If I have planned this out correctly, this should be getting published on October 1. October 1 is a very important date. Not only is a date that some fools seem to think marks the beginning of the Halloween season (these fools are corporate sheep who most likely call Halloween “just another day”), but it was my favorite day of the school year from grades 2-6. I’ll tell you why.
First, some backstory: Indianapolis (where I lived during those critical years) has a Children’s Museum that is regularly considered the best in the world. While I haven’t been inside the museum for ages, during my youth the collections included a large dinosaur exhibit, an actual mummy, a recreation of a cave, an old school Merry-Go-Round that was probably of some sort of importance and restored, a wacky science room, etc, etc.
Like any other institution, the Children’s Museum needed funds and therefore, a fundraiser. All the way back in the age of the dinosaurs — 1964 — a haunted house was decided upon as a way to earn funds. Fifty one years later, it is the oldest continuous running haunted house in America.
Every child who grows up in Indianapolis has a rite of passage that includes the Children Museum’s haunted house. It is the holiday event for kids 5-10 who are maybe a little bit too small for the traditional blood and gore of the Indianapolis area commercial haunted houses.
Memories of the Children’s Museum haunted houses of the mid to late 80s are checkered as they run together for me. I do know that I almost died at least four times. At least, that was the story I told other kids as demons and monsters of all sorts would reach for me, block my path and put curses on me. My love for this type of haunted house (and the other actual haunted houses, for that matter) came to me much earlier than any of my friends, so this was a staple event for me early on. In fact, much of my fame in my early life came in two waves — 1) I was the kid who wrote the stories and 2) I was the kid who toured the Children’s Museum haunted house — WITH THE LIGHTS OFF!!!
That’s right. You heard me. With the lights off, baby. It’s amazing I didn’t have every girl in my fifth grade class as my girlfriend. Back in the day, there were two options when it came to the Haunted House. The first was the traditional scarefest meant for the greater Indianapolis area. The second was a lights on tour during the late afternoon for grade school kids and those not nearly as brave as me! Looking at this year’s promotional material, it looks as if there are three options — the two mentioned above and a LIGHTS OFF but not as scary third option. It’s a good thing that option wasn’t available when I was a kid because I would not look nearly as brave if others chose the LIGHTS OFF option even if it wasn’t as scary.
Onto October 1 and the reason it held a special place in my heart for those formative years. October 1 was the day we walked into our classrooms at school and found the “Dial-A-Witch” flyer on our desks promoting that year’s version of the haunted house. While the themes of the haunted house would change annually, there was always a loose association with these witches who were kind of the marketing team for the haunted house.
The “Dial-A-Witch” flyer would not only provide with the hours of operation for the haunted house, but provide you with a 1-800 number to call in order to talk to a witch. This, for me, was as sacred a Halloween tradition as trick-or-treating! The flyer would find prominent space on my bedroom wall for the entire month (and sometimes until Thanksgiving) and the dialing would begin.
Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t and I’ll tell you why. This was the mid-80s where all anyone had was a land line phone. This was before call waiting. This was before automatic redialing! If you are picturing a kid dialing a 1-800 number, getting a busy signal, hanging up and immediately calling it back — imagine that about 150 times until his mom tells him to get off the phone. Every kid from every school in the area was trying to dial that damn witch and she would only talk to one of us at a time!
Cue my lifelong battle with insomnia. Do you know when kids aren’t calling a witch but when a witch might still be willing to talk to a kid — even on a school night? The answer is 2:00 AM. I always had the best success sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep and dialing that witch. Dialing a witch, while trying to stay quiet in a house that is completely dark so near the witching hour was much scarier than anything the haunted house could throw at me.
For her part, the witch cackled and in a witch voice would basically just give the hours of operation of the haunted house and pimp the sponsors while using the words “frightening” and “spooky” a lot. It was a completely pre-recorded message and some part of me figured that out when I got the exact same message seven times in the first two weeks of “Dial-A-Witch.” There was another part of me, however, that knew calling too much was a bad thing. The witch would get to know me and find out where I live. If life has taught me anything, it’s that I don’t want a marketing witch for a haunted house knowing my home address.
To answer the question that must be popping around your head, the line was always promptly deactivated on November 1. Trust me — I tried.
I am saddened to find that there’s not even a picture of one of these flyers on the internet today — at least not one that I could find. Moving houses many times in my life pretty much meant that anything I had as a child was lost somewhere along the way and that includes the various “Dial-A-Witch” flyers.
No matter where life has taken and how mundane my daily routine may be, October 1 is always a day that brings a smile to my face if for no other reason than the anticipation of that day when I was a kid.