“Boomers overinvested in personality
Gen Xers cultivated an ironic detachment toward personality
Millennials were constantly told that had personality, so they never bothered to develop one
Zoomers don’t believe in personality”
— Anna Khachiyan

“You asked why I don’t celebrate Halloween,” I said as my girlfriend covered my hands with hers. We were sitting in a corner booth at a dimly-lit Tex-Mex place in Pennsylvania. It was a late October evening, cold outside, yet not uncomfortable indoors. It was the kind of environment where you want to get close to someone, a desire for warmth serving as the perfect pretense for other forms of intimacy. The place was mostly empty, so we had the opportunity to speak comfortably, out of earshot of anyone save the occasional visit from the under-motivated server.

“Well, it’s natural to be curious, and I know I promised to tell you eventually…as you know, it’s not just a religious consideration, nor is it because I’ve seen too many horror movies.” I let out a long exhale, knowing what this story was going to sound like, “it all started, so far as I can remember, with the haunted amusement park over by Route 80. It sounds corny as fuck—I’m the first one to acknowledge that—but that’s the truth as far as I can tell.”

“I was 21 or 22, recently single, overworked, and just in a melancholy mood in general. When one of my friends, Jason—I don’t think you ever got the chance to meet him—suggested that a group of us go to the park, I thought it a good way to get out of the rut I was in.”

Outside the restaurant, it was drizzling steadily. It was a cold rain, not cold enough to harden into snow, but just the right temperature to chill right to the bone if you weren’t prepared for it. The windows rattled a bit from the wind, though it wouldn’t have been noticeable had there been more noise. Given the quiet, though, it helped set the mood to an even more somber tone, as though Pan were offering us a soundtrack.

“There were going to be four of us initially, but one flaked at the last minute, so our heroic band consisted of Jason, Nick, and yours truly. All in all, it was actually a really impressive production; the entire old park was redone with Halloween themes.” I went on to explain how, in the immediate post-recession years, things began to pick up, slowly, in that corner of Pennsylvania. I could afford a beer or two if I wanted and wasn’t limited to 99-cent cans of Arizona tea anymore. The fact that I had a tall can of hard cider earlier that evening had no actual bearing on the story, but was so fond a memory that for some reason that I felt the desire to include it. Everything tastes better after a period of abstinence, voluntary or otherwise, when you are no longer used to indulgence. The organizers of the haunted park seemed to have spent a few extra dollars to make it a good experience for everyone after years of cheaper work.

The park in question was once a well-known place (by regional standards). You could get to it from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or even Buffalo in just a few hours, and couples used to take their children there almost every weekend. Not that it was just a kids’ park, mind you: there were plenty of things for horny high school and college age couples to do; plenty of 16+ roller coasters, twisters, and other rides I never knew the names of. Not to mention the haunted houses that had plenty of dark couples’ corners away from wandering eyes.

On that early October evening, eerily lifelike mannequins were to be found in abundance, menacing passersby, re-enacting witches’ sabots, or just seeming to stalk in the darkness, preparing to do God knows what. Fake cobwebs and dry ice fog were likewise covering many of the buildings, mixed with some other smells that were even more fowl. Underpaid teenagers were wearing hockey masks or clown costumes, jumping out at visitors on exactly five-minute intervals. I enjoyed the whole experience to an extent I never thought I would.

“Looking back on it, that night was, initially, one of the best memories I have from my early twenties. It was a great contrast to our otherwise mundane lives, which featured little more than underpaid jobs, mounting debt, short-tempered bosses, and classes filled by kids who weren’t exactly Pennsylvania’s best and brightest.” I paused for a moment, thinking about what to say next. “For us, it was always different than for previous generations. I know every generation thinks that about themselves, but I really do think it was true. We didn’t have seemingly limitless wealth and opportunity like the boomers; we had no choice but to grow up, the way some of them still haven’t. We didn’t have the stability of the GenXers, who were comfortable enough to become detached and seemingly-ironic toward everything, seemingly hard-core but with little real responsibility at the end of the day.

“My fellow millennials, in most parts of the country, were no better. They emptied what little personality they had into the social media void, filling themselves with electric stimuli and artificial dopamine to escape the pain of living their lives in late-capitalist waste. In the small-town Rust Belt, though, I think a lot of us were proto-Zoomers.” I took the final sip of my Pacifico. “Generally speaking, we did our best to just get along, understanding that we were all, every single one of us, dealing with some manner of shit at any given time. Maybe that’s why I was so unprepared for it when it happened.”

The server came over to our table, giving me the chance to order two shots of Black Velvet (it may have been a Tex-Mex place, but we were still in Pennsylvania). I must have looked shaken, because after the server left, my now-wife got up and sat next to me on the same side of the table, as though to convince me that we should just leave, she didn’t need to hear any more. I struggle to describe this in writing, but this motion was always her “let’s just get out of here” signal, one of those things that makes sense to the couple themselves, even if it’s completely inexplicable to everyone else.

But the story had already begun to leave me, and it was going to finish its exodus regardless of what I wanted to do. When the server came back a few minutes later, my now-wife ordered herself a coffee, and braced herself to hear the rest of it.

“I thought the chainsaws were overkill,” I said after taking my time with the first shot. “There were too many of them; it seemed like every fucking turn and hallway in the last haunted house had a teenager wielding one.”

“Don’t get me wrong, a chainsaw can have a great effect. It is genuinely the last thing you want to hear in a dark, enclosed space, but this was too much.” I went on to tell her how the three of us joked that someone had a little budget left over, and, rather than lose it for next year, decided to make up the difference with an abundance of chainsaws. If any of the employees happened to work in lumber or landscaping the rest of the year, it would make even more sense.

