It Came from Rifftrax: ‘House on Haunted Hill’

Life’s been busy lately, but I wanted to make sure we got this one up for Halloween (more or less: it’s late, but under the wire). In another live show (I really like grabbing these when I can; you get shorts, ad-libbing among the riffers, and the added energy of the crowd), Mike, Kevin, and Bill tackle one of the most ‘Halloween’ films ever made: William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring the unique Vincent Price.

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“I think everyone wonders what he’d do if he saw a ghost.”

Before that, we get not one, but two Halloween-style shorts, both of which are absolutely brilliant. First is Magical Disappearing Money (“The story of the trillion-dollar stimulus package!”), in which a witch uses her dark magic to show people at the grocery store how they can save a small amount of money by putting in some extra work and severely lowering their standards (e.g. she recommends condensed milk as an alternative to regular milk: “Not just for war time conditions anymore!”). She also doesn’t consider ideas such as “part of the price is for the saved effort” or “if you want pudding for a school lunch, it’s probably not practical to just make your own pudding from scratch.” Of course, the real fun comes from the witch’s bizarre, ditzy behavior along with her dubious recommendations. The Riffers delight in interpreting her as a demonic harbinger of evil, sending milkmen to hell and swiping the souls of the innocent (Kevin’s skit of being trapped in the milk fridge was particularly great).

-“Hm, ‘Beard Completer.’ Worth a shot…”
-“Satan’s oats only cost you your soul!”
-“Meanwhile, Fred the cat makes his escape.” “I can has freedom?”
-“You know, she’s pretty pathetic, but not nearly as creepy as the witch who lives in the adult video store.”
-“You know, drainage runoff is cheaper than everything here. Where do you draw the line, you harpy?!”

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“Join me in the abyss of savings!”

Next up is Paper and I, which features a living paper bag instructing young Willy about the paper industry, in the process turning him into a dead-eyed fanatic who thinks only of paper, and eventually they combine their dark powers to remove all paper from the world to teach people not to take it for granted. I am not really exaggerating at all. Then it ends with Willy euthanizing the bag. Again, that happens. The information is kind of interesting, but the whole thing is so nuts that it gets lost amid the insanity (Watch out for the kid who randomly decides to imitate a chimpanzee in the background of one scene. Again, not kidding: that happens).

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“You’ll never be rid of me, Willy!”

This is possibly one of the funniest shorts they ever did, for the combination of the utterly insane storyline, the paper bag’s hilarious, nasally voice, and the fact that they barely have to exaggerate the content at all to turn an educational short for kids into the tale of a boy’s descent into madness (also watch for the bit where the Nashville audience cheers the information that the South provides most of the nation’s paper).

-“Now I will show you your sins, Willy!”
-“Why didn’t we just say ‘plastic’ at the grocery store? Now our boy’s a lunatic!”
-“Here I am, Willy!” “I’m just serving some gruel to the other captured children.”
-“We’ll grow and grow! Stronger and stronger.” “And then we will march on Saruman!”
-“Oh, no; someone invented the internet!”
-“We’ll blot out the Moon, Willy! We’re gods!

Both these shorts are so strange that they barely need any riffing to make them funny, but the jokes just push them from ‘funny’ to ‘painfully hilarious’ territory. Not to mention the unintentionally dark content set a perfect tone for Halloween.”

Which brings us to the main feature. Vincent Price plays an ultra-rich man who, together with his wife, hosts a party in a giant house on ‘haunted hill’ (actually a Frank Lloyd Wright house), in which the five guests will each earn ten-thousand dollars if they spend the whole night in the house. The party, as it turns out, seems to be primarily a pretext for a murder, though who will be trying to kill whom remains to be seen.

The film is a pure delight, from the lushly gothic cinematography and set design to the deliciously arch dialogue between Price and Carol Ohmart, who plays his equally devilish wife (she claims he murdered his three previous wives, he claims she’s tried to poison him. The audience has no trouble believing both).

