In anticipation of the upcoming Halloween festivities, I spent last Saturday trying to scare myself silly, with varying results. First up: Braving River North’s District Bar under strange and unusual circumstances. District is usually a see-and-be-seen kind of place, with a mix of youngish guys and girls watching sports (“We broadcast EVERY game on TV,” boasts the bar’s website), posing on leather couches, and dining on deconstructed gyros. But on this particular afternoon, the crowd was mostly men: hollerin’, camouflage-wearin’, toy gun–totin’ men from such far-flung locales as Texas, Mississippi, and Australia. These guys had descended on Chicago for the Big Buck Hunter 2009 World Championship, and Alex, a New York–based friend of a friend, was in town to compete, so off we went to cheer him on in his pursuit of the $20,000 grand prize.
If, like me prior to Saturday, you are not familiar with the Big Buck Hunter phenom, it’s a video game popular in bars in which "hunters" compete to fell the most deer, elk, caribou, and so on. My friends Kate, Melanie, and I were among the few women in District’s circular lounge, which, for the weekend, was lined with roughly 20 Big Buck Hunter machines, plus TV monitors ranking the top players. Initially intimidated by the bloodthirsty vibe and the miniscule spandex camo shorts worn by the official Big Buck Hunter Girls, soon we were just as white-knuckled as everyone else. “Whoo-hoo!” we screamed as Alex shot 28 quail in lightening succession before moving on to the next round. “Animated Violence,” warned stickers plastered on the machines. I didn’t care. It reminded me of The Oregon Trail, my favorite grade-school computer game. I’ll be honing my Big Buck skills right away. Fun? Yes. Frightening? Not so much, after the initial testosterone blast wore off.
Next up on the scarathon, I met my friend Graham for an outing to two spots identified by a Google search as “haunted bars in Chicago.” The first was the famed punk/S&M club Exit, where the schedule of events features such nights as Bondage A Go-Go and Thank Satan It’s Friday. We arrived around 11 p.m. and joined a surprisingly tame-looking lineup of patrons at the skull-and-crossbones-festooned bar. “Are those yuppies?” whispered Graham, himself a Naperville native and Range Rover driver. We grabbed two beers and made our way up the uneven, dust-covered back stairs to the second floor, where I remembered having been frightened by a chain link–fenced dance floor filled with pierced, leather-clad rockers on a previous visit. It was still pretty quiet up there, though, and a blonde bartender greeted us with a friendly smile. “We’re open until 5 a.m.,” she explained. She asked if we wanted to watch a movie, then started up a DVD of Drop Dead Fred while regaling us with tales of Exit’s resident ghosts, claiming she often senses their presence in certain areas of the bar. “Do you feel them?” I asked Graham. “I don’t know, do you?” he replied. Another bartender yelled from across the room: “Hey, has anyone seen my Hell’s Angels T-shirt?” Again, not so spine-tingling, other than from a fashion perspective—and the fact that Exit is dirty with a capital D, and I mean decades of grime.
Last stop: Liar’s Club (1665 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-665-1110), a punk-rock mecca with a cash-only policy and a KISS poster hanging over the dance floor. We braced ourselves for a thrill, but the crowd proved distinctly Lincoln Parkish. “There’s nothing scary about this place,” said a skeptical Graham after a tour of the first floor. That was before we headed upstairs, where bartender Shawn recounted the spot’s murderous history. “Yeah, back in the ’70s, the former owner axed his wife and left her up here, tied to a chair, for three months,” he explained. “She’s still hanging around.” The ’70s weren’t that long ago, we observed. We glanced at the pool table in the middle of the room and shivered, imagining the gory scene playing out. “Is she here?” I wondered. We jumped as a door slammed somewhere above our heads. Yep, this time we definitely felt it.