By Russell Brickey
Waiting for the Hoochie
Sometime around 9 p.m., a hollow-eyed corpse in coveralls will appear on the balcony overlooking a 1,000-odd patrons dancing in place in the 40-degree Ohio evening. The corpse will take his time looking down in disgust at the mere mortals crammed into a sprawling queue alongside the ramshackle farmyard castle that is Paskatala’s Haunted Hoochie, and then he will fire a rifle into the blank sky.
Then, the wild night will get started.
As we mortals wait in line, thrash metal blares and a squatting demon belches fire over the heads of the crowd. This haunted acre is gloomily lit by a crown of lights on the tops of various buildings — two simulated blazes erupt like god-sized candles from nearby silos, while the luminous face of an ogre stares down from a barn loft — and the world on the ground is lost in constantly shifting darkness as the crowd stirs, restless as spooked cattle. Occasionally a glowing jetliner booms overhead, en route to touchdown at the nearby Columbus airport, giving the impression of massive mechanical overseers — monster demons, no doubt — coming home to roost. And always there are the chainsaws.
Repeatedly voted one of America’s best Halloween attractions for more than a decade, the Haunted Hoochie will swallow an estimated 5,000 people this night, as it breaks the country quiet until the wee hours of the morning. Garishly painted and shabbily dressed haunters will scream, push, pull, blast, blind, deafen, insult, and assault their patrons until these dedicated scaremongers finally haul their exhausted (and quite possibly) drunken bodies to the nearby “village” of trailers hidden back behind the trees to sleep it off and start the whole fantastic ride over again three nights a week.
The dead boy in the tower is one of these select fright masters, as are the scantily clad women in greasepaint who step out onto a small lighted stage, gaze creepily at the waiting crowd, and then vanish again. A lit cage suspended two stories up the side of the building is supposed to enclose, I’ve been told, a dancing girl (probably also scantily clad) — but the cage is empty for now. Perhaps this particular zombie refused to rise from the dead in such cold weather? But never mind, the Hoochie must go on. The zombie in the balcony is uplit by harsh arc lamps, which makes him appear even more cadaverous as he raises a rifle and fires several loud reports into the air.
We are now all just meat for the Hoochie.
A Brief Hoochie History
The Haunted Hoochie is located about 12 miles outside of Columbus — close enough to grab a crowd, far enough out of town to get really loud. The “Welcome to Pataskala” sign claims a population of 14,962 but, at least from the road I came in on, one would guess about 12,000 less than that. The Hoochie (Southern slang for “shack” – among other things) is not listed on the town’s Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau sites, which strikes me as an oversight on someone’s part, as it must bring a good deal of business into these lonely precincts. Pataskala’s only other dubious claim to fame is as the teenage home of John Holmes, the late, great ‘80s porn legend known for his natural endowment, his acquittal on murder charges, and his early death from AIDS.
Pataskala’s seasonal carnival of fear all started with a Halloween hayride in 1954. Back then, Tim May’s great-grandfather sponsored an annual haunted ride around the family farm for friends and farmhands. Costumes were elaborate, considering the players were amateurs — wolfmen, wicked witches, a guillotine, voodoo priests, and even a headless horseman astride a real live horse. The scary ride became a generational tradition, and as a child May himself donned masks and crashed around in the foliage as part of the performance. Obviously there is some gene in the family line that has, in the words of the Hoochie’s own online history, “a flair for the scare.”
[blocktext align=”right”]The story of the Hoochie is three generations in the making. But it is, in the end, a family story about a man carrying on a tradition and making it big.[/blocktext]In 1991, May decided to take the family tradition pro. It was, according to the Hoochie’s webpage, quite an undertaking, given May’s own disdain for “cheap PG-rated scares.” So May, under his own steam, began uprooting, digging out, cementing, and refiguring the property. After another multiyear jump forward — past chainsaw-wielding mutants whizzing down ziplines, giant animatronic monsters ripping off rooftops, and a licensed pyrotechnics technician — and the Hoochie sits like a gigantic black crown of fungal growth among the sparse trees of the old family farm. Around its base, strange creatures cavort, hang out, and, often, make contact.
Headhunting the Head Haunt
The story of the Hoochie is three generations in the making. But it is, in the end, a family story about a man carrying on a tradition and making it big. So, obviously, I’d like to talk to the mysterious force behind the attraction, May himself. I get a promising response to an initial query on Facebook: “Sure send me some questions.”
