With Teeth: One feminist's take on a Mexican haunted house
Review of Casa del Terror, Puerto Vallarta, México
26th of October, 2019
The night didn't get off to a great start. I spent all day dreading my friend date, no longer in the mood to go out, wondering what my level of awkwardness would be between my boyfriend's co-working space coworker, the one he'd found to replace him to go to the haunted house with me. Once I finally got psyched up, I excitedly said bye to him, hurried down the stairs, and abruptly tripped over a weird, small slanted ramp built into the sidewalk, which rather than making the building accessible to wheelchairs seemed only a tourist nicety for lugging around suitcases.
Twenty minutes later, my knee bleeding quickly through a mummy-like bandage, I headed off. When I worried that the bandages might slip off in the dark Casa, I figured any onlooker would just think it was part of the gory scenery. Part of me wondered if I could scare the monsters, if I should wear a mask inside too, or scream in their face with my best metal-vocals voice, as I had done once in Carcassonne, France, entertaining my partner and making him less scared, at least for a moment.
I had worked all week on finding someone to go with me in this new town of ours, after my bae was too scared from seeing the video trailer of the place. I could understand - it looked like an actual horror movie, with actors walking on their hands like strange Kafkaesque buglike creatures, and a pigfaced character with a butcher's knife, rushing over to wield it in your face, as the POV video showed. This video was from last year, but the entire experience had followed some type of horror story they seem to have invented, and as a storyteller, this made it even cooler for me. I can always respect a well-done trailer, and I wanted to go in even more.
My friend date at our local cafe went fine enough, and as we approached the haunted house, I couldn't feel fear, hearing the chilled out music playing from the speakers outside. Not what I would expect from an American haunted house, but here in Mexico somehow it made sense. Always a party here in Puerto Vallarta, but still with chill vibes. They sold snacks including pan de muerto, or death bread, which seemed to be popular this time of year. A guy with marketing vibes and Marilyn Manson-esque pale blue contacts quickly asked us how we had found out about the place. I gave the young woman at the table my name, and the marketing guy said they would call when ready, as I had an amusing flashback to San Francisco restaurant waiting lines. Though I'd never seen anyone outside this blank, black former pharmacy, it now seemed the hotspot for the next week leading up to Halloween and Day of the Dead.
Only after we had paid and were going in with a group of younger Mexicans, did they explain that the men working inside would be putting their hands on us, me and my newfound female friend, and pretty much anyone else who is paying for the privilege. He told us to leave our bags with the table staff, "because they are going to touch you," and we reluctantly agreed. I'd actually discussed this with Jesse earlier, remembering how in the U.S. haunted house actors are never allowed to touch you, presumably for some legal reason, and thought that perhaps here they would have more leeway, which they definitely did, as we would soon find out inside.
I made a point of being the last person to go in, as a way to sort of protect my new acquaintance and the group, as I figured it was supposed to be scarier to go last, as anyone could come up behind you. I never felt fear in these places, only a kind of excitement or sense of fun adventure. They just never compared to the horror movies I watched repeatedly, or the "actual" haunted places I had visited growing up in Ohio. But this was the first haunted house I wouldn't make it all the way through.
As the guy outside explained, staring at us through his Marilyn Manson eyes, reciting in Spanish that I mostly understood, there was a password to get out: just say this word three times, Makari Makari Makari. Only seeing the foreign word (which I later found out meant "I wish" or "May I" in Greek) printed on his T-shirt was I able to remember it as I looked at the actual letters and burnt them into my mind in case I should need it. I also asked him to repeat it and only then did he annoyingly launch into a full English explanation of what he had just said, but I let him carry on for the sake of the person I was going in with, as I wasn't sure if she got even most of what he had explained, and there ended up being some at the end that I missed as well. He said something about snakes, about claustrophobia.
Inside we were greeted again by a man wearing Freddy Krueger-like gloves, teasing us with the plastic tips of his razor fingers, repeating the password in a way that made me feel he was making fun of us should we need it to escape later on.
Then the touching began as we entered a dark corridor, first on our left sides where the men in masks lined up, and soon enough one of these men ran his hand on the edge of my breast, which I kindly assumed was a mistake in the dark interior, but there was no way to know for sure. "Okay that was almost a tit, that was almost my boob!" I joked to Mindi in front of me.
I was laughing at the odd nature of the place and their attempts to scare us like children. I felt hands grab my ankles from behind, which surprised me, but the experience still didn't cross over into fear. It felt a little like those horror movies that just have things pop out at you for an hour and a half, and once you've recovered 5 milliseconds later, you realize what a cheap storytelling gimmick it is.
Next a man pulled a knife out and held it up to my neck, and only at that point did I realize it was plastic, having no reason to assume it wasn't a real knife to begin with. I realized that I forgot my intention to bring a knife in with me in case I was actually assaulted by these strange men inside, if I had even had my bag with me anyway.
We were led into a room where we had to find the key in the darkness to be permitted to pass to the next step. I was glad we decided to go in with the younger Mexicans, as they seemed to clearly understand everything that was being said and began searching in a group of 3 for the key in a small tub-like area in the corner. It only took them a couple of minutes to find it, as I searched uselessly on the floor.
