I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how well anyone ever knows anyone else.
And then this Friday I visited a certain Halloween attraction near East Grinstead.
One of the ‘haunts’ as they called the individual attractions was called Hell-ements.
The concept of this attraction is very simple. You put on an executioners hood and follow a rope through a maze representing each of the four elements, earth, wind, water and fire. Throughout your journey your soul is judged and at the end, if its considered pure then you’re allowed to leave.
As you walk around this maze there are people who are paid to scare you. To make strange noises behind you, to whisper in your ear or jump out and startle you.
Because you can’t see, these things are all rather effective scare tactics and the special effects for the elements are fantastic, they use large fans to create wind, speakers to make it sound like you’re crossing a bridge high above a cascading waterfall, if you ever get a chance to visit I’d highly recommend it.
The link for the attraction can be found here.
But apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable night, it got me thinking. What if someone could know you, really know you, see deep into your soul and unlock all those secret things you keep hidden away in the depths of your mind. What would they find?
Would they say you were a good person? Or would they judge you and find you wanting.
This is a departure from my usual writing, there’s no sex for a start, but despite that, I hope you enjoy it.
“This was definitely one of Graham’s better ideas,” Gemma said with a grin as they waited in line for their second ‘haunt’ of the night.
Smiling back, Neil grabbed her hands, jumping up and down happily.
“I know, I’m so excited,” he almost shouted, causing the attendant to look over in disapproval. He was just like a little kid when he was enjoying himself and his enthusiasm was infectious. Unfortunately, the attendant seemed immune, scowling at the two of them.
Glancing over apologetically, Gemma tried to tame Neil’s exuberance until they had at least reached the end of the queue. This was supposed to be the scariest ‘haunt’ in the park and no way was she going to miss it.
When Graham had first suggested a trip to the ‘haunted farm’, Gemma had been doubtful. How scary could it be? After all, at the end of the day a bunch of actors dressed as zombies, a tractor ride and a couple of mazes didn’t sound particularly terrifying.
She’d been pleasantly surprised by the first ‘haunt’ though. Whilst it hasn’t been exactly scary, it had been fun, the actors jumping out from behind bushes to attack the trailer, and that chainsaw had looked (and smelt) worrying realistic as the crazed zombie had chased them down the track.
Sometimes the simple things were the best.
This haunt also sounded simple, they’d have to follow a rope guide through a dark maze whilst wearing an executioners hood. Plenty of potential for scares as the screams from within attested to.
Ryan and Graham had decided to visit the haunted cellar instead. Ryan was mildly claustrophobic and Graham, having spent the previous night here on some corporate event, had volunteered to keep him company so it was just her and Neil in the queue. Oh and about a hundred other excited visitors.
The attendant sat perched on a fence, calling people forward in groups of 6 and handing them the heavy black hoods to cover their heads. As they got closer to the head of the queue, the atmosphere seemed to change, even Neil became more subdued as he was handed his hood.
The air felt cooler here as well and Gemma shivered as the attendant looked directly at her as he explained the rules.
“I am the executioner,” he whispered in a husky voice, his voice quiet enough that they had to press closer just to hear his words.
“You have been judged. You have been found guilty. Tonight you will all die.”
He paused for effect as he locked eyes with each and every one of them in turn. When he reached Gemma, she shuddered. His eyes were an unnatural yellow with a red ring around the iris that seemed to glow and flicker like a flame. Although she knew they must be contact lenses, the effect was startlingly realistic.
A chill snaked up her spine as the silence stretched, his eyes searching hers until she felt that he was truly looking into her soul, judging her in a way he hadn’t the others. She felt a sudden urge to wrench her gaze from his and run, but she fought it. After all, it was only a Halloween theme park, what’s the worst that could happen?
After what felt like an eternity he looked away and Gemma took a deep shuddering gasp of air, realising that she’d been holding her breath all the time. Raising her hands, she saw they were shaking. Well Graham did say this was the best ‘haunt’. If the actors inside were anything like this guy then they were in for a good time.
Painting a smile on her face to hide her fear, Gemma forced herself to concentrate on what the creepy eyed executioner had to say as her hands gripped more tightly to the hood crumpled between her stiff fingers.
“This is your last chance for redemption,” the actor continued. The rasp of his voice reminded Gemma of the way burn victims spoke on the news. Like his throat had been scarred by fire to the extent that talking became almost impossible.
She didn’t know where that thought had come from, perhaps those weird contacts had given her the idea. In fact as she looked more closely at the shadowy depths of his face within his cloak she thought she saw twisted melted flesh where his nose should have been, sunken scar tissue instead of cheeks.