Price’s trademark hamminess is, of course, the chief asset of the film. The man was simply a joy to watch whatever he did, and when he did horror he was truly one-of-a-kind; equal parts ghoulish and elegant. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where he shakes up a champagne bottle and aims it at his wife’s head like a rifle before commenting on what a good headline it would make. That’s the Price character: the kind of man who will cheerfully poison you with a fine old wine and then discourse on the vintage while he watches you die.

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“Arsenic on the rocks.”

(Needless to say, he was also a master actor whenever he ended up in a ‘straight’ role: he just enjoyed the horror persona he developed too much to stray far from it most of the time).

The film also includes prolific character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (best known as Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon and nicknamed “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”) as the fidgety owner of the house, who fills in the history of the ghosts while chewing any scenery left by Price and his wife. The rest of the characters are pretty standard: the innocent young heroine, the stalwart and rather dense young hero, the skeptical doctor, and so on.

The scares are completely over-the-top and contrived as all get-out, though sometimes rather effective for all of that, especially a very well-executed jump scare. Said scare then gets a ‘natural’ explanation that raises far, far more questions than it answers. As a matter of fact, revelations at the end raises the question of just how much we saw was supposed to be supernatural and how much an elaborate hoax, though quite frankly given the things we saw, the supernatural explanation would have been much more credible.

The movie could be described as a “Weird Tales” cover brought to life, or a young boy’s idea of a haunted house made into a film. It’s cartoony, but for that very reason is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and is spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The riffing, like with Jack the Giant Killer, only adds to the fun, and it’s clear that both the riffers and the audience are enjoying the film immensely even as they roast it. Vincent Price in particular gets a full cheer when he first shows up. Many jokes also revolve around how ridiculously sexy Carol Ohmart was (“Is your face on yet?” “Her face but not her shirt!”). One particularly amusing joke deals with Vincent Price actually using the line “It’s close to midnight,” which the riffers imagine him turning into the opening of ‘Thriller’ before thinking, “I should tell that to that young…” An early gag involves drunk Frank Lloyd Wright. Later they get the entire theater chanting for heads (“Aw, it’s just frilly underwear!” “Boo!”).

-“Doctor Trent…” “May I call you ‘Council of’?”
-“Have you ever tried to get rid of four tons of acid in your basement? You know how expensive that is?”
-“$10,000…” “Invest that in Edsel, I think we’ll be set.”
-“You know how blind people’s senses sharpen to compensate for lack of sight? She grew wheels.” “Blind people are cool!”
-“Fear makes people do amazing things.” “Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel due to crippling fear of spiders.”
-“He tried to kill me!” “Did it work?”
-“You all right? You look like you just saw a talking paper bag.”
-*thunder* “Damn neighbor must be counting things again…”
-“And if you run into some meddling kids and a dog that ‘kind of’ talks, shoot to kill!
-“In the meantime I’ll be emptying the cash from my mattress and fleeing to Mexico if you need me. Not an admission of guilt!”

During the actual live performance itself, there’s some fun to be had with the trio dressing up (Kevin with a gorgon wig, prompting questions about the other end of the snakes, Bill as a ‘sexy kitten’, etc.). Not to mention many MST3k-themed costumes in the crowd.

They’re also joined for the second short, and a brief sketch during the film, by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who I personally didn’t find all that funny, except when he’s threatening to replace Kevin during the film, though your mileage may vary.

In any case, this is a great show from Rifftrax, and perfect viewing for Halloween.

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“Damn it, Bones, leave her alone!”

Aleteia Post on Halloween

My first Aleteia post is up, and it’s about Halloween!

However, I also must confess a dislike for the usual proposed alternative of “All Saints Night,” in which children are encouraged to dress as their favorite saints and all the spooky trappings of the holiday are avoided. To paraphrase Jane Austen, that may be more Catholic, but it is much less like Halloween. An alternative that removes the defining elements of a thing is not a very appealing alternative.  