Seems simple enough, right? But, it turns out that May is not the easiest guy to find. The “contact” link on the Hoochie homepage is dead. The voicemail at Mega Entertainment Production Company, the Hoochie’s corporate eggshell, is full and not accepting messages. Google Whitepages list six additional numbers, all with Pataskala prefixes and area codes, all of which ring endlessly into nothingness. Followup Facebook messages go unanswered. It is the season, and the guy must be busy after all, but frustration mounts.
And May is clearly out there, somewhere, like a friendly phantom in the matrix. Word-prints of his gratitude are all over Facebook. “i cant think of a better way to live my life …” the Hoochie posts above a Facebook picture of two giddy young woman en media res —dashing, clutching each other, smiling and bright-eyed, clearly thrilled — “thank u all for making it possible” On another post the phantom writes, “ignoring ur passion is suicide……ahhhh yes…” For a man who makes his living by inventing grotesque tableaux of death, May seems disarmingly genuine. Now if he will only talk.
But no messages. No notes. No returns. No Tim. In desperation, I visit every website that mentions the Haunted Hoochie until I find an email address and a name of sorts. Summoning up the spirits, I attempt to make contact with the other side.
And then, finally, a sign: my email gets a response from someone or something named “Woods Walker.” I’ve found Tim May … at least I think I have.
I tell him I am really looking forward to my visit to the Hoochie.
“This is not a normal haunted house ..sir .. Have u been here before ?”
I have not. And I admit, mostly in an attempt to be solicitous, that I am a little apprehensive.
The response is a non sequitur: “Have u read my bid for president rant ?”
Yes, I write back, I did. Said “bid” is posted on the Hoochie Facebook page. In it, May expresses a number of concerns about the state of the union and his philosophy on how to fix it.
Mostly truthful, I tell Woods Walker that yes, I loved reading his bid.
“Excellent ..” he responds. “Then we will git along ..”
So, I ask, anyone ever die while going through the Hoochie?
“Wtf let’s hope nothing like that happens” — Woods Walker seems honestly alarmed — “or if it does let it be me.” Then, apparently taking me at my word, the Walker adds, “U r apprehensive.”
My masculinity pinging, I quickly type that I’m really looking forward to my visit.
But he’s gone. The phantom Woods Walker has vanished back into the forest.
The How of the Hoochie
Unlike at other professionally run haunted houses, Hoochie actors actually touch patrons. Bodies lurch out of the darkness or drop from the walls, suddenly shoving, poking, and grabbing to increase the fright factor — although rules meant to keep things as family friendly (and litigation free) as possible are followed: Hoochie performers are instructed to only touch patrons above the shoulders and below the knees. Chainsaws — chains removed and the bars wrapped with foam—are a favorite scare tactic. As patrons wait outside for the nightly rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline, various rubber-masked ghouls gently swipe at their legs, motors roaring. The sudden shock of noise, the looming (often snarling) fright mask, and the knowledge that a chainsaw is coming at their legs causes many patrons to scream and do little happy dances in the dirt. For the most part, everybody smiles.
They also practice something I would deem ”the insect touch,” in which actors sneak up to touch patrons on the back of the neck without warning, a la Howard Wolowitz punking Rajesh Koothrappoli while visiting Dr. Crawley, the creepy entomologist in his crepuscular office on The Big Bang Theory.
To be fair, the Hoochie is up-front about its obnoxious tactics.
Signs near the front of the structure read “WARNING!! Could Result in PHYSICAL or EMOTIONAL INJURY!”
And, “If you Don’t Want to SEE IT Don’t Buy A TICKET!”
Also, “RATED NR Not Recommended For Anyone.”
And, perhaps most appropriately, “HELL Never Looked This GOOD.”
Online reviews note the aggression of the Hoochie actors, and this aesthetic of in-you-face-for-your-own-fucking-good-time becomes apparent almost as soon as the sun goes down, when a hulking and very dirty young man with a machete (hopefully honed down to a dull edge) materializes amidst the crowd of early-arrivals hanging-out in the barren lot beside the Hoochie. He pulls a young visitor’s ponytail back, exposing her throat, and places the blade in a friendly manner across her skin (shoulders up) and then swats her on the back of the calves (knees down) as she runs away, giggling. His next target is a reedy teenager in a hoodie and baseball cap, probably thirty pounds lighter than his assailant. At first the boy laughs, but he then becomes clearly freaked out when the zombie with the machete will not leave him alone (much to the amusement of his friends). “Dude,” the young man says, trying to keep his cool, “you best step off and leave me the fuck alone!”
