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The Phantom Gazette – News on All Things Halloween

The Science of Fear: Sociologist Margee Kerr Knows What Scares You!

Science of Fear: Margee Kerr

We interview Margee Kerr, PhD, author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear”!

Margee Kerr

“It’s not about terrorizing people,” says Sociologist Margee Kerr, “It’s about designing and creating scary and entertaining experiences that leave people feeling great.” Kerr is referring to her previous work with ScareHouse in Pittsburgh where she designed attractions based on her scientific research and psychological experiments related to her dissertation on fear and risk perception. Since earning her doctorate, she has moved on to consulting at other attractions.

After earning her BA at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, Kerr completed her PhD in Sociology from the designated “Zombie Capital of the World” at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent the next six years studying health disparities for the VA Hospital’s Health Equity Research and Promotion Center. Her research focused on how the mind and body respond to extraordinary situations.

As a part-time adventurer, she has also traveled around the world using herself as a research subject in the study of how we as humans experience and process the emotion we call fear, challenging the 168 foot high EdgeWalk at the CN Tower in Toronto and hiking alone through Aokigahara Forest (also known as Suicide Forest) in Japan. The results of her research and experience can be found in her book, “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.”

“What I experienced in Suicide Forest was really intense,” she admits. “People don’t often think about their mortality, but when they do it can really change their lives. I ended up feeling more thankful for everybody and more connected and that life was more valuable. I was left with the feeling that living in the present is critically important, and that I can’t waste any time on this earth.”

Kerr explains that when we confront the emotion of fear that two different things happen simultaneously. “There is a difference between what the body is doing and what the mind makes of the situation.”

“The body is just amazing in how well it is evolved to take care of us,” she elaborates. “The body produces adrenaline and norepinephrine which gets our system in ‘Go Mode,’ and this works to metabolize available sugars and get that to our muscles. Meanwhile, the brain is trying to gather as much information as possible to inform the experience.”

“When we get scared we start sweating as our body attempts to modulate temperature. There is increased respiratory, flared nostrils, our pupils dilate, endorphins are released to block pain and dopamine and serotonin are released to help the brain function better.”

“From a layman’s perspective, when people are scared they revert back to their animal state,” she explains. “They are totally in the present. It actually has a lot in common with meditation. Worries about grades, money and the future all melt away. Being scared is like hitting the emotional reset button.”

Margee Kerr Quote

Of the five senses, Kerr ranks hearing the highest when it comes to generating fear. “Startling sound from an unknown direction causes an immediate physical reaction.” Secondly, Kerr believes sight, especially startling lights, can create immediate terror. “Strobing lights induce a feeling of depersonalization like an out of body experience.”

Surprisingly, touch doesn’t rank nearly as highly as a motivator of fear according to Kerr, so I asked for her opinion on the trend of “extreme haunted attractions” sweeping the country.  “Touching can be effective when it’s done well and the actors are well trained on how and where to make contact. Terror behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary does touching well. Only certain actors are permitted to touch guests and they are limited to designated areas. It’s not a free-for-all.”

Margee Kerr

“I’ve never actually talked to Russ McKamey,” says Kerr speaking of the now infamous McKamey Manor in San Diego, CA where guests are said to be put through 4 to 8 hours of grueling torture and given a ‘safe word’ to use if they need to escape the carnage. “so I don’t know the truth from the myth regarding McKamey Manor, but I have heard that a lot of it is a PR stunt and the details you hear and images you see aren’t from real customers or from the actual experience, but I can’t speak to whether that’s true or not.”

“What I do know is that from a scientific point of view,” she continues, “when you deny people’s ability to actually, legitimately leave a situation, you can do real harm. I’ve heard of situations in extreme haunts where someone says, ‘It doesn’t matter if you say the safe word, you’re not getting out, we’re going to do this to you whether you like it or not.’ To me that’s not healthy. That’s a recipe for trauma.”

