Eight years ago, Dave McLaughlin and John Pritchett resorted to paying a few passersby three bucks each to be scared. Most haunted houses in the area started out this way — with a motley crew and makeshift funeral parlors, hospital rooms and graveyards created out of scrap pieces of metal and used cardboard. But today, the houses’ owners find themselves scrambling to keep up with the crowds’ demands for something more sinister each year.
Eight years ago, Dave McLaughlin and John Pritchett resorted to paying a few passersby three bucks each to be scared.
“Our very first year was pretty last-minute,” said Pritchett, of Springfield. “We pretty much had no advertising. We spent a lot of time just waiting for people to show up. Local kids would go by and we’d say, ‘Hey, come to our haunted house.’”
That year, the Auburn Haunted House grossed around $600. Today, it charges hundreds of people $7 to shuffle timidly through its dimly lit “Dead Before Dawn” haunted house, which is expected to make about $15,000 for the Ark and Anchor Masonic Lodge 354. McLaughlin and Pritchett are lodge members, and it’s where they first dreamed up the idea of an all-volunteer haunted house.
The house started out with just a dozen volunteers in a now torn-down building on Auburn’s city square. The walls were made of cardboard and other materials John found lying around town and in trash bins.
“We were desperate to make our graveyard scene better, so we tore vines and stuff off the back of an old building,” Pritchett said about his first year haunting the residents of Auburn.
The haunted house has since moved to 217 N. Fifth St., where the lines to get in have grown and can wrap around the block.
Most haunted houses in the area started out this way — with a motley crew and makeshift funeral parlors, hospital rooms and graveyards created out of scrap pieces of metal and used cardboard. But today, the houses’ owners find themselves scrambling to keep up with the crowds’ demands for something more sinister each year.
Cue special effects
John Shoudel of Rochester didn’t have such support — be it financial or in manpower — when he put his lifelong love of Halloween on display in his garage about 10 years ago.
“Even as a kid, Halloween was always a big deal,” Shoudel, 45, said from his office on West Iles Avenue in Springfield, where he practices podiatry by day. “(That year) a friend of mine who was an electrical engineer decided to throw some things together that moved, and we just decided, instead of doing, oh you know, a Christmas display, we decided to do it for Halloween.”
Shoudel’s oldest daughter, Celine, who was 3 at the time, pushed the button for the fog machine.
Since then, the haunts — as those in the haunted house industry call them — have become more elaborate, more frightening, more intense and far more expensive.
At the Boo Crew Haunted House, now owned and operated by the Lions Club in Rochester, Shoudel runs a staff about 25 times larger than that at his office in Springfield.
Just southeast of Rochester on Illinois Route 29 — surrounded by ... well, nothing — the house is created inside a metal barn with machinery sitting in its poorly-lit, gravel parking lot — giving its victims an extra sprint in their step leaving the frightening maze.
Each weekend in October, Shoudel puts in contact lenses that turn his eyes wolf-like, and he turns into the “hauntmaster” — which means he takes Fridays off, and his usual bedtime becomes long after the witching hour.
Under Shoudel’s direction are more than 130 volunteers working in departments such as wardrobe, makeup, sound and electrical engineering, script writing, concessions and feeding the more than four dozen “scaractors,” as those doing the scaring call themselves.
“When I’m scaring people, I’m usually out in the cue line and out in the parking lot — kind of like free form scaring,” Shoudel said. “I think it’s harder for the actors in a certain location to do the same thing every two minutes, but some are pretty original.”
Inside the 20 rooms and 20 hallways of “Dr. Griswold’s Experimentorium” are about 55 dressed actors — men, women, teens and children — waiting for you.
Some are trapped behind glass walls, screaming to be let out, while others are dressed and acting as deranged clowns, keeping you from finding your way out of a strobe-lit room with black walls and no defined exit in sight.
Another masked man with no concept of personal space follows victims into a small elevator, just big enough for a handful of people, that moves side to side and off its axis instead of up and down.
The sets are elaborate, and the special effects look — and feel — pricey. Behind the scenes sits a laptop computer and $10,000 to $20,000 worth of audio equipment to create the kind of frightening, psychotic atmosphere that the experimentorium needs to make up for lack of gore — an unusual route for haunted houses in the area.
“I think our haunted house is different because our actors don’t go to the point to, typically, people make cry,” Shoudel said. “There’s a point where you’re having fun being scared and a certain point where you’re starting to terrorize a person, and at some haunted houses, they aim to break people down and make them cry.”
‘Sometimes you get a cold draft’
It’s a different story in Auburn.
Dave McLaughlin boasts — and seems proud to have memorized — the number of people he says ran out of the Auburn Haunted House in 2008 (159) and the number who left with wet pants (139).
On this year’s opening night, Auburn High School senior Chance Kodatt was tending to the bonfire built to warm the bevy of teenagers swarming around the concessions area, waiting to enter the house.
Chance is one of the nearly 40 people who make the haunted house happen each night. When he’s not working behind the scenes, he scares people — a mission that the actors in Auburn obviously take seriously, with many of them in acting classes to make those triple digit numbers of people too scared to make it through the house.
“It’s fun to get to scare people and not really get in trouble for it,” said Chance, 17.
About 30 miles northwest of Auburn on another city square, 25-year-old Chelsea Collins is in her second year of not getting in trouble for making people scream.
At Terror on the Square in Petersburg, Collins mans her post in half of a coffin while hundreds of people wait in line each weekend in October for the area’s most-popular haunted house.
“Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I get to celebrate it for a whole month here,” Collins said.
But to prepare for the Halloween season, those in charge are devoted for much longer than just the month of October. Terror on the Square’s founder, Shawn McKinney, said his “creative outlet” keeps him building, researching new technology and planning year-round.
Talk to McKinney, Shoudel, McLaughlin, Pritchett or Bob Gilmer, the past president of the Springfield Jaycees who puts on a popular haunted house in Springfield each year, and they will all tell you they’re pretty sleep deprived long before the haunted houses open — and long after.
Despite having a mission of making the crowds feel justified in paying the $8 admission fee over and over and over each night, Collins says there are times when she is the one jumping.
“Sometimes the other actors are in unexpected places,” she said. “And sometimes you get a cold draft, and it makes you wonder … ”
Molly Beck can be reached at (217) 788-1526 or firstname.lastname@example.org.