Sunday, March 01, 2009

Third Life Crisis: A Tale of Cliche' Horror.

Last night as my old friends Matt Mattson and Adam Borg stood in the kitchen of my house, I remembered when we all lived in the corner house across from the Provo library back in the day. They were fun times when we would sit in circles in one of our rooms and play the guitar and the occasional Halo, and last in order of importance maybe have girls over.

I said to them "We never do anything anymore! We lack spontaneity." I in particular have grown comfortable sitting in my room on a Saturday night, designing websites and waxing satirical on blogs about nothing in particular. The question arises, 'What does one blog about if one does nothing?'

So this horror movie begins the way many have been known to; friends sitting around reminiscing about the past, and then deciding that they should all go do something stupid to relive the glory days.

Our destination would be a certain Utah landmark that is now abandoned and which will remain nameless...ah heck, to not reveal it would render the rest of this story pointless. Also I had a key and was given permission to go out there by the city, so I can't really imagine that we would get in trouble for following the rules...Although I don't know if going out there at 1 in the morning is what they had in mind when they entrusted me with it.

It was the old abandoned Utah County Jail, a place with no electricity, and damp prison cells.

We jumped in my grown man car, and picked up our good friend William Rubio, (another "corner house" alum). We were in luck as Will brought his camera/camcorder and we all laughed nervously at the various cliche's we voluntarily fulfilled.

"Haha! Hey get me on camera! It will be like that sad message to my friends before we were never heard from again."

On a last note of romantic finality I called my friend Cherie, and told her "that if I don't answer my phone for the next few days, please come out to the Utah County Jail, and find our bodies." She laughed and said she personally wouldn't come, but she WOULD send someone else.

I for one had audibly told myself on the drive up that I don't believe in ghosts. Apparently I protested too much, and Will kept reminding me all through the night, how much I assured myself that I wasn't scared.

"This isn't so bad! Heh heh..."

But as we approached the gate, the jail presented itself an imposing figure. A mish-mash of 3 decades of tired architecture, forced institutional pleasantness, pitch dark windows and dead trees, that almost dared you to enter. We "laughed" some more, an outward expression of our "crying" inside.

I parked outside the entrance hugging the building with my car as not to be seen from the road. We looked up and perched on a ledge one hundred feet above us overlooking the jail was an Elementary School. I thought to myself what a poor geographical choice some city planner had made with that.

"Hey let's put all the curious kiddies right next to the tetanus factory."

"Great idea Charles! Now I know why you were elected."

On a cement bench near the entrance I pondered a large handheld "Slow" traffic sign and a trophy for a softball team circa 1987 sitting side by side, the kind of odd mix of memorabilia that collects around old empty buildings.

Finally as I turned the key to the entrance of the jail, we looked down the long dark corridor with our maglites, and shivered out loud, unsure of what the next hour would bring.

We told ourselves that there were two rules:
1. Stick together. Is this not the most obvious rule to follow in a horror movie? For the love of all that is holy (or unholy as the current case may be), why would you split up in a place like this?

and...

2. None of those stupid pranks where you jump out or scream in abandoned echoes around corners to spook each other. This is so childish, and the place was frightening enough without these gems of immaturity. This rule however quickly flew out one of the many broken windows, as the further we delved into the building the further we regressed into childhood. This was scout camp "capture the flag", 2am "T.P." missions, truth or dare in the light of nintendo living rooms, and snipe hunting compressed. How could we not devolve into children one last time?

The building as when it functioned as a jail continued to be a magnet for disreputable characters...like ourselves on this night. It had become a haven for punk kids and homeless people, as all buildings that have been left for dead eventually do. Of course there were the occasional movie crews, and photo buffs that had legally gained entrance to the building. "Forever Strong" had been shot here two summers before, and seeing the cheaply built flats, and other remnants of production design left behind, one could imagine this as a poor filmmakers dream. Besides the obvious jail setting, with proper lighting and minimal set design, it could easily pass for a hospital or school. I learned however that the place had been stripped of it's copper wiring by vandals some months earlier, rendering it powerless.