I would like to propose another approach — one that lets Halloween remain Halloween, while placing it in its proper context.

In the first place, we should keep in mind that the grotesque, macabre, and horrific have always been a part of Christian culture. Side-by-side with the celebration of the high and the holy has been the contemplation of the dark and the frightening. Christians traditionally do not shy away from facing evil; we carve monsters on the sides of churches, compose ghost stories and legends of the unquiet dead, hold danses macabre in cemeteries, and even build whole chapels out of bones. What we are to fear makes as much a part of the Christian story as what we are to desire.

This is because the greater the fear and the greater the danger, the greater the triumph. The path to glory leads through the dark valley; Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; Dante descends into Hell before he can view Heaven.

Read the rest here.

Horror Short for Halloween

Below is short piece I wrote up for the holiday. Enjoy!

Room 312

            Nothing had happened to Room 312. No grisly murders or occult rituals ever took place there. No workers died during its construction, or were entombed alive in its foundation. Nor was there anything at all unusual about the ground upon which the hotel stood. It had been run profitably for years, and as far as I have been able to discover, no one has ever reported any strange occurrences there outside the confines of that one room.

I arrived at the Garden Gate Hotel late on a rain-swept evening, tired and wanting nothing more than a good night’s rest. To my dismay, however, it seemed it wasn’t going to be that simple.

The Garden Gate Hotel has what its brochure describes as a ‘charmingly old fashioned aesthetic’, right down to the fact that the rooms had actual keys rather than keycards, and the keys were hung on pegs behind the front desk. This had the added benefit of displaying at a glance how many rooms were available. I saw, to my relief as I approached the desk, that there was at least one key left.

“I’d like a room for the night,” I said.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the desk clerk, a pale, soft-looking man with the most perfectly round head I’ve ever seen. “We’re full up.”

I did a double take. The lone key was still on the wall.

“Are you sure?” I said, nodding at it.

“Yes, sir,” said the clerk. “I’m very sorry.”

“What about that key right there?”

He didn’t look round. Instead, his eyes dropped slightly, as though it were something he didn’t like to talk about.

“That room is not available, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?”

“It…it’s hotel policy, sir.”

By now I was getting angry. I had just had a long journey, and was facing another one the next day. The last thing I wanted was to be told I had to get back on the road in the rain and look for another hotel, especially for what seemed to me no reason at all.

“I’d like to speak with the manager if I could,” I said.

The clerk seemed relieved.

“Right away sir,” he said, and disappeared into the inner office. I waited, silently marshaling my debating powers. Whatever was wrong with that room, be it mold or noise or whatever, I intended to have it.

A few minutes later, the clerk returned with the manager in tow. The manager was a tall, soldierly-looking man, who I at once pegged as being more straightforward and intelligent than his employer. We shook hands and he explained that, he was very sorry, but they never rented room 312 out to anyone.

“So I have been told,” I said. “But why? What’s wrong with the room?”

“That’s rather difficult to say,” the manager answered.

“Is it a health hazard?”

“N-no,” said the manage hesitantly. “Not exactly, though I believe it could be dangerous.”

“No mold, no toxic chemicals, no gas leaks, nothing of the kind?”

“Of course not,” said the manager. “If it were, I’d have it fixed. I’m afraid I’m not doing a good job of explaining, but the trouble is the thing is so darned hard to explain.”

Another idea occurred to me. It almost made me want to laugh.

“Is it haunted?”

He hesitated.

“Again, not exactly,” he said. “Though that’s closer to the mark.”

He thought about it a moment, stroking his chin.

“Put it this way,” he said at last. “Every man who has spent a night in that room has called it the worst experience of his life.”

I stared at him.

“What happens to them?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never spent a night in that room, and the people who have won’t describe what happened. They just say it was hell.”

