Back when I was serving NS there was one evening when my buddy and I drew the short straws for the 3 a.m. guard duty shift. I’m normally a cheerful, avuncular individual but deprive me of my sleep and I get sullen and moody. So I didn’t say a single word as we geared up and prepared to defend our camp from the imminent danger of an errant possum scaling the fence and stealing our military secrets.
After trekking in silence for about 20 minutes my buddy asked me whether I believed in ghosts.
I conceded that I did not.
He affirmed that not only did such apparitions exist, they lurked in the deepest darkest night, waiting to emerge and torture the unsuspecting living.
I gently suggested to him that he might perhaps have watched one too many movies. He insisted that he had seen them before, and we were now in grave danger at this very point in time.
I was perplexed as to why he would be scared. After all, each of us had an assault rifle with five rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition. I wasn’t what you might call a crack shot, but I did fancy our chances of, between my buddy and I, winging a wraith with at least one shot. The odds were exceedingly in our favor.
Eventually we finished our shift without any incident. We had not been assaulted by any spirit, demon and/or woman who lost her baby under tragic and suspicious circumstances. My buddy was thoroughly concerned about my hubris towards the supernatural, and assured me that “one day I’d see”.
I mean, I’m hardly a brave person. I am terrified of antibiotic resistance, the likelihood that cured meats are carcinogenic, the struggling fortunes of Blackberry and Rafael Nadal, and the liberal agenda. Oh, and spiders too.
I guess you could say my fears are somewhat more existential.
Given this background, I am probably not the ideal candidate to write a review of USS’s Halloween Horror Nights. After all, I don’t care much for Halloween. It’s full of high-energy young people, I’m too old to get candy and the entire occasion veers to much into the occult for my comfort.
But our office informed us that in lieu of a bonus, we would each be given a ticket (and an express pass- it had been a good financial year) for the event and we were expected to go and partake in some mandatory fun.
Which is how I ended up at the gates of USS on a balmy and humid Saturday night. To be honest, I was already experiencing a great deal of fear because the young lady I was earnestly courting ended up not being able to attend that evening, and I was having progressively mounting visions of dying alone.
USS had a high bar to reach that evening.
Ask any theme park designer what Disney does better than anyone else in the business and he or she will tell you one word- immersion.
Immersion is when the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. When you can believe, if only for a few fleeting moments, that you are in fact not you, but a character in the world of the story. It’s why Disney situates Disneyland away from any built up areas and constructs high walls, fake mountains and backdrops so little Sally can feel like a princess admiring the ramparts of Sleeping Beauty’s castle without catching a glimpse of a yellow schoolbus in the parking lot reminding her that come Monday, it’s back to school.
But true immersion is not always possible. See, USS has the unenviable task of trying to scare people while dealing with all the logistics, health and safety complications a mass event like this generates. Therefore, it’s inevitable that immersion will be broken. It’s not “talking through the fourth wall” levels of breaking immersion, but it’s certainly a hefty wink at the audience that prevents people (at least me) from being truly scared. This isn’t so much a failing on the part of USS per se, but rather a by-product of the environment in which they have to operate.
First, all performers have a set of ground rules that they need to abide by-
(1) Do not touch the guests
(2) Seriously, do not touch the guests
(3) When in doubt see (1) and (2)
This is a perfectly rational restriction. USS wants to avoid situations from escalating, and the last thing they want is a scenario where a chivalrous but ill-advised gentleman decks a zombie for physically accosting his date. In fact, there is a well-lit sign outside each haunted house that says something to the tune of “anyone who physically assaults the performers will be ejected”.
The result is you wander through a haunted house with perhaps the most well-behaved ghosts ever. As scary as they may appear, they’re probably more scared of you than you are of them.
Second, USS is deathly afraid of corporate liability. So each haunted house needs safety personnel inside with flashlights to shepherd the guests through safely. Nothing breaks immersion like seeing a polo T clad USS employee standing in the midst of an orgy of body parts waving guests along with a flashlight and warning them to mind their heads on the low clearance ceiling.
Third, the economics of the evening dictate that USS try and get as many people through the haunted houses as possible, subject to some fire safety restriction on maximum occupancy. The result is that you’re never really alone. I can imagine I’d be significantly more scared if I were wandering through the exhibit alone, but it’s really hard to be frightened when you’re surrounded by other guests Instagramming the entire experience.