The bad kids always ruin the fun for the rest of us.

We carefully found our way around broken hallways and shattered lightbulbs, and I having been here twice before but only in daytime, was our guide of default.

The rooms were each gloomy in their emptiness and in my mind I began a checklist of the reasons this place and others like it were so frightening; mostly variations on the same theme.

The obvious first, was the darkness, or the mystery just beyond our humble illumination. The question of what lies on the outskirts of the circumference of light our mechanical torches created. The shadows, and reflections that become twisted and monstrous phantoms when shot through pains of broken glass, and around bending corners of dry wall.

The second being the weirdness and feel of the buildings layout. It was a maze of additions and bastardizations of once feng shui'd compartments, brought on by years of hasty necessity.

"We need a storage closet here Tommy!"

"But Frank, this is the middle of the cafeteria."

"Well then fill up the space around it with offices, and a bathroom"

It had the feel of a first world favela, a mix of ghetto shacks and shanties on a Brazilian hillside. This weird geometry answered for me why they had left this place to start anew somewhere else. It was the architectural equivalent of escaping a sinking ship.

Yet with this cramped and busy feel there still was a strong sense of emptiness. It stretched out longly North to South like a vast cruise liner that had settled on the dark bottom of the ocean. It had become terrifying simply because it had been left alone for so long, because its' masters had moved on to well mapped-out spots in newer buildings. To them, their memories were humdrum (as humdrum as life can be in a jail), of going to work each day in a place with functioning fluorescents and working drinking fountains. But to us its' uninformed explorers in the lightless shell, this place had never been civilized.

Still it was foreign yet familiar, filled with the aroma of years, like the flood of memories that comes with the smell of grandma's house. We didn't know the history, but we knew what it was like.

Our biggest catalyst of fear was our own imaginations. We huddled together as we descended the hallway. It felt as if any gap would let the ghosts come between us. No one really wanted to take the lead, but none of us wanted to bring up the rear. We made each other nervous with darting glances and double takes behind us. Our shouts of interest were indiscernible from our shouts of shock. Matt once yelled with a start when he came around a corner and saw the broken glass of a door window that to him looked like some demon from Hades locker room. Everywhere we went there were remnants of angst and immaturity. Past visitors would incomprehensibly smash windows and punch holes in walls. I didn't quite understand it the first time I saw it, but Will eventually summed it up nicely .

"Something about this place makes we want to smash things."

Spooky...as if the building possessed us, wanting us to tear it down from the inside, to put it out of its' misery.

Another item on my checklist of fears, perhaps the most real threat, was the idea that someone was living here. That at 1:30 in the morning we would be disturbing the slumber of some deranged "stabbing hobo". I wondered if even a homeless person would be crazy enough to live in here, then again most homeless people I was aware of WERE crazy. It was a "catch 22" that only reinforced my fear that we could be in actual danger.

This fear seemed to come to life for one breathtaking moment when Will looked down and said "Oh my Gosh, someone's sleeping right there" He pointed his flashlight to the ground to reveal a mass of blankets and pillows. Fortunately there was no one curled up inside them. I remembered that it had been there the last time I'd come here, but it was much less frightening in the day time. It was probably left behind by some couple who came here to "neck" as my mom would call it.

I remembered a thought that had often crossed my mind when I saw pillows in empty buildings or in the forest surrounded by beer cans and the like. Who would want to come to a place like this to spend time with someone they liked? Wouldn't that relationship be tainted by fear? Maybe that was the point. Perhaps they couldn't afford to rent horror movies so they went into dark places to get high off the adrenaline of the spookiness. I myself find this far too unsavory and simply enjoy cuddling a girl in the 2D fear that is reproduced on living room televisions. Much cozier.

We took the requisite pictures to relieve the tension, and posited the numerous scenarios that could take place in the supernatural thriller we were creating/living.

"What if we walked by this room and someone was sitting quietly in that chair with their back to us?"

Then Matt did it, and we made a short movie of it with Will's camera. As on the outside, the rooms of the jail seemed to be a weird meeting place for found objects. There was a missing person poster on the wall, a book on the floor called "Know Your Rights" and an obituary for a young man who died last year. It was eerie.

