As a massive tractor weaves through a narrow passageway near the start of the “Hayride of the Lost” at Wiard’s Night Terrors in Ypsilanti, a beat-up Cadillac hearse comes into view on the outskirts of a pumpkin patch. On the side of the unsettling white vehicle are the words “We’re just dying to thrill you.”
Even though the phrase appears in a relatively isolated location, it serves as a mission statement for the six haunted attractions scattered across the 100-acre farm.
Located just 20 minutes southeast of campus, Night Terrors is the result of many years of hard work, labor and, of course, some dementedly creative minds. What started out as a single haunted barn in 1989 has gradually evolved into a comprehensive “Haunted Thrill Park.”
Krazy Hilda’s Barn of Doom in Saline, on the other hand, is still in its infancy as it embarks on its second year in the scaring business. Housing all of its terrifying entertainment under one roof, the Barn of Doom tries to pack the same punch into a much smaller space.
Regardless of size, however, there’s plenty of preparation and planning that goes into the construction, maintenance and operation of a haunted house. Apple orchards, cider mills and corn mazes are all notable autumn pastimes, but none require the set design, costumes, actors, props or visual effects that make haunted houses come alive night after night.
According to Allen Wilson, Wiard’s orchard manager and overseer for the many attractions at Night Terrors, the construction of a haunted house begins in a rather simple and unexciting manner.
“We measured the dimensions of the building … and then plotted it out,” he said. “You have to keep in mind the fire codes and the width of your hallways, emergency exits, lighting. So that all went down on paper first.”
Coming up with a name for the attraction and ideas for specific scenes follows. Night Terrors’s theme-based attractions include “The Asylum,” “The Mind Shaft” and “Alien Caged Clowns.” Each event functions as its own haunted house, but with a specific twist.
“A bunch of crazy, crazy people” dressed in orange jumpsuits populate “The Asylum,” according to Wilson. One mentally ill patient acts as the centerpiece as he struggles with a straightjacket while others run around with chainsaws.
The setting for “Mind Shaft” is a collapsed and abandoned mine. TNT explosions and blood-curdling screams greet the scare-seeking visitors.
“Alien Caged Clowns” begins with a “black light-lit vortex tunnel,” Wilson said, leading into a room with chain-linked fences and the face-painted, rainbow-haired source of many childhood nightmares.
“A lot of people really can’t handle the whole clown thing, which is one of the reasons why we did it,” Wilson said. “But we kept it scaled back because we wanted people to actually go through it.”
Many consider “Alien Caged Clowns” the most intense attraction at Night Terrors.
After the structural, logistical and conceptual details are all worked out, set decoration commences. The goal: make it feel as real as possible.
“We really want them to feel like they’re in (an) asylum or in a mine shaft,” Wilson said. “All the things that we can make seem more real to give more of that terror effect is what we try and go for.”
Wilson describes this as one of the most gratifying and genuinely fun parts for him, because it allows for substantial hands-on creativity.
Most of the props for Night Terrors are purchased from garage sales, antique shops or secondhand stores. A portion of the set comes from employees, who bring in objects that they otherwise would have thrown away.
Nicole Karbacz, the “Head Witch” at Krazy Hilda’s Barn of Doom, explains that it’s quite the contrary for their homemade attraction.
“Probably 85 percent of what I have is something we’ve put together ourselves,” she said.
For Karbacz, the key component to a haunted house is the live-action performance of its actors. She refers to the actors that populate the Barn of Doom as “monsters” and described how exactly these monsters get to be so scary.
“There is an art to scaring people,” she said. “It’s all about the timing and reading their body language and listening. We kind of listen to (the guests) as they’re approaching the place to scare and play on those fears that we heard them talking about.”
If a child says “Dad I’m scared,” she will respond by saying “Dad’s not going to protect you.”
The Barn of Doom’s monsters also use a tag-team technique to provide for an extended scare, rather than numerous isolated frights. The actors playing monsters will give each other verbal cues — for instance, a monster warning the visitors to “watch out for my wolf” before the wolf jumps out and scare them — which requires a certain degree of improvisation that most actors normally don’t encounter.
Night Terrors also realizes the importance of performance and has a very selective process for hiring potential actors.
“We do a pretty intense interview process,” Wilson said. “We actually put them in a couple of the scenes, tell them how we want them to act out, give them all the cues, give them what we want them to say (and) the feelings we want them to get across to the customer.”
Wilson informs his candidates early on of the high standards to which he holds his actors.
“When we go through the interview process, the first words out of my mouth (are): ‘Don’t think you’re just going to jump out of a corner with a flashlight,’ ” he said. “Our customers pay to be terrified, that’s why they come here, and we want to terrorize them.”
The selection process for Krazy Hilda’s monsters is much less rigorous.
“I guess I just hang out with some real scary people,” Karbacz said.
Most of her monsters are friends and acquaintances.
After an actor is hired at Night Terrors, his or her job is to work wherever the event managers see fit. This includes some people playing the same part all the time, and others alternating on a frequent basis.
“If we’ve got a real good guy in one scene, and he’s just phenomenal, we may pull him out and make him a floater, because he’s got the energy,” Wilson said. “He’ll float the whole event and scare you five, six, seven times while you’re in there.”
Regardless of how effective an actor is, impressive visual effects are necessary to really make the experience terrifying. Wilson said that smoke machines are used to slow people down and strobe lights are often employed to create a disorienting effect for visitors. In addition to their ability to disorient, Karbacz said the strobe lights she uses give inanimate objects a sense of vitality.
“(We) try to place them to make the object look like it’s alive,” she said.
Dimming or changing the color of the lights can also enhance a room visually. Lighting is most valuable in changing the mood from room to room and never allowing the customer to become too comfortable.
Karbacz also uses Day-Glo paint — which she describes as “fluorescents under blacklight” — and “Goretraits,” which are “3-D pictures hanging on the wall with creatures’ faces on them,” to enhance rooms visually.
The soft colors of the Day-Glo paint lull guests into a false sense of security because of their contrast with the harsher mood created by the lighting in other rooms.
One Goretrait features the face of a monster that can be seen somewhere else in the Barn of Doom. The intention is for a visitor to see the terrifying portrait and then see the face in real life later on.
The effectiveness of these methods are difficult to measure, however, so customer feedback is essential.
Wilson sees a constant need to keep each attraction fresh, which he measures through reactions after groups have gone through the events at Night Terrors.
“We do a lot of talking,” he said.
Event managers stand outside of the attractions and ask the customers questions about what scared them the most.
Whether you’re the kind of person who looks under your bed at night or the kind of person who never shudders while watching a horror movie, Wilson and Karbacz both think their haunted attractions will make you think twice next time you go outside in the dark.
“If you’re here, you’re getting scared,” Wilson said. “Race, color, gender, it really doesn’t matter — they’re all screaming and yelling.”
For Wilson, the most rewarding part of his job is observing the toughest-looking people crack under pressure.
“Even the biggest guys scream like babies sometimes,” he explained. “When you’ve got a six-foot-two, three-hundred-pound guy come running out of the exit of ‘The Mind Shaft,’ screaming his head off, yeah, that’s a good feeling.”
Karbacz can relate to this feeling and continues to do what she does for one simple reason: “I’m just passionate about scaring the crap out of people.”