No, deader than dead. It still had a video store. That kind of dead. Long beige facades of empty storefronts sat dark beneath cold autumn skies. It was the loneliest strip mall in McHenry County, and it was home to the last Jaycees haunted house in all of Illinois. The others, slowly, torturously, over years, had been picked off, slaughtered by professionals. In Lombard, where the United States Junior Chamber civic group (aka the Jaycees) had run a haunted house since 1971, landlords became less likely to donate real estate to a haunted house. Then there were the ghouls, the army of local teenagers who reliably volunteered their October weekends to play witches and werewolves and demons. They were recruited away by big-budget haunts that paid them. Believe me, said Jacalynn West, president of the Lombard Jaycees, we did not want to die. In McHenry the other night, only days before the last Jaycees haunted house in Illinois opened, chapter Vice President Mary Kozel moved through a maze of wooden frames and padded masonite walls, noting where black goo would ooze, where the Cannibal Kitchen would cook, where a small fortune in fake cobwebs needed to become a gothic nightmare. She noted chicken wire, electric chairs, decapitations, soiled dolls and a small landfill of plastic human bones. She said, other than the $13,000 in rent they were paying, the state Jaycees gave them $5,000 to construct (and market) this years haunted house $5,000 total. Less than a week to opening night, the place seemed more like a serial killers yard sale than a journey into madness. I would love to be like the big guys with their animatronic monsters, I would love to keep up with the Statesville Haunted Prison and the Massacre (in Montgomery), but the truth is this job has become a lot of How can I make this small stack of plywood and 2-by-4s look horrifying? Once upon a midnight dreary, nonprofits like the March of Dimes, Campus Life and the Jaycees dominated Halloween haunted houses, from coast to coast. But that time is gone. Quietly, like a festering evil mushrooming through the walls, gentrification has come for your haunted house. What had been a seasonal business run by amateurs has in the last decade become an industry, with its own trade conventions, insurance companies, airlinelike ticket upgrades, $20,000 robot creatures and million-dollar-plus, artfully distressed haunted compounds. Want to include a virtual reality experience with that haunted house? Extra. Spend the night inside a haunted house? Extra. Tip off the ghosts to whos coming and spook your best friend? Extra. If you dont feel the sting of class resentment when you sit in airline coach, just head to a haunted house: At, say, the Massacre, there is general admission ($25), fast-pass admission ($40) and Platinum VIP Immediate Access ($50). Would you like an escape room with your chainsaw murderers and demented surgeons? Thats a $7 upcharge. A lot of smaller haunts are simply being priced out, said Brett Hays, president of the Haunted Attraction Association, which represents more than 300 haunted houses. If you dont bring some Hollywood-level quality to a house, its become hard to stay viable. The days of tucking flyers under windshield wipers to promote your charity house, thats over. Some spend $30,000 to $50,000 on social media marketing alone. The Chicago area with around 60 haunted houses within a two-hour drive has one of the largest concentrations of haunted attractions in the country, but even here, in the past year, longtime haunts in Cicero, Frankfort, Antioch, Kankakee and Alsip have sent their paranormals packing. Kris Zahrobsky, who founded the website Haunted House Chicago in 1999, plans to review 20 fewer houses this season. A kind of haunted house Darwinism is happening, he said. The people who put second mortgages on their own homes to keep their haunted homes going, who dont have millions to compete with the money being spent now, theyre being pushed out. Haunted Trails in Burbank gave me a call to say they would not be opening their house this year, which was so sad. That was a big part of my childhood. Dont fear: The modest amusement park, which opened in 1976, is not closing, said Elena Ruane, its vice president of marketing. But many visitors were not stopping at the parks haunted house, and considering the work it took to keep the attraction relevant in 2018, Haunted Trails wondered it could make it through Halloween without the haunt. These days, if you cant afford to compete, you cant afford to scare Illinois. You can get buried alive, chased by a demented clown, get souvenir scare photos, get lost in a graveyard, pay to scare other people, pay to skip the line, get chased by a demented clown with access to power tools. That is to say the options have exploded faster than the prop toilets at haunted... Joe Jensen used to joke that a haunted house was performance art for the suburbs. For 20 years, he ran Hades Haunted House, which began in Mount Prospect in 