Goblins, ghouls and the Holy Ghost

It’s dark in here. The walls are narrow, painted a grim, flat black. Add the creeping fog, and it’s almost impossible to make out anything beyond a few feet. There’s noise everywhere — howls, shrieks. You get the feeling you’re being boxed in, and that somewhere, just around the corner, something gruesome awaits you. Your heart races; you begin to sweat.

If you could think — if that logical part of your brain that’s concerned with something more than simple fight-or-flight were working — you’d probably laugh at yourself right now. After all, isn’t this exactly what you paid for?

The ghoulish gold mine

Custom-designed haunted houses, along with almost everything related to Halloween, are a major growth industry. In terms of seasonal sales, Halloween is now second only to Christmas. According to the National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, the average household will spend roughly $44 this year on Halloween-related items. That comes to around $6.9 billion in Halloween-specific sales for American stores this year, more than twice the amount spent per year in the early 1990s.

Most of the money is spent on candy, which brings in a total of about $2 billion. The next big chunk of change comes from costumes and decorations, while the remainder is a mass of undefined spending encompassing movie rentals, greeting cards, party supplies and various Halloween-related entertainment options, including one of the nation’s most-popular Halloween staples — the haunted house.

This season, a sizable number of local haunted houses will vie for your entertainment dollar. Three will be explored here.

Lions, camo and country … oh my!

UNCA’s Carol Belk Theatre is a strange place. It’s a theater “in the round,” meaning the stage is surrounded on all sides by audience seating. In the past few days, a team of drama and theater-technician students have been transforming this arena-like space into a cramped maze of dark plywood walls and Gulf War-surplus camouflage netting, which is draped over nearly everything. Around each corner lurks a fresh horror — a goblin, an undead country singer and … a cowardly lion?

Welcome to this year’s Haunted Theatre at UNCA.

“I’m supposed to be a werewolf,” explains Mike Henning, one of the students who designed the haunted house, “but I can’t find the wig.”

About 15 students will help run the Haunted Theatre this year, most of them from UNCA’s theater-technician training program. Money raised from the show will go toward sending those students to the United States Institute of Technical Theater National Conference in March. Though organizers can’t cite any solid figures on what they expect to make from their frightful endeavor, they fully expect to net enough cash to offset conference costs.

Beyond that, staging a haunted house provides students with a way to showcase their atmosphere-setting skills.

So was their haunted house scary? Well, no. At four in the afternoon, with the lights on, no smoke or sound effects, and the actors dressed like cowardly lions, it didn’t exactly inspire fits of screaming terror. Of course, who knows what it will feel like when the stage is set, the performers are in character and the lights go out?

For some patrons — particularly those with small, easily spooked children — being truly scared isn’t really what they want out of their Halloween experience anyway. This is where the Haunted Theatre stands out.

“What’s different in our haunted house versus any of the others is that we have early daytime tours, or ‘lights-on’ tours, as we call them,” explains Rob Bowen, chair of the drama department. “We bring in little kids, and they can go through and meet everybody. The parents love it because it’s something for the young kids that nobody else does. We don’t try to scare [children] — we just try to show them what happens in the thing. Then, if they’re comfortable, they can come back through again with the lights off.

“Then,” Bowen adds with a laugh, “we get an opportunity to scare them.”

Paying for penance

A religious drama involving heaven, hell and house fires might not seem like an all-ages seasonal attraction, but apparently it is — and a popular one at that. The Merrimon Avenue Baptist Church expects Judgement House, their “Halloween alternative” drama, to draw around 3,500 visitors.

At $2 a person — the suggested donation — it’s quite a fund-raiser for the church.

“It’s not really a Halloween drama,” clarifies Andy Jackson, the church’s youth minister. “It’s not meant to frighten, though it does sometimes. You are faced with your own mortality.”

Compared to the religious-themed gore-fest approach of the much-fussed-about Hell House in Cedar Hill, Tex., our local Judgement House is very, very tame — no horrific abortion scenes, no costumed junkies or rapists lurking in the corners. Instead, Judgement House features a series of vignettes in different rooms depicting the personal moral choices of a pair of siblings — or, more specifically, the ultimate effect of those choices when both die in a fire.

One of those choices leads straight to hell, which doesn’t involve whippings, boiling oil or even torture racks. No, the Judgement House version of the fiery pit is even more disturbing: a dark, empty room where your words and deeds come back to haunt you in the form of an endless loop of taped dialogue.

Forget the blistering lake of fire — hell, apparently, feels like having to watch an Andy Warhol film for all eternity.

Though it may not seem like the most-scintillating way to spend Halloween, Judgement House does, predictably, bring out large numbers of churchgoers. It’s a major undertaking, with around 75 actors playing the roles in shifts.

“One of the knocks on Judgement House,” says Jackson, “is that it scares people into a religious decision; but that’s not a desire of ours. But at the same time, the reality of hell, the separation with God, is a scary thing. It’s hard to balance the two things.”

Scaring the piss out of local thrill-seekers

Greg Buckner is a giant of a man, and the one thing he loves beyond all else is scaring people. He relishes it. And as owner of the Nightmare Haunted House, he’d like nothing more than to frighten you out of your wits — and, most importantly, have you come back asking for more.

He’s remarkably talented in both areas.

“I’ve just got a passion for it,” he admits.

Unlike Judgement House or the still-under-construction Haunted Theatre, Nightmare has been operating for weeks. It isn’t raking in the money Buckner could make in a big city like Atlanta, but it does provide him with a job he loves.

“I could see that one day it could make a fair amount of money,” he says. “But it’s not there yet.”

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