It’s a ‘Full-Contact’ Haunted House. What Could Go Wrong?

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By Victor LaValle

By James Han Mattson

Why do people enjoy being scared?

This is a pretty common question for those of us who write horror, or stories tinged with horror, and maybe for those who design roller coasters too. Why do some people take pleasure in terror?

It’s a question that could be posed to many of the characters in James Han Mattson’s insightful and gripping novel “Reprieve.” The story is set largely in Lincoln, Neb., and its focus is a place called the Quigley House, a “‘full-contact’ haunted house.” What does that mean? It’s an experience about a thousand times more intense than the fun little haunted houses that pop up every Halloween, where you wind through a maze of cheap plastic figures and badly amplified sound effects.

The owner of the Quigley House, John Forrester, describes the experience this way: “People might leave with cuts and bruises and minor shocks, nothing major. Everything is timed, everything is staged, everything is choreographed, but people don’t necessarily know that — they think there’s a chance they can be hurt, and because of this, something in them changes, they become entirely new people, primitive.”

It should be noted that Forrester is offering this description as part of his deposition in a criminal case. As you might imagine from the term “full-contact haunted house,” not to mention the basic needs of a novel, something has gone wrong during one of the haunts. Someone has been hurt far beyond the impacts of the “choreographed” events. What happened? Who was harmed? Who caused harm? Mattson’s novel answers these questions, but has a lot more it wants to explore. Like why the visitors, who are called “contestants,” and the house employees would participate in such an ordeal at all.

Along with Forrester, Mattson’s cast includes Kendra Brown, a Black teenager who moves to Nebraska with her mother in the wake of her father’s death; Bryan Douglas, her cousin, who already lives in Nebraska and becomes her lifeline when she arrives; Jaidee Charoensuk, a Thai exchange student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Leonard Grandton, a white hotel manager who does business with Forrester.

I’ve noted the races of each character because questions of race are paramount to Mattson’s novel. On the surface, “Reprieve” is a story about an attack at a haunted house, but Mattson is also investigating questions of identity and power, namely who in this story controls fears and who is subject to them. Thankfully, the answer isn’t as simple as having the Black and Thai characters suffer as victims of the powerful while the white characters serve as the abusers. Instead, nearly everyone here takes turns in these roles, being harmed by the greed and prejudices of others and then displaying their own not long afterward. And yet, the novel doesn’t pretend each character is equally at fault; there are, after all, degrees of power and powerlessness. The haunted house at the center of the narrative is an excellent touch because the ideas of danger and harm become material, frightening and imminent. At times, the reader is trapped in Quigley House with the contestants, in scenes that are genuinely unnerving.

Early on, Mattson name-checks a number of horror greats: Clive Barker and Stephen King, for instance. Like those writers, Mattson takes time acquainting the reader with the people who will eventually endure great pain and hardship. So we get a great deal of background on Kendra, Jaidee and Leonard in particular. Much of it is interesting and meaningful, but I would say, as one might find with Barker and King, there is such a thing as too much back story.

Another way to say this is that I kept wanting to return to the terrors of Quigley House. I wanted to see who survived and who didn’t. Of course, I cared about who did or didn’t make it out only because Mattson did such a fine job of making these people feel real and their pasts so satisfyingly complex. Still, their histories could have been trimmed down here and there, and nothing would have been lost.

Why do people enjoy being scared? I want to return to that question because there’s another, more profound question tucked behind it: Why do people like being manipulated?

When we read or watch a horror story, or a romance, or a thriller, we usually know how it’ll turn out. Same as when we climb aboard a dizzying roller coaster. We know how it will end, but we want to be taken on the ride. We trust that it’s just a ride and that’s why we can enjoy it. People want to be manipulated, to experience the emotional blitz of relinquishing power, as long as they can trust that the experience will be safe and that they can eventually reclaim control. But what if the person at the top doesn’t have your best interests in mind? What if, in fact, that person is happy to abuse and manipulate others to hold on to power and fortune? How might those around such a leader become warped, their worst impulses unleashed? In his sly way, Mattson turns his novel into a portrait of current events. And they have, indeed, been terrifying.

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