1978, and was one of the first large-scale, go-for-broke haunted spectacles in Illinois. To visit, in many ways, was to get an image of the quintessential homegrown, old-school October haunted attraction seared into your brain the long lines of teenagers eager to hit two or three haunted houses in one night, the volunteers in monster masks startling unsuspecting couples, the strobe-lit graveyards, snarling fiends, claustrophobic hallways sweaty with people knocking into each other. At some houses, you might spot a demon flipping a cassette recording of creaking doors and cackling witches; at another, you might wait hours, only to get shoveled through the darkness in 15 minutes, cheerfully. Jensen, who had started in the Chicago theater scene, hired local scenic artists and puppeteers from Wicker Park to create Hades. By the time the house closed in 1998, it had ballooned from 6,000 to 60,000 square feet, and had 80,000 visitors. Today, he still consults for haunted houses but sounds dispirited, even bored by the business: Its now basically buy all the latest props, piece a house together. Today, the haunted house business is a modest chunk of the $9 billion Halloween season depending on who you ask, its worth somewhere between $300 million and $500 million. But the horrors of the modern hauntrepreneur are myriad, viral. Marcus Bales is a haunted house consultant helping the Chicago Park District assemble Park After Dark in Chase Park on the North Side. He says the popularity of blockbuster attractions like 13th Floor Haunted House in Melrose Park and Statesville in Crest Hill has created a generation of haunted house customers who assume a haunted house needs to be technically sophisticated and physically big to be fun.
Chad Savage, who runs Sinister Visions, a Chicago marketing company dedicated to haunted attractions, recalls a decade ago when a flush of entrepreneurs heard haunted houses were easy money but never realized how much was involved you saw lot of people come and go quick. Beyond unrealistic expectations and fly-by-night opportunists, there are insurance fears, fire codes, safety codes, noise ordinances, property concerns. Then again, your local haunted attraction has long faced the kind of practical troubles that multiply like so many zombies. One of the newest fears is the feeling that the industrys push for professionalism has unwittingly created a creeping sameness, a body snatcher-like conformity, draining innovation. Ken Spriggs, who quit the business six years ago after running Dream Reapers in Melrose Park for 13 years, said: I hate to sound down on my industry, but the public doesnt go to many houses; if they did theyd know its all the same. I recently went to a haunt in Florida run by a guy who went to the same seminars as every other owner, bought the same effects at the same haunt conventions. He asked what I thought, so I told him: It was like walking through (a convention). He said its what people like. I said, It is? I thought they liked to be afraid. Creativity matters, and quirks still exist beneath the rotting floorboards of many houses. An hour west of Rockford is Ravens Grin Inn, built in 1870 in Mount Carroll, stuffed with handcrafted scares created by Jim Warfield, proprietor, resident and tour guide since 1987. Closer to home, the Rough House puppet theater is staging The Walls of Harrow House in the basement of the Chopin Theatre, a haunted house with a plot, set in the home of a reclusive architect. During a recent rehearsal at a practice space in West Garfield Park, puppeteers worked with eyeballs and skinned faces and intestines and decaying limbs. There were arms, green and molding, to eventually grab at visitors through walls. They were using the tools of a haunted house for the sake of storytelling, said co-founder Mike Oleon. A year ago, he and Claire Saxe, managing artistic director, went to the Basement of the Dead in Aurora, to remind themselves of haunted houses. They left, Saxe said, deciding they liked that feeling of being surrounded by something you cant get your head around. But also feeling, Oleon said, you often come out of a haunted house thinking you went nowhere nothing lingers. I think theres more here. In Elgin, for the past 13 years Mike Fitzpatrick has run Evil Intentions, one of the savviest haunted houses in the Chicago area. Everything in the attraction, from the masks to the faux-satanic rituals, are made in-house scary farm-to-scary table, if you will. He milks a dimly lit room (occupied by silent shrouded figures) for all of its shivers. He uses the musty smell of autumn lawns and conversely, the stench of rot. He also uses the creepy building itself, the former Elgin Metal Casket Co., which once made the coffin for John F. Kennedy, and now exists mostly as the focus of local rumors about ghosts and cult activity. Rachel Zahrobsky, a reviewer for Haunted House Chicago (and wife of Kris, the founder), said, Do this a few years, you get numb to the scares, but