Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Plain Ole Fright

Halloween night my senior year in college was the scariest of my young life. I don't mean the shadows startled me or I couldn't sleep because the Blair Witch was in my room kinda scary, I'm talking full on pee yourself, Fred Sanford clutching his chest kind of fear.

For years, I'd been hearing haunted house stories about the theatre that I worked at. For years, I'd listened as other students recounted far-fetched, unbelievable tales of phantom encounters in the building. For years, I sat on the stage on Halloween night as Jack, the theatre manager, told his own first hand stories about the ghosts of Philler Hall. All those years I kinda straddled the line between belief and skepticism, between acceptance and "hey, get me some sciencey stuff that proves it and I'll be on board." That night, that Halloween, I got shoved right over that line into full on "Amen brother, I believe" land.

That particular show, I was in charge of sound design. All the floor microphones that sat on the stage, all the body mics that were woven into the actor's costumes, all the music, and all the sound effects, that was all on me. It's a fun job, really, but it is an awful lot of work on show days. To test all my equipment and prepare for that evening's performance, was a long process that made a whole heck of a lot of noise. To be courteous to the other tech geeks, and I guess to the actors too, I'd usually get there about four hours before showtime.

My sound board was set up at the back of the theatre's main level, kinda tucked away in the corner. Most of the sound equipment was way upstairs, so I had cabling running up through the walls, three levels up, to the sound and lighting booth. My sound system took me months of planning and rehearsal to get just right. Dozens upon dozens of cables ran from the board to the speaker box, plugged into just the right spot to get what I needed to come out of the correct speakers. This cord inserted into this outlet made the alligator sound come from just where the alligator was supposed to be. That cord split off and plugged into this series of inserts made the choo choo sound like it was moving across the theatre. So on and so on... Each plug had its place to have the sound do what we needed it to do and sound the way we wanted it to sound, almost three months of work had made my set up near perfect, in fact, I'd finally just gotten it the way I wanted it about four o'clock that morning. But, when I got there that night, opening night, a mere four hours before curtain, all those cables were no longer stuck into their perfect spots, they were pulled out and lying on the ground.

I was livid. All of the theatre lights were off, except for the little green desk lamp I had sitting on my table, but I scanned the room anyhow, searching for signs of movement of the low sound of the perpetrator breathing. Convinced it was the vacuum cleaner lady who seemed to have no respect for our equipment, I swore that I'd kick her right in the pancreas if I saw her.

Pancreas kicking or no pancreas kicking, I had to put the anger aside and get this problem fixed. I was rushed anyway, but now, there was no way I'd be done before show time. The first thing I had to do was get the plugs back in place. For most shows, that would have been easy. We'd map which cable went where and label each and every plug. Time consuming, yes, but to fix a snafu like this one would be simple. That brings up problem number two. I didn't map and I didn't label. The director had me make so many changes and add so many last minute sound cues that I'd never found the time. I'd actually planned to do it during this evening's performance. Now, well... oops.

I did the best I could, using a rough draft map from a few weeks back and a scientific guessing game that involved tugging on tiger digits. Fifteen minutes later, I was somewhat satisfied. Now I had to run up to the sound booth, three flights of stairs up, and push the power button to turn on the speakers. I don't think I've ever run up so fast in my life. Steps really should be in the Olympics.

Throwing open the door, I dashed into the booth. Once I reached the power source, I held my breath and did one of those "Oh dear God, please make this work" sort of pseudo-prayers. I reached for the button and listened. Pressing it and hearing a little click followed by a soft hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm would mean I did a good job guessing which plug went where. Any sort of pop would mean I did bad, the louder the pop the worse I did. I pushed the button.

I waited.

I waited some more.

It seemed that I could have waited all day and nothing would have happened. That wasn't one of the options though. It had to make a noise. Good noise, bad noise, there had to be a noise. Any sort of noise. There wasn't. The only thing that could mean was that the cables downstairs weren't connected.

I flew out of the booth, down the stairs, around the corner, down the next flight, through the upper lobby, down next set of steps, around the last corner, down the final flight and into the fancy schmancy lobby. I dashed across the lobby, passing the front doors and the ticket booth, burst into the theatre and towards my sound table.

Those cords, you know, the ones that were unplugged and in a mad panic I plugged them back in, threatening pancreatic violence against any cleaning ladies that happened by, they were all out again, just lying there on the carpet.

At this point I figured I had to be the victim of some sort of practical joke. I sensed Dick Clark or Ed McMahon was lurking behind the stage curtain with all my classmates, laughing hysterically at the bulging vein on my forehead that had now begun pulsing.