Mentally shaking herself, Gemma tore her eyes from the image of a monster hiding inside that concealing cape. She was letting her imagination run away with her. At worst he was wearing good stage makeup. The effect was still rather chilling though.
“Through this door,” the creature whispered, “is the gateway to Hell.
In this world you have been judged for the actions of your bodies and you have been found guilty.
Once you pass these gates, it is not your actions that count. The demons that dwell in the underworld care little for what you did when you were alive. They care only for your souls.
You will journey through the underworld, through the four elements, Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. As you do, you will encounter temptation, evil, your souls will be tested. You must not let go of the rope. If you do then you will be forever lost.
The lucky ones amongst you will pass through unscathed to emerge into the light at the end. The rest of you, well lets just say the rest of you will not be so lucky!”
Gemma felt his eyes burning into her skull as he laughed cruelly but she refused to meet his gaze, instead staring resolutely at the hood she was twisting back and forth between her clenched fingers, her breathing shallow and loud in the sudden silence.
With icy fingers of fear creeping up her spine she followed the others through the rusted iron gates. She could still feel his eyes on her as she walked away and the temptation to turn around was almost unbearable.
Instead she walked on, responding to Neil’s excited chattering in a distracted manner as they were instructed to don their hoods and take a hold of the rope.
A recorded voice went through what she recognised as the standard health and safety blurb, not suitable for people suffering from epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease and pregnancy. Make sure you keep hold of the rope. Don’t touch the creatures you encounter and they won’t touch you. And finally, good luck.
The mundanity of the message helped to calm her nerves as she waited for the instruction to move. To her surprise she found she could see faintly through the heavy material off her hood, just able to make out the shape of Neil in front of her as her hands clung tightly to the rope, the rough material scratching her palms as she tentatively began to step forward.
As they left the comfort of the entrance hall behind Gemma could feel a noticeable drop in temperature and the air became damp and cloying, the smell of the mud beneath her feet squelching with each step she took.
Her head darting nervously back and forth, she picked up vague movements in the darkness behind the rope.
It sounded like they were outside, the faint sound of crickets in the background tempered with a strange clicking noise from her left.
In front of her she heard a hissing, followed by a high pitched scream and then nervous giggles as the girl recovered from whatever startled her.
So this must be the ‘earth’ element.
The unexpected sensation of someone blowing across the back of her neck made her tense as she whipped her head around, her hands automatically losing their grip on the rope as she searched in the blackness for the person she knew must be there.
“Don’t let go of the rope!”
The harsh, whispered voice in her ear made her turn again, her hands searching frantically for the guide rope and gripping it tightly between both hands.
Disorientated, she tried to remember which way was forward. She thought the rope had been on her left side at the start but now she couldn’t be sure.
Listening carefully she heard another distant scream from somewhere in front. So she was heading the right way, but she was way behind the main group now.
Hurrying to catch up she moved her hands one over the other, the rope twisting and turning around corners unexpectedly,making her have to stop and feel her way more slowly lest she lose it all together.
More worryingly, she had the horrible sensation that she was being followed, hunted.
Every now and again she felt cold breath against the back of her neck, her cheek. She tried to write it off as a draught, wind perhaps, but the way it touched her skin so specifically made her question her own judgement.
Besides, shouldn’t breath be hot?
Stumbling on, Gemma felt the floor beneath her feet change to something more solid. So she’d survived ‘earth’, what was next? She couldn’t remember. Wind? Water?
“Are you certain you’re going the right way?” A soft voice whispered in her ear and she jumped, letting out a small scream as she quickened her step.
Out of nowhere a blast of cold air hit her, almost knocking her off her feet. It was unnaturally strong, like walking into a wind tunnel, that answered her question of what was next at least.
Fighting against the wind, Gemma found herself using the rope to pull herself along, her legs not strong enough to move her on their own.
“Is your soul pure, little girl,” the voice came from in front of her, just to the right.
Tugging harder on the rope, Gemma tried to increase her speed, to escape from this voice that seemed intent on following her throughout this maze.
Something touched her cheek and she bit down hard on her lip to stop herself from crying out. The caress was almost inhuman, like a claw scraping over her skin through the hood. And cold, colder than ice, it burnt a path down her face and she shrieked when it touched the bare skin of her neck.
Jerking away, she ran, moving as fast as she could away from that, that thing. Even whilst trying to convince herself that it was just a clever special effect Gemma couldn’t shake the feeling of absolute terror, the crawling sensation deep within her skin where it had been touched. Like a hoard of ants crawling through her flesh, burning wherever they touched.
As she ran the air became moist, the wind lessening until it was just the odd gust and she could hear the sound of running water.