[blocktext align=”right”]“It’s fun to see people literally on the ground, scared to death.” – Giggles the Clown[/blocktext]The actors are justly proud of their reputation for hands-on frights. “It’s fun to see people literally on the ground, scared to death,” a slender young man in greasepaint with the stage name “Giggles the Clown” says, as a group of Hoochie actors regale each other with last night’s triumphs: — “three craps and three pees.”
The Hoochie is also somewhat pornographic. YouTube videos show comely young women wearing slightly more than swimsuit models plead for mercy or gyrate like undead go-go dancers on various giggling apparatuses. The garish Hoochie website sports several bright yellow “parental advisory” warnings, and children are not allowed (although sometimes parents bring them in). Sometimes the action works too well and adults respond in kind, shoving and grabbing actors, not always in a family-friendly manner, so the Hoochie employs armed security officers who occasionally eject unruly, often drunk patrons. And yes, virtually everyone drinks — staff, actors, patrons, owners, everyone. Pataskala police have taken a dim view of these three-day challenges to sobriety, and actors know that a “Haunted Hoochie” bumper sticker might mean being pulled over, fake blood and all, and made to walk the line.
Home is the Hoochie: The Haunts in the Flesh
Incongruously, given all the above, the performers are also extraordinarily nice people. There are about 200 of them, mostly locals, but some who drive from as far away as Akron for the chance to menace the living for fairly low wages (an average Hoochie worker makes around $600 for a season). They were probably the good-natured wild bunch in high school — the kids who skipped the basketball game to go raise a little hell.
While waiting for the evening to begin, a chipper young man with a professional wrestler’s torso — who calls himself simply “Coffin Guy” because, well, he sits up from a coffin — thuds a stump-sized chunk of wood into a gasoline-and-cardboard fire shooting out of a metal barrel in the alleyway beside the Hoochie; he’s a firefighter when not playing a corpse, so I figure he must know what he’s doing. Last year Coffin Guy terrified patrons by wearing a tiara and a prom dress — and the image this conjures is pretty incongruous, if not outright alarming. Giggles and his partner clown, “Bubbles,” also lurk around the flames, both with Dadaesque angles of grease paint disfiguring their young faces; in their daylit hours they are local contractors. Looming out of the dark is “Beaver,” who looks like a jolly 300-pound Viking fresh from a swamp crawl. He perches a warm, friendly arm on my shoulder so the light on his keychain illuminates my memo book while I take notes. I am talking to a sweetly smiling middle-aged woman who simply describes herself as a “house mother” to the Hoochie. She’s an alumna whose husband is wielding a chainsaw this evening. They were married in the Hoochie. “An ordained minister works here,” she says.
Many of these actors have been doing this for a long time. Beaver, for instance, has worked the Hoochie for 15 years. But he’s a relative kid compared to the fellow who will swallow a shotgun barrel in a simulated zombie suicide later in the evening; Eric Ballinger has been a part of the Hoochie from its days as a haunted woodland trail, as has Christie, the ticket girl with a 25-year tenure. The lifers love to talk about the thrill of the scare and the camaraderie of working for America’s best haunted house. “Some of these people are closer than your own family,” Coffin Guy says, then corrects himself. “We’re actually a cult.” Then he laughs, I hope, because he is joking.
Acceptance as an actor or worker in the Hoochie is like a union membership: first a potential psycho/zombie/mutant killer must get an introduction from somebody on the inside, or be a minor-league celebrity in the world of soft-core splatter porn. The latter include The Necro Girls, publishers with a similar spatter aesthetic, and Gina Heartless, a professional model with a punk rock persona who plays a shadowy, barely glimpsed Playboy-ish rabbit in the Hoochie. There’s also Only Flesh, a performance group that utilizes body suspension (the practice of hanging from sharp metal hooks through the skin) for a show at midnight. There is something to freak out everyone. Almost.
John, who collects the tinted glasses on the Hoochie’s 3-D maze, joined the Hoochie entirely because, he says, he fell “madly in love with Gina [Heartless]” the first time he went through the Hoochie as a guest.
But did the Hoochie scare him?
“Nah,” John says with a shrug. A veteran of Desert Storm (“while the college kids sat there doing nothing”), he “saw dead bodies hanging out of tanks.” No way are actors in rubber masks going to scare this stocky, middle-aged man in a woolly ski cap. What the Hoochie offers a guy like John is the rare shot at cool, menacing, unattainable adoration. Beauty and beastliness. How is this world anything but the poles of human experience?