“The final haunted house in the park had the unimposing name of ‘melodrama.’ It had once been one of those rides where you sit in a roller coaster-type cart and are dragged through the various displays. The carts had been removed, but the two-pronged track was still there, dimly lit, to guide the visitors on foot.”

I related briefly how the park seemingly put all their best employees in this house. We actually had to sign a waiver acknowledging that these guys would grab your shoulders or ankles, shoot you with water pistols, and blast you with air cannons. “It was worth it; I honestly thought we were finally getting our money’s worth. Had I been there with a date, it would have been the perfect girl-jump-into-your-arms scenario.” I picked up the second shot glass, held it for a moment, then set it back down. “The teenagers with the chainsaws were there in abundance, though by this point in the night we knew to expect them. I thought that would have been the worst thing to deal with,” I paused.

“It was very sudden when it happened. The lights had gone off suddenly, all of them at once, including the emergency lights.” I took the second shot. “I thought it was part of the event at first, but the employees’ acting was too good, the puzzlement too clear.”

“We realized after a few minutes that this really wasn’t planned, that the staff were as concerned as we were. It was probably nine or ten already, and without electricity, there was no light at all in those autumn Pennsylvania woods.” I told her how the confused voices we heard in the other rooms turned suddenly into screams, how panic seemed to take hold of the place. We were in an isolated corner of the house, in a hallway in what must have been the first floor or the sub-basement and were removed from whatever was going on.

“We got low and walked slowly with our hands out, trying to feel our way toward the exit. We did our best to follow the voices of those ahead of us—we didn’t know any other way to get out despite the pandemonium—but quickly got the sickly sensation that we were moving in circles.”

After a moment, I let out a dry laugh. “I know all this sounds like it’s about to turn into one of those creepypasta stories you read on Reddit, but again, this is how it happened…after a few minutes (which felt like hours) we emerged from the house through a side door, apparently having moved through a storage area without realizing it. So far as we could tell, though, most of the park had emptied. There were a few other groups of people, mostly young couples, wandering about, all seeming as confused as we were. There couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven people left in all.”

“We worked our way under the limited starlight toward what we thought was the exit but stopped short at the sight of an old concession stand. On its closed door was the word ‘ghoul’ written in some sort of reflective spray paint. Even from a few feet away, we could smell that it was fresh.”

“I don’t know why the sight of this was so terrible. Maybe because it was so simple. Here we were, venturing about in the darkness, in a place that seemed to have been abandoned suddenly, and the only clue as to what happened was this single-worded message.”

I continued to describe how we were jolted out of our shock by a high-pitched woman’s scream from somewhere behind us. It was one of those truly blood-curdling things, the kind of scream only a toddler, or someone truly horrified, could manage. “We looked behind us and quickly decided not to stick around; we skirted the concession stand, hopped over the chain-link fence, and bolted through the woods, which, in retrospect, was a really fucking stupid idea.”

“But it worked. After a few minutes, we made our way back to Jason’s car and were gone. After returning to the main road, we saw a whole line of ambulances and police cars racing for the park we just left.”

“The next day, we saw on Facebook that over 30 people had disappeared, most of whom without a trace. Small pools of blood were found in scattered locations about the park, but they were strangely dry by the time the first-responders arrived, as though they had been there for much longer than they could have been. In some places, piles of clothes were found, presumably from the disappeared. Most were completely intact, but some had large tears in them.”

I let out a long, dry exhale. “About a year later, some of them came back. A group of about 16 or 17 of the disappeared (the reports conflicted each other) were found dead lying down in the woods nearby. They were flat on their backs, arranged in a perfect circle, with their heads toward the center and their feet sticking outward, all straight as arrows.” According to one of our friends who worked part-time as an EMT, it looked as though they had only been there for a few hours. No signs of mutilation were found on the bodies and no obvious cause of death was apparent.

“The CSI people began to investigate the scene, but then the Commonwealth Archaeological Authority was called in. Rumor has it that remains of a frontier-era settlement were found directly beneath the bodies.”

I felt the need to explain how, in the Northeast, we don’t have “ghost towns” in the same way the western states do. The climate is too tough; anything made of wood will quickly disintegrate without manual upkeep. What the archaeologists found, therefore, were brick and stone remains; building foundations, pieces of collapsed walls, and some badly-rusted metal tools. The entire place, probably once home to a few dozen souls, had been completely forgotten at some point and reclaimed by nature.

No one could ever find record of this small settlement, probably indicating that it was established prior to western Pennsylvania becoming part of the United States. Some speculated that it had been a small French outpost from before the Seven Years’ War, but there was nothing that could confirm this.

“To this day, I don’t have any answers,” I said, meeting her eyes for the first time since I began telling this tale. “But I have no doubt we encountered something malevolent that night, some sinister force from a forgotten period of our country’s history.” Shifting in my chair, I added, “Truth is, I’ve begun to think of all of America as a haunted house. We know absolutely nothing of our land’s ancient history. We encountered the Algonquin, Cherokee, Iroquois, Cree and so on, but who was there before them? Who did they displace when they settled here? Why is it exactly that their ancestors feared certain places, associating them with death and ill-fortune? Such knowledge was lost among the Indians even before the landing at Plymouth Rock.

“You asked what I think? I think every generation must deal with its own particular evil, but some things are beyond any of us, remnants of a creation from before our world emerged from the receding flood waters. A thousand years in God’s sight are like a day that has just passed, whereas we pass through life and return to dust in a mere 80 years. Who are we to claim we understand the universe? We have no clue what we’re talking about.”

We paid our bill and left a few minutes later, leaving a generous tip. Small acts of kindness can go a long way in elevating the world, and if there are little things we can do to alleviate suffering, I think we should do them. We haven’t spoken of that night since then.