When I think about what I want my son to remember when he’s older from being a baby, I have high hopes that he’ll remember how much we loved him. But I’m not a delusional new parent…at least totally delusional. He clearly won’t be able to recall any of his experiences directly. I’m aware that he won’t remember me singing Randy Travis songs to him accompanied by my semi-hollow guitar; he won’t recall that I dressed him in a Patriots uniform before one of the big games; he won’t recall the first time we buckled him into his car seat, and he won’t know how many times we checked in the rearview mirror to ensure he was alive. In fact, Daniel Siegel, child psychologist and author of “The Whole Brain Child,” called the beginning of a child’s life infant amnesia, which is the phenomenon where adults can’t recall episodic memories from before they were two years old.
It’s sad to think that everything I do for my child won’t be directly remembered.
In the May/June 2016 of the Huck, a London-based magazine that is “refusing to be civilised since 2006,” released their new Freaked Out Issue, and I had a profile appear within the issue on McKamey Manor, America’s most extreme haunted house. As you’ll see in my piece, I drove out to Rancho Peñasquitos to talk with Russ McKamey and a group of actors who run McKamey Manor.
Before I went to visit the manor, I conducted some preliminary research, and the videos I saw of the haunt truly freaked me out. The videos showed Russ McKamey and his actors dunking their “guests” heads into toilet bowls, shaving their hair and making them eat it, and mentally torturing people to the point where they would break. If you’re brave enough (I’m not kidding; these videos are fucking crazy), then you can check out their YouTube Channel. In his videos, Russ McKamey seems like a madman–someone who was only interested in sadism and torture, but when I actually went and visited McKamey Manor, I was able to talk to Russ, get to know him, and understand him a bit more. The way I learned to see Russ was more as an artist whose medium was fear.
Please give the issue a read to learn more about my experience at America’s most extreme haunted house. But just know that you might have nightmares. If you’re interested in reading more of my horror writing, then I suggest checking out my writing samples and reading my story, “The Castle on the Hill” — or learn how I ended up burying a body in my backyard when I first moved to San Diego.
It had started out like any other night in North Park, San Diego. I had just finished a long day of work, and it was still dark outside. We were a couple of weeks away from daylight saving time, so the longer days of summer were still in the future. I was craving those longer days and the extra amount of light, and by looking so far into the future, I wasn’t thinking about how life can change on a dime.
I had just taken my dog Hendrix (read more about Hendrix’s epic life) on a walk around the neighborhood. He was panting a bit from the exercise. He’s in good shape, and he’s about 70 pounds of muscle. While he looks like he could rip out someone’s throat, he’s a sweetheart and wants to cuddle way more than fight, unless he feels that his family is unsafe. Then he can be a terror. He was a bit on edge when I approached the house. It was almost as if he could tell something strange was about to happen.
As I approached the house, I was wondering what to cook for dinner (my wife was at work function), and I was even thinking about just saying screw it and driving to Downtown North Park and grabbing some sushi. My thoughts were normal, and it’s funny how the moments that lead up to something important can feel so ordinary.
When I opened the screen door, I heard the creak of the wooden door, and I didn’t think much about it, until I could see Hendrix staring at something on the door. Sure enough, clinging to inside of the screen was the biggest lizard I had ever seen. I wasn’t sure what kind of lizard it was at first, but I just kept staring at it, because it was almost shockingly large. It wasn’t an iguana, and it wasn’t a snake either. I have only lived in San Diego for a few months, and my guess isn’t that good. But if I had to take a guess, I would say it was the San Diego Alligator Lizard.
I hate to disappoint you if you were expecting something more monstrous or even poisonous, but the San Diego Alligator Lizard isn’t as dangerous as the black widow, which I’ve seen in my home, or a rattlesnake. In fact, when this particular lizard wants to defend itself, it sometimes releases its tail, knowing that it will grow back, according to California Herps. They are known to bite, but I knew right away (despite the lizard’s size), it wasn’t going to be dangerous or threatening.
