The high art of haunted houses: Local haunters create elaborate worlds to terrify the masses
At Baxter Avenue Morgue, Dr. Vanderdark welcomes visitors to his workshop with a warning: put away all cell phones, and don’t touch his monsters.
“Failure to comply with any of these rules will result in being embalmed alive,” he shouts to those who dare to tour his dark, frightful morgue.
Actor Tiger Rogers is back for his fifth year with the production. He uses his traditional theater training to develop his character.
“[Vanderdark] got bored of preserving the dead and decided to preserve the living so that they can endure his abuse forever.”
What Rogers loves about haunted house work is that the audience is an active participant.
“I basically push them until they make it clear that they're either about to chicken out or break down in genuine hysterics,” he says.
From eerie trails to historic haunts, there is no shortage of spots in the region to get spooked for fun. The planning and creativity that goes into these places confirms they’re truly works of art, says Baxter Avenue Morgue owner Quentin Stephenson, who also works on the technical side, designing sound and helping construct sets or props.
Every aspect of a haunt is art
“Everything you see has been put there with a purpose… somebody's painted it, somebody's found it or tracked it down for it all to end up in that scene in this special place that people are only here two months out of the year,” Stephenson, whose father conceptualized the haunted morgue, says.
It’s the coalescence of multiple art forms, including acting, costuming, makeup, scenic design and audio.
Baxter Avenue Morgue employs roughly 20 actors.
“We have a whole costume room back there,” costume director Sarah Kinslow says. “It's a huge rack of costumes, clothes, makeup, masks and all that stuff.”
Kinslow describes it as 360, multi-sensory, immersive art.
“Art, to me, is very visceral, like you can feel art… So it's kind of like a large-scale installation that people get to walk through and experience,” she says.
Matt Clayton, who co-owns and directs American Horrorplex in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, says “well over 90% of our entire wardrobe is made in-house.”
The haunt’s story is based on a real-life, secret government program called Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S. recruited a slew of German scientists right after World War II.
“And in so doing, they brought two scientists to Louisville to create super soldiers, which they do, by utilizing teratoma cells and making little creatures that they put inside of people that turned them into insane monsters,” Clayton says of the backstory. “Well, of course, as you can imagine, shenanigans ensue.”
And because the premise is so specific, he says many of the costumes are designed from scratch.
Hannah Palmer directs the volunteer-run Literally, A Haunted House at The Culbertson Mansion in New Albany. She’s been there for more than a decade, starting at the age of 11 as an actor, and then moved on to make up and design.
“The haunt’s really my creative outlet,” Palmer says.
A brief history of haunted attractions in the U.S.
Lisa Morton, who writes books on Halloween, traces seasonal haunted houses in the United States back to the 1930s, when trick or treating gained traction in the country.
At that time, it was heavy on the tricks, she says, and there was widespread vandalism. To keep kids out of trouble, adults threw house parties with scary setups sometimes in their basements.
“They turned out the lights and had somebody stationed in the corner ready to jump out at the kids and maybe had some phosphorescent paint on the walls,” Morton says. “That kind of thing.”
Community and Christian groups, like the Junior Chamber, also known as the Jaycees, and Campus Life, eventually started their own haunted houses to raise money. Then two big things happened, Morton says. In the late 60s, the Haunted Mansion ride opened at Disneyland. The mix of old haunting techniques and modern technology was revolutionary.
“It was a huge bombshell for many people who were kind of aiming towards that industry anyways,” Morton says. “It inspired an entire generation of haunters.”
Decades later, the advancement of CGI in Hollywood pushed some special effects artists out.
“A lot of them found a really nice niche in the haunted attractions industry,” she says.
Haunts got more elaborate and popular.
Fun + Fear = An endurance test
Recent research out of Europe shows there’s a sweet spot of being scary, but not too scary, that triggers terror and enjoyment simultaneously. Essentially, people can confront their fears in a safe environment.
“It’s the catharsis, I think,” Matt Clayton, of American Horrorplex says.
“Oh man, this is about to get so deep,” he continues. “We are all terrified of this thing ending, meaning life… And going, well, let's just imitate a little bit of that danger, a little bit of the worst case scenario. It's thrilling.”
Tyler Proffet loves that about these attractions, especially when you get to the other side surrounded by friends.
Proffet, who lives in Southern Indiana, co-owns the haunted house review site The Scare Factor. As the title would indicate, he’s always looking for a good bit of horror. But he’s also interested in the fine details.
“Giving credit for, you know, somebody's actually taking the time to make something look like moldy drywall, or like a roof is caving in, even though it's 100%, secure, or like the floor is going to fall or walls are crashing in,” he says. “So those kinds of things are very exciting for us.”
He thinks the region’s scene stands out. In part, because of how immersive and collaborative the haunted attractions seem to be. He also notes that there is plenty of local lore to draw on, like the part-man, part-goat, part-sheep Pope Lick Monster.
“It does increase that level of immersion… It makes you think twice,” he says. “It's just a legend, but like, wait, we might actually see the legend.”
The creative team at Literally, A Haunted House at The Culbertson Mansion strives to disorient you with shifting floor boards and spinning lights.
Hannah Palmer says they do a new story every year and overhaul the rooms entirely.
“We literally take every room and redesign,” she says. “Most haunts don't do that, but we have so much fun doing it. It's our thing.”
This year, the theme is “coven,” and the goal for visitors is to survive and get initiated into the cult.
Palmer says they’re already planning for next season.
“For us, it's year round,” Palmer says. “We work really hard to make the theme. We raise the money. And we love it. It's a labor of love, but it's definitely hard work.”
It’s all worth it to terrify the masses.