Kerr’s book, “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear” opens with a quote by Irish statesmen and philosopher, Edmund Burke, that reads, “Terror is a passion that always produces delight when it does not press too close.” Burke’s 18th century wisdom mirrors Kerr’s scientific theory that fear can be a vehicle to a state of euphoria, and the act of facing our fears and defeating them can lead to feelings of significant accomplishment.

“When we’re scared, our thinking brain just shuts down and we can feel totally in our body, invigorated and alive in the here and now.”

The Phantom of The Ville

Nashville Nightmare to Open Priest Lake Haunted Woods at Nashville Shores Waterpark!

Nashville Nightmare

Nashville Nightmare’s Brad Webb reveals the new terrors he’s unleashing in Tennessee this Halloween.

Priest Lake

“It just doesn’t feel like there is an off-season anymore,” says Brad Webb, founder and owner of Nashville Nightmare, who has been engaged full time in the Halloween business 365 days a year since 2011. Webb employs three full time, salaried employees and several more part time workers who are busy designing and building his attractions six days a week year round. Besides the Halloween event, Nashville Nightmare produces a Christmas haunt, a Valentine’s Day haunt and a live zombie hunting event.

“I can flip on our security cameras from home on a late Friday night, and I’ll probably find somebody still there working on the haunt any weekend of the year,” admits Webb who is planning his most ambitious renovations and new attractions for 2017, including a new outdoor haunted attraction at Percy Priest Lake inside Nashville Shores Waterpark.

Priest Lake Haunted Woods is Webb’s latest partnership with Nashville Shores Waterpark, which will be a three tiered attraction that includes themed trails and a haunted hayride just a 25 mile drive from Nashville Nightmare. Although he wants to keep an aura of mystery around this new outdoor attraction, he did drop a couple of hints about what brave souls can expect this Halloween.

“We built two giant slides that serve as your entrance into this experience,” Webb teases. “They’ll drop you down right into the middle of the woods and you’ll have no idea what’s waiting for you there.” Webb will also be adding the full sized, walk through “rotting hulk” ship produced by Nevermore Productions seen this year at the Transworld Halloween & Attractions Show featuring an amazing, full size animated great white shark.

Nashville Nightmare

Back at Nashville Nightmare, Webb promises an experience that will begin “as soon as you get out of your car,” including an interactive ticket booth alive with terrifying animations. A new attraction called The Reformatory replaces the old Horror High attraction this year, which is now set in a Catholic Reform School.

“The Antichrist shows up on earth,” explains Webb, “and tries to possess everyone at the Reformatory: priests, nuns, choirboys, everyone. It’s a big renovation. My guys have been working morning and night in order to accomplish what we need to accomplish on this attraction.”

Phantoms is the name of the new attraction replacing Night Terrors, which was the haunts’ very first attraction when it opened seven years ago. “A centuries old Mortician has traveled through time collecting the ashes of serial killers which have kept him alive supernaturally,” explains Webb. “You’ll go back in time to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel and forward to more contemporary murder scenes.”

Industrial Dead, Nightmare Nashville’s zombie apocalypse attraction, has been “supercharged” this year according to Webb and Fairy Tale Hell, a twisted fantasy themed attraction, will be bigger than ever.

“Every attraction has a brand new beginning and a brand new ending, and they’ve all been tweaked throughout,” says Webb. “Fairy Tell Hell is where you’ll find all the big animatronics. There’s a dungeon queue line and a giant castle. You’ll walk into a giant storybook that takes you to a completely different world.”

Attractions last no longer than 20 minutes

“Each of our attractions is about 12 to 15 minutes long,” relates Webb. “I’ve found that attractions that go on for longer than 20 minutes start to lose the audience’s attention span and people end up needing to use the bathroom.”

It takes about 150 actors to fill out all of Nashville Nightmares’ and Priest Lake’s roles, and Webb admits that staffing is his biggest challenge. “We’re hiring all the time. We don’t wait until August to cast for the Halloween season. We’re casting in March. There’s always plenty to do for anybody that really loves doing this.”

