On an October night, zombies and other ghouls lurch through the darkness, searching for screams like nocturnal hunters. And that's just the actors in the parking lot.
In the weeks before Halloween, thousands visit Netherworld, a haunted house attraction and Atlanta fixture for nearly 20 years. On the approach to the front door, thrill-seekers will be hassled by 10-ft. monsters or frightened by “sliders," men who come noisily skidding out of the shadows, sparks flying from metal kneepads and shin guards.
With zombie and horror-themed shows captivating audiences, blood and guts have gone mainstream. And with such sophisticated shows squashing big-budget effects into prime-time hours, the modern haunted-house audience demands much more than things that go bump in the night.
“Today's haunted house is a theatrical production," says Netherworld co-owner Ben Armstrong. But rather than drama or comedy, a haunted house focuses on the art of the thrill. And if it's done right?
“You'll come back time and time again for that thrill," he says.
To draw repeat crowds, Netherworld combines movie-worthy cinematic effects and larger-than-life monsters to create a slightly mind-bending and immersive experience.
“It's not like you'll have nightmares the rest of your life," Armstrong says. “It's more like an action movie; it's a sensory overload experience."
In one room, a centipede might be fighting a dragon; in another, an enormous seven-foot-long hand attempts to grab guests as the floor shakes. Follow that all up with a chainsaw because, as Armstrong says, “You always have to have a chainsaw in a haunted house."
But horror tropes are not what make Netherworld tick. The lifeblood of this fright night is a huge cast of character actors, some of which have shuffled their way through assorted scary mainstream flicks and hit TV shows.
They're be-fanged and zombie-fied by a crew of artists whose credits include horror movies.
The Devil’s in the Details
A former movie guy himself, Armstrong says the best haunt purveyors know the devil is in the details.
“Like any successful endeavor, there's got to be a polish," he says. “You want it to be cool, have amazing production, to be firing on all levels — then people wait all year to come back and see what's new."
That's the case at Knott's Scary Farm in Buena Park, Calif. – Knott's Berry Farm's creepy alter ego. There, full-time design specialist Jon Cooke's team spends all year working out ways to transform the theme park for the brief haunting season.
It's a tall order to turn 160 acres into a labyrinth of elaborate sets, mazes and monsters. Cooke is assisted by hundreds of effects pros, including a props, lighting, audio and paint department.
“And that's just to create and build all the sets," Cooke said. “To make them come to life, we hire over 1,000 monsters to inhabit them."
In one of the park's dozen mazes, thrill-seekers fight back.
In “Special Ops: Infected,” an interactive maze, guests group up, suit up and don laser guns to beat back the zombie apocalypse.
“You get to be part of the story, interact with the characters, perform different tasks and figure out puzzles," Cooke says. “It's really fun."
More than 100 shuffling undead inhabit Special Ops. The rest of the park is stuffed with a mind-boggling array of actors and animatronic monsters, all built by an in-house props department to rival any in Hollywood.
And Cooke should know; as the lead vocalist for the heavy metal band Winds of Plague, he has dabbled in creepy professional music video-making for years.
Marching to a Spooky Drum
Todd James, owner of Cutting Edge Haunted House is also musically minded. The former high school band director, musician and educator fills the halls of his 235,000-sq.-ft. haunted house in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with strains from a ghostly — but real — violin player who plays with the symphony when she's not scaring people.
The three-time Guinness World Record holder for largest haunted house also comes alive with the precision Undead Drum Line and a zombie marching band, the Banshee Brass.
Fittingly, James compares running a haunted house to hosting a hit Broadway musical — one where the audience walks through the stage. Music, he says, is integral to composing a full haunted house arrangement. “It's all about a full set," he says. “To have a full experience in a haunted house, you have to dial in all of the pieces."
But in some haunted houses, the set comes ready-made.
Legend has it that a murderous janitor plagued the Dent Schoolhouse, now a haunted attraction in Ohio. Whether the tale is fact or fiction is up for debate.
“It's a strange mixture of both," says the Kentucky-born owner Bud Stross, who heard the legend from the former owners, but has so far been unable to produce any real evidence.
But even without the spooky story, the 19th-century schoolhouse has a preternaturally foreboding vibe. And indeed, the staff reports some things do go bump in the night.
“Whether it's Charlie the Janitor walking the halls… or just playing on our imagination, late at night, it gets pretty spooky," Stross says.
Clearly, the Dent Schoolhouse is doing something right; more than 3,000 people visit the attraction on peak October evenings, with waits as long as two-and-a-half hours.
The story isn't the only draw. Stross also insists on movie-style sets, plus Hollywood-level animatronics and makeup on a fleet of character actors. That's important in a world where cheap shocks no longer thrill, he says.
“Everyone's so jaded. You have to make sure your standards are pretty high now."
To maintain the tightly themed sets and effects, Dent shuts down in November, with the next year's work commencing immediately thereafter.
“Halloween doesn't stop," he says. “It's hard work, but it's fun to get paid in screams. It's such a unique business."