All the actors who harassed us were men as far as I could tell, save for perhaps one dwarf who was donned in a ghostly white dress, who I at first assumed was a child due to the size, confused they would allow one in there, but as I glanced, it could have been a man as well. I'd seen thin, ghoul-like young men outside, heaving breaths as they stepped out to take a break, their masks off, only smeared circles of black makeup left around their eyes.
With key in hand, our group passed to the next level as the men lit fire torches, which reminded me of the alcoholic coffees that restaurant staff set on fire in the Romantic Zone, where a street performer breathes fire from the beach in hope of stray tips, or the tiki torches they light when the sun sets. A bit like the party music outside, it felt like it was all part of the tourist trap. But it felt unlike the electrical lights that they would bring to life on what looked like a taser, which I had no clue if they were legally allowed to use on us as well.
Then they separated Mindi from the group as we entered the next room. Feeling like it was my responsibility to keep her with me now that I had invited her here, I kept attempting to stop them from forcing me into the next room, asking repeatedly the sad question "Dónde está mi amiga?" We'd just met, and now she was gone, what I imagined might happen anyway in several months when we each might move to different places.
I tried to stay back in the room with her but the man was pushing me and separating me from the person I came in with, making me feel like a bad friend or that maybe I should fight to make sure she wasn't left on her own. I felt powerless, and made a sad sort of sympathetic "Aww" sound as I came into the new room, not being sure what else to do to communicate with these guys, who didn't seem very talkative in either language.
And the room I was being forced into now was pretty much in line with my concerns about going to a haunted house filled with strange men, the same men, I imagined, who harassed me on the street. It happened five times throughout the day last week, from when I went for a run in the morning, to right as I was walking hand-in-hand with my partner about to get into a cab at the end of the night, stopped by an English "Hey baby" and some other shouts, finally allowing my partner to see it happen, experience that anger with me. It was something that it happened many times in my own country, in Oakland, or Santa Cruz, or Cleveland, but that I'd gotten used to living free of during our year in Madrid prior to moving here.
In this new room, the men ordered us to lie on a bed together, which reminded me a little too much of the many true crime stories I've read, and particularly "Love Me to Death," a true crime book I've read and reread about a mass murderer. I’d hear again and again of his long-term romantic relationships one-by-one, ending with him ordering one woman onto a bed to watch as he killed the others.
I immediately said no, and refused to get on the bed despite the many orders to do so. The girls in front of us had just gone right ahead and lay down, taking orders, but I didn't really see what I was going to get out of that. Plus I knew it was a very dumb thing to do in the real world, so I continued to stand there in defiance of their plans.
Then Mindi was finally allowed into the room, and I touched her comfortingly, asking if she was okay and told her that I tried to stay back with her. She wouldn't get on the bed either, though I'm not sure if my own taking-a-stand had anything to do with that. Then a guy said in English that if we didn't want to do it, we could just wait there.
But no sooner than he had said that did another new man in another ridiculous mask come up and point to the bed, as an order for me to lie down. I said no immediately, which I'd already said several times, and it reminded me of the many men and occasional women who sell their wares on the beaches here. Anything from cocaine to a massage to various art pieces are on offer throughout the day from these persistent entrepreneurs, and as one TripAdvisor user had joked, "No, gracias" in Puerto Vallarta means 'Yeah I'll think about it, ask me again in 2 minutes.'
The lack of ability of people to accept the word no stung my boundaries and made me immediately angry. I started to say "No tocar," don't touch me, more forcefully to the guy, and he ignored my demand, still continued to touch and grab until I said it in a yelling voice, and then he simply poked a finger into my right shoulder, almost in an "I'm fucking with you" kind of way. At this point I had to laugh a little. It was like a movie where two men are fighting and one threatens "If you touch me one more time..." but then I just said "Está bien," meaning to say it's okay, and laughed, the closest I could get to going along with this strange scenario.
But what came next I couldn't go along with. I was the one separated from the group as we entered the next area, one guy obviously picking me out specifically, and I wondered if they were keeping track of who they were isolating so that each one got a turn, and how they could possibly be that organized between all the actors and guests in these dark rooms. I wondered, as real victims do, if it was something about me that had led them to choose me that time.
On the street outside, Mindi, raising her eyebrows at me through her Greek looking features, had actually seemed surprised when I told her that I got harassed here in Puerto Vallarta, and then came her suggestion that it was my blond hair that was to blame. It seemed just another excuse for male violence, yet now I was left wondering if my blondness was the reason I was the target in this particular scenario.
I had imagined how much worse it must be for the black Americans who visit Mexico and are treated differently, as "others," just as they were at home, likely receiving the same English treatment or assumption that they don't belong here. Having to go from feeling different or ostracized in parts of their own country to different in a country full of people of color seemed infuriating.
And too, at the same time Mexicans were being shunned from so much as crossing over into my own country, how could I complain about about feeling unwelcome here? Yet it wasn't the welcome that was the issue. Mexicans had been more welcoming than anywhere I'd been. Tonight it didn't feel like Mexicans that I had a problen with, it was - what came as a surprise to me too - men.