Nashville Nightmare was ranked the #1 Haunt in the Nation in 2016 by USA Today’s Reader’s Choice. Don’t miss the lurking terrors awaiting you at the original indoor haunt and the new outdoor haunt at Priest Lake in 2017!

The Phantom of The Ville

Enter the Netherworld: An Exclusive Interview with Ben Armstrong of Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, Georgia!

Netherworld Haunted House

Ben Armstrong at Netherworld

After 21 seasons in Norcross, Netherworld Haunted House will be moving to new location next Halloween. We get all the latest terrifying news from co-owner, Ben Armstrong.

Louisville Halloween (LH): Tell us about your earliest childhood memories of Halloween, and how you first fell in love with ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night?

Ben Armstrong (BA): I have always loved monsters and Halloween. I told the neighborhood kids I was a werewolf, did makeup every full moon (featuring a nose I ordered from the back of Famous Monsters Magazine) and hid in the bushes to scare them! In Elementary School our family got to do the Haunted House for the Halloween Carnival when I was in the 4th grade, and I came back every year to help them until well into High School. I was always starting clubs that revolved around Monsters or Mad Scientists, and at the age of 15 became an avid Dungeons and Dragons gamer long before most people had heard of it. It still amuses me that today I make a living creating “dungeons” and filling them with monsters.

LH: How long have you been involved with Netherworld and was Netherworld your first professional haunting experience?

BA: We founded NETHERWORLD in 1997, and this will be our 21st season. Previously I had worked with a chain of Haunted Houses called SILO X and got to design shows for a number of locations around the US. Before that I spent 3 years creating charity Haunted Houses in Tallahassee Florida for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

LH: After two decades of consistently being considered one of the best haunted attractions in the country, you’ve decided to move to a new location in 2018. Why?

BA: We have wanted to own our own building for years, and the time was finally right for the move. Our new location will have much more room for us to grow, and also a much better parking situation. We will own the dirt at long last!

LH: What can longtime fans of Netherworld expect in the final season at your original location this Halloween?

BA: Our upstairs show this year is PRIMAL SCREAM, a war between the forces of nature and the creatures of the NETHERWORLD. Expect savage nightmares and elemental terrors leaping at every turn with lots of full on monster action! Our second show will be a 3D clown show with a twist, Mr. Grendel’s Fun House of Horrors. We haven’t created a 3d Show in about 10 years, so it was really fun to get back into freaky black light environments filled with bizarre inhabitants…. Plus you know how people love clowns!

LH: Tell us about the skeletal character in the top hat that appears on much of your promotional material. What’s his name and does he have a backstory? Tell us about his origins and how long he has been associated with Netherworld.

The Collector at Netherworld

BA: That is the Collector, he was the icon character from our 2004 show, Spirits of the Dead. He is a corpse like revenant sent to collect lost souls in ancient graveyards at the behest of foul creatures from other planes of existence. He uses the power from these souls to open gateways to the NETHERWORLD causing all sorts of mayhem. The Collector was based on a creature from our first year we called Top Hat, who was in turn inspired by the skeletal mascot named Dooley from the college where I got my undergraduate degree, Emory at Oxford. He became so popular that he is sort of the Mickey Mouse of NETHERWORLD, our primary Mascot.

LH: I’ve read that you were once a television Horror Host yourself in Florida back in the 1990’s. Can you tell us about that?

BA: My “day job” until I retired to haunt full time was in broadcast television where I worked in various positions in several markets for 18 years. Over a 3 year period I appeared as Dr. Speculo, a crazy mad scientist type character at WCTV in Tallahassee Florida, doing wild skits and introducing horror movies in a series I produced called TALES FROM 6 FEET UNDER. This led to several Dr. Speculo themed haunts, and in later years a bunch of live stage show productions including the Price is Fright at TRANSWORLD with John Laflamboy and Zombie Army.

Netherworld Haunted House

Ben Armstrong Netherworld Haunted House

LH: What’s your philosophy of haunting? What do you want the public to take away with their Netherworld experience?

