Author Toni L.P. Kelner (Leigh Perry is a pseudonym). Photo: Susan Wilson.
I confess that setting a Family Skeleton mystery in a haunted house was an obvious choice. My books feature an ambulatory skeleton named Sid whose favorite holiday is Halloween. Of course, I couldn’t use a real haunted house because Sid doesn’t believe in ghosts. My fictional murder takes place at a haunted house attraction.
Since I worked at a haunt one Halloween and have screamed my way through plenty of others, I thought I already knew how to haunt a house. That was before I found a Reddit discussion for haunted house workers. Oh, my spine and femur! I spent hours reading terrific tales of terrorizing.
Today’s haunted house workers don’t just throw on a monster mask and a black robe to lurk in generic scary houses. Haunts develop themes around vampires, clowns, postapocalyptic landscapes, zombies, aliens, and insane asylums. Characters and costumes have to match the setting and the storylines. Honestly, a haunt is a type of theater, and the workers are known as scare actors.
Those scare actors have a frighteningly tough job with long hours and small paychecks. If they do their job well, they could get punched by people who get angry at being scared. Even worse are the patrons who are aroused by scare scenes and can’t keep their hands to themselves. Then there are customers who refuse to be scared, laughing at your best gags or making comments on how fake the blood looks.
But beware—scare actors know how to get revenge. If you give actors a hard time, they’ll pass the word up the line for the actors in the next scene to give you extra ghoulish attention. If your name is overheard, the scares get a personal touch. If nothing else works, one thing almost always does the job: a chain saw.
Just try being calm when a burly stranger in a hockey mask brandishes a chain saw. Tough guys shove their girlfriends out of the way to escape; parents panic and abandon their children; customers lose control of their bladders or bowels. (And some haunts track those incidents for fun.) Most haunts use a real chain saw, too. They just leave off the chain and let the sound do the job.
All of that makes great fodder for a mystery writer: disguises, revenge, violence, and motives galore. Even better—though admittedly creepier—dead bodies have been found in haunted houses. Actual dead bodies, that is, not pretend. Most of the incidents were accidents where props were misused or broken (never put a noose around your neck for a gag, no matter how many times you’ve tested it) and there have been suicides as well. I didn’t have to take it too far to put a murder victim inside my imaginary haunt.
I learned a lot more about haunting than I’d expected to, and I’m always happy to make a book more authentic. The thing that scares a mystery writer most is getting the details wrong!
Leigh Perry, The Skeleton Haunts a House, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99