—Dr. John Markway, The Haunting (1963)
Most motorcyclists I know have a special fondness for Halloween and all its imagery. Maybe it’s a macabre coping mechanism that helps us deal with the grim side of the road. There is just something about death that bikers like to defy. Perhaps it’s just part of our rebel spirit. We’re going to ride until we die, and maybe a couple of days after.
You see it ingrained in our culture as flying and flaming skulls, crossed bones and grim reapers depicted on T-shirts, patches, embossed in leather, a mania about make-believe motorcycle clubs (Sons of Anarchy), jewelry and, of course, in movies and countless custom paint jobs.
Our colorful and menacing biker-wear can be construed as costumery of sorts, so it is scientifically possible motorcyclists and other creatures of the night are genetically related. It is a cross-cultural thing we identify with for reasons we probably don’t want to know. As the unholy night looms and the undead stir, I set about my plan to meet my inner monster. Some Halloween parties invite attendees to go as their hero or favorite fictional character, but I will just go as myself, as I believe many of us do, every year.
More than any other nation, Halloween is a particularly American phenomenon. It’s a time when we can reconcile with death and our dark side and become immortal for an evening. In my mutant mind, this makes it a particularly biker thing. This fierce desire to rush into risk turns to turbocharged adrenaline. It transforms us into something resembling tribesmen wearing animal hides and riding wild beasts, casting off natural caution. Fun overcomes fear in this preternatural celebration of life lived whisker close to calamity, embracing the thrill of the quickening road.
Regardless of age or gender, one creepy night, once a year, we are called to cross over to the graveside. I am always happy to answer. This is about the time I drag out my dusty trunk of lost leathers – studded bracelets and gloves, pointy things that wrap around thigh or neck or otherwise somehow attach, boney belt buckles, jackets and vests patched with deadly admonitions, rings and things otherwise best kept secret. On one All Hallow’s Eve, an uptown looking lady wearing what I presumed was a Victorian ball gown, politely asked where in heaven’s name did I get my costume, to which I could only grunt, “Heaven’s got nothing to do with it.”
—Dr. John Markway
Restless spirits seem to permeate our living space no matter where we ride or hide. Tales of the haunted are everywhere. They skulk through our attics and basements, they dwell in creepy old hotels and restaurants, they lie in wait at graveyards and deserted buildings. TV is saturated with ghost hunter and paranormal reality shows, as well as network lineups of fairytale and monster mischief, from Grimm to Once Upon A Time and Supernatural, we are infested with things that go bump in the night.
I have to wonder, however, if bikers, despite their derring-do, are really braver than ordinary citizens while facing down sinister forces? Do all the dire accoutrements mean we’re road-hardened toughies, or are we just trying to cloak normal human fallibility with ballistic nylon and crash-grade leather? Are all the symbols we adorn our bikes and ourselves with merely totems to ward off evil road demons?
I put this to the test. I visited various haunted houses, theaters, and other dreaded amusements to see if I got as scared as everyone else, and well, for the pure, childlike fun of it. This wasn’t my first foray into the dark. I’ve gone in search of night creatures before. The haunted highway has taken me to ghost towns, cursed hotels, abandoned cemeteries, and other such infested places where the dead and things worse stubbornly lurk.
The major productions offered by theme parks like Disneyland, Six Flags and Universal Studios are pricey but well done and offer lots of jolting boo moments. But true, homegrown creepiness is better served by locals putting on haunted attractions and macabre theater where vampires, ghosts, monsters, bloodthirsty villains, natural born killers, un-killable revenants and other denizens of despair remain forever restless. In the night. In the dark.
When the attraction offers a chill of authenticity you might be in for something really scary. Urban legends with more than a hint of truth, documented paranormal activity and other otherworldly phenomenon beyond rational explanation are found everywhere around the world. What better way to do Halloween than in an actual haunted house? From the Halloween Salem Witch Ride, which draws nearly a thousand riders in Massachusetts (in late fall when only a witch’s teat is colder), to the decaying brick tenements of New York City to the graveyards of New Orleans to the ghostly alley behind Tombstone’s OK Corral and points better forgotten, the theme remains the same: something supernatural is stirring and it’s angry. And sometimes it is all too real.
Virtually every old, creaky house and each historic and worn hotel have reported phenomena that defy science and sense. They document a paranormal series of peculiar events that have no natural explanation. Investigators cannot explain the supernatural, but they can record it. Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) or if you will, voices from the grave, have been recorded for years while scores of unstable, cadaverous shapes have been photographed and cataloged as inconclusive evidence of the spirits who somehow dwell intimately with us. They have always been there, say paranormal investigators.
All this has to make you wonder. As you step through an aging doorway, are you simply entering an old house or darkened room, or have you breached a spectral boundary cut through time by the dead? Have you just been welcomed, unknowingly, into the home of lost souls hungering for a warmth and nourishment of a living body? Have you ever been alone in a darkened room and a strange and anxious sense of foreboding overcame you? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe the dead can speak to the living?
Tales of the haunted abound. They’re everywhere; they surround us; they know us. Restless spirits seem to have bedeviled us no matter where we try to run or hide. What are they trying to tell us? What do they want? Are they simply echoes, a kind of resonance from the afterlife, the last sound of a soul as it departs this earth? Or is it something else, something more menacing? Could these be lost souls searching for a warm body… your body?
It was fitting to do some ghost hunting on a motorcycle. What better way to chase the afterlife? After all, we tempt death with each ride, using courage and instinct, ability and experience to deny his bounty. One way to cheat the Grim Reaper is to take dead aim at his black heart, to dare him to fight you. Yes, this was a dangerous game. My ride was, fittingly enough, the Victory Vampire, codename for a mad skunk works project I once did with Polaris to design a prototype production chopper. It proved a worthy ghost-busting companion. It feared nothing, handled all circumstances with aplomb and transported me stylishly from one spooky destination to the next. Bikers do not shrink from adventure; they embrace it, they revel in it. They ride hard into the unknown. Or so I kept telling myself.