Strange though it is to say, especially knowing what I now know, all this only made me more eager to have the room. I wanted to know what was strange about it. We are infallibly drawn to the forbidden; the best way to make sure someone touches something is to put a sign over it saying ‘do not touch.’

“Well, look,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts or whatever else it is, and I’m not going back out in this weather trying to find another hotel. If you don’t intend to offer the room, why keep the key out?”

The manager gave me a rather twisted smile.

“I don’t,” he said. “Most of the time it’s locked in my desk. But somehow or other, it always finds its way back onto the peg just in time for someone like you to come along and ask for it.”

That made a chill run down my spine, but at the same time I thought “maybe this is a gimmick of the hotel: a way to make the stay more memorable.”

“Be that as it may,” I said. “I’d still like to have that room tonight.”

The manager sighed. He could see I didn’t believe him.

“Very well,” he said, nodding to the clerk, who took down the key. “Wait here a moment, sir.”

He disappeared into his office again and returned with a sheet of paper.

“This is a waiver signifying that I warned you of the dangers of Room 312 and that you will not hold this hotel responsible for any trauma or injuries that may occur.”

“Wait, seriously?”

“I’ve been sued twice by people who have spent the night in that room, and nearly lost my business. Either you sign this waiver or I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I rolled my eyes and signed. The clerk handed me the key.

The manager himself accompanied me upstairs to the forbidden room. After all that build up, I expected something strange; maybe full of dust and cobwebs. But no; the room looked perfectly ordinary. The door opened on a short hall that ran past the closet and bathroom. There was a queen-sized bed, a desk, dresser, two nightstands, and a chair. The window looked out on the highway, now hidden by the mist and rain.

I admit, there was something about the very ordinariness of the room that struck me as slightly ominous. If the management had merely been attempting to create a memorable experience, then wouldn’t they have gussied up the room a bit?

Nevertheless, I went inside and deposited my bag on the bed. I looked in the bathroom and closet and found they were perfectly normal, as everything else, and my initial sense of unease abated. It seemed clear there was nothing at all to worry about.

“Well, sir, if you’re still determined…” the manager began.

“I am,” I said.

“Then I’ll say good night, and I wish you luck. If you need anything, dial nine for the front desk.”

With that, he bowed and departed, shutting me in as he did so.

I chuckled to myself a little, and dismissing the idea of ghosts and hauntings from my mind, started to unpack the few things I would need for the night.

First of all, I wanted a shower after my long drive. The spray was weak, but at least the water was warm. I’d certainly had worse hotel showers.

As I was leaving the bathroom, I paused. Something struck me as…off. The room appeared much as I had left it; there was my suitcase on the desk, my folded clothes on the dresser, and everything else in its place. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, the room was different.

I shook myself; that was absurd. I was letting the manager’s spooky talk get to me. With a shrug, I packed away my dirty clothes, got into bed, and settled in to read for a while to settle my mind.

Nevertheless, that sense that something had changed kept nagging at me, so that I had trouble focusing on my book. I set it face-down on the bed and looked about, frowning at the furniture, carpet, and walls, wondering what it could be that had so caught my attention…

Something twitched inside me, as if I had missed a step going downstairs. For it suddenly occurred to me that the wallpaper, with its cheap, miniature floral pattern, had been blue when I came in, but was now green. And not the kind of green that could be mistaken for blue: rather, what had been a light baby blue was now a bright leafy green.

Upon realizing this, I caught my breath. But then I told myself I couldn’t have seen it properly on my way in; the light was dim, after all, and I hadn’t paid it any particular notice. For all I knew, it could have been green when I came in. I forced myself to chuckle and returned to the book.

I forced myself to read without glancing up at the room. After a little while I became absorbed in the story and ceased to think about the wallpaper. About a half-hour later, as my eyes began to itch with tiredness, I finally set the book aside, yawned, and went to turn out the light.

Before I could, however, I froze.

