Reporters Sarah Schneider, Karsten Burgstahler and Lauren Duncan braved southern Illinois’ haunted houses so you, the readers, can make an informed decision about where to get utterly scared this Halloween season.
For scare-enthusiast Ray Elam, Halloween is more than just a holiday.
“Scaring people is actually an art form,” Elam said. “It’s a science.”
Elam has been operating haunted houses for the past 20 years.
An important aspect to the scaring process, he said, is a balancing act between not boring the guests but also not frightening them too much. To cater to this balance, the haunted house offers the Cellblock for those interested in a more intense experience as well as a chamber maze, where guests looking to avoid the in-your-face scares can try to find their way out.
Maria Herman, Elam’s business partner, said some of the volunteer actors are so passionate about their roles that their screams’ intensity shocked her, so she supplies them with cough drops.
A tour guide warns Cellblock attendees, “You don’t touch them, and they won’t touch you. Much.”
Sound effects, hand-made makeup design, a few animatronics and an escaped injured prisoner who doubles as an acrobat were just a few factors of the Cellblock’s scare.
To preface, our experience likely differed from many others.
While many people may show up, buy their tickets and take the tour, we were there two hours before it opened, watched the actors’ makeup get applied and listened to the owners explain their passion to scare. It definitely built up our anticipation.
A key feature of the Cellblock’s scare was exactly what Elam said he aimed for: the senses. The darkness tricks your eyes, and the sounds subliminally heighten your heartbeat.
With the senses manipulated, each corner comes with some nerve-rattling surprise. At one point, a prop Elam said was featured in the film “From Dusk Till Dawn” both takes your breath away — in the non-romantic sense — and makes you question whether it’s a real person.
Claustrophobia was also used to attack the senses by trapping us into a small pitch-black hallway.
The group of preteen girls who entered just before us came out of the Cellblock in a screaming sprint. A couple who went in after our tour walked out at a slow pace with no facial reaction besides slightly blushed cheeks.
However, our end reaction was in between the two: high blood-pressure but only scared enough to pace out quickly.
Elam said many guests come out absolutely shrieking.
“That’s why we call it Cellblock 666, not happy-bunny-way,” he said.
Wolf creek Hollows Scream Park
Jason Winkleman, owner and operator of Wolf Creek Hollows, has scared patrons for more than 12 years. He has also dedicated half a million dollars to his haunts
“We’ve got the most professional actors, and we’ve had them for many years,” he said.
Winkleman said his two haunts together are more than a mile long.
The scream park consists of two haunted attractions: Prison X, an indoor haunted house, and Haunted Hollows Trail, a trek set in the woods behind Prison X.
Although we went through Prison X with no actors present, the experience was more than enough for us. Animatronics inside the house were turned on, and we were subjected to monsters that popped out of oil drums as well as prison inmates who rattled cages as we walked by. Actors are positioned behind the walls during real shows, Winkleman said.
We were forced to perform a limbo-like movement when the ceiling slanted down in one section of the maze. It wouldn’t be the most pleasant experience for someone who is 6’4”, but it definitely beefs up the haunt.
One hallway forces patrons to walk through a rubber hand gauntlet sticking out from the wall. Whether any of the hands are real is left for the victim to determine.
The end of Prison X features a spinning vortex, which flashes a color spectrum on the walls as patrons navigate the walkway. We didn’t go through the vortex, but just looking at it from the outside was enough to disorient us.
We did not walk the Haunted Hollows Trail, but we spent more than an hour stationed with actors positioned at the trail’s end. Robbie Holman, of Granite City, and Jason Smothers, of West Frankfort, hid in a hut strewn with body parts. As attendees walked by, Holman attacked them from the left while Smothers ambushed them from the right.
Both Holman and Smothers said they get an adrenaline rush from scaring customers, and they can often tell which ones to target from a mile away. The two had to deal with a rather tough crowd the night we visited the Hollows, but they put on a good show for everyone who went through, ranging from teenage girls to a very brave grandma. Holman stared down a teenage boy who refused to scream, and the look on his face was priceless.
Smothers said the house is a volunteer effort, and anyone is welcome to participate in the scaring.
Chittyville School Haunted House
The old schoolhouse north of Herrin gives off the vibe of a truly haunted house.
Statues of lions stand atop the old brick building that last catered to children in 1988 but is now owned by Mike and Sammie King.
Mike King said the couple found remnants of a school, including children’s toys, when they renovated the building for the haunted house.
Thus, an entire room within the haunt was dedicated to creepy ceramic dolls. Eerie lullabies played in the background as young actors followed, asking, “Will you play with me?”
Another classic haunting feature played on the 1990 Stephen King film, “It.” The circus tent full of clowns could cause anyone with a clown phobia to close his or her eyes and hold on for dear life.
However, other aspects of the haunt were more modern.
Something that might compare to an acid trip was the vortex. Lights flash while guests walk across a bridge through the spinning cylinder, which could either make one nauseated or want to break out in dance.
Getting lost is a common fear in a haunted house, and Chittyville uses that to its advantage. Within a section of the school, called the mine, guests are trapped in and have to repeat their path as actors taunt and lead them astray.
But, as every attendee likely hopes, you’re released eventually.
Every attendee’s experience might differ in his or her reaction. One area that may have garnered a greater scare for some featured a nurse, who claimed she wanted to perform surgery on visitors. At this point, we found ourselves running out of the room — once again — rather than soaking up the blood and cadaver display.
King said there will be more gore than just the surgery room next week. Called “R-rated,” guests may find guts and entrails throughout the school.
Not all of Chittyville features actors, though, and some of the haunt remains true to the original building.
After being led to a basement that smelled similar to any ancient school’s musk, we found ourselves in a boiler room where there was nothing but what could be a natural fog and the boiler’s loud throbbing.
An actor who actually attended Chittyville as a first-grade student said he can recall being frightened to enter a boy’s bathroom under the gym floor. He said it still creeps him out as much as it did then, to the point that he cannot go down there.
Once guests reach the end of Chittyville, they have the option to take alternate endings. But we weren’t having it. It was the end of our tour.