The Urban Death Tour of Terror
A man asks, “What if we get too freaked out, is there a safe word?” To which our host simply answers: “It’s okay for men to scream.”
After requisite warnings and disclaimers, the crowd is let in two or three at a time, ushered immediately into a nearly blacked-out maze, twisting and turning and touching things we’d rather not see in daylight. The usual whimpering and sudden screams could be heard through the absolute darkness. Being claustrophobic, I suppressed my avalanching sense of panic until, finally and with great relief, the end. But the show had not yet begun.
What follows is a kind of performance art theater of the absurd, more disturbing than scary, delivering a kind of psychological unrest as presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group. Guttural noises and sounds of scurrying, like rats, amplify a flickering series of poses and constructs with messages of death, possession, sex, murder and a few things undefinable hung and slithered and gyrated before us, or just stared back under bright stage lights that faded to pitch black. It’s the kind of provocative and unsettling scare-scape that leaves you thinking and maybe quivering for a day or two. For the record, I did not scream, although I was told I let out a yelp or two.
This is an immersive, insane cabaret experience. Dr. Bradley and Nurse Janice welcome you into their private asylum, held at a once crumbling, historic building. The show is performed in the “meat locker basement” of the old Clifton’s Cafeteria, which was a rundown, partially bricked and boarded-up building in a rough area of downtown Los Angeles. The basement is not open to the public, but is free to any ghost who needs a place to flop for an eternity or two.
Not so long ago, I stumbled into Clifton’s Cafeteria for some cheap coffee and soup. Seeing it again it feels like a lifetime has passed. After a massive renovation that removed the decay but kept the ghosts, the place is now Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities or simply Clifton’s Downtown. Upon arrival to The Experiment, candy stripers check you in and take you on an “Asylum Tour” before seating you in the dayroom, waiting to meet the resident patients.
The “sedated and probably safe” inmates wind you through tangled tales of sex, power and madness. Singing and ribald dancing comes at you from every direction but we are cautioned to not touch the patients – unless they ask you to.
The Hollywood Museum’s Dungeon of Doom
In a town that has spawned more monster movies and paranormal shows than anyone alive can count, where better to get creeped out than in a musty basement housing the stuff of our nightmares. The exhibit is a rogue’s gallery of the film industry’s most terrifying monsters, specters, undying evil villains and assorted rampaging undead.
The actual prison corridor set used in The Silence of the Lambs was dismantled and reassembled here. Hannibal Lecter’s cell, complete with props from the movie, looks all too real. The basement is crawling with the original, life-size costumes and deadly props from the Mummy, Frankenstein, Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, as well as TV cult favorites like The Walking Dead, and more from other horror movies that made us check twice under the bed.
What exhibition of weirdness would be complete without horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark? The campy character was a take-off of Vampira, who seduced our black and white TV sets in the 1950s. Elvira is played by Cassandra Peterson, now 65 and still undead. What more could a biker boy want? A hot and dangerous woman with a dagger and black pumps? The museum’s third floor is home to her 1958 Thunderbird, rebuilt by George Barris in 1997 and again in 2012 by Danny Koker, the mad genius behind Count’s Kustoms.
Elvira’s “Macabre Mobile” features a cobweb grill, skeleton hands gripping the headlights, leopard print interior, and a custom coffin fitted into the trunk. Who wouldn’t die for a ride like that? Admission includes the rest of the museum’s exhibits, showcasing some 10,000 items from present and bygone eras – definitely worth a browse.
What happens when your neighbor goes insane and turns their entire home into a giant Halloween amusement park? You join in. Thousands have turned out over the years to see what the animated skeletons will be up to next. Add a haunted treehouse, glowing water features, a trick or trout pond, various ghoulish games, a boo-tique, strange illusions, a few witches and a creepy creature corner and you have a fun night suitable to children of all ages, even if you’re 60. Mostly, though, it’s great for kids under 10.
During the course of rolling from fright to dreadful fright, I thought if I joined with my shadow, psychologically speaking, I could face the darkness and all that lies within at full strength and with greater courage. You know, be the monster that mom said I could be. In the end, though, I was just as scared as anyone else. But is that really the goal of celebrating Halloween? Are we out to conquer our demons, or is there something more?
Psychotherapist and broadcast reporter, Dr. Robi Ludwig, explained why we like to be scared.
“When we have the daylights frightened out of us our heart beats a little faster, we breathe a bit more intensely, perspire more and get butterflies in the pit of our stomachs. It’s an adrenalin rush. Experts know it’s not uncommon for people to want to push the envelope just to see just how much fear they can tolerate. There is a great sense of satisfaction when we can prove to ourselves we actually can handle more anxiety than we ever imagined we could…there’s an appeal to vicariously experience what’s forbidden, bizarre or dark. Horror films in particular allow us to explore the experience of fear in an enjoyable and safe way. They also allow us to identify with the bad guy without getting ourselves into too much trouble. This helps us to feel more stimulated by life.”
Just like riding a motorcycle.
Urban Death Tour of Terror
ZJU Theatre Group
4850 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets $15. For reservations, 818-202-4120
648 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90404
General Admission: $40 per seat
VIP and Standing Room Tickets Available
The Hollywood Museum
1660 N. Highland Ave. at Hollywood Blvd.
4602 Morse Ave
Van Nuys, CA 91423
Free, donations accepted. Through Oct. 31