late Saturday afternoon by the time we got to the hotel. We socialized in Andrea’s room for a bit, then we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. Noah was impatient to tour the haunted house set up on the hotel grounds near the ski slopes. (There was also a haunted coaster going down the slope, but he had not interest in that.)

We asked at the front desk if the haunted house was appropriate for a seven year old. The clerk said she hadn’t been through it herself but she’d heard it was more family-friendly in the opening seven to eight hour of each evening. We were encouraged by this, but we asked again at the ticket counter. The man with the chainsaw directing traffic in the parking lot had given us pause. One young staffer with a simulated bullet hole in her forehead said her four-year-old sister had been through both before and after eight and did fine.

In retrospect, we were asking the wrong question. It should have been– is this appropriate for a seven year old who has been sheltered, who only watches PBS kids’ shows and who has never seen a PG-rated movie and whose reading material is monitored? Then again, maybe we didn’t really need to ask at all. One look at Mr. Chainsaw and Ms. Head Wound probably should have told us all we needed to know.

I overrode my gut feeling because Noah really wanted to go and because I’ve played the heavy a few times recently about things like this, most notably when I refused to buy him the blood-spattered zombie costume he saw in a catalogue and wanted for Halloween. Beth thought it was ironic I am the stricter parent here because I am a horror fan and she isn’t. But it’s because I’ve read and seen and taught so much horror that I take it seriously as a meditation on the nature of good and evil. (When it isn’t, it’s mostly just exploitation.) I think it’s wrong, and possibly even dangerous to let kids get desensitized to violence at a young age. But on the other hand, I also think facing and conquering fears through encounters with fictional, symbolic monsters in various forms can be empowering for kids. It’s all a matter of timing and temperament. Maybe it was time to let Noah test his limits. After all, we’ve read him the unvarnished versions of fairy tales since he was a preschooler and he’s on a spooky story kick right now. He’s always gotten a thrill from stories that are just scary enough. I do, too.

I asked him one last time if he was sure he wanted to do it. He said yes and Beth bought two tickets, one for him and one for me. We agreed on a code word he would use if he wanted me to take him out of the house early. It was “volcano.” We boarded the shuttle bus. The windows were draped with heavy fabric and the interior of the bus was lit with red light bulbs. The driver gave warnings about how we might not make it back. Noah giggled. He was just scared enough. But I was noticing with unease that our group consisted entirely of adults, teens and Noah.

A man in a torn and bloody shirt divided us into smaller groups and ushered us into the maze in front of the house. I made sure Noah and I stayed behind the two other people in our group so nothing would jump out at us first. There was nothing in the maze except a wrecked car with a dummy in the driver’s seat at the very end. It wasn’t a very realistic dummy and Noah seemed unfazed by it.

We walked through the door into the house itself. Immediately, a light flashed on and a man in a cage came forward brandishing some kind of power tool and shaking the bars. I didn’t get a good look at him because I was hurrying Noah away from the cage.

We climbed a narrow staircase, holding hands. The interior of the house was lit with more flickering red light. The staircase twisted and turned. Nothing jumped out at us. There were no spooky noises.

I think in the end it was the suspense that got to Noah. He forgot all about his code word. “Let’s go,” he said suddenly and urgently. “I don’t like this place! Let’s get out of here!”

“Okay,” I said in what I hoped was a calm and reassuring voice. “We’ll just go back the way we came. It’s not very far and we know what we’ll see since we’ve seen it already.”

We turned and headed down the stairs. “Let’s go,” he kept saying in a panicky voice. I squeezed his hand and kept talking. When we passed people on their way up the stairs, they made way for us. The man in the cage was silent and still as we passed.

We passed the wrecked car and wound backwards through the maze. Noah was worried we wouldn’t be able to find our way out but it wasn’t hard.

The empty shuttle bus was parked outside the house. “Are you going back?” I asked the driver. He said yes, took one look at Noah and flipped on the bus’s interior lights. It looked like a normal bus again. He spoke kindly to Noah, calling him “Buddy” and confiding to him that he didn’t make it through the house either. I have no idea if it was the truth, but it was a nice thing to say.

We rejoined Andrea, Beth and June who were waiting for us by a bonfire, drove back to the hotel and got the kids ready for bed. As I lay down with Noah he said he thought he might have nightmares about the haunted house. I told him if he did he could come into our room. (We had a suite and Noah was sleeping on a Murphy bed in the living area.) I almost never make this offer. It took Noah so long to learn to sleep through the night and June doesn’t do it more than once in a blue moon so I’m protective of my sleep. But I led him into the haunted house, so it was up to me to get him out if any little part of him was still in there.

