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November 23, 2004

Everyone Comes To the Creep Show

Not much happening these days, so I thought I might entertain you with a story from my shady past. About seven years ago, I saw an ad at a student job agency stating that a "Creepy Show" (who apparently had freshly opened) was looking for student helpers. I always liked ghost trains and stuff like that, so I applied. The rather nice Balkan job agency boss called the creep show owners and was first busy for a few minutes arguing with them about a former employee: "He didn't speak German? Why, he worked as a translator. He must have unlearned German then." Afterwards, he explained to me the background: a rich, weird couple had bought an old bunker from WWII and refurnished it with spooky stuff. "She wears the trousers in the household. She's choleric, don't let it get to you if they fire you. They have already used up quite a few of employees." A few days later, on a sunny Sunday morning, I went there. The bunker was in the backyard of some large, modern brick building near a demolished station. There a quite a few old bunkers left, scattered all over Berlin; you can't demolish bunkers so easily since the walls are several metres thick, so the Allies basically just left them where they were and filled them with sand. The staff consisted of the aforementioned stocky couple in their fifties, he balding, quiet, with a hoarse voice and an face expressing years of silent suffering, she blonde, short but sturdy, with a subdued aggressiveness and sharp voice. (I got the impression that she had back problems, you could guess by the way she moved.) They had an unremarkable teenage son reading "Faust" for homework at the entrance desk and a daughter who took after the mother. As far as I remember, all four wore blue jeans. Then there were two other students and a chubby, good-natured manager with a boyish face. I never found out what his actual job description was, he basically just hung around and didn't take anything too seriously most of the time.

The Mr. Owner showed me around the bunker which had been thoroughly modernized, so the atmosphere of the small, windowless rooms with bare brick walls was not so much spooky as dreary. There were three levels: the upper floor contained the usual creep show attractions, like life-size dolls of Dracula, some ghosts, a torture chamber with assorted body parts lying around, etc. The most impressive item in my memory was a room full of Spanish penitent dolls in black cassocks and black KKK hoods. Some Graffiti artists had done a nice job of painting skeletons and stuff like that on the walls. In the hallway, a loudspeaker was blasting Gregorian chants. There was also a student whose job it was to hide in dark corners with a bloody mask and then suddenly jump on the visitors and say "Uaaaaargh!" or something to that effect. He was called the "Erschrecker", the "frightener". The owner casually told me "Well, you wouldn't want to do that, would you." When the owner was not listening, the frightener warned me of "the witch on the ground floor", i. e. the Mrs. Owner. On the ground floor the so-called "medical-historical collection" was located, which included a room with moving dolls in vaguely medieval clothes, one sawing the leg of the other to the accompaniment of a tape of loud, looped moaning. This was supposed to document the sorry state of surgery in the Middle Ages. In the next room, a shrouded doll representing somebody prematurely buried rose from a coffin in a vault and rang a bell in the process. Then there were some "medical aberration" freak dolls, and similar items. Both the historical and the medical accucary of the collection left something to be desired.In the basement the so-called "bunker exhibition" was to be found, in which they basically exhibited what they found cleaning up the bunker, such as 50-year old rusty sardine cans, a 1944 edition of the "Völkische Beobachter" and stuff like that. One room contained enormous glass case made of bulletproof glass with a big lock on it. The whole arrangement gave the impression that something of enormous value was stored here. The only content of the case was a little card, the single spotlight in the room fell on it dramatically. On the card were printed the words "Germany is great, so great, boy oh boy, you have no darn idea how all-important and first-rate and superior to everything else and just, like, totally excellent Germany is." Or words to that effect. On the other side was printed "Heinrich Himmler", nothing else. I asked the owner what this was and he told me it was "the personal calling card of Heinrich Himmler". Well, that was crap, of course, in that case there would have been an address or phone number or something like that on it, I knew better what this was: it was a "Sinnspruch", a quote by a prominent Nazi official or Nietzsche or Goethe which foot soldiers and other inferiors got as small rewards for their pains in order to boost troop morals. There are still thousands and thousands around and the dramatic setting for this particular item was altogether inappropriate. Of course, I couldn't tell him that. In the basement rooms, one could also find a short history of the bunker and the renovation, amateurishly written by the man in the house; the text was filled to the brim with typos and grammatical mistakes. I started wondering where these people came from and why a rich couple would buy a Berlin bunker instead of a Sylt mansion, but that was not my problem. My job that day was to guard the "bunker exhibition" so that nobody would steal any sardine cans and personal calling cards. I walked around trying to look busy, when two hours later the manager came down accompanied by two cops who started searching the rooms. He asked if I had noticed anything unusual and told me: "If you see a ownerless backpack or plastic bag or something like that, don't touch it, come straight up and tell us!" "What's going on?" "Bomb threat. Well, it's okay, it's probably nothing." With this, he and the cops disappeared upstairs again. I was somewhat irritated, but not too much, so I kept walking around trying to look busy until lunch break. When I came up, I sat down with the manager and the guy who checked the tickets, and the full story came out: There had been an anonymous call informing the owners that a bomb would explode in the creep show at 1 p. m. The action was probably due to some zealous pedagogues; the large brick building in whose backyard the bunker was located contained a elementary school. The parents and teachers apparently feared that their children would become brutal and violent by being exposed to a creep show right next to their school yard. At 1 p. m. everybody got out. No bomb exploded, but a demonstration took place. Many grownups, few children stood around in the yard with placards and chanted something I don't recall. I remember two placards, though: "He who builds creep shows sows fear and violence" and "And our children, Mr. (name of creep show owner)?" The creep shop owner man was angry, walked over to them and accused them of violence in his turn. The situation was getting more and more absurd, with people screaming back and forth. Then the creep show people went inside again and I returned to my rounds in the bunker exhibition. At the end of the day I got paid in cash and went home contented.