There was no question this time. The carpet, which had been a dull gray when I came in, was now red.

For a long time, I didn’t move. I had, I think, been prepared, after a fashion, for ghosts: spectral figures, strange noises, phantom touches and the like, but this…this was like nothing I could have anticipated. It was, like the manager said, just strange. There was nothing threatening, or in the ordinary sense, frightening about it, except that it couldn’t happen. Carpets and wallpaper do not just spontaneously change colors behind your back. Yet, here they were, so softly and so quickly that I hadn’t even noticed it. It was so simple, so small, and yet so impossible that I had no idea how to react.

But I had to do something. Slowly, I reached down and felt the carpet, perhaps expecting to find that my hand would come away stained with dye. No such luck; the carpet felt as it had when I came in. Feeling wide-awake now, I got out of bed and began pacing on the strange carpet. What was I to do now? Go down and tell the manager he was right and I didn’t want the room after all? That probably would have been the smart thing, but even in such circumstances stubborn pride and an unwillingness to show weakness before others maintained its grip upon me. Really, was I about to go out again, in the rain, looking for another hotel just because of a color-changing carpet? No, that was absurd. It was too late for that. I was here and I was in for the night.

By now, though, I was very interested in the room. I wondered what secrets it might conceal. I started meticulously searching it, going through all the drawers in the dresser, the nightstands, and desk, as well as the closet. Nothing out of the ordinary. There was even a Gutenberg Bible in the nightstand. I rifled through it just to see if anything was concealed inside, but nothing fell out.

Then I stopped. Glancing idly over the pages, something caught my eye; the heading of the page I had flipped open to identified it as the Book of “Belial.” Though I’m not a religious man, I was pretty sure that wasn’t part of the New Testament. Moreover, from movies and books I’d read, I’d always heard ‘Belial’ used as an evil name.

I started to read a passage at random. My half-remembered Sunday school lessons told me it was the famous parable of the sower. Since that night I looked up the original to remind myself what it’s supposed to be like: Jesus likens Himself to a farmer planting grain, where some lands on a road where it’s eaten by crows, some lands on shallow ground where it withers, some lands among thorns, and some lands on good ground.

This version started out like that. But it didn’t end that way. Instead, the crows came all four times and ate up the seed no matter where it landed. The parable ended with the line “And the crows grew fat upon the seed.” Then this version of Jesus began abusing the crowd, using language that would never have been in a real Bible. I won’t repeat it here, but it made me feel rather sick. I stopped reading and put the ‘Bible’ away.

I was half afraid to look up, but as though the room were rationing itself, there was no visible difference that I could detect. Again, I considered just getting dressed and leaving, right now. But again I rejected the idea. After all, color changes and a nasty fake Bible weren’t all that bad: nothing to really keep me awake all night.

With that thought, I laid back down on the bed. But it took me a while to resolve on turning out the light. I had a nasty feeling that as soon as I did, the walls and floor would start flicking through the entire color wheel around me. I don’t know why, but that thought made me uneasy.

I lay there for a while, trying to nerve myself to turn out the light, until I realized that I was afraid of the dark. This made me angry enough at myself that I switch off the lamp without another thought, rolled over, and shut my eyes, determined that if the room wanted to go changing colors about me, it was welcome to as long as it didn’t wake me up.

What a damn fool I was.


It took me a long time to fall asleep, as you may imagine. Indeed, if I hadn’t been so very tired, I doubt I could have slept at all. All the time I lay awake, I was listening, for what, I don’t know, though I heard nothing. But my exhausted body eventually overcame my troubled mind, and I slept.

A noise awakened me with a start. It sounded as if something heavy had been dropped onto the floor. The room was in total darkness, so that it made no difference whether my eyes were open or shut. I reached for the bedside lamp…but couldn’t find it. I felt all along the side of the bed, growing more and more uneasy as I did so, for I sensed there was someone in the room, and the longer I spent groping in darkness, the more certain I became of it. There was no other noise, but I could sense it.