The first time we had come here, two and a half years prior in 2017, I felt awkward at what seemed like a colonial vibe, with us as white tourists, being served by hard-working Mexican waitstaff, having a housecleaner for the first time. I felt somehow that I was being put on a pedestal, but wanted to be equal with the people around me. Now actually living here two years later, I felt myself knocked down to what at times seemed like the lowest rung, as a woman, with even the well-meaning male cab drivers asking me why I didn't have children, my age, and when I was getting married...and the random one-way street conversations, always with men. I spent most of our weeks here in 2017 going out with my partner, but now going out on my own more often in my new, temporary home, I was being exposed to such a different experience of this place, and a different one than my male partner...just as we'd had at home. I no longer felt safe.
I had dyed my hair all colors of the rainbow, but never to escape bullying from strange men before, though it had already crossed my mind in the last week as a way to escape both the harassment and the English that was always forced upon me as someone viewed as a perpetual tourist in the place that I lived. And again tonight, I was definitely the whitest looking of the group.
...Save for the strange old man / clown looking face that was coming up to mine, his hands grabbing me forcefully and refusing to let go. I kept saying no, refusing to be left behind with these men, and I imagined if I'd been with my partner I would have been even more distraught, more likely close to tears at the idea that my partner couldn't save me from these men, but now I was angry, and began struggling with the pastier faced man, who held on tight to my left forearm. I had actually come in with a slightly injured right hand, for which I'd just taken a combination muscle relaxant/pain killer before I walked in. Though I'd hardly been using my right hand the last few days just to help it heal, I began punching the man with my right fist in the arm he was using to restrain me, as I broke through to the next room, but feeling his hands still grabbing me from behind, stopping me from moving any farther. I don't even remember everything I said, but at some point I started shouting that I was going to hit him in the face. I didn't even have time to notice that Mindi was being lowered into a coffin where she was expected to lie down and be locked inside for who-knows-how-long. I told her I was out, "I'm not doing this," that I couldn't take any more dudes touching me.
I was fed up, and I told the man no futilely again as he held tight to my arm, the one in control. Then finally I remembered the password, which I said three times. I can't imagine what horror those poor actors would have endured if I hadn't remembered it. It suddenly seemed like the BDSM safe word, because they had spent all night ignoring all of my "no"s but suddenly the game was over, and just like that, the guy led me back, or at least stopped grabbing on hard to my left arm and hand where I would later have red marks and bruises.
I began stomping out on my own, going back, not knowing exactly where I was going, ordering the guy in English to tell me where to go. My emotional mind could no longer be bothered to think of the Spanish words. He showed me the door, and I left, escaping to the safety of the street, which as I had learned throughout my life, in the U.S., in different places, was not really safe at all.
Mindi came close behind me, and I started with a "Sorry," hoping I hadn't ruined her fun. But she said she'd been scared and had been at the point where she was ready to leave as well. She explained about the coffin.
As I came back to the table to get our stuff, I told the marketing guy with the pale blue contacts a little about my experience inside. I told him in Spanish that I don't like when the men touch you, that that was what got to me. I probably should have added the dreaded "As a woman" to help him understand just a bit.
But he was glued to his phone, already pulling up a commercial endorsement to prove to me that I was wrong. I told him in English, which he understood well enough, "It just felt like it was..." and then as I got to the word "rapey," he had already begun talking over me, showing me a video of a middle-aged gray-haired American man who said it was the best haunted house he had ever visited. I said "But I don't agree with you," still unable to get my message across, invalidated by this promotional attempt. And he said "Whether you like it or not, tell your friends to come." I couldn't imagine what other establishment would use this tactic. It was basically like trying to talk to a television, and I realized we needed to leave.
Debriefing further on the sidewalk with Mindi, I told her about the feminist lens I was viewing this experience through and said that it must be even harder for young girls to go in there and say no, how they must feel that they have to go along with everything. She said if you looked at it without context, maybe it could be okay. "I can't do that," I told her.
I've never even been violently raped in the street and left for dead, and I couldn't imagine what someone who experienced those kinds of deep, intense traumas would feel going into a place like this. It seemed enough to give one PTSD all over again, and I'm not saying that as an endorsement of its extreme coolness or even scariness. In the end I'd never actually felt scared, but I definitely felt threatened, and my reaction to threats isn't generally to cower in fear. I couldn't have been the only one to feel this way, could I?
Mindi told me that her husband didn't like people touching him, so maybe he wouldn't have liked it, and he too had been too scared to go. In that moment I couldn't imagine who would like random people touching and grabbing them. I did tell her that if it had been women inside doing the grabbing, that I might have been able to go along with it. If somehow it hadn't been just another experience of men's psychological/physical violence against women. Again, like a horror movie. The same old cliches.
The marketing man told us before we left that a customer had actually bitten one of the actors that same day. Aside from seeing the sheer dumbness of risking disease transmission from a ghoul, a part of me had to respect that small act of rebellion. At least now I knew some of us still bite back.