These people are not afraid of blood (sometimes literally thanks to the dangerous set pieces) and dirt. In fact, May often has his actors roll in the forest muck if they appear too “clean.” But despite the leader’s ability to order his followers to actually cover themselves with dirt, the Hoochie is a communal effort. Actors are the primary creators of their characters and tableaux. An actor comes up with an idea, pitches it to May, and then, in the words of several performers I spoke with, they “don’t ask or say anything else — just turn around and walk away.” If May likes the idea, he will greenlight it. Actors with enough gruesome imagination then work with May, each other, and whatever mechanical props (some quite sophisticated) they can find to develop a scene that will (hopefully) make patrons scream. A trip to the Hoochie reminds me of the Stephen King credo: terrify; if one can’t terrify, horrify; if one can’t horrify, then gross out.
All this leads to a huge bonfire and bacchanalia at the end of the season at which, if the actors are to be believed, they really let go. These people have a long haul on the weekends, five to eight hours in the cold, sometimes till dawn. Clearly this level of frightening people is hard work.
Have of them been attacked by an alarmed patron?
“Hey Bubbles,” Giggles says, “show’im your tooth.”
Bubbles uses his index finger to stretch back the corner of his mouth and reveal the gap where the first premolar should be — the victim of a punch. “If you don’t get hit,” Bubbles says with a shrug, “you’re not doing your job.”
The Head Haunt Himself
On the other side of the flaming barrel, a man in gray materializes.
Everyone snaps to attention.
And then he is off, clearly very busy.
Ambushed. I’ve finally caught the spook master.
May has the strong tree-trunk torso of a construction worker, a ghostly fuzz of beard-shadow, and the calm, hooded eyes of either a lizard or a Zen master. I can see right away why he inspires a cultlike following. His affect is distant and a dumb question (“How long did it take you to build all this?”) is met with flicker of exasperation and an almost inaudible snort. But he greets a former actor with a warm hug and gets a cheery “G’mornin’” (it’s around 7:30 pm) from a Hoochie organizer. Warm and unavailable — of course he’s a cult leader. He’s not the easiest interview, however, and he refused to let me quote from our conversation. But, strictly speaking, we never discussed paraphrasing his many thoughts on life, politics, terror, and passion, all of which are available on the Haunted Hoochie Facebook page, and which run together something like this: The haunted house reflects society, in which we all live in a box created by our perceptions, thus nothing is good or evil except losing your passion, everything is important, and everyone should live for that passion, so I piss people off but I don’t care because I love what I does and so should you.
Or something to that effect. He may or may not know it, but he is a good existentialist, a natural follower of the complicated philosophy of a universe with no guiding principle except the pursuit of an authentic life. And, even more so, May embodies the American Dream. With between 3,000 and 5,000 guests a night, three nights a week from September 24 through October 31 (18 performances total), at a minimum $25 a pop (priority entry tickets are twice that), you can do the math. He pays for no advertising. His actors adore him. Haunted-house impresarios from all over the world seek his advice. May needs no one, and it doesn’t matter if all these sissy outsiders are cheesed off; bad publicity (such as the recent controversy over an upside-down American flag painted in black on the side of a silo) is great for a Halloween attraction predicated upon shock value — what doesn’t kill the Hoochie only makes it stronger.
As he talks, May steps closer and closer until we are virtually shoulder to shoulder. He wants to know what I think of people’s limitations. Why are they there? When I admit that I have no real idea, his eyes drop for the first time. I have failed. So I give it my best shot, “Five thousand years of cultural constraint?” This is it, and May is back on his trip. As he continues to expound on the “psychic cages” we create, his thumb does a little dance across his iPhone: he is calling, waiting two rings, hanging up; calling, waiting, hanging up; repeat, repeat, repeat in his impatience to get ahold of a dancer, he mutters, who is not dancing very well.
I would like to dig deeper into the tribulations of being a nationally recognized shock-jock, but the Hoochie will wait no longer. A quick handshake and May flicks off into a darkened orifice. The Hoochie has called him home.
Nothing left but to make my own descent.
I only have enough warning to shout, “Oh man!” before a large machete-wielding zombie walks right into me.
In the Belly of the Hoochie
Black Sabbath, Nirvana, thrash metal, and Pink Floyd (“We don’t need no education”) blare over the darkened crowd scene. A monitor shows music videos from high up on one outside wall of the Hoochie; these are occasionally interrupted by clips propagating 9/11 conspiracy theories and various sound bites from the Bush administration. The fact that the Hoochie is also (somewhat disjointed) political theater seems to bother no one — or perhaps the paranoia adds to the energy, ties the simulated violence inside the walls to the very real geopolitical violence outside them. Right on cue, an airliner, its creamy underbelly outlined by red and blue lights, exhales a monster sigh as it glides gigantically overhead.