at Evil Intentions? I feel pins and needles on the back of my neck. It illustrates how a clever inventive haunt with a modest budget can compete, Kris said. But even the future of Evil Intentions is in doubt. The building floods, there are landlord concerns; in a crowded industry, having a haunt in a casket factory is irreplaceably distinctive, but pockets are not bottomless. Indeed, a few years ago, John LaFlamboy, owner of the enormously successful Statesville Haunted Prison, noticed so many haunts were losing whatever originality separated them. He had moved in the 1990s from Carbondale to Chicago to become an actor (he remains an ensemble member of the Artistic Home theater in West Town). To avoid desk jobs between acting gigs, he created a haunted prison (actually a metal barn). You might argue he was too successful: Statesville is now in its 21st season, with a cast of 180, and one of the Midwests largest, most popular Halloween productions. So three years ago, LaFlamboy decided to make a tribute of sorts to the modest haunted houses he grew up on, the kind that seemed more concerned with unnerving you than dazzling with expensive effects. The result was HellsGate in Lockport. Visitors board a bus and are driven a mile and half away, dropped in a vacant lot and instructed to walk into a forest, through a cemetery. The whole shebang is a 66-acre set, capped with a 20,000-square-foot haunted house (built just for the attraction). Its what much deeper pockets can accomplish. Asked what his return to the hauntings of his childhood cost, LaFlamboy only said: People wait to enter HellsGate Haunted House in Lockport on Oct. 4, 2018. People wait to enter HellsGate Haunted House in Lockport on Oct. 4, 2018. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune) The biggest haunted house company, the biggest of the big haunters, is the Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group of Denver, which owns 15 houses, from Los Angeles to Green Bay including 13th Floor in Melrose Park and House of Torment in Morton Grove. CEO Chris Stafford said they may own as many as 50 in five years, that they were a relative drop in the bucket there are, after all, approximately 2,000 haunted attractions in the country. But thats a little like saying Apple is just one tech company. Thirteenth Floor houses tend to be the lavishly marketed, dominant tone-setters wherever they appear. Stafford said theres variety in their houses, but as the company grows, you compile a list of what works (in each house) and if it worked well in Austin, then maybe it will work somewhere else. You compile the good parts that tested well. To get the most out of these properties, on the off-season Thirteenth Floor offers escape rooms, ax-throwing bars, even Christmas- and Valentines-themed haunted houses. As Bales put it, The majority of people think about haunted houses in October, but people who make big money on them today tend to think of them year-round. For much of its history, the basis of the haunted house was a kind of amateur theater. A boys bravery might be tested by being left alone in the woods. Think bloody Christian morality plays of the 15th century intended to scare the Lord into you. Think Marie Tussauds 19th-century tours with wax sculptures of decapitated French royalty. Think of the elaborate graveyard haunts on neighborhood lawns, and parents leading children through haunted basements on Halloween. Those are all roots. The haunt as an attraction, though, took off in the early 60s the haunted house at the Childrens Museum of Indianapolis, in its 54th year, claims to be the oldest continual one.
The roots of contemporary, big-budget haunts, though, are more exact: Disneylands Haunted Mansion opened in 1969 in California and, with its trick elevators and animatronics, potential was clear. Throughout the 1970s, charity groups like the Jaycees dominated the market, but money started to arrive in the 90s for two reasons: Commercial haunts began aggressively marketing, to the extent a house with more advertising could do significantly better than a scarier house, said Larry Kirchner, a St. Louis haunted-attraction owner who helped popularize elaborate effects in seasonal haunts. The other reason: a 1984 fire in a haunted house at the Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. Eight people died firemen at the time said the scene was so surreal they couldnt tell a fake skeleton from a real body. After, what had been a mom-and-pop business (often using abandoned buildings) had trouble keeping pace when stricter fire codes for amusement attractions were enacted nationwide. Ken Donat, a Chicago native who sells insurance to hundreds of haunted houses from his office in Wisconsin, said you simply cant set up anything anymore that draws a lot of people without a laundry list of concerns to address this year, for the first time, there are even haunted-house insurance policies that cover active-shooter situations. Kirchner said he now spends