As the sound grew louder, Gemma felt the ground change again, becoming tilted until she found herself on what she imagined must be a bridge of some sort.
The planks beneath her feet creaked and swayed as she took one cautious step after another, conscious that one wrong step and she could fall. The water pouring past on her right side seemed to drop a long way before she could hear the splash of impact below her.
Falling had always been her greatest fear and she felt herself begin to freeze, the phobia taking over as the rope dug painfully into her tightly clenched fists.
Moving slowly and very carefully she edged forward, stray gusts of wind rocking the bridge and making her pause until the way was steady once more.
Although she knew she couldn’t really be as high up as she feared, her imagination was getting the better of her. That insidious voice whispering in her ear didn’t help.
“Is your soul pure?” It asked again, thankfully not touching her this time although its breath on her neck was still enough to make her skin crawl.
“Do you want to give up?” It questioned. “All you have to do is let go of the rope and this will be over.”
The idea was tempting. To step away from the fantasy, tug off her hood and see this terrifying creature for what it really must be. Just another actor playing a part. But Neil would never let it go if he found out she’d chickened out.
Pushing the voice to the back of her mind, she continued her slow, steady progress across the rickety bridge, breathing a deep sigh of relief as she felt the planks begin to tilt upwards, signalling that solid ground must be close.
“You’ve already been judged,” the voice murmured as she shakily stepped onto former ground. “I know the answer to the question,” it taunted, “do you?”
“Of course I do,” Gemma muttered under her breath as she began to follow the rope more confidently now. God she must be mad, talking back to the voice as if it were a real question. Only one element to go now, fire. Then she was free.
“What’s the answer then, little girl?” The voice mocked, seeming to move around her as it spoke. Squinting through the hood, she tried to make out some form in the flickering darkness but there was nothing. Nothing moved, even the other people in her group could no longer be heard.
A brilliant flash of light lit up the path in front of her as a wall of flame sprung up out of nowhere, blocking her way.
The heat of the fire so close was comforting at first after the chill of the other three zones but it soon began to feel uncomfortable as sweat started to run down her back. Where was she supposed to go now?
“It’s the end of the road now,” the voice mocked, louder this time. “What is your answer?”
Realising that she’d have to give a reply if she wanted the flames to disappear, she took a deep breath.
“My soul is pure,” she muttered softly, embarrassed at being made to give the statement in public. It felt like a lie, after all, was anyone’s soul truly pure? But if that was what she had to do to escape this awful ride and rejoin her friends then that was what she must do.
Closing her eyes against the brightness she waited for the flames to go but they remained.
“My soul is pure,” she repeated desperately, almost shouting now in her panic. They had to let her through eventually right? The next group would be coming through soon.
“Prove it,” the voice challenged from behind her.
“How? How do I prove it?”
“Let go of the rope and step into the fire. The fire will only burn the impurities in your soul. If you’re pure then you will pass through unscathed.”
Staring at the wall of flame, Gemma paused. It certainly looked real, but from what the voice was saying, it couldn’t be. It had to be a very clever special effect. With the hood over her head it appeared real but without she would easily see it for the fake it was.
The heat felt real though, the insistent nagging voice in the back of her mind reminded her. As if recognising her thoughts, the heat suddenly vanished, replaced by a bone numbingly damp cold. The flames remained however, even more menacing now without the heat.
“Prove it,” the voice demanded from behind her.
Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes Gemma gathered her courage. With one final clenching of her fists she let go of the rope, taking one tentative step towards the fire, then, when she felt no heat coming from it, another.
Feeling more confident now, Gemma plunged into the wall of flame.
The hood caught fire first. The material melting and moulding to her skin as it burnt. The rest of her clothes quickly followed.
The pain was awful and unexpected. The flames burned not hot but freezing cold, making her movements slow and jerky as she fought to keep moving, to break through to the other side.
Stop, drop and roll, stop, drop and roll. That would put out the fire, all she had to do was get to the other side.
She could smell herself now. The acrid smell of burning hair mixed in with another scent, almost like the aroma escaping from the hog roast van they’d passed on their way in.
As her skin began to bubble and blister she struggled forward blind, her eyelids sealed shut by the melted fabric of the hood. All the time her brain kept screaming at her. This is not real, this can’t be real. It’s just a theme park, special effects, illusion.
Stumbling forward on her knees now she felt the breath in her lungs freeze and she fought for air as the cold fire began to paralyse her even as it ate away at her flesh.
Falling to the floor, she curled into a ball, praying for it to be over soon.
As the flames licked away at her, she heard that same demonic voice all around her.
“You lied, little girl. You’re one of us now!”