Meanwhile, I discovered that, not only the lamp had vanished, but the whole nightstand had apparently been moved and was no longer within reach. I hurriedly crawled to the other side of the bed, but again, I found nothing.

By now I was definitely alarmed. Someone was in the room; I was sure of that, and they had somehow moved both nightstands, with their lamps, out of my reach. The only thing to do now, I thought, was to make for the door.

I crawled back to the right side of the bed and swung my feet out. They landed, not in carpet, but in something soft, warm, and wet. I cried aloud at this, then tried to feel for solid ground with my feet, but to no avail. Deciding I had no choice, I nevertheless stood up, feeling my feet sink into the foul-smelling ooze. Feeling one hand along the wall for support, I staggered for the door. It was like walking through deep mud.

I hadn’t gone more than three steps before I ran flat into a wall. I pounded on it in desperation: this was wrong. I remembered the layout of the room, and the hallway to the door should be right here.

I began to grope my way along the wall, seeking the door, which I now thought must have moved somehow. I felt my way along two whole sides of the room before I realized that the door wasn’t the only thing missing; the dresser was gone, as was the desk. Moreover, the wall didn’t feel like wallpaper; it felt more like stone.

Then, on the third wall, about where the window had been in the normal room, I found it; the door. I almost exclaimed in relief as I felt for the handle and turned.

A blast of icy wind met me as I opened it. It certainly did not open into the hallway. I had the impression of vast, empty space: endless and cold. The air I now breathed was as sharp as on a winter night.

But it wasn’t absolutely dark. There was a light directly in front of me; a pale, almost greenish light, perfectly round and, from what I could see, about the size of a basketball. Though since there was no frame of reference and it cast no illumination on its surroundings, I suppose it might have been any size and any distance. It didn’t move or change in any way, and yet, the longer I looked at it, the more uncomfortable I became. I felt nauseous, depressed, and terrified all at once.

I don’t know how long I stood there, staring at the orb, but eventually I came to my senses enough to slam the door shut. With nowhere else to go, I felt for the bed. The only way I could think to end this nightmare, apart from entering that endless, cold chamber, was to go back to bed so that I could wake up.

To my slight surprise, I found it, just where it should have been. I crawled in and buried myself under the warm covers like a child hiding from a nightmare.

The relief of the warmth and comfort of the bed was such that, for a while, I didn’t even realize that there was something in there with me.

I froze, not daring to move for fear the thing should grab me. We were close enough that the stiff hairs on the thing’s body were just tickling my back. I had the impression that its body was long and thin and vaguely human, though I can’t be sure of that. It made no sound, nor did it move, yet it was there, just touching me.

I lay like that all night, not daring to move a muscle, while the thing lay beside me in the dark. I suppose I must have drifted off at some point, because the next thing I knew it was morning. The room was normal, except that my suitcase lay on the floor by the bed on the other side of the room from where I had put it.

Though I no longer felt the hairs in my back, it was a long time before I dared to look around to see if I was alone.

Needless to say, I left the hotel as soon as I could. The manager wasn’t there when I checked out, but the clerk said he had orders not to charge me for the night’s stay. I got on the road and drove to the nearest town, where I went into a small restaurant to order breakfast and coffee and stayed there the whole morning trying to collect my scattered nerves.

Since that night, I’ve tried to find out everything I could about the Garden Gate Hotel, and especially Room 312. As I said, I haven’t found anything in either the history of the building or the site that might give a clue as to what happened in that room. A year or so later, I even went back to discuss it with the manager, but he had no more idea than I did. The room had always been like that since it was built, and no one knew why.

I’ve never had another night like that in any other hotel. Though, ever since that night, I have sometimes awakened in the small hours of the morning, feeling stiff hairs tickling my back and the undeniable sensation that something was in bed with me.