Necropolis owner Steve Walls notices something wrong. A small bulb illuminating one of the rotted mannequins is casting a faint glow on the floor at the end of an adjoining corridor. It is a long, dark hallway lined with bags of compressed air that visitors will be forced to squeeze through to continue along the haunted maze. Squeezing past the bags doesnit provide an uncomfortable sensation, but they do cause one to feel a bit claustrophobic, especially when surrounded by total darkness.
Walls points out the stray light to a member of his production team. "We need some swimmers hung here," Walls says. "This needs to be totally black. I don't want anyone to know where they are going, what's touching them, or how long it's going to last."
It is something that Walls does every day. He re-evaluates and choreographs each of the steps guests will take through his 45,000-square-foot spook house.
"Every time I walk through, every night we're open, we find things that we want to change," he says. "We're never done. We're always changing stuff." Some things are changed for safety. Some are made for customers' comfort or to entertain them while they stand in long lines. And some changes are made to help scare the crap out of you.
Like so many other things, Halloween haunted houses have evolved. Some no longer even call themselves houses; in the industry they are referred to as haunted "attractions." Years ago they were small-scale events set up in vacant houses, barns or abandoned warehouses designed to run for only a week or two.
Haunts like Necropolis are permanent structures; they are open for business one month a year, but busy being rearranged and retooled with new rooms, sets and effects the other eleven. It is a very narrow window for making a profit and the competition between houses for consumer dollars is fierce. No one's first choice is to attend the city's second or third scariest haunted house. They want the one that is the scariest.
The more successful haunted attractions are a cross between old-school scares and new technology. Some of the top haunts in the country incorporate effects rivaling those in major theme parks. Theatrically lit custom sets, pneumatically controlled animatronics and looping high-definition video work hand in hand with the guy in a hockey mask at the exit chasing you out with a chainsaw. Today's haunted attractions are bigger, more elaborate productions than their predecessors. And they are more expensive to produce and to attend.
Having been in the business for more than 20 years, Walls has witnessed many of the changes firsthand. "When we opened in 1991, we were a $6 haunted house," he says. "Now we're a $27 haunted house. And in a better economy, we could probably charge even more." Walls says embracing technological change is necessary to stay ahead in the haunted house wars. But he considers high-tech additions many times less important than the low-tech scares one also needs to offer.
"We purchased a $3,000 animatronic wolf this year," he says. "It's a $3,000 distraction. While you're reacting to this big, charging and barking wolf, you don't notice the scary dude entering from the false wall just behind you. That's the scare, the scary dude behind you. The wolf is just a distraction."
The "scary dudes," as Walls and his crew refer to them, seem to be almost everywhere. They are the bloody, costumed characters who wait in dark corners, pop through fake panels and slam open coffin lids and false set pieces to keep you in a constant state of anxiety. On a busy night there can be as many as 70 of them lurking behind the walls.
Necropolis is a winding labyrinth taking you through foggy cemeteries, black-light sewers and mad-scientist laboratories. It is divided into three areas — the Haunted City, the Zombie Inn and Dark Terrors. You can pay to visit them individually or in combination. To walk all three attractions takes about 45 minutes. There are no resting stops along the way, but there is by law, a fire exit never more than 25 feet away where one can step out of the dark maze to catch a breath if they feel the need. And according to Wall's security team, there is someone who needs to at least once, if not several times, every weekend.
"We are strictly an adult-based attraction," Walls says. "We put signs up and we tell parents that we are way too intense for children, yet they take that as some kind of dare and they bring them anyway. Then they get two steps inside, the kid freaks out and they turn around, mess up the flow of traffic and want a refund. Not only is it a bad experience for them, but it slows things down for all the people who have been waiting in line to get in."
Flow and timing are taken seriously at a successful haunted attraction. The long wait to get in is something that many customers complain about and those in the business are constantly looking for ways to shorten the wait, or at least to make it entertaining.
"Our goal is to enter six people every 45 seconds," Walls says. "We seldom achieve it, but that's our goal. Even at that pace, it can be an hour to hour-and-a-half wait. We had a great attraction a few years back. It was a simulated elevator effect. You walked into a dark library, entered a fake elevator at the back of the room, the doors shut, the floor shook and when the elevator doors opened back up, you were in a swamp. While the doors were closed, we had two guys rolling one room out of the way and replacing it with another. It was very effective, but the reset time was way too long. It just wasn't practical."
In the offseason Walls shops haunted house conventions, Internet sites and trade magazines for next season's new high-tech addition. But you might also find him at the local Goodwill or dollar store scrounging for props to decorate his next themed set. He considers himself a businessman first and foremost. The bottom line is that a haunted house must attract people and it must also turn a profit. There are building leases to be paid, advertising to be bought and payroll to be met. Walls holds no fascination with monsters or horror; he receives no secret pleasure out of scaring people. But many of his employees do.
Inside Necropolis a half hour before opening, things start to become very active. Outside, cars are beginning to fill the parking lot and lines are forming. Scary dudes are running in and out of the makeup room putting last minute touches on other scary dudes. There is a sense of anticipation emanating from them. It is more sideshow carnival than Broadway, but this is their stage.
"I love working here," says Mary Ann Hart, who stares at you through eyes transformed by white contact lens. Her assignment this evening is to recite the house rules to people waiting in line, and to occasionally scream maniacally into their face. It's another distraction. While she is keeping you occupied, you may not notice the guy getting ready to fire up the chainsaw on your other side. "This is my second year," she says. "I love it. The first night I worked here my heart was pumping all night long." Eric McFall, better known as Gomez, looks over while touching up a nasty looking head wound. "This is the greatest job in the world," he says. "I look forward to it all year. Where else do I get to chew my wrists open, spit blood and entertain people."