Some days later, I called the Balkan guy again who said that the owners had been content with me and that they'd take me another time. So the next weekend I went there again. This time, it was my job to check the tickets and to tell the visitors what was to be found on the three levels. The creep show had just recently opened, so there weren't too many visitors, so I didn't have too much to do. I just hung around and listened to the coffin bell and the looped moaning of the doll having its leg sawn off for hours, until it sounded like some sort of Gamelan music. From time to time, I went to the entrance desk and discussed "Faust" with the son. The next week I underwent more or less the same procedure, only this time I got a black cassock and a black hood so I looked like one of the Spanish penitents. The manager got a red cape that was too short for his size and volume. There still weren't many visitors, the owners were losing money. Mrs. Owner was sitting in the office knitting wool spiders and similar icky stuff with a sour expression, from time to time she went upstairs to hang it somewhere. When visitors came, I liked to stand still pretending to be a doll, then stretching my hands out for their tickets as they passed by me. One woman actually jumped screaming in the arms of her paramour almost felling him in the process, which gave me a certain satisfaction.

A week after, Mrs. Owner called me and offered me work as "Erschrecker". I said yes, got there, and received my cassock and the bloody mask. It had an disagreeable smell of rubber. I waited upstairs to be introduced into the job by Mrs. Owner. When she got upstairs, she made some remarks that were supposed to be funny, but really weren't. That I refrained from rolling on the floor screaming with laughter anyway turned out to be a major mistake. She instantly switched gear and assumed an air of angry well-things-have-got- out-of-hand-here-recently-but-now-you-will-do-exactly-as-I-say-and-I-mean-exactly bossiness. My job was to frighten visitor groups on the third floor three times on three predetermined places, each time getting from one place to the other without being seen. Since the visitors could mount by two different stairways and then could visit the rooms more or less in any order they pleased, this was a very nearly impossible task, at least for me; I don't know how the other guys managed, but then, most of them were fired on a regular basis anyway. Sometimes they didn't even enter the room where I was hiding. So Female Owner, who at this point obviously fantasized about having my head on a pole at the entrance, came up again, complained that the people hadn't been frightened and called me names. I didn't try to reason with her but tried to do my best. Next time round, I ran into a kid in the darkness. So Female Owner Person came up once again, even more pissed, in her trail the manager who tried to mediate. The Mrs. started talking about me as having some mental disturbance which is a pretty unpleasant way of being treated. Then they disappeared again downstairs. A little while later, some youth came up and attacked and pushed me, when I said "Uuaargh!" to him. I pushed him back. Then the manager came, still polite and uneasy with the whole situation, and told me that my workday was over and that I could collect my wage for the about three hours I had been there downstairs. It turned out that the youth was another "Erschrecker" who had passed by accidentally and whom the female owner had turned on me. Now he would replace me for the day. I met him downstairs gloating. Owner Son and Daughter seemed to enjoy the situation, too. They made me wait for quite some time while making up my receipt, the Mrs. still talking as if I wasn't there. Then they gave me the money plus receipt and I left. On the way out, the Mr. told me in a low voice, so his wife wouldn't hear: "I told you that frightening wasn't your thing." I said goodbye to the manager and left and that was that. This day was very unpleasant and lingered unpleasantly in my memory. Plus, my always-encouraging father made the fact that I had been fired from my job so soon the subject of some remarks hinting at my general unemployability. Weeks later, in stress situations, the smell of that rubber mask would come back to me. I never went there again. Today, I feel somewhat ambivalent about it. As Henri Michaux says in "Tent Posts": "Don't be ashamed to have to go through unpleasant, degrading spaces, locations which don't seem to be destined for you. He who avoids these places in order to preserve his 'noblesse' will always give the impression that his thinking has stopped at half-distance."


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