BA: I could write a book on this. (I think I practically have come to think about it…) Over the long years I have done many seminars and written many articles in Haunt magazines, and the ones I enjoy the most really do seem to focus on Haunt Philosophy. To put it in a nutshell it is all about the guest experience. The easiest way to say it is give them what they want: interaction, scares, cool stuff, chainsaws… AND give them what YOU want – the original crazy fun and scary ideas that make your haunt unique.

LH: What do you think the future may hold for the haunted attraction business? Is this a trend that’s here to stay and will only continue to get bigger or do you think the public’s interest in haunted houses could wane over time?

BA: I think the industry is healthy! I have seen nothing but growth in our business, as people love to be entertained and scared. I do think we will see interesting entertainment hybrids continue to emerge as haunts crash into new territory like opening on holidays and fusing with trends like escape games. We have some interesting years ahead of us!

LH: Netherworld contains some of the most spectacular monsters, makeups and animatronic monstrosities anywhere in the world. How many of these eye-popping creations are designed and built in-house and how many are purchased through vendors that make props and effects for the Halloween industry?

Netherworld Haunted House

BA: Hard to gauge. We buy extensively from haunt vendors. We have some amazing artists in our industry! But we do fabricate a large amount of the effects and creatures you will see here in house. Also we like to modify, enhance and change the things we do purchase. Generally most of the stuff we get is altered quite a bit once it has been here a couple of years.

LH: Netherworld is one of the most successful haunted attractions in the world. Obviously it wasn’t an overnight success, what do you believe is the formula of Netherworld’s success and how has it evolved since it opened?

BA: Spend all the time, money and resources you have – and get real lucky! Actually joking aside, we started with a very good foundation. We got together a team of amazing artists and craftsmen, raised enough capital to open, and we had a very good understanding of the haunt industry before we ever tried. Even then it took many years before you could say we were truly successful. This is a very difficult business and I think that very few haunts are completely self-sustaining. Not many have owners who have quit the day job so to speak. Also key in my opinion is that you have something about your event that is unique… Just dreams and drive alone are not enough. There needs to be a special element brought to the table that gives you the ability to thrive and survive. As far as evolving, you must grow and change constantly every year. You can never stand still. It is always better, faster, stronger! The crowds sense your enthusiasm and that of your staff. You always have to outdo yourself every single year. That said – back to work for me! I hope everyone has an amazing 2017 season!

The Phantom of The Ville

Crawl into the Mind of the Demented Genius behind the Wisconsin Fear Grounds!

The Wisconsin Fear Grounds

Tim Gavinski Wisconsin Fear Grounds

We interview Tim Gavinksi, the founder and owner of one of America’s Top Haunted Attractions located in Waukesha, Wisconsin!

In 2017 Wisconsin Fear Grounds celebrates its’ 14th season in the horror business, consistently rated one of the Top Haunts in America by Haunted Attraction Magazine, and the secret formula to its’ success is known only to the husband and wife team of Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tim Gavinski in order to peek inside his grinning skull and pick his oozing brain.

Gavinski admits to two primary influences that shaped his life in his formative years: His devout Catholic upbringing and the sometimes tough financial times his family experienced during his childhood.

“I grew up in the Catholic Church, and we had a nun in the family,” says Gavinski. “When I was 15 years old she asked me, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’, and my answer at that point was that I wanted to be a priest.”

“Then when I turned 16, I went to a party where I met a girl and by the end of the night we were smackin’—and I liked it! I liked it a lot, so it looked like the priesthood was out for me.”

Dr. Cadaverino Nightmare Theater

“The two holidays that the Catholic Church more or less created in America were St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween, so I got interested in Halloween pretty early,” Gavinski explains. “My first memory of really being scared was while watching ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ on the Dr. Cadaverino show on Nightmare Theater.” Nightmare Theater was a locally programmed series of classic horror movies hosted by the infamous Dr. Cadaverino on Channel 6 in Milwaukee from 1964 to 1977. “My brothers and I would get some root beer soda and popcorn, sit in our bunk beds and watch Dr. Cadaverino on Saturday nights. That show scared the bejeezus out of me.”