[blocktext align=”left”]Part of the experience is this waiting in the crowd. The long line, the hyperadrenalized music, the ever-shifting darkness, the proximity of so many others with the ever-present danger of chainsaw-wielding monsters makes for a thrilling gestalt.[/blocktext]The crowd skews young but virtually all ages are represented, except perhaps the very old. Visitors are African-American, Mexican-American, Euro-American, and Asian-American, all jostling each other in a rowdy but peaceful mass of humanity impatient for the abuse we paid good money for to begin. All scare the same in the Hoochie, and this idea is strangely affirming.
Part of the experience is this waiting in the crowd. The long line, the hyperadrenalized music, the ever-shifting darkness, the proximity of so many others with the ever-present danger of chainsaw-wielding monsters makes for a thrilling gestalt. Overhead the lighted cage is still empty — was this meant for the dancer May was trying so desperately to call? Scientists believe that some brains are programmed to enjoy dopamine uptake after they are startled. Those of us having fun are experiencing a natural chemical high. Not everyone experiences this, however. Chainsaws roar. Patrons scuttle under the maze of ropes, and one young woman simply crumples and rolls across the ground at my feet. “Are you OK?” her friend asks her. She rises slowly, silently, and nods in the dark: She’s OK — for now.
And then the corpse rifleman appears in the tower. He fires one-handed into the black night sky.
The line lurches forward.
Inside, the mechanisms of the Hoochie strobe and howl. Around the corner of a wall, something makes a great deal of noise, then a loud report. I see a young man turn to his girlfriend and smile, perhaps too broadly. This thunder and lightning is the first scene of the Hoochie, the controversial “zombiecide.” From a raised cubby resembling a dilapidated living room, a zombie leers down at the crowd, shouts incomprehensibly, plops down in his moldering easy chair, shoves a rifle barrel in his mouth, and blows his brains out, gore splatter and all. It’s an impressive special effect.
In 2009, several news outlets including the Columbus Dispatch and local NBC and ABC affiliates ran stories about the skit after the adult child of a suicide victim complained. The Dispatch story garnered 91 online comments, with much divided opinion. “I say shut it down,” wrote one reader. “Suicide is no laughing matter and anyone who knows anything about mental health issues knows attempted suicide is a desperate cry for help.” Representing the opposition, another articulated his position as, “The wussification of America continues!” The controversy did make May more cautious about his approach — he changed online references to the scene from “suicide” to “zombicide” — but it also garnered the Hoochie a good deal of publicity and, most likely, a bigger audience. Before we have time to be offended, however, chainsaws roar once again and two black-clad harpies shove us through the next door.
You move through the Hoochie fast, almost at a trot, constantly urged forward by the rough handling of the actors. If you are secure about being touched, this is fun. However, not everyone appreciates the playground-style bullying, and one 2013 review on the Midwest Haunter’s Association website complained that “some of the actors [got] out of control. Members in our group were grabbed and pushed by actors harder than we liked. The women in our group had their hair repeatedly pulled and one was tripped and pushed to the ground by an actor. Expect to leave this haunt with bruises.”
All are fair statements. Everyone inside the Hoochie is assaulted by a full range of overblown special effects. The constant strobe lighting and smoky atmosphere occludes the maze until disorientation is complete, and losing one’s cohort means being lost in a constantly shattered darkness of vague angles and lurching humanoids. Repeatedly I run into the woman in front of me who, in turn, repeatedly rams into the woman in front of her, whose hoodie she never lets go of. We are like stunned mice in a sadistic scientist’s maze. At one point I run smack into a wall (I understand that there are video cameras stationed around the hallways to catch true evil-doers … and I just hope I don’t end up on a YouTube fail blog somewhere). Another time I miss an animatronic T-Rex head by inches as it tries to eat my face. At one point it is simply so dark that we must make our way entirely by touch. The walls feel like … well, I don’t know what they feel like, except that I want to wash my hands.