Scariest of all however was when we shined our flashlights into the doorway of one room and there sitting on the ground was a granite gravestone. We all stood in shock not sure of what to make of it, until I realized that perhaps it was a prop from "Forever Strong". After a moment of tension Will, who had a supporting role in the film laughed and said, "Oh yeah, that is in the movie." Still we wondered why someone would leave it behind posed in a way seemingly calculated to scare visitors to the jail.

We found the visiting room area, a room with small windows to the law abiding citizens on the other side. It was depressing, and we thought how hard and how unsanitary it would be to do one of those romantic kiss through the window scenes that happen in so many movies (at least the Great Muppet Caper).

The most startling point of the evening however came when we entered the cell block area. We entered through an imposing duo of bars and into a larger room with tables, and three sets of cells to our left. Each of them had two bunks on each side, and very little room. We were all enamored by this place, and we decided that we should take some pictures in the cells. Before we had entered the block we found a panel on the wall with a large crank on it. We turned it and heard a booming mechanical noise within the walls of the jail. Apparently this opened and closed the cells, but we didn't see any of the cells in the particular block open or close. We thought it must be on the fritz.

I was nervous about the bars to the outside of the cell block somehow closing on us, (as if this were possible right? so Adam stay outside the room. Meanwhile inside the block Matt went into one of the cells first, so Will could take a picture. As he did we discussed how the bars locked. We figured that since we didn't see a latch on the cell doors that they must be magnetic, and since there was no electricity in the building they wouldn't lock, but this was hasty and absolutely ridiculous logic.

Without Matt and I figuring it out, he closed the bars to the cell from the inside. It snapped shut with a resounding thud. He then pulled on the bars but they wouldn't move. Matt and I looked into each others eyes and an absolute wave of panic came over both us.

Matt freaked out because he envisioned being stuck in there all night until we could find help. I freaked because we had just locked my best friend in a jail cell that we were probably not supposed to be in at 1 am, and who on Earth were we going to call for help? How would I explain this?

Profanity was unfortunately exchanged and tense breathing ensued. A vision of Matt stuck in a cell all night while the rest of went for help quickly filled my mind.

In this moment of drama I added the fourth most striking addition to my checklist of why this place was frightening. The loneliness for one. I thought of being here on my own, exploring it out for fun, going into a cell for some unknown reason and accidentally closing the doors, being suddenly trapped, screaming for help for days on end. This is my new least favorite nightmare, proven by the fact that I dreamt it last night as I slept.

After what was only about 30 seconds but what seemed like at least 45, we figured out the crank system, and the doors opened, but it was one of the more nerve wracking experiences I've had in a long time. I can't imagine what it was like for Matt.
As we finished up our exploration and stumbled into the fresh air of the winter night, I was vastly relieved, and I proclaimed out loud "We made it!". Somehow a simple trip through a building had seemed like a major accomplishment. It was exciting and I took from it several important lessons that seemed worth learning.

In the end however I looked up one last time at the elementary school, thinking what horrible day dreams this place might inspire in a young kids mind, and how they would nonetheless be drawn to look inside, to examine it's mystery and to venture into the unknown. It reminded me of how exciting and unpredictable it can be to be young, but also how scary it is.

I thought to myself for the first time in a long while, "what a relief it is to be old".

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Now that I know who was visiting me,I'll be ready for you next time.

Pillows are for smothering.

Jeff B said...

You mean smothering with love? I can't wait to meet you!

Lindsey & Brett said...

This all sounds very creepy. But I'm glad that you found a new appreciation for being "old."

Matt Mattson said...

Very well put, my friend. Your recounting of the events took me right back to that eerie place. I will never forget it. Maybe next time we'll do a WalMart run or something.

BKStapf said...

just read this aloud to my husband. he work in a jail. and he was quite the little exporer of all things best left alone once upon a time..

couldn't stop laughing when i got to the matt-locked-in-the-cell part. have no idea why... perhaps there was snort as well. but just a little one.

Jeff B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.