This past Saturday, I summoned the courage to visit four haunted houses. Not real haunted houses, but the kind built with black polyvinyl sheeting and covered with synthetic spider webs that magically appear this time of year. To be clear, I hate horror movies or any situation where someone is trying to scare me. But I had a blast. The trick was spending my time in these houses trying to figure out how they worked. Well, that and clutching tightly to friends, saying “DON’T TOUCH ME” over and over. In the four houses, similar scenarios emerged: this was an opulent residence abandoned under mysterious circumstances a long time ago. Just when you think you’re going to figure out the mystery, a man with a chainsaw chases you out of the house.
But, a week before Halloween, what does a real abandoned mansion look like? A hemisphere away, in Afganistan, a fancy neighborhood is slowly being abandoned. The situation leading to the decline of Kabul’s Sher-Pur neighborhood is complex, but not mysterious. This formerly low income neighborhood is now crowded with oversized, garish and empty houses:
“Built up using mashup of imported architectural designs from Dubai, the neighborhood is full of massive poppy palaces and narco palaces, a reference to the illicit capital flows that drive the construction of these buildings. These single-family houses frequently contain as much as 45 bedrooms, and many were constructed primarily to facilitate the interests of the international humanitarian regime. For years, NGOs commonly pay anywhere between 12,000 USD and 100,000 USD per month to rent these structures for their staff.”
But now that NGOs are leaving Afganistan, these multi-room monstrosities are collecting dust and spiderwebs. Not the fun, synthetic kind, either. It’s more amusing to visit a pretend abandoned mansion than to think about the realities that push entire neighborhoods to become ghost towns, or at least ghost enclaves. I can survive a trip down the “Tunnle of Nightmare” (their spelling, not mine) because I know it’s going to be a series of simple tricks, not something long and inescapable. But even in a dark, plastic maze, when assured that nobody will touch you, you may find yourself knocked to the ground and poked in the groin with a bladeless chainsaw.