For October I will post four stories that fit the Halloween spirit (see what I did there?). "The Experience Arcade" is the title story of my latest collection. All the stories were written in response to Ray Bradbury's challenge to young writers to write a story a week for a year. After all, he said, no one can write 52 bad stories in a row! "The Experience Arcade" came out of my terrified fascination with horror movies, and reasons why people are attracted to them.
The Japanese do the cool stuff and worst stuff first. They’re the fad makers: video games, reality TV, bizarre game shows, weirdness in fashion, hentai, must-own electronics—they do it first. So, Experience Arcades came from them.
People walk like the undead along the boulevard of experience booths, like cows bumping into each other. I’ll bet some of them just cycle from one end of the block to the other, never going in. Many suck up novelty drinks from plastic containers shaped like skulls or coffins or inverted crucifixes. There’s a booth that sells you the container and fills it with frozen margarita: Grave Grape, Killer Cactus, Lurid Lime, that sort of thing. It’s a walking party. The crowd’s dead inside but moving. A guy in a silk vest over a Milwaukee Brewers t-shirt coming toward me waves his hand in my face. “They're here already! You're next! You're next.” So, I guess he’s been to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers Experience. Give them your twenty bucks, and you get to be body snatched. A bit of drug, a lot of virtual reality, and you’re a pod person for a while.
Very convincing I’m told.
A huge LED display reaches above the booth to my right over the crowd, where a black-bladed pendulum swings slowly back and forth on a red background. Go in. They strap you to a table. The straps are real. Drugs again. Virtual reality goggles. The blade comes down in long, slow arcs. You get to see it. Hear the lazy swish. Feel the tug on your shirt when the razor edge first brushes you. Oh, the agony as it cuts deeper and deeper. It’s the drugs, and the virtual goggles, and willing participation.
They’ll sell you a video later. Part genuine. Part special effects. You show it to your friends. “This is how I died,” you can say to them. “Does anyone need me to freshen up their drink?”
How real. How real.
Music blares nearby, and voices as if from a bar. A woman dressed as a Victorian prostitute beckons. “Come in, Deary. We got a bit of the Ripper if you like. Welcome to The Whitechapel Experience.” Her British accent isn’t convincing. She shows a lot of leg, but when I don’t slow, she turns her attention to a woman walking behind me. “Fear for your life, Luv. Our Mad Jack will show no mercy.” The woman holds an empty skull. She’s twenty. Long hair. Big, jangly bracelets. How many times has she refilled the skull tonight? She sways while she considers.
“How long?” she says.
“The rest of your life,” says the hooker.
The woman follows her into the Ten Bells Pub.
“For an extra fifty bucks, I got to keep my face-hugger,” says a drunk middle-aged man to his buddy. They could be on the same bowling team. Identical green polyester shirts. He holds up a plastic bag with a gelatinous, bloody mess inside. “I was cocooned,” he says, “hanging in the Nostromo. I could feel it growing inside me.” He rubs his chest and grimaces. “Got to get the wife here.”
Three girls run into the crowd out from under what looks like a summer camp sign: WELCOME TO CRYSTAL LAKE. A guy in a hockey mask, ragged coat, and cleaver leans against the wooden support. His blade drips onto the pavement. He says something to Freddy Krueger, who stands at the edge of a streetlight’s illumination. The Elm Street sign hangs crookedly from the light post. Freddy’s popular. There’s a line at his door.
Popcorn smells. Hotdogs. Cologne. Sweat. Drunken breath. Flashing lights. Animated displays. Recorded screams and genuine ones.
RAVAGE OR RAVAGED? reads the sign over The Embrace of the Vampire Experience. A young woman staggers from the attraction, stumbles against me. I help her steady herself. She’s flushed. Breathing hard. On her neck, a pair of puncture wounds, both bleeding, bruised. “If you really want to get into it, I mean REALLY into it, a hundred bucks into it, you can.” She rubs her fingers across her wounds. Looks at the blood and then at me. “It’s about wanting what you know you shouldn’t have.”
What do you want? Possession? Regan will take you to your priest now. The Overlook Hotel? You don’t have to say “redrum” twice to us. A little chainsaw action? Leatherface awaits.
You’ve been there in your nightmares. Why not go for real?
I’m not kidding. For a hundred they’ll up the ante. Not just virtual mayhem, but the real thing. The woman in room 237 will strangle you. No safe word. Hannibal Lector will carve a slice, even eat it. You can take a shower at the Bates Motel. You know you want to. You know he’s watching. “Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!”
For an extra hundred, the playacting is more real. Commercial self destruction. Why cut on yourself when you can go to an Experience Arcade? Being a depressed fourteen-year old girl, or a middle-school Goth guy who can’t shut out the voices doesn’t go away when you turn twenty, or forty or sixty, even. The place in the brain that loves the razor simpers in the background. The urge to rehearse death lingers.
I rub my forearm. Under the long sleeve, the scars feel like fine corduroy from wrist to elbow.
For a hundred bucks, they’ll take it up a notch. For a thousand . . .
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Experience looks like a clinic. Dr. Bennel’s name is painted on the door. Welcome to Santa Mira. I stop, hand on the doorknob. It’s not the fear I need. I’ve known fear. It’s not catharsis and resurfacing into the mundane, cleansed like these zombies around me. I have a thousand dollars. They have my pod. I will sleep, perchance to let my humanity drain away. No pain. No need for love or desire or ambition.
Give them the thousand bucks, and tomorrow I’ll be one of them.
Life will be so simple.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.