Grabbing the diagram from the chair where I'd left it, I began plugging everything in again in a frantic daze. I never got to the tiger's toes this time, eenie and meenie ran the show.

Sprinting up the stairs winded me, so there were no deep breaths before I hit the button this time, heck, I was lucky I was breathing at all. I said my silent prayer and pushed "power." Nothing. No click, no pop, nohmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

An angry demon had taken over my body at that point. Walls, windows, and banisters felt my wrath as I hurried back down the twisting, turning stairs, across the lobby, and into the theatre. There they were, all the cords, unplugged again.

That pulsating bulgey vein was just about doing a salsa dance by this point. Alan Funt was backstage having a coronary, dreaming how great Candid Camera ratings would be this week. The wheels were turning somewhere in the brain of a prepubescent Ashton Kutcher.

The plugging in of the cords was more of a random blind guy playing darts from a tilt a whirl kind of event this time. The trip up the steps more of a huffy puffy "I think I can" thing than a dash. The pre-button prayer more of a threat to the powers above that I just might hurl myself from the balcony. I pushed it. Held my breath. Then, there it was, a tiny little click and the sweetest hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm I ever did hear.

The trip down the stairs this time became more of a stroll. A leisurely stroll spent with me calculating exactly how much time I'd have to get done, where to cut corners, where to delegate when my idiot helper got there... Lost in thought, I'd wound my way down to the upper lobby and was halfway down the next set of steps when I noticed the big stained glass window above the stair landing was rattling like crazy. It stuck out to me, because I remembered remarking to my roommate on my way out earlier, how nice a night it was. Nearly sixty degrees, no clouds, no sign of rain, no wind. Yet, that window was vibrating like the bed in a cheap motel when you've brought a pocket full of loose change.

I took the last few steps towards the window and reached out to touch it. Ice cold. The shaking stopped though. But, now I could hear the same sound coming from the other side of the pretty much symmetrical lobby. Feeling a strange need to investigate, I climbed back up to the upper lobby, walked across, and made my way to that stained glass window. Up in the lobby, there was a rattly stereo effect going on, I could hear the glass vibrating on both sides. I reached up and touched that window too. Freezing.

I pulled my hand away and watched the fog fill back in the hand print I'd left, all the while wondering how the windows were icing over when it's sixty outside and how in the world the wind was blowing at the building from both sides.

For whatever reason, instead of continuing down the set of steps I was on, I walked back up to and across the upper lobby and started down the West staircase. Each step I took down revealed more and more of the lobby to me, and I suddenly realized the carpet was bathed in a bluish light down there.

I slowed myself, the gears in my brain working overtime to figure out where and how my friends were hiding to pull this elaborate prank on me.

I took a step down, expecting Matt or Tony or Todd to pop out and scare the living poop outta me. Nothing.

I took another step and was able to see the very bottom of three sets of double doors that led into the atrium and then outside. That was down and to my left. Down and to my right were the five sets of double doors that led into the theatre. Shadows filled the corners, but the middle of the room was more and more blue the closer I got.

I took another step and realized that the front doors, the six glass doors with brass handles that led into the atrium, they were open. Now, I'm bright enough to put two and two together and get something that at least resembles four, so that ability worked its magic right there. I remembered that those doors don't have locks, so Jack would chain them each night, wrapping loop after loop after loop of heavy metal chain through the cold metal handles, then pad locking them. Jack himself was the only one with a key to those locks, (the rest of us used the back doors) and taking off those chains was an incredibly noisy process that made garbage trucks picking up other garbage trucks and dropping them into a third set of garbage trucks seem tranquil by comparison. I wasn't gone long enough for those chains to have been removed, and even if I had been I would have heard that racket all the way upstairs, but there they weren't.

I took another step, this time, turning my back to the wall and scooting down kinda sideways. Those old fancy doors also didn't stay open on their own. We used this big ornate ashtray things to prop them open when the audience was coming in. Yet, when I looked to the right, there were the ashtrays, far from the doors that were somehow holding themselves open.

I took another step, only a few from the bottom, only feet from the lobby floor now, I could see that the blue light that was spilling into the lobby was coming either from outside or from the far end of the atrium.

I took another step and another, each one bringing me closer and closer to that entryway where I was sure Greg or Barb or Erica were going to jump out with a "boo." No one jumped, so I pushed myself forward.

Scooting myself around the seemingly magical door, for some reason I now found myself about to peek into the foyer. That room was probably six feet across to the outside doors and maybe thirty feet wide from my end to the ticket window across the way, so there wasn't anywhere for a person to hide in there, or hide a blue-ish light bulb for that matter.