Parental Advisory: The Following May Not Be Suitable for All Readers
But what’s most striking about the Hoochie is the obscene richness and grotesquerie of the various performances. The main Hoochie buildings create a large and tightly interwoven maze, sometimes interior, sometimes exterior, and each stage of the maze has its own nightmarish theme. There’s the Vietnam scene reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, replete with machine-gun fire and shafts of fire-lit smoke drifting through the bamboo; a florescent-paint-splattered totem leaps to its feet and sends a couple of patrons squealing down the hallway. There’s also an outdoor graveyard where, like the Poe poem, death looks gigantically down. Actually death is a huge puppet with glowing eyes on a waving lever, but the effect is terrific.
Then there are the actors performing what can only be called torture-porn tableaux, usually involving a scantily clad woman being victimized by a wild-eyed man. There’s a grinning, satanic dentist operating sans anesthesia on a woman chained to a chair. Then there’s the woman in a skimpy dress strapped to a table with what appears to be a giant wheel-valve screwed into her head; she begs for mercy and her tormentor, a filthy, muscular man with a full beard, gives the wheel a twist and she goes limp. “You’re next, bitch!” the man yowls, pointing a dirty finger at a small female patron cringing against the far wall.
All of us are menaced, shouted at, pointed at, manhandled and woman-handled, although in general it is impossible to hear what terrible things are shouted through the cacophony except for the occasional obscenity. Somewhere along the line a very large bearded man (it may have been “Beaver”) takes my arm in a solicitous manner, says something with a toothy smile (it may have been “I’ll see you at the mall”), and then gives my rump a friendly swat. Onward, I guess.
The most infamous tableau is probably “The Demon Birth.” Here a pregnant woman lies on a blood-splattered table, her feet in stirrups and her knees draped with a sheet. “Get it out of me!” she screams, to which her “doctor” responds, “Shut up, bitch!” and slaps her. Even if they are amateurs, the Hoochie crew are great actors. The slap is timed perfectly and looks frighteningly real. Eyes blaze. Lips curl. Teeth are bared like Giger’s Alien. And when the doctor hits his pregnant patient in the stomach with a mallet, the special effects are Hollywood-worthy as the life-sized, rubber demon baby explodes in a blood gout as big as a watermelon and hits the far wall. If one is possessed of the right (or wrong) sense of humor, this is one of the most hilarious gags one will ever see (use key words “demon baby birth at Haunted Hoochie” to watch it on YouTube).
[blocktext align=”right”]All of us are menaced, shouted at, pointed at, manhandled and woman-handled, although in general it is impossible to hear what terrible things are shouted through the cacophony except for the occasional obscenity.[/blocktext]My personal favorite, however, is the rather unorthodox church toward the end of the tour. The Hoochie brackets its maze with its most shocking, most repellent, and most controversial tableaux, starting with the “zombiecide” and concluding with a man — half animatronic, half human — being cut in half with a chainsaw. Before exiting, you travel through an outdoor church brightly lit in flaring light by a blazing pentagram. Under this fiery offense, a bespectacled priest in a white robe and miter does something unholy to a squirming, squealing woman in a filthy housedress. On the floor beneath their high black altar another young woman in a short black dress grovels on the floor (how did she not hurt her knees doing that?) as nuns clad in black lingerie kick her into submission. The scene is positively oneiric, and actually quite beautiful in its attention to detail. Melted candles sit unlit and undead in a votive tray. Shadows flicker from the burning pentagram. Crooked keys on the battered pipe organ seem to smile through the dry leaves that litter it. I only have a moment to admire the aesthetic, however, before one of the nuns bares her clenched teeth and snags the brim of my baseball cap. She snarls something terrible, that much is clear, but discernment is impossible in the reverberating heavy metal, and this makes the scene even more surreal, especially as I happen to know, because the boyfriend of the woman groveling on the church floor told me, that behind the altar these satanic devotees have a slow cooker full of queso cheese for making nachos.
And then, somehow, mercifully, I find myself outside again, ears ringing and brain dazed. Nearby somebody whoops as if we have just finished a rock concert. Obscenity, sexism, torture, gun-violence, suicide, war, and, um, religious intolerance. Passion, individualism, tradition, and authenticity. Add to this fire, money, politics, a loud obsession with chainsaws, and the possibility that I just survived a monomythic quest and in some way Pataskala’s Haunted Hoochie represents America. Hell, it represents humanity — at both its best and most terrible. Or I am reaching way too far and the Hoochie illustrates nothing but a good time while being naughty? Whatever the conclusion, I hope to be back next year to see what May and his crew have conjured for their legions.
The two women who were in front of me the entire time are nowhere to be found. I just hope they made it out alive.
Russell Brickey’s books of poetry can be found at Wild Leaf Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, and Kelsay Books.
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