"No adult without a child. No child without an adult." That's what was printed across the top of the orange flier. My son shoved the paper into my hands with the enthusiasm of someone redeeming a winning lottery ticket.
"See, mom. Kids aren't just allowed. They are required! Come on. Let's go! Please!"
Having a son who can read can be quite inconvenient. Ethan's been obsessed with this stupid Halloween haunt maze ever since he heard an ad on the radio. I told him it was for adults. Then the flier showed up under my windshield giving him all the details with which to confront me.
"Fine. We'll go, but I don't want you complaining when you have nightmares for the next month."
So that's how I got suckered into taking my son to a seasonal amusement that had dubbed itself "The Scariest Halloween Maze in the World."
On a cold Saturday evening in October we followed the billboards to a remote warehouse district outside the city. The kind of place I used to take my kid to see the circus. Now I was taking him to see what? Zombies? Gore? Monsters?
Of course. How original. When we arrived we were greeted by a creepy clown eager to take our money.
"Welcome to the the Scariest Halloween Maze in the World!" the clown announced, punctuating his announcement with an exaggerated laugh.
"Ethan, I really don't think this is for children. Let's go home."
"No adult without a child. No child without an adult," interrupted the clown still lurking next to me.
"He's only seven."
"He'll be fine. The children find it funny. It's the adults who get scared. Oh, of course, if it's you who is too afraid..."
"I'm not afraid of clowns."
"It's not me you should be afraid of."
"Mom! Come on! Let's get in line."
"Fine. We're here. We may as well go in."
The clown smiled approvingly as I paid our admission and we got into line. People were sent into the maze by twos, always one adult and one child. Sometimes a hesitant adult with an enthusiastic child. Sometimes an enthusiastic adult clung to by an already terrified child. Sometimes both the adult and child looked excited to go in. Sometimes neither did. I knew which group Ethan and I were in.
"It will be okay, mom. Like you say, it's all pretend. I'll hold your hand the hold time."
I have to admit that made me feel a bit braver.
When it was our turn we were led into a shadowy corridor. Around each corner combination of actors and cheap animatronics created scene after predictable scene: a zombie attack, a mad scientist's lab, a vampire's lair. It was far from the scariest Halloween maze. It was more like the cheesiest. I was torn between being angry about the waste of money and being relieved that it was not as scary as I had feared.
We got turned around for a bit. We hit a few shadowy dead ends and visited the zombie room three times. We ran into an obviously rattled mother and daughter who asked if we could stick together. I said yes, but a ghoulish character stopped us as the four of us turned the next corner.
"Two by two. Two by two only please," he told us as he split us back into pairs and sent us off in opposite directions.
Ethan and I passed a woman dressed as a blood-spattered baby doll in an enormous rocking chair. We turned left and found a space devoid of gory props and spooky characters. It was a mirror maze. Wherever I looked all I could see was me and Ethan repeated for eternity.
We moved carefully trying to distinguish mirrors from glass panels from open walkways. We had only gone around a few turns when the lights suddenly went out. It was completely black.
"It's okay. I'm sure they'll come back on."
Suddenly there was a flash of light and I was hit with a wet mist. Instinctively my hands shot to my face to wipe away the moisture (It was probably just water, right?), but when I reached down to take Ethan's hand again...
"Ethan? Ethan, where are you?"
In the blackness I could only see the floating shapes that remain after a flash of brightness. I groped the air for my son.
"Ethan? Ethan, this is not funny. Please say something."
No answer. I felt around in my purse until I found my cell phone. I woke up the screen to get some light. All the illumination showed was my own reflection in all directions. No Ethan. Also, the passage that I swore we had come from was now a mirrored wall. There were mirrored walls to each side of me. I was no longer in a maze. I was in a box with no obvious way out.
"Ethan! Someone! Help!"
I looked a my phone. No bars. I pushed on the mirrored walls. I felt for a crevice, a handle, anything. I banged on the shiny surfaces. They swayed but did not break or move.
"Somebody let me out of here! Ethan! Where are you? Ethan! Ethan!"
I pawed at the walls in the light of multiplied reflections of my cell phone and the madwoman now holding it. I don't know how much time passed before I took a break from my futility and collapsed on the floor. I let my phone go dark as I lay on the floor panting and trying desperately to figure out what to do. Then, as I felt the hope and clarity draining from my body...
The lights came on.
I was temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness, but started to make out something different. There was no longer a mirrored wall in front of me. There was a corridor. I stumbled into it as if it could disappear any second. Once out of the mirrored space I got to my feet and ran.
I followed the shadowy hallway with no idea where I was going. Running and banging the walls as I went. Just hoping to find a way out. Just hoping to find Ethan.
I paused. I could hear something. Muffled beyond the walls. Screaming? Laughing?
I started running again. My heart was beating so hard I could hear it in my ears. I wasn't thinking, just going, following turn by turn until I saw a bright opening. I burst through it. My eyes needed a moment to adjust to the light. What I saw didn't make sense, but as my eyes open it was clear what I was seeing...
Kids playing. There was a bouncy house and games and cotton candy. Everyone looked safe and happy, but where was Ethan?
I spotted him crawling out of the bounce house. I ran to him. When he saw me he waved. The moment I reached him I held him tightly.
"Ethan! I found you! Are you alright?"
"Yeah. This place is awesome. I mean, I was a little scared when it got dark and the guy pulled me from you. Then we went down a super long slide, and he brought me here. Look at all this! It's so much fun! Did you have fun too, mom?"
"See, I told you it wouldn't be scary for him," said the clown from the entrance who was now leaning down to whisper in my ear. "But tell me. Did we manage to scare you?"
I ignored him as I wiped the tears from my eyes. "Ethan, let's go."
I grabbed Ethan's hand and his shoes that I spotted at the bounce house entrance. He protested about wanting to stay but followed me toward the door marked exit. As we walked I noticed the others. The other parents. Some were just emerging from the maze still searching the crowd for the children. Others were crying and hugging their children tightly. Some were angrily dragging their kids out the door.
I have been to the scariest Halloween maze in the world, and it terrified me.
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