“We were pretty poor,” Gavinski continues, “so there was no way I was getting candy on a regular basis outside of Halloween night. Halloween meant you could go out and get as much candy as you could carry and smart kids could collect enough to stretch that candy thing out for a long time.”

“Back at that time, I got a $5 a week allowance and taking a girl out on a date cost about $12.50, so it took a while to save up that much money,” confesses Gavinski. “That’s when I discovered the St. Francis Jaycees Haunted House. Admission was $1.25, so for $2.50 I could take a girl on a date and she’d be holding on to me tight before we even left the house. It was great.”

It was years later while serving in the military that Gavinski had another transformative experience on Halloween. “After graduation I joined the military and lived in Europe for six years.”

Tim Gavinski Scariest Moment

Burg Frankenstein

Burg Frankenstein, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt, Germany, is thought to have been Mary Shelley’s primary influence when she wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818. The castle is home to many local legends and myths, and at one point was also home to an alchemist named Johann Conrad Dippel.  Dippel was rumored to have conducted medical experiments on dead bodies whose graves he had dug up and has long thought to have been Shelley’s inspiration for Victor Frankenstein.

Gavinski’s Halloween night spent in Castle Frankenstein has driven him on another lifelong Halloween mission, a ‘bucket list’ goal that he intends to fulfill sooner rather than later. “I want to spend the night in Dracula’s Castle. The problem is that Bran Castle in Romania is only open for sleepovers from August through October 31st and I’m always busy with the haunt during that time.”

At this point Gavinski makes a shocking confession to me: “I’m going to be done with this within three years.” Tim Gavinski plans to retire from the haunt business in three years. He couldn’t tell me what that actually meant for the future of Wisconsin Fear Grounds, which has become one of the most financially successful haunted attractions in America over the last decade and a half, but he confessed to being deadly serious as far as stepping away personally from the business.

Wisconsin Fear Grounds

If you plan on experiencing Wisconsin Fear Grounds in its original conceptual form, perhaps this year would be the time to do so. You’ll find three full scale haunted attractions on site including the original haunt, Morgan Manor, a 10.000 square foot Gothic mansion. Unstable is their outdoor attraction which takes guests through the main house’s stables and the woods surrounding them. Twisted is a new attraction just unleashed last year that challenges guests’ perception of illusion and reality.

Wisconsin Fear Grounds also includes a demonic 5-minute Escape Room called Zaszu and an overnight camp-out experience called Night Terrors: 13 Hours of Fear.

What is Gavinski’s advice to other haunters looking to maximize customer satisfaction and ticket sales? “Millennials are the target audience and they don’t have the patience that kids in past generations had. Cellphones and the Internet are basically the anti-Christ and they’ve created a whole generation that wants convenience and instant gratification.”

“That’s why it’s important that the experience starts as soon as they get out of their car in the parking lot,” he adds. “They don’t want to wait for the entertainment to start. Also, price doesn’t seem to matter to them as much as convenience; anything that makes the experience easier and faster.”

The Phantom of The Ville

Meet the Head Inmate that runs the Asylum at Columbus’ ScareAtorium!

The Scareatorium - Columbus

We interview legendary haunt industry icon, Kelly Collins, founder of The ScareAtorium, creator of the 3-Minute Escape Room and Coordinator of the Midwest Haunters Convention Haunted House Bus Tour!

Kelly Collins Scareatorium

Very few haunters in the scare business today can claim to have been around since the beginning of the modern phenomenon of professional haunted attractions, but Kelly Collins is one of them. Collins has been involved in at least some aspect of the Halloween industry since 1980.

Born and raised in Worthington, OH, Collins’ first memory of being fascinated by the primal emotion of fear was his reaction to the Wicked Witch of the West’s army of flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.” Forced to grow up fast, Collins became “the man of the house” when his father passed away at the age of fourteen.