My muscles pretty tense, hoping I'd catch whoever it was off guard and scare them first, I side stepped into the atrium. What I saw there changed everything.

Looking across the room, I saw very clearly the source of the mystery. It was a figure, about five or six feet high made entirely out of blue light. I froze. My brain told my legs to move it out those doors a few feet away, but they didn't listen. I just stood there, kinda transfixed. I remember almost every detail. The figure looked like a woman. She had her hair up, rolled into a bun, she had a high collared dress that buttoned up the back, she was tall, frail looking... her back was to me.

I must have gulped too loud, or maybe my stomach growled, or maybe she heard the urine as it trickled down my leg, but whatever it was, something caught her attention. She started to slowly turn towards me. I could see the lines in her face, the sadness that she carried; I could feel her empty eyes on me.

My jaw dropped, but not in one of those cartoon character AAAooooooGaaa sort of ways, more like a slow steady my mouth kept opening wider and wider and wider. I stopped breathing and my eyes got really big. I started to almost hunch over, as if I was about to fall into the fetal position. I didn't want to lie down on the ground and suck my thumb, but somehow I couldn't seem to move. My brain went through all the options, six feet to the left - door to outside, fifty feet behind you - door to theatre, five steps back - the stairs. All of those seemed like viable options, but my feet didn't like them. My feet finally decided to run, and of all the directions they could have picked, they figured running closer to blue lady was a good idea.

I took one little half step out of the atrium and into the lobby and sprinted myself closer to her. Luckily, my feet, as stupid as they appeared to be, didn't much feel like stopping to have a chat, and I zoomed right past her.

I could have chosen any of seventeen doors; ten into the theatre or six that led to the sweet ghosty-woman-free realm of outside, but no, I chose door seventeen. I ran and hid in the handicap bathroom. I don't know why.

Flying through that door without even thinking about it, I slammed it shut behind me and pushed the little button to lock it, yeah, like little push button door locks are going to stop blue people from getting in there and doing whatever it is blue people made from light do to people who are completely solid and entirely devoid of blueness.

It took a good ten seconds for me to realize where I was, but only an instant to come to the conclusion that I was the stupidest person ever. What the holy heck was I doing in the handicap bathroom? The only door I could have gone through that did not lead to a sure-fire escape route. Trying to calm myself, I mentally listed my options.

There was a window. Windows rock. I can go out the window.

No, The window was seven feet off the ground and, for some inexplicable reason, it had bars on it. I don't know who, but apparently somewhere down the line, someone was concerned that handicap people were going to leap seven feet in the air and climb out the window, so they put bars on it.

I thought for a second, pretty seriously too, about attempting to flush myself down the toilet, even going so far a checking to see if my foot would even fit in the bowl. It didn't.

Under the cabinets, no, there were none. Up into the ceiling tiles. Nope, there were none. The only way out of that room was the way I'd come in.

I made two plans. Plan A. I'd throw open the door, the lady would be no where in sight, I'd make a hard left and spring through the door into the theatre, down the aisle, and out the back door. Plan B. I'd throw open the door, the lady would be there waiting for me, and I'd lay down on the floor and cry. I hoped plan A would work.

Working up the courage, I went for it. I turned the handle, the little lock button's click and my heavy breathing the only sounds. The adrenaline coursing through me made the door like a feather; I tossed it aside and quickly scanned to lobby for any side of psycho Smurfette. No one there. I cut hard, sliding a little on the carpet, but kept my footing and charged that door. I hit it as hard as I could, already envisioning myself sprinting down the street to hide under my bed. The problem... I pushed at full force, ordering that door to open, and it only accepted pull commands.

I'd built up a considerable amount of speed and power in that seven step sprint, so when I hit the door it was like a unstoppable force vs. unmovable object death match. I lost. I found myself falling backwards, but with a nifty ninjaish maneuver right after I hit the ground, I was right back on my feet. A little dizzy, but on my feet and charging right back at the door.
Dodging theatre seats, props, and the stage curtain, I fought my way all the way out the back door. Finally, I calmed down.

I waited for the other tech people to arrive, and praying for that whole safety in numbers thing, I went back inside. I didn't tell a soul about what had happened, I just went about my business and had a fantastic show. (Somehow, when I'd gotten back inside, all my wiring was hooked up perfectly.)

At the end of the night, Jack held his little post-show hooray type pep talk. As always, the Halloween tradition, Jack invited us all to stay and tell ghost stories up on the stage. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha," I blurted out, "Oh man, have I got a... a burning desire to go home. Have fun with the stories guys,"and I left. There was nothing, not even those big heavy chains that'd magically disappeared that was going to keep me in that theatre that night.

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