Was it something I said?
Image: Courtesy Polynesian Cultural Center

Here’s a behind the screams look at the star of Lā‘ie’s Haunted Lagoon

Halloween / The details are thin, but what we know so far is this: There is a lady from Laie named Nalani who, in some unknown freak accident, lost both her son, her lover, and so, too, her mind. Now she haunts the murky waters of the lagoon at the Polynesian Cultural Center with angry arms and huge, fried black hair, like the “before” picture in a Garnier Fructis commercial. This Laie Lady hasn’t had a bath in a while, yet her nightgown is as white as a bleached sheet, and her eyes as crazy as Gary Busey’s in a bar fight. Where she comes from, why she’s so clean, and why she’s so pissed at us just for sitting on a boat is a mystery.

So, like many, I tried to interview her, but she was too skittish and paranoid to call me back for even a quick chat. At least, that’s what I tell myself about all the women who ignore my calls.

So as an alternative, I went to see her in person, along with the people who put the production together: the roughly 250 actors, volunteers, special effects technicians, directors, managers, makeup artists and canoe steersmen.

After Nightfall

The boats are steered through the darkened villages of Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa, Tonga, Fiji and Tahiti, each redecorated with its own realization of Nalani’s demented psyche. With fifteen boats in the water at any given time, each holding around 30 people, on a ride that will last about 30 minutes–that’s a lot of scares. Perhaps more amazing, the crew turns the villages from the scenic canoe tours of the daytime into a dark, foggy tangled river of nightmares–the fog machines, tree monsters, clowns, glitter goblins, swamp things, animatronics, smoke bubbles, props, laser beams, 4-D haunted house, Laie Ladies (there are six) in less than an hour every day.

The creative director of the whole nightmare (whose birthday just so happens to fall on Halloween) says it’s more of a dream come true for him. An import from the real Aotearoa, Will Mahoni was an artist and tiki carver with PCC five years ago, before being promoted, but says directing the Haunted Lagoon is “the closest that I’ve ever been to acting.” The truth is, he’s in charge of a lot more than just the actors: His nights usually involve running around all of Polynesia, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time, and that the boats are timed enough apart to avoid bumping into each other in the water (without being too far apart so that it takes too long to get everybody through the line).

“Many people have no idea how complex it is [as a show],” he told me as volunteers in and out of costume built the underworld around us. “I’m always checking, are the canoes too low? Are there actors in the water? Are the creatures safe?” Something screamed from behind palm trees as a technician checked the sound.

“What scares you?” I asked, pretending like that scream didn’t just make me piss my own pockets.

“Oh god,” he laughed. “You know what scares me? The one thousand catfish in the water around you when you’re in the Lagoon, waiting for a boat. It’s hard to stay in character when one of those buggas crawls up your pants.” He laughed again. “I guess that’s what you’ve got to look forward to, eh?” Then he was off.

Getting Into Character

The thing about the Haunted Lagoon is that the Laie Lady is everywhere, lurking around every bend in the river. If you’ve been following her, you’ve probably noticed that each year is another installment in her storyline, a plot that seeks to give out more questions than answers.

“No one really knows the real reason why she’s upset,” said Ray Magalei, PCC’s Director of Marketing and one of the creators of the Laie Lady. It’s unclear if she’s even dead or not. “One thing we do know is that she has lost her son, and what we had said was that the father had been killed, so the anguish of all that has put her in her certain state.”

The character of Nalani is a product of a marketing plan to utilize the lagoon at its creepiest, at night in the weeks leading up to Halloween. “We wanted to provide an event where we can bring in our locals,” Magalei said.

How It Started

On Halloween in 1987, when Magalei was a canoe guide, he and his buddies floated down the lagoon at night because they could, and to scare each other. “It was our own canoe ride, with some friends hiding in the water, some hiding under the bridges. It was just us, hiding in the bushes, scaring our friends. Some students jumped on board, and we had a lot of our friends and family come out. I always enjoyed that, so when we had the opportunity to do something for our kama’aina, I just thought we’d make it into a production.”

In 2008, Haunted Lagoon’s first year, they’d planned to scare 3,000 people, but 12,000 came. “We saw that wow, a lot of people want to do something like this,” said Magalei. “So as we were researching how to do this, we realized we didn’t have to be the scariest one. We didn’t want to be the one that has the blood and the guts; we wanted to do something that was more family friendly. Because back in ‘87 that’s what it was, it was more fun than scary. Fun in that a father can bring his 12-year old and enjoy the same thing. We wanted to make sure that it was a family event.”