as much as $200,000 renovating a wing of one of his three haunts. Chuck Grendys, a Chicago set designer who ran Fear City in Morton Grove for four years with Jim Lichon, a set decorator for Harpo Studios, said: As soon as November came and you started to feel human again, you were already having meetings about next years marketing, reworking contracts with makeup people, studying restrictions it was exhausting. So a couple of years ago they sold Fear City to Thirteenth Floor, which made the attraction part of the companys House of Torment chain. Not that the low-budget charity-level haunt has entirely expired; Rich Bianco of Northbrook-based TransWorld Trade Shows is bringing the Midwest Haunters Convention (the minor leagues), for new haunt owners and wannabe front-yard Halloween dabblers, to Rosemont next June. But the new Halloween standard is Thirteenth Floor. Which, in Melrose Park, like other modern haunts, is not a house but a gray cinderblock. You approach from the parking lot and EGGGGH! What the hell was that? Scary nuns are big at the moment; theres a scary nun. Theres a monkey boy who stares at you so long youre tempted to say: Do you know the time? There are winding staircases that would not be out of place in movies, and computer-generated projections of trapped souls that make you wonder: OK, how long do I have to stare at this? There are shock effects that look CVS off-the-rack, and tilting floors that provide a workout. Animatronic hell beasts loom above doorways like diseased castoffs from the Country Bear Jamboree, and the cast looks primed to break out into Mad Max: The Musical. Also, like many modern haunts, you get two houses for the price of one or rather, one house split into two haunts, suggesting you received twice the scares, twice the value. There is, however, no mention of what you are actually afraid of like, affordable housing, Season 2 of Iron Fist and being able to justify a $30 haunted house visit. Stafford, the CEO, began his career as a loan officer specializing in construction and land development. He told me, We sometimes get a reputation as all-business. His three business partners may have backgrounds in event planning, marketing and construction, but its important for people to understand, we started this because of a passion for haunted houses. He said they just thought it was the kind of business that could stand a little professionalism. Any good horror story offers a bend in reality, and there exists a parallel universe where a man who lives in downtown Chicago, in Marina Towers, controls the haunted house business. That man is Tom Hilligoss, owner of the former Hilligoss Galleries on Michigan Avenue, though in 1975 he was president of the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the Jaycees. And he had a brainstorm: The Jaycees were starting to see a lot of success with haunted houses, but how to make one was still a little uncertain for many chapters. So he toured haunts across the country, and made a short film of what he found to play at Jaycees conventions the group then had chapters in every town in America. On a $1 admission, he promised, a chapter may earn as much as $60,000 every October. He explained how to hire local kids, how monsters should reset themselves for every group of visitors, how darkness was your friend on a low budget. As the Pantagraph newspaper of central Illinois put it in 1976, Like a Johnny Appleseed gone bad, Thomas Hilligoss hopes to spread terror across the land. For a while, he did. He created a blueprint for the American haunted house that Jaycees chapters picked up and ran with, cementing the idea of the haunted house as a kind of makeshift seasonal tradition. In fact, he was so successful he formed the Haunted House Co., a catalog business to sell masks and cobweb machines to haunts. He eventually lost interest, moved into corporate licensing and art galleries. But for a time, he says now, If you were doing a haunted house right, you made money and it was hard to do wrong. In other words, Tom Hilligoss gentrified the haunted house. Or at the very least, he wanted to. I called up his film on YouTube, and we watched. When the younger Hilligoss says on the narration that some Jaycees haunted houses are charging as much as $2, the older Hilligoss laughed: I mean, what is it now $10? Try around $30 before extras, express passes, etc. The McHenry Jaycees, however they are charging $10. But then they also have a $100 budget for fake blood. Their goals are modest. Kozel, chapter vice president, demonstrated a window that dropped away suddenly, revealing a ghoul. Cheap and effective, she said. She walked over to a piece of aluminum siding. She kicked it the way her actors would, and the noise was startling. She smiled sheepishly. People come in and buy a $10 ticket and go, Well, that was stupid, and you want to scream in their faces, Do you have any idea how scary this job is? Haunted Houses in Chicago 2018: What's waiting for you this Halloween