Hendrix was still scared, and because the lizard was on the inside of my screen door, I knew I had to get on the other side. I didn’t want the lizard crawling into bed with me at night. So I grabbed a Time magazine, rolled it up, and gently nudged the San Diego Alligator Lizard off the screen door and onto the front porch. When the lizard hit the ground, Hendrix freaked out as if he was Scooby Doo and just saw a ghost. He was backing away and barking. I’ve never seen Hendrix back away from anything before.
I didn’t want him to kill the lizard, so I brought him closer and told him the lizard didn’t want any trouble. I told him to relax and stroked his back. Calm down, Hendrix. Calm down. The lizard and Hendrix just kind of sat there looking at each other, wondering what they hell they were. I let Hendrix go inside, left the lizard alone, and cooked dinner.
The next morning I wasn’t thinking about the lizard at all. I was thinking about the same routines that I think about every day. Did I feed Hendrix? Do I have time to shower? Should I cook fried eggs again for breakfast or try that new yogurt my wife is always raving about?
Without thinking, I grabbed Hendrix’s leash, roped the leash around his neck, and opened the door to witness the sun shining so bright I had to cover my eyes from the rays. I went to shut the door behind me, but it was stuck for some reason. We have a heavy wooden door, and sometimes the welcome mat gets stuck underneath. So I moved the mat aside and tried to shut the door again. Still no luck. I slammed it perhaps four more times without the door shutting. I was confused and frustrated.
That’s when I looked into the corner of the door, and to my great horror, I saw the San Diego Alligator Lizard. It’s hard for me to say (you might think I’m crazy to give this much thought to a lizard), but when I saw the lizard in the crevice of the door, I felt like a brick had just fallen down my throat and decided to push up against the lining of my stomach. It was an awful site. Just the head of the lizard was stuck in the corner of the door, and as I was slamming the door to try to make sure it was shut, I had literally flattened the head of the San Diego Alligator Lizard.
I’m not sure how this is possible with a completely flattened skull, but the lizard was still moving. It was almost walking. I thought about trying to save it, but when you unintentionally bash the head of a 12-inch lizard, you don’t really know what course of action to take. I quickly realized there was no coming back for this reptile, and I had to bury the body. I took a rock and finished the job.
In our front yard, we have this area where there is mulch and some sculptures. We share it with our upstairs neighbor, but I wasn’t sure if he ever messed with the area that had mulch. It seemed untouched, and I figured no one would ever think twice to look there. So I took the lizard’s body, picked it up by the tail, and began to bury it under mulch and rocks.
Yes, I had just buried a body, and I felt awful. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would feel that pain. In fact, I thought that anyone else would probably poke fun at my sensitivity, but I hated the fact that I had unintentionally killed something. I told my brother-in-law when I arrived at work, and then I told my wife later. But I still felt shitty about it.
Over the next couple weeks, I would look and see if the lizard was still there. Sure enough, the lizard was still there. I probably could have buried him better, but I went about my routines, and the San Diego Alligator Lizard eventually left my thoughts.
Honestly, I didn’t think again about the lizard until a few weeks later. I was out with my neighbors, and we were talking about gardening. I started to tell the story of how I killed the lizard, and then they looked at me and started to laugh. “That explains it,” my neighbor said. “It was you.” Yes, I was caught. They finally found me. It turned out the lizard’s body had started to smell, and they uncovered the lizard under the mulch. They thought some kid had killed the thing in some cruel example of torture and wanted to hide the evidence, but in reality, it was only a grown man who felt terrible about squashing its head in a door.
I know this blog post is super dramatic (perhaps misleading), but at the same time, I actually did feel guilty for killing this creature. Would you? So I’ll put a poll question out there: Would you feel bad for killing the lizard? Answer below:
It’s impossible to truly see the impact of a moment before it happens. You could be eating a burger when you get an email from an editor saying he wants to publish your book; you could be driving through an intersection and some asshole runs a red light and t-bones you; or you could just be walking into a bathroom at a grocery store. When that moment hits you and shocks you to your core, most likely you will never have seen it coming. Let me explain.
