x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Making a djinn: the Alis, first family of fright

Secret passages, fog, ghouls, fairytale crones and yowling cats: step inside the 'horror houses' of Sharjah and Fujairah.

The Alis set up this horror house at the Al Saif Traditional Sword Competition last month.
The Alis set up this horror house at the Al Saif Traditional Sword Competition last month.

FUJAIRAH // By day, Khalid bin Bashir Ali works as an assistant stage director at Sharjah's National Theatre. At night he transforms into a demonic hunchbacked hag who terrorises anyone who dares visit her domain - a graveyard inside his family's "horror house".

"I sneak in between the visitors and walk next to them, clutching their arm as if I am a frightened old woman, and then when they hear my breathing getting louder, they turn their faces to see me, and I scare them with my hideous face and laugh," the 26-year-old Emirati says with a smile.

The temporary structure where this happens, known in Arabic as Bayit al Rouaa', is typical of the "horror houses" that have been springing up at heritage-related events around the Northern Emirates for at least a decade. The latest house was set up for two weeks this month at the Heritage Village in Fujairah, next to stands selling traditional handicrafts and food.

Horror houses come in all shapes and sizes: created inside abandoned villas or fashioned out of palm tree fronds and stalk, similar to a traditional arish. There are many variations, but the common theme is for the structures to incorporate secret passages and pits, filled with a low-lying fog, featuring strategic lighting and sudden, scary appearances by a variety of ghouls.

Once erected, these locations draw on Emirati folklore that supernatural creatures, such as djinn, will proceed to haunt and frighten whoever enters through the gate.

This horror house has been organised by Khalid's father, Bashir Mohammed Ali, who lives in nearby Kalba, and involves his six sons in a roving production that has already been set up in Sharjah, Kalbaand Dibba and will be making its debut in Ras al Khaimah and al Dhaid next year.

Bashir, 47, a theatre stage director and technical engineer, spends Dh20,000 to Dh80,000 setting each "house" up, charging Dh10 for those who enter. Anyone over 10 is welcome to experience the fright, except "pregnant women, and those with heart problems, epilepsy, high blood pressure and diabetes", according to a warning sign near the metallic door.

"It sounds cheesy, but trust me, when you are inside the dark twisted maze of the horror house, and things are touching you and blowing in your ear and playing with your mind, even the toughest men get scared," Bashir says.

He started building horror houses as part of a "family affair", taking in young actors from the Sharjah theatre to play roles, along with his sons. Although they all pitch in, he is the main voice behind the assorted screams and groans echoing inside.

"The key to making it interesting, is to keep changing the tactics and moving the pit holes around, so that whoever went in can't spoil it for future customers," Bashir says.

Although he would not reveal much of what goes on in his houses, preferring to leave most of the surprises for visitors, he did say one of his favourite tricks is to have visitors hear cats fighting to their right and left, just as something furry rubs against their leg.He calls it "the catty scream".

Khalid has been doing his wizened old woman act - a revival of the evil but popular Emirati fairytale figure Um al Duwais - for four years. He dons a full head mask, complete with wrinkles, long nose and straggly white hair, a full-body black abaya covering a hump crafted onto his back, and tops it off with a sickle. Legend has it the demon initially appears young and beautiful to seduce men, before revealing herself, killing and mutilating them.

It gets hot inside the mask and some customers get so frightened they end up pushing and hitting Mr Ali and his brothers, two of whom are police officers.

Still, he enjoys the "horror role". "It is really fun," Khalid says.

"I watch as these supposed brave brothers come in with their sisters to act as guardians, but end up pushing their sisters forward, hiding behind them."

After a night of terrorising is over and the lights go up, the most common find is a traditional Emirati sandal that has been left behind in a flight of fear.

One of the country's first horror houses is a concrete version open part of the year in the heart of Heritage Village in Sharjah. It was set up seven years ago by AbdulAziz al Musallam, Sharjah's director of heritage and cultural affairs.

"It is in honour of our folklore and fairytales that have a strong horror element at the heart of many of the myths," Mr al Musallam said.

"While not really 'tradition' in the regular sense, there was always some haunted house or area in the old neighbourhoods. We picked this particular horror house because it was believed to be haunted by Abu al Salal, a ghost who carries chains, almost 40 years ago."

There are plans to keep the horror house in Sharjah open throughout the year, starting next April.

"Everyone," Mr al Musallamsays, "enjoys a bit of a scare in their life."

rghazal@thenational.ae