The Rotunda :
Most people who choose to go hiking do so in the summer or spring, but some of my college friends and I tend to prefer hiking in the winter. After our final arduous semester of college, our small gang of three decided to go on a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains and try some hiking there. Jack was applying to law school in Knoxville, and so was using this trip both for the hike and to get a sense of his school of interest. He had spiked black hair, a small patch of facial hair under his lip, and green eyes, which made him popular with some ladies in our university. Craig was looking to become a park ranger and looked like he was meant for the wild, with fuzzy brown hair and an extensive boxed beard.
This story isn’t about something scary we encountered in the woods, or some monster hiding in the trees. The hike was actually fun, rewarding, and relaxed (though a bit cold). This is what happened in a small town we stayed in on the base of the mountains after the hike.
The town was designed for those hikers who choose to come in the spring and summer. The main street was filled with all sorts of attractions for people who were interested in the beautiful nature all around but did not want to actually venture into the hiking trails. There were cable cars to high-altitude convention centers, arcades, bowling alleys, “driving” trails, carnival-like games, and a haunted house.
After the hike, my friends and I decided to spend an extra day exploring these attractions. To me, the whole town had an eerie aura, which was accentuated by the lack of tourists in the winter months. Though everything was open, there simply were no people on the streets other than us, and maybe a few other winter hikers and the rare locals.
After riding the cable car for a spectacular sunset view of the mountains, we argued about whether to call it a night. Always looking for a fun fright, I recommended we venture to the haunted house. My friends considered it childish, but I said I was going to go anyway, and meet them back at the hotel. That was a very bad mistake.
The haunted house had a strange set-up; there was no front door, rather a gondola leading up to a door on the second story. From the outside it looked like the house was made of concrete painted to look like old wood, reminiscent of the entrance to an old mine or a tunnel. The building was very clearly a commercial haunted house. I could even see the pop-out skeletons and department-store-like special effects around the door in the second story, and there were buildings with other, non-scary attractions all around the haunted house. All this helped alleviate my fears.
I never intended to go it alone, but after waiting for 5 minutes, the person manning the entrance booth realized that no one else was going to join me. I gave him the $20 entrance fee and told him that considering it’s a winter evening and there are barely any tourists around, I might as well go in alone. I was feeling overconfident, and told him that I don’t scare easily. At that moment, something changed. The man, who was wearing a clownish outfit and had straight brown hair flowing to one side of his head, changed his expression from bored to somber. His brown eyes pierced mine, and he muttered under his breath,
“You shouldn’t say that. You shouldn’t do this alone.”
Immediately after, he smiled, and used an intercom system to let the actors inside know that a young male is coming in. I heard the actors ask if I was alone and he confirmed it. There was dead silence. One of the actors repeated through the intercom, so that I could hear,
“You shouldn’t say that. You shouldn’t do this alone. Run through the rotunda.”
I’ve been to a number of haunted houses and this seemed unusual. Something didn’t sit right with me, but I chalked it up to an early scare tactic they were using before I even entered the house. The man told me the ground rules: “No touching the actors. Proceed forward at a steady pace. If you give up and need it to end early, yell at the top of your lungs, ‘STOP!’” Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this all before. Then the man grabbed me and looked at me very sternly.
“Run through the rotunda.”
Enough. I was getting sick of this scare tactic. I took the gondola and entered through the second floor door.
At first everything played out like a typical commercial haunted house. There were dark hallways, pop-out monsters, and hands of actors reaching for me through the walls. Having never done this alone, I did start getting scared, with my heart rate increasing and sweat coming off my palms, but it was a “fun” kind of fear. There was a crawlspace, totally lightless, and the actors, violating their own rules, grabbed my legs and activated a chainsaw (probably fake) as to cut them off. I desperately lunged forward out of the crawlspace into a room with brilliant purple lights rotating around a platform that seemed to be shaking. Disoriented, I took a few seconds to recuperate and recognized that it was an optical illusion; a cylindrical background wallpaper was rotating so fast as to make a walkway in the center look unstable. Confident, I went across the walkway to a door and opened it.
The following room was a large circular room with a dome on the top, a rotunda. It was dark, but there was enough light for me to make out a door on the far side. What was unusual was that the room was very different from the rest of the rooms in the building. Instead of a black Velcro-like material covering the walls, the walls were ordained with red marble and statues of deformed faces and broken bird wings. The room felt hot, and there was black liquid streaming out of a hole in the ceiling. I remembered the warnings earlier and a shiver went down my spine. I started to run to the door on the far end, but I had spent too much time looking at the surroundings. Suddenly, everything became pitch black, except for a faint red light radiating out of the column of black liquid in the center.
