Tween Halloween? I cracked that nut
I'M shuffling through some sort of cobweb-festooned dining room in a total electrical blackout, holding my 12-year-old daughter in front of me like a human shield, when a giant circus clown, of the Stephen King variety, comes crashing past, fangs bared, and I hear myself shrieking.
"Take the girl! Take the girl!"
As a 'How did I get here?' moment in the pantheon of fatherhood, I'd say this has to rank high. Only the sudden, shooting pain in my arm, where my daughter now delivers a no doubt justly deserved full-force knuckle punch, allows me the momentary clarity to review our situation, before a nightmarish Japanese ghost-horror child appears, long straggly hair over its face as it looks up in a silent scream that perfectly synchronises with my rather more vocal one.
"We're having a family day out," announces my wife at maximum volume an hour before, sending the dogs into a frenzy of deafening barking.
"Everyone downstairs for the big family day," she bellows, sounding not entirely inappropriately, like the ringmaster at a circus sideshow. "Now!"
"No thanks," comes the distant foghorn of the middle teen from his lair in the loft.
"Nah, you're all right," baritones his brother, disappearing with a freshly-made bucket of tea.
"I know I'M all right," yells my wife after him. "It's YOU LOT I'm worried about!"
In the run up to Halloween, this has been our only day off together as a family - and it has proven less than easy to drum up enthusiasm for any sort of outing with which to mark the occasion.
"Can we go and see a film?" offers the voice upstairs in a rare moment of participation.
"Something that doesn't involve screens," my wife returns.
There's a faint snort and then silence. My wife sighs.
"I know someone who'd like to do something," I say, as much to cheer my wife up as anything. I motion with my head to the youngest, already sitting at the kitchen island with her rain jacket on. She's grinning.
"The haunted castle tour," she says, clapping her hands. She's referring to the council-run castle mansion up the road from us, where they've put together some sort of Halloween ghost experience.
"Are you sure it's not just for little kids," says my wife doubtfully.
"There are disclaimers," I offer helpfully, "about people with heart problems and suchlike."
"Pffft! They always say that," she guffaws.
"Please?" grins the youngest.
"Okay, okay," says my wife. "Everyone in the car," she announces, suddenly in ringmaster mode again. "Everyone downstairs for the Halloween ghost tour. Car leaving NOW."
The sound of the electric shower comes on from upstairs.
"Honestly, I think it's just us," I say.
On the short drive there, through narrow roads swirling with fallen leaves, I consider what I'm getting myself into. Scary films and pumpkin carving I can handle aplenty.
Likewise, gory costumes and make-up - bring 'em on, the gorier the better.
Zombies suddenly jumping out from behind things and grabbing at me, I'm really not so sure about, especially given the fact that the venue is the sort of old, rambling manor that feels haunted in high summer, with its musty old rooms, creaky floorboards and giant portraits of creepy old men in wigs.
Creepiest of all is a taxidermy Grizzly Bear, so moth-eaten and lopsided, it looks like it was killed in a threshing machine accident, then stuffed by Montessori children as a class project. Hideous isn't the word.
"I think I only have enough cash for the two of you to go in," I say hopefully, turning into the car park.
"That's okay," says my wife. "You two go. It'll be fun!"
When we pay, we're herded downstairs into a basement area and a film clatters to life on the wall. 'Circus Train Crash' headlines read, as eerie, out-of-tune carnival music plays. 'Disfigured survivors take refuge in castle'. The horrifying photo of a clown with a mouthful of fangs appears.
"That's not disfigured," I murmur, "that's bad orthodontics."
"Shhhh!" rasps someone in front of me with two children in tow. The children turn and frown up at me. I bend slightly down towards them. "We're all going to die in here, you know," I whisper, wiggling my eyebrows.
Moments later, the tour begins and we're ushered through a series of rooms, all of us, that is, except the parent of two wailing children, who are hastily shown the nearest exit.
My daughter glares at me accusingly. "Don't look at me," I tell her. "I'm just trying to get into the spirit of things."
As it turns out, much of the tour is more 'joke shop' than 'Universal Studios', though I am caught out more than once by someone leaping out from behind something and trying to grab me.
"Jesus," I gasp, the third or fourth time this happens, pushing my daughter along ahead of me. "I get it, guys - you jump out, it's scary. Now quit it. AAAGGH!" Another arm flails at me from a hole in the wall.
When we emerge into daylight at the end, my wife is waiting.
"Was it good?" she says, "There was certainly a lot of screaming."
"Oh, you heard that?" I wince. "Yes. Hah! The, eh, actors were quite. . . vocal," I tell her.
"Happy Halloween," she says to our beaming daughter as they skip ahead to the car.
"Yeah," I mutter, checking my pulse and puffing my cheeks. "Likewise."