“My next door neighbor was a member of the local church,” says Collins, “and through them I got involved with the church camp at Autumn Lakes.” When Collins was old enough, he joined the Coast Guard and served in the military for four years during the Vietnam War. When the war ended, he moved back home to Columbus and got back involved with the church camp where he came up with a hayride style activity that involved taking a group of kids for a ride back into the woods for a storytelling expedition.

“We would take the kids for a ride back to this huge, spooky looking oak tree,” recalls Collins, “where one day I had this idea to ask a small group of kids to hide behind the tree and jump out and scare the other kids when we got there. It worked almost too well. At least one of the kids was nearly frightened to tears, but the kids started telling their friends about the experience and word about it sort of took off.”


Soon there were two different versions of the ride: One took place at noon and was called the “Skoopy Camp Ride” and the other took place after dark at 9 PM and was known as the “Spooky Hayride.”

“On the way to the oak tree, we would tell the kids a story about a character named Captain Autumn and when we reached our destination there would be a coffin and a guy with a shotgun who would come running out.” During this time, the local Jaycees lost their charity haunted house and asked Collins to team up with them to create a more elaborate version of the Autumn Lakes Spooky Hayride.

Due to the success of their hayride, Collins and his wife Neena Collins were contacted by the Columbus Clippers, a minor league baseball team in Columbus, OH, to consult with them about a haunted attraction to take place in the league’s Cooper Stadium. This led to a successful 13 year run in both consulting with Halloween events for Six Flags Entertainment and managing Terror Park for the Clippers until the team planned to move to the brand new Huntington Park Stadium.

“They wanted to take a couple of years break from the haunt,” relates Collins, “but we had built up so much momentum and a huge staff of returning actors that we didn’t want to lose what we spent years building up. So Neena and I decided it was time to open our own haunt.”

The now legendary ScareAtorium opened for a brief stint in Dublin, OH with an original attraction called Frightmore Manor in 2012 before relocating to its’ permanent home in Northland in 2013 where it debuted its’ two infamous attractions, The Northland Asylum and RIP’s 3D Funhouse.

Midwest Haunt Tour

According to local legend, The Northland Asylum is built upon the same land where a notorious insane asylum operated from 1899 to 1956.  Northland lore tells of a Dr. Robert Collins who is accused of conducting cruel experiments upon the inmates. RIP’s 3D Funhouse contains 25 scenes of optical illusions and carnival Freak Show madness that’s meant to be part fun/part scary. Collins claims that many jaded, longtime haunters who have come through his funhouse have expressed amazement at what they’ve seen inside.

“They’ll stop at the exit and shake my hand,” he relates, “and tell me it’s the best 3D funhouse they’ve ever seen.”

Collins has also been recognized in the haunted attraction industry for inventing the concept of the 3-Minute Escape Room. While the trend of traditional one hour long Escape Rooms had already caught fire across the country, it was Collins who came up with the idea of building multiple, one room, three minute puzzles to serve as add-on attractions to his centerpiece haunt.

In addition to running The ScareAtorium, Collins also organizes the Midwest Haunters Convention Haunted House Bus Tour which is actually coming through the Louisville area this summer on June 7. The Midwest Haunters Convention in Columbus, Ohio is the country’s largest Halloween convention that’s actually open to the public. Taking place the weekend of June 9 – 11, MHC welcomes pro haunters, home haunters, actors and all Halloween enthusiasts.

Collins’ pre-show bus tour allows haunt owners and fanatics the chance to visit some of the best attractions in the country during the off-season, and this year Louisville is the premiere stop on the tour. On Wednesday, June 7, the tour will be visiting Waverly Hills Sanatorium, The Haunted Hotel, The Devil’s Attic, The 7th Street Haunt and Grim Trails Haunted Attraction.

Only a three and a half hour drive from Louisville’s city limits, The ScareAtorium is a MUST SEE regional Halloween destination.

The Phantom of The Ville