The price of terror

This Halloween I did something truly frightening. On Friday night of what is arguably the year’s biggest party weekend, I threw myself into the fray of last-minute shoppers at Evangeline’s Costume Mansion. My motives were unclear, even to myself. I’d only come to Old Sacramento for the Hysterical Walk of the Dead, a ghost-story walking tour that did not require dressing up.

But as I walked down the shadowy wooden sidewalks toward Café New Orleans, where the tour began, it seemed every third person held a parcel from Evangeline’s. Shoppers lurched up the store’s staircase and pressed into the elevator in herds, possessed by the demons of Halloween commerce.

I felt a strange compulsion—part zombie, part lemming—to witness the chaos. I lingered on the first step, hypnotized by the seemingly endless line, before breaking free to meet the tour.

I was equally apprehensive about the Walk of the Dead, since few things are scarier than cheesy stand-up comedy. Sure enough, many of the punch lines were groaners, but our group laughed easily and the tour guide, one Natasha Handpickel, let us know she was in on the joke. (“I didn’t write that one!” she’d say, after particularly awkward puns.)

Dressed in a cape, a turban and clanking jewelry, Handpickel led us along the river, lighting our path with an electric lantern. She spun tall tales of supernatural encounters, weaving in Sacramento elements like cholera, floods and catastrophic steamboat fires.

There were a few hitches, like shoppers interrupting us to ask for directions to Evangeline’s, or the time we surprised a young couple making out at one of the tour stops. Still, I loved sitting in the slight chill of an autumn breeze, watching the moonlight bounce off river currents as Handpickel recounted stories, like the death of the Dutchman, an actual Sacramentan who made so much money ferrying corpses across the river during the flood of 1850 that he drowned from the weight of his money belt. The tour’s finale, which included a mini-performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” near the old train depot, had me jumping for campy joy.

At that point, I should have gone home. Really, what could have been better than ghosts with jazz hands? But Evangeline’s beckoned like Pandora’s own retail outlet. The line was longer than ever, and this time I joined it.

The crush of bodies on the stairs carried me quickly to the second floor, where the air was humid with a thousand exhalations. Something cracked under my shoes. I looked down to see the floor littered with garments, props and masks. It was impossible not to step on them in the confusion. I followed the path of least resistance to the Egyptian room, where I got stuck behind two college-aged men studying a Pharaoh outfit.

“Dude, I’m not gonna wear that!” one said to the other. “How fucking homo would that be?”

I ducked past them, already desperate to find an exit, and nearly ran into a little girl with a gold pocket watch singing, “I’m late. I’m late, for a very important date,” like the White Rabbit. Curiouser and curiouser.

The medical room was filled to capacity with women debating the merits of naughty-nurse mini-dresses against the naughty-cop uniforms in the next room. “Just be a Playboy bunny,” a young man urged his indecisive girlfriend. “You know you want to.”

I ascended a thin staircase that quaked under the weight of too many bodies, still hoping for a way out. In the ’70s room, my leopard-print coat nearly was yanked from my arms by would-be pimps. People kept asking if I worked there and I couldn’t figure out why, until I noticed I was still wearing my tour name tag. I ripped it off and started shoving my way past little boys swinging plastic swords and women pushing baby strollers with skimpy Catholic schoolgirl costumes hanging off the backs. Masks crunched underfoot, but I didn’t care. I wanted out of this commercial madhouse. Better to be alone in the dark with the undead cholera victims than trapped with the zombies of consumerism.