Noah did wake up around ten-thirty, feeling sick to his stomach and calling for Beth. She got up with him (he seems to prefer her when he’s sick) and she kept him company while he vomited. I’m not sure if it was the lingering effects of the illness we’ve all had or if it came from overeating at dinner and his subsequent scare, but afterwards he went back to his bed and slept the rest of the night with no nightmares.

On Sunday we took a walk by the lovely shore of Deep Creek Lake (http://www.deepcreekhospitality.com/fr_deep_creek_state_park.asp) in the morning and swam in the hotel pool in the afternoon. Sometime in between I told Beth that she was either being very sneaky or quite restrained about checking the polls on her phone. Over the past couple weeks I’d gotten into the habit of checking the Washington Post tracking poll as soon as I picked up the paper in the morning, but I didn’t follow any other polls. Too much information can be confusing and crazy-making. Beth was unable to resist temptation, however. Sometimes she stayed up late checking poll after poll online, Now, though, she was trying to be on vacation. As we drove from one place to another, I told Beth all the McCain-Palin signs were scarier than the haunted house. I thought better of the comment once it was out of my mouth, though. As strongly as I feel about the election, I know that the supporters of each candidate are sincere about their choices. Given the demographics of the area, it’s likely the kindly bus driver was a McCain voter. We’re all trying to put country first in our own way, as we think best.

Monday morning at breakfast, Noah was telling Andrea about Mrs. E, the retired teacher who volunteers in his afternoon class on Wednesdays. “She’s older than you,” he told her. Here he paused for dramatic emphasis. “She’s older than John McCain,” he said, sounding as if it was a wonder Mrs. E managed to get out of bed in the morning and go about her business. And that did make me chuckle.

Later that day we took a short hike to Muddy Falls in Swallow Falls State park (http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/swallowfalls.html). June was entranced by the roaring, falling water. “The water is slipping down,” she kept saying. After a lunch of leftovers from our dinner the previous night, we ate Noah’s half-birthday cupcakes. They were marked-down Halloween cupcakes we found at the grocery store, decorated with plastic spiders and spider webs on top. He composed the following song about them:

Happy Half-Birthday to Me
My age is over three
I love my cupcakes
‘Cause they’re so creepy

Monday afternoon we drove home and Tuesday morning, we voted. Before we left the house, Noah was singing “Barack Obama” over and over again to a tune I didn’t recognize. We had some trouble getting him out of the house. It was unseasonably warm and he wanted to wear shorts. Beth compromised with him and let him wear short sleeves and crocs with no socks provided he took a jacket along. At 8:35, we walked out the front door. “Let’s go vote for Barack Obama!” Beth said.

The lines weren’t too long and we were finished in plenty of time to hit Circle Time at the library at ten. That night after dinner, we ventured out into the rainy night to get our free Election Day ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s. During the drive over, Noah asked us to explain again how the “electrical college” worked and wanted to know why in Nebraska and “New Hamster” they didn’t use a winner-take-all system for their electoral votes.

The line at Ben and Jerry’s was out the door but it was a warm night and we were under an awning, so we didn’t get wet. The line moved quickly and within fifteen minutes we were seated and eating our ice cream. It was a festive scene inside. The crowd was diverse–black, white and Asian, young and old, gay and straight. An Orthodox Jewish family discussed which flavors might be kosher. A woman pushed an infant with Downs’ Syndrome in a stroller.

After the kids were in bed, Beth and I settled in front of the television to watch the election results come in. I folded laundry and read the Health section of the Post and clipped relevant articles for Sara during the lulls in coverage. When I started watching around nine o’clock Obama had one hundred seventy electoral votes already. I considered staying up until he went over the top, but by 10:15, he was only a little over two hundred. June had been up a few times the night before with croup and I was exhausted so I gave up on seeing history made and went to bed.

At 12:40, I woke and noticed Beth wasn’t in bed yet. I stumbled out to the living room to see if it was all over yet. It was, but Beth was still sitting on the couch, searching for Proposition 8 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_8_(2008) ) results on her phone. It didn’t look good.

We woke up to different country today. June’s music teacher ended class this morning by talking about how full of hope she was for all the children in the room. Sometimes I feel that hope, too, though sometimes I wonder if we’re expecting far more than any one person can accomplish from our charismatic new President. I guess we’ll find out. I have to say I don’t envy President-elect Obama. (However much I like typing that phrase.) He didn’t lead the country into the haunted house where we’re currently lost, but he’s the one we’re asking to gather us all up and lead us out.