Fourth, all the haunted houses rely on the same basic tropes
(1) Sudden loud noises/gushes of air
(2) “Jump scares” where performers jump out from behind some obstacle
(3) Gross out body parts, blood and guts
And once you’ve figured out this pattern there really isn’t anything novel they can do to frighten you, apart from more of (1), (2) and (3). I mean, they could have a ghost at the exit telling everyone that the CPF minimum sum is expected to grow to $445,200 by 2040 at a 4% moderate inflation scenario, but I somehow think that wouldn’t quite elicit the desired response.
So even though I shriek like a little girl when I see a cockroach, I just can’t bring myself to be scared in a haunted house. Call me irrationally rational.
USS has divided its haunted houses into five different zones. Since the whole of USS is basically a giant circle, you’d have to be some sort of colossal dunce to miss any of them. So naturally, I somehow conspired to miss both Hu Li’s Inn and the Salem Witch House. I comforted myself with the fact that 3 out of 5 wasn’t bad, and that the scale of the Salem witch trials as an actual history event was horribly overblown with only 20 women ever executed for witchcraft. I was, however, upset to miss Hu Li’s inn because that one is supposed to have chiobu.
My colleagues and I made our way to the first haunted house.
Bodies of Work
Artist Damien Shipman takes fans on a heinous trip down memory lane as he unveils his controversial exhibition titled Bodies of Work. Displayed in a macabre fashion, his twisted memories are played out in this horrific homage to his family who perished tragically in a fire.
The basic premise of this house is that mild mannered everyman Damien Shipman has one bad day at the office where his family dies in a fire. So naturally, instead of investing in better fire-suppression equipment, he creates an art gallery of dismembered body parts. “It sort of reminds me of Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” and the premise how one bad day is enough to turn any man insane” I said aloud. Then got sad because no one got my pop culture reference.
At the entrance, as a sort of precursor, we were presented with a family style portrait of the happy Shipman family. Pre-fire, I assumed.
“Why are they all white people?” I wondered aloud to my colleague. “Couldn’t we have localized it a bit?”
“Yeah, but it’s sadder when white people die,” he quipped. I guess I couldn’t argue with that.
The house itself is basically Shipman’s art gallery of horrors. There are random body parts scattered around, disfigured gallery staff and victims who have had body parts chopped off and resewn on in really inconvenient locations. “This draws very heavily from the Sander Cohen level in the original Bioshock,” I said aloud. Then felt sad again because no one understood what I was saying.
Audience members are then treated to a series of exhibitions, one for each member of Mr Shipman’s departed family. His wife has an installment dedicated to their wedding. Think Corpse Bride and you’ll get the gist of it. His daughter’s room has an installment dedicated to her life as a ballerina. Think Black Swan but without Mila Kunis. And his son’s room has the usual assortment of tired horror cliches, from psychotic clowns to creepy dolls to something I think was a Frankenstein-esque monster.
Immersion was somewhat ruined by the fact the video montage of Mr Shipman’s happy family had a very visible Windows Media Player box around the edge. And that one of the monsters was wearing a t-shirt with a very large Transformers logo on it. Product placement of key Universal Studios I.P must have been high on the list of KPIs for this gallery
I left the house convinced more than ever that modern art was a big sham.
Old Changi Hospital
The infamous Old Changi Hospital puts Singapore on the map as one of the most haunted places in the world. Visitors who dare enter will chance upon vengeful ghosts from Singapore’s bloodiest history – from patients who do not know they are dead to the Pontianak, a female Malay vampire who wanders the hallways
The premise for Old Changi Hospital plays upon a common trope in Singapore folklore that the place is haunted. Inside, you’ll find psychotic surgeons, disfigured patients and ghosts of unborn babies. Basically, it’s what happens if you let socialized medicine and Obamacare run to their logical conclusions.
Old Changi Hospital was part of a Japanese prison camp during WW2 and allegedly housed a torture chamber for the Kempeitai. There are clear call outs to this. In one room, a character dressed in an army uniform (but strangely with an armband in Chinese rather than Japanese) inflicts punishment on his victims.
I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this house drawing upon the horrors of war as source material for amusement. I mean, I guess you could argue that this is an alternative form of National Education where we all come out the wiser for knowing how safe and blessed we are today in Singapore, but you’d have to do some sort of mental gymnastics to see it that way.
In any case, Old Changi Hospital was doing a great job of triggering many of my repressed fears. My fear of injections, beautiful nurses and colonoscopies had all come together in one place. Just then, a group of foreign tourists rudely brushed past us, triggering my fear of immigration.