I tried to keep my trajectory to the door, but it was locked now. Another shiver went down my spine. That’s when I started to hear voices all around me. At first I thought they were the actors, and they kept repeating my name.
“Kenneth. Kenneth. Kenneth.”
I couldn’t see. I couldn’t feel anything. I could only hear my name. I thought back to the man at the entrance. At no point did I reveal my name. None of this made sense. I chickened out and shouted “STOP!” but the voices didn’t stop.
I took out my phone. It was 8:33pm and I had no reception. The voices wouldn’t stop, and the room was getting hotter and hotter. I shouted “Why are you doing this? I yelled stop!”
Around me I heard male and female voices in unison. I started hearing words and phrases other than my name.
“Troy abandoned. Clara unreciprocated. Malfeasance wins.”
Now I was terrified. Troy is the name of the town in New Hampshire I was born in. My family moved to New York City when I was young, where I grew up and went to school. Clara was my first crush, though nothing ever came of my lust for her. Malfeasance was the word by which I won a small spelling bee in my school.
I began to shake at these words, and the room began to feel even hotter. But now the heat was starting to localize to my right hand, and was becoming very painful. I cried out for this to stop, and tried to knock down the locked door out of the rotunda, to no avail. I pulled out my phone, but it wasn’t working. The voices continued, in a lower tone:
“A burning hand. A broken face. A broken wing.”
As these words were uttered, my hand, in extreme pain, began to cool down. When I was in school I burned my hand in an oven. I had also been in a stupid fistfight with a classmate over cutting a line in a cafeteria, which ended with both of us breaking each other’s noses. More recently, on a drive to a job interview in Chicago, I ran over a wounded bird on the highway. I felt terrible and remember the image of the bird’s deformed wing.
I tried closing my ears, but the voices only got louder.
“Heights, anger, loss.”
These words I did not recognize, but the lowering, booming tones of the voices kept me shuddering.
At this point, the black liquid emanating the faint light began to transform from a stream into a blob. The liquid grew and started taking the shape of a human being. Once the shaping was complete, the liquid changed color. In front of me was a man with green eyes, and straight black hair. He had a soul patch and was wearing a suit with a red tie. A knife materialized in his right hand.
No words can express the terror I felt at that moment. With sweat falling down my forehead, with my heart racing so fast and so powerfully that I could feel my chest wall vibrate, and with my muscles trembling and shaking, I begged not to die. The “man” in the center of the room didn’t move, but he stared directly at me, coldly, robotically. I was too afraid to look away from his green eyes. I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my chest, the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I screamed, I cried. Then the figure dematerialized, and the room lit up to the level of light there was when I first entered.
I lunged for the door with no hesitation, and it swung open. The moment I stepped out of the rotunda, the pain stopped. The rest of the haunted house was completely lit. There were no actors, but there were deactivated pop-out monsters. I traversed twisted corridors similar to those before the rotunda, but lit up and featureless. I exited through a door in the back of the haunted house.
I took out my phone, which was working again. It was 10:00pm. This didn’t make sense; I knew I spent no more than 20 minutes in there. I was shaking, terrified, and angry. I ran to the front of the haunted house, but there was no one there, no workers, no entrance booth personnel, no actors. I went back to the hotel, swearing to myself to keep the whole affair secret to anyone other than the internet.
The next morning, I told my friends to give me one more hour before we head up to Knoxville. I went back to the haunted house. It looked the same as it did when I first entered, and there was a man at the entrance booth. He looked at me unimpressed, and did not appear to be the same man who greeted me last time. I began yelling and screaming, asking what kind of a sick joke they pulled on me last night, and how they discovered so much about me. He told me that it’s been a slow season, and no one came to the house last night. I felt enraged, and he threatened to call the police.
Feeling defeated and upset, I retired back to the hotel. In the room, Jack was packing some stuff excitedly and jittery. There was a nasty smell in the room, but after the sensory overload last night, I was done analyzing.
“Where’s Craig?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s out prepping the car. Do you like the suit? I’m excited for Knoxville. Just in case I have to impress anyone, I think I’m going to straighten my hair. Do you think I should go for a red or blue tie?”