That’s good and all, but this Lady–is she real? I mean, is there actually a Laie Lady that you guys are just playing off of and could she come down one night while we all think she’s the pretend version and kill everyone? “She didn’t exist before,” Magalei said. “The lady came up just as we were developing the lagoon in its early stages. When we were growing up, I remember hearing of a Kahuku lady who wore white, so I thought, ‘Let’s create one for us, except in Laie,’ since the PCC is located here. But it wasn’t based on any [Laie Lady] legend that we heard. Because we didn’t want to mess with any of that.”

Clowning Around

It was getting dark, and I had to be lagoon-side for my acting briefing with creative performance manager Dave Tiave. He’s the guy responsible for the clown section of the ride. (Because, of course there would be an insane posse of fierce, screaming clowns.) And I was to become one of them, swimming in the lagoon’s water. Now I knew what Will Mahomi meant when he laughed about the privacy-invading catfish.

Without giving anything away, the clown area is the first thing you see when you hop on the canoe. The music’s nice if a little weary, and there’s a little kid talking to his mother, in what we are to presume is Nalani’s memories of her late babe. I’m supposed to sit on my knees, chest-deep in the water, so that our clown heads are below the laser-fog illusion hovering above the lagoon. When the kid says, “I can’t see them,” we are to slowly stand up through the fog and stagger toward the boat. The fact that the water felt like it was 40 degrees helped me shake like a total freak, but since it was a keiki boat (a boat with a ghost-repelling light saber), we were told only to stand there and be quiet.

A few more of these keiki boats floated past, and I watched them, shivering from cold as they shook with fear, their eyes wide and serious. Hell, those kids are braver than I ever was at that age. Each group of kids would chant something as they floated past, and I realized they were mumbling their safe-words. So cute.

Finally, my first boat of adult victims floated through the curtain. The little voice said, “I can’t see them,” and we rose up and lurched to the boat. At another cue, we were to jump out of the water, screaming and flailing, getting as close to the riders’ faces without touching them. Then, help guide the boat to the next stage, reset, repeat.

Boat after boat we did this, with little to no rest between them, and I’m here to tell you: it’s fucking fantastic spending a night in the water scaring people. You start to notice everybody’s tactics at pretending to be unafraid. The guys especially. You get the muscle shirt meathead with plucked eyebrows who isn’t scared at all, yet wants to announce to the boat where everything is hiding before it jumps at him; there’s the guy who sits laughing the whole time until you jump at him and he swings a fist–it happened more than a few times. There’s also the guy who’s literally not fazed by anything, but his girlfriend is, because he is hiding behind her, while she howls like a baby with her hand in the car door. No matter what, though, you better make sure you have a pidgin speaker on your boat, because he’s more likely to get into the whole thing the most: “Ho braddah! Look in da kine tree!” “Oh da’s one portagee one right there!” “Ey! Is dis kine fog healthy o wat. I mean, come on, brah.” “Ehhh, don’t you go lookin at me l’dat!! GETAWAYBRAH!”

Post Trauma

An hour later and I was back on the grass, thawing out over a cup of noodles and a few cups of hot cocoa, my voice gone from screaming and a good share of the lagoon up my nose. I asked Robert, one of the hundreds of kid volunteers responsible for making the Haunted Lagoon one of the most fun and creepiest attractions on the island (ghost kids?! I mean really), why he volunteers. “Cuz it’s fun,” he said. “Who are your favorite victims?” I asked. He didn’t even think about it. “The Japanese tourists,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Because they’re just so easy.”

People come from all over to see the production, because when it comes down to it, the Haunted Lagoon is less of a haunted attraction and more of an insanely impressive interactive performance piece. It’s why attendance keeps increasing with each new installment every year. I guess you could say that we human Islanders and the lost soul of Nalani are in a sort of co-dependent relationship. We just can’t get enough of each other.

Polynesian Cultural Center, 55-370 Kamehameha Hwy., Laie, open nightly, except Sundays, through 10/31, rides start at 6:30pm, $10–45, 800-367-7060, [hauntedlagoon.com]