It was imperative that he got the timing perfect. There was too much riding on this. Scares had become harder and harder to come by, haunting more difficult and labor intensive than he could ever recall. And after being dead for 300 years he could recall a lot (though not his name, never his name).
Being a ghost used to be simple and straightforward. All it required was a suitably creepy residence, the cover of night fall, and a well placed moan. Or a door slamming on its own. Or a brief glimpse of his translucent form. Point is, he had options. He could afford to switch things up and experiment, to improvise and get inventive. The slightest provocation or tiniest diversion from the norms and comfort of the living inhabitants was all it took to send them hiding under their covers or shrieking out the front door.
Those were the days. He missed them dearly. But you couldn’t simply scare people in their homes anymore. Half of the time the residents were too exhausted from their days full of gig work and multiple jobs to pay much heed to anything. They would simply pass out on their bed or couch, falling asleep to their hundredth rewatch of Frasier or The Office. No amount of door slamming or spooky astral hovering was enough to get them out of bed. They may stir momentarily, sure, but they invariably decided that whatever was happening was not worth sacrificing the few hours of sleep they were able to get. Occasionally there would even be those who secretly wished for an untimely end, as it would get them out of working a double the next day.
The other half were worse, though. These were the people who, when they noticed a haunting may be occurring, became giddy and rushed to set up cameras and surveillance to catch the paranormal going-ons. This was incredibly annoying because 1) some ghosts do get performance anxiety, thank you very much and 2) a haunting doesn’t really work if your victims want it to happen. It made the job so much harder and so much less fulfilling, so eventually he gave up on haunting houses all together.
Next up was the various fun time pizza parlors. This seemed like a good idea at the time. Those giant animatronics that passed for children’s entertainment were already creepy on their own, so possessing one seemed like a sure bet. Of course, it was not a sure bet. In the daylight with unruly mobs of children running amok, no one really noticed the creepy subtlety of the giant mouse or dog moving on its own. If he pressed his luck and tried to do anything overt or sudden, the manager would simply close the curtain on the whole Giant Animal Band until an engineer who was really just the ticket booth operator who used to work at a Best Buy “fixed” the issue. Things weren’t better at night because, well, the place was closed, so there wasn’t anyone around to actually scare. It would just be a performance for the security cameras the manager would fast forward though the next morning as he nursed a hangover. It was a bust all around.
Briefly there was an attempt to haunt the forest outside a small town. This turned out to be incredibly boring, however. There was no guarantee when someone may come hiking through, and more than once by the time someone did show up he had zoned out or gotten distracted and completely missed the fact there was someone to spook until it was too late. He did not remember much about his life but he was fairly certain he had never been more embarrassed.
So it had come to this. Waiting in the back of a darkened movie theater, trying not to let his desperation cloud his judgement. The theater was not crowded, only about ten people total, mostly sitting in pairs and spread out. This was good. This made it easier to focus on the mark. Now which one…
A scream erupted from the giant glowing screen. Obviously he had chosen a horror movie to make his stand. Normally this would be something to scoff at, the kind of thing a newly minted spirit would do as they learned the tricks of the trade. Using the film to prime the audience?! Where is the challenge! But it had been so long since he had notched a win, he no longer cared if this was the haunting equivalent of bumpers running down the bowling alley lane. Pride was no longer a concern, just the simple completion of the act.
Slowly he floated towards the couple sitting smack dab center in the middle row. They were a younger couple, the woman with jet black hair clinging to the arm of her bearded companion. There was no one else near them so nothing could be blamed on other moviegoers, the ghost reasoned. Taking care to only brush up against her ear, he summoned all the menace within him and whispered “get ouuuuuuuuuuut.”
The woman shot up in her seat. “What was that?”
“What was what?” the man inquired, keeping his eyes trained to the screen.
This was the cue. Moving ever so slightly to position himself between his victims, the whisper came again. “Get ouuuuuuuuuuuuut.”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The man forcibly whispered back, barely turning his head.
Taken aback, the ghost blinked his non-material eyelids. That was not what he expected at all. He waited, still holding out hope that there would be a delayed response. It would be just like those old Casper cartoons, where it would belatedly dawn on the man what was occurring, and his fear would catch up with him. But afterlife is no cartoon, and the fear never did show up.
It was not too late to salvage the scare, though, even if panic was starting to grip the spirit. He moved to the side of the man, hoping to get a better look at what he was working with. And there it was; a giant tub of popcorn sitting in the man’s lap. Out of his peripheral vision, the ghost monitored the film. Yes, this was it. A jump scare was coming, he could tell. Just need to time it just right…
The tub of popcorn was ripped from the man’s grasp and tossed into the air just as an apparition appear in the mirror on the screen. “Jesus!” the man shouted, and the sound of a reaction was so gratifying that it took a moment to realize the cry was not one of fear or shock but anger.
“Oh my god, what!” The woman with jet black hair asked him accusingly. She had clearly been startled but it had also quickly turned to agitation which she aimed at her bearded date. Around them the other patrons were also making their displeasure known.
“Someone yanked the popcorn out of my hand!” the man said as he crouched in the row of seats, trying to see how much of his snack he could salvage. “Goddamnit, this cost me $20!” As he stood with the tub it was clear nearly all of it had ended up on the sticky floor. “One of you owes me $20!” The man insisted as his eyes landed on the teenage lad sitting closest to him, a row down and several seats over.
“Hey man, I didn’t do anything. How would I have gotten all the way over there and back anyway?” The teen crossed his arms in a self-conscious attempt to look more intimidating.
“You know what it could be?” An older woman sitting closer to the front had turned to join the ruckus. “I’ve heard movie theaters are doing all sorts of weird things to try and lure people back to the theaters. I bet this is a gimmick. They got this place rigged with wires and stuff to make it more of an ‘experience.’” There were nods and murmurs from the other patrons. This explanation seemed to check out.
“Whatever,” the bearded man grumbled as he dropped the near empty popcorn tub. “See babe, this is why we should just stream shit at home. Going to the theater sucks.”
“Not as bad as this movie!” another teen heckled, and the other moviegoers chuckled at his jest.
The woman with jet black hair got up and followed the bearded man out of the theater, and now that the cadence of the film had been ruined, one by one the other moviegoers followed suit until only the ghost remained. As he surveyed the now empty theater, scenes of staged horror still projected on the screen, a sigh was allowed to escape. The world had changed too much. There was less and less room in it for a humble spirit to frighten and scare, his space ever encroached by reality.
Oh well, he thought. Time to try the circus.
Tim Gaydos is a horror junkie who has always been partial to the raptors from Jurassic Park, fantasizing about having one as a pet during his grade school years. His previous work has been featured in the horror anthology After the Kool-Aid Is Gone, the Daily Drunk anthology A Drunken Midsommar, and the comedy site Robot Butt.