This was probably also my favourite haunted house because it featured one room with particularly strong air conditioning. I don’t know if it was meant to be the morgue and they air conditioned it to make it more convincing (and if so, that’s great attention to detail. Morgues are meant to be maintained between 2 °C and 4 °C )
My one biggest thought as I was going through the haunted houses was “man, I feel bad for the performers”. I was only in there for 5 minutes and I was sweating like a pig. These guys were wearing layers of costumes and make up and had to gut it out for, I don’t know, the entire evening (do zombies have understudies?). The houses in general have very poor ventilation, and when a nurse with blood running down her scalp ambushed us at the turn of a corner, I almost felt like asking her to drink more water and not exert herself too much.
Thus ended Old Changi Hospital. “Still better than Delhi public hospitals”, my Indian colleague remarked at the exit.
Hawker Centre Massacre
Mayhem breaks loose at the Hawker Centre Massacre where a meal turns into a banquet of horror as victims of radioactive food poisoning transform into savage, flesh-eating creatures.
When I first heard of the title I was mightily intrigued by the overall concept. Could this house be a cautionary tale of our dying Hawker trade? Would I see dioramas of famous marquee hawker stalls closing down when the next generation refuses to take up the spatula? Perhaps the final scene would be a dystopian vision of air conditioned food centres serving bland, anonymous versions of the classics we all knew and loved. That sounded scary.
Unfortunately, reading the description put that possibility to bed. Still, the premise confused me. If you fed people radioactive food would it be more of a Alexander Litvinenko type situation rather than a zombie apocalypse?
But I wasn’t scared. No hawker centre could scare me. I had survived Kofu at SMU for 4 years.
I walked in and screamed.
In front of me was a Halal tray return station. But I didn’t see a corresponding non-Halal tray return. Which meant that this was a halal hawker centre. Which meant it wouldn’t be serving my favourite lard-infused char kway teow. What other horrors awaited in here?
I was so upset at this I shuffled mindlessly past the first room of zombies feasting on hawker centre partons. That’ll teach them to leave tissue packets on chairs to chope seats, I thought.
Some aspects of the house were particularly well done. There was a counter where you had to pay 10 cents to access the toilet. This was a common nightmare scenario of mine. What if I didn’t have my wallet with me? And what if there was no one manning the booth but I didn’t have exact change? And what if they were out of toilet paper? Some fetid water then dripped on me from the ceiling, jolting me out of my thoughts.
There was also a walk through market with hardware and household stores. It was scary that none of them took credit cards, because think of how many missed mile earning opportunities take place there all the time.
Oh, and just before you exit the hawker centre there’s a (possessed?) truck that lurches at you before stopping a few feet away. Most people were shocked by this but my time in Mumbai trained me to deftly dodge out of the way and shout “chutiya” at the driver.
I was bummed out that I missed Hu Li’s inn, because I totally dig the whole 1930’s era Shanghai vibe. That said, I thought the house perpetuated unfair stereotypes of mainland Chinese women. I mean, not all of them are out to rip out your intestines and cut out your tongue. Some of them just want your CPF money. In any case, it was probably going to be the only time an attractive woman paid attention to me so it has to go down as a wasted opportunity.
The scariest event of the evening? That would have to go to the crashed car exhibit around the Suicide Forest area with a dead zombie inside. I felt shivers down my spine seeing it, knowing I would never be able to afford a car in Singapore, what with the COE prices and everything.
On that note, it was close to midnight and past my bedtime and I was afraid of the long term medical consequences of not getting enough sleep so I headed home.
Back when I was in Hwa Chong there was an event called Fright Night. At least I think it was named Fright Night. It might have since been renamed to Hwalloween. Which is an altogether better name.
This event is towards the end of October where J2s are going all out for A Level preparation. They segment the school pretty well to avoid disturbing exam prep but I had had a particularly grueling day and in my distracted state managed somehow to wander into the haunted house zone while making my way to the exit.
It was then that I ran into a group of J1 students in the corridor. They paused and stared at me as if they were unsure whether I was part of the haunted house or not.
I decided to try my luck
“This is you in one year’s time”, I told them with my heavy set of past year papers in my hand.
They didn’t scream and run like I thought they would, which really reflects more on them than it does me. But I’d like to imagine that at least one of them woke up screaming in the middle of the night.
Or maybe I should design my own haunted house.