I was driving back from playing music in West Hollywood, when my wife, Heron, asked me to stop for groceries. Of course, I obliged — happy wife, happy life — but I had to pee so freaking bad. So I went to the bathroom in the grocery store in West Hollywood. I walked through the double doors and into the back room, passed all the inventory, and down a flight of stairs. It was sketchy. No one was around. Boxes of produce were stacked like stones climbers left to mark the places they reached. As a writer, I seek out these moments, and my imagination began to wander. Could this be the set for a scary movie, an adventure story or a murphy’s law comedy?
When I opened the door to the bathroom, a hipster in suspenders, a checkered shirt, and a fedora was trying to button his fly in front of the sink. I thought I heard someone in the stall. The hipster looked at me and said — “Can you help?”
Here’s where things get surprising. I felt suddenly like Gaylord Faulker in Meet the Parents — accidentally stumbling upon a gay sex scene at a highway rest stop. Nothing wrong with that…just not trying to be involved.
I looked at the hipster, and he was so well put together. I thought for sure he was fucking with me. I swear I heard someone roaming around in the back stall, and I thought he wanted to get a second run on whatever fun he just had.
“I think you can figure it out on your own,” I said.
Moving toward the urinal, I started to mark my territory all over the American Standard.
He was frustrated. He kept trying to button his belt, which was actually a seat belt. It seemed like both his hands were working.
“I had a stroke,” he said.
I flushed the toilet, wondering if he was for real. Then he clipped the seat belt together, and it seemed like he figured out his belt, and his stroke line was just some bullshit he threw in to cover up the sex he really wanted to have.
“For real?” I asked.
I started to wash my hands, and he walked out of the bathroom. I didn’t think anymore of him, imagining that he was fucking with me. So I finished in the bathroom and went about my day.
Then what I saw nearly broke my heart. The hipster was standing outside of the double doors to the back room, and his pants weren’t fully pulled over his ass. He had on boxers, but his pants were so tight and his buckle so fucked up that he couldn’t cover his gluteus maximus. He was talking to two older women. I would deduce it was his mother and grandmother.
“Listen man,” I said, “I can help you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the hipster said.
“I don’t mind. Let’s go back to the bathroom.”
“He had a stroke,” the older woman said. “He doesn’t have the use of half his body.”
I could tell the hipster was embarrassed. He kept trying to pull up his pants over his ass, but his motor skills were just too slow.
“Let’s go back downstairs to the bathroom,” I said.
“I have problems walking up stairs, too” he said.
That’s when I realized what a journey he had been on. Just walking up and down those stairs to get to the bathroom, for him, was like walking across the fucking Mojave Desert. And what would it be like to actually ask for help? And then be denied?
“Let’s just go back into the room,” I said.
“No worries,” he said.
“I want to help.”
We walked back into the back room, and I told him to stand against a metal beam. I pulled his pants above his ass, which took some work because he wore tight ass pants, and then I zipped his fly. I then buckled his belt — literally some stylish version of a converted seat belt. It took a moment.
“I had a stroke,” he said. “I’m withdrawing from alcohol.”
I looked back at the hipster. I could have missed all of this. I could have walked on by thinking vain thoughts. I could have missed a moment.
“My name is Joe,” I said. I shook his hand.
He smiled. “So is mine.”
“You need a better belt man,” I said. “And to be more upfront. I thought you were fucking with me.”
I walked out and the mother and grandmother thanked me profuesly. Then I went about by my groceries for my wife.
When I think about this moment after the fact, I’m almost sick to my stomach. Not because I feel bad for this guy, but because I almost didn’t help. That I almost didn’t realize why I was in a moment. I could have missed something so important to someone else. A simple humanly gesture. I almost missed it.