October 18, 2010 – “Promise me we won’t ever watch a horror movie in the basement again,” said my wife. She was referencing our “Cellar Cinema” experiment, where we attempted to freak ourselves out by setting up an impromptu theater down in the dirt-floor and granite-walled dungeon of our 120-year-old basement and watching a horror movie. There’s a thin line between scared and scarred, and I think the whole thing came close to crossing it for her.
“I promise,” was my honest reply. And that’s why a few weeks later I found myself setting up the digital movie projector in the attic of our 120-year-old barn after dark in the middle of a vicious rainstorm.
I guess I should introduce you to our barn, first. I assume it’s a barn, at least. Sometimes I reference it as a carriage house, though, just because I like the sound of the phrase. You see, we don’t live out in the country. We’re right in town, almost to the point of starless skies and constant sirens. But our homestead apparently predates all of that a little bit, because we have this gigantic outbuilding on our property that, square-footage-wise, is almost as big, as well as being just as old, as our house.
By day, the exterior of the barn is hardly spooky. It looms a bit, sure, since it’s large and has two floors, but it’s covered in bright yellow siding, is well-kept (by the previous owner...I’m working on changing that), and has a small rustic wooden American flag tacked onto it. As soon as I invest in a ladder, I plan on swapping that out with a Bates Motel sign.
Inside, though, the building is as spooky as any crumbling old barn out in the sticks…dark wooden walls and rafters, rickety staircase to the attic, jutting nails and splintering wood, naked light bulbs, and—as that last would suggest and fortunately for my theater aspirations—wired for electricity.
The freaky thing about toy skeletons is that
they look like the remains of small children.
The bottom floor is big enough to park cars in, but due to the fact that it has only a small set of doors, a combustible floor, and questionable structural components, we’ve decided to just clutter it with unused furniture, lawn care implements, and pool inflatables for an in-ground pool that we get to use one week a year due to the New England climate. Thanks for installing that, previous owner.
The attic, on the other hand, is an open expanse of unused potential, spacious, large-windowed, and a little terrifying since it’s pretty much only held up by temporary jacks instead of permanent support columns. I probably should have asked about that when we bought the place. We usually forget that the attic is there, because the only way to access it is via a set of narrow, uneven stairs that precludes us carrying anything big up there and causes us to weigh each time the risks to life and limb that climbing those stairs with smaller storables would entail.
All in all, though, it seemed ideal for our purposes. So we threw a sheet over a rafter for the screen, leaned a futon pad against the wall for the stadium seating, cozied up in a blanket to keep out the rapidly dropping night temperature, turned the lights out, and got ready to be spooked. We also kept some of the windows open to take full advantage of the effect of the rainstorm and brought with us provisions including some Halloween decorations from the house, a few bottles of hard cider, and some pumpkin- and ghost-shaped chocolates.
For Cellar Cinema, I had enormous trouble choosing a movie, not knowing whether to go with something new or familiar, themed for the surroundings or unthemed, all for various reasons that I outlined there and will skip here. Suffice it to say that here I had the same conundrum, and after the abject failure in movie choice of last time, I decided to make the same mistake again. That sounds like a faulty approach, but I just think of it as throwing out rock two times in a row during a game of rock, paper, scissors.
And it worked. This time we fared better much better with our movie choice. Sure, there’s the whole “no way to go but up” thing at work, but I’ll take that, too. During the trailers for Dark Mirror, the horrible movie we watched for Cellar Cinema, we saw a preview for a haunted house movie we’d never heard of called, The Skeptic. It was our immediate choice for one reason only: Tim Daly. Actually, it was because it seemed to have been filmed in an extremely Fall location. So we got our hands on it, and then set it on the counter until just the right rainstorm for watching a movie in one’s barn attic.
Starring Tim Daly of Wings fame, Tom Arnold of marrying Roseanne Barr fame, and that blue-skinned 3D cat-girl from Avatar, it’s the story of a lawyer with marital-and-more problems who dogmatically doesn’t believe in ghosts until he inherits a house that he must eventually face as haunted. There were some problems with the movie, of course. The characterization was a bit heavy-handed (we get it, he’s a skeptic), they too quickly defused the moments of genuine supernatural tension, and the ending, though a respectable idea, was a bit too abrupt.
Still, it met our purposes well, had a great feeling of Fall and Halloween to it (itwas filmed in upstate New York, about 30 miles from the Vermont border), featured some solidly creepy scenes and a few good startle moments, and showcased a great old, Victorian-style mansion. Plus anything that gets the quavering response from my wife, “Can we just get through this?” to my question halfway through the movie of, “Want to take a quick break?” means mission accomplished.
Overall, watching a movie in the barn attic felt kind of like hanging out in a cabin, except that we didn’t smell all smoky from a fire and we were only half-afraid there were small mammals snuggling up to us for warmth in the dark. I really think Barn Attic Amphitheater might become a Halloween tradition…as long as the temporary jacks hold.