Tis the season not for bells that jingle or the bounty of carbohydrates and turkeys fighting for our dining room tables’ real estate. It is the month of Halloween, and the most casual to the hardest of the hardcore horror fans are planning to celebrate in one of America’s favorite and most economically-driven holidays. For many of us, a costume party or parade is standard, or a good ol’ horror movie marathon will suffice. But for millions of Americans, we endure the jump scares of Halloween mazes, some rudimentary, some elaborate (Universal Studios is arguably the leader of the haunted maze). And here is where Josh Hancock’s excellent new book Death Rituals commands our attention. Not only is Hancock’s new book perfect for the ghoulish celebration, it is a methodical examination about our increasing appetite to be scared in such haunts, bordering lines of decency for a truly authentic experience. It forces readers to question how far one would go for an immersive simulation that blurs the line between performed scares and the reality of being tortured, harassed, or even killed.
The story of Death Rituals focuses on the tragic beginnings of college student Cherie Alvarez, who as a young child witnessed – and survived – the brutal murder of her pregnant mother at the hands of a mentally ill intruder. The scene will become infamous, on par with the likes of the Manson Family murder-spree, and be recalled in popular media as the tonally contradicting “Apple Hill Murders,” referring to a fictional neighborhood in the very real Mendocino County. (Such a space for a murder already sets a scene that reflects the Northwestern dreariness made famous by the likes of David Lynch.) Cherie’s life is chronicled in Hancock’s unique epistolary style, a structure he has used to great effect in his past two novels. Hancock, for example, introduces details of the murder through various media accounts, including newspaper clippings, blog posts with comments, and documentaries.
An equally compelling character named Bobby Pruitt, an eccentric creator of elaborate haunts, is garnering negative publicity for creating mazes modeled from the tragedies of real-life murder victims. The pitch is simple: If you love stories of murder and mayhem, like the infamous Sharon Tate massacre, why not relive that experience in a maze that allows performers to break an industry standard: no touching of guests. Forget touching. A waiver that all paying guests must sign allows actors to hit, spit, and torture unsuspecting thrillseekers who were not anticipating the violation of all their senses. Pruitt even goes so far as to “reenact” classic horror films such as The Hills Have Eyes. His maze-like “simulation” is performed in an actual remote area within the desert, where actors terrorize guests that model scenes from Wes Craven’s classic. On paper, the idea elicits memes of Futurama’s Fry holding a wad of cash with the subtitle “Shut up and take my money!” But in practice, that “haunt” proves dangerous to guests, with actors stripping off guests’ clothing, urinating in crazed rituals, and sexually harassing (mostly) women.
Pruitt’s antics catches the attention of Cherie, who is worried that this orchestrator of realistic haunts is going too far, especially with the inception of Pruitt’s latest haunt Death Rituals. This latest experience pieces together real murder cases that Cherie believes exploits victims like herself. She voices her complaint in a college essay – in impeccable APA format, nonetheless – that goes viral and is circulated in popular media. The implications of Cherie’s newer, less infamous fame, will lead to a climactic showdown with Pruitt and Alvarez that is both terrifying and gripping.
But what makes this text work for horror fangirls and boys is Hancock’s clever weaving of dark themes (murder, gore, exploitation) with a genuine concern for the wellness of human beings. In no such fashion is Hancock pushing a contrived morality tale with “a message,” but he did have me questioning my own consumption of violent stories and my love for haunted mazes. Stephen King calls the enjoyment of horror a cathartic way of feeding our internal alligators. Failure to feed the beast within us can have our external selves act out. Such is why yours truly, and many amazing, ethically-driven people I know can have our blood-soaked Hannibal cake and eat it, too. All of our desires, as light or dark as they may be, can be released by the consumption of horror.
For Cherie and Bobby, the two are on extreme sides of this cathartic scale: One embodies the worst form of trauma, the other attempts to create, promote, and disseminate trauma for the average consumer who has no genuine connection to violence. By the end of this book, I kept asking who was I? Bobby or Cherie? Perhaps the answer is none…or both, for we are all susceptible to violence, much as we are capable of promoting it without considering the consequences.
It is this philosophical battle I continue to have that had me loving every line of Death Rituals and why every serious horror fan should read it. After all, how many more marathons of Friday the 13th can you endure? Put down the remote (or phone, or tablet…) and pick up this book.
Death Rituals is available now.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality