You’ve probably heard the radio ads or seen the TV spots for Michigan’s haunted houses. But what you might not know is that Michigan owns the title as the best state in the nation for haunted attractions. From spooky hayrides to terror-filled forests to your standard (or not so standard) haunted houses, October brings out the best of the state. What’s truly surprising, though, is what fuels Michigan’s love for these haunted attractions.
This kind of thing would never happen in California.
Halloween is the time of year when, as a child, you get to carve a pumpkin, dress up as the cute little vampire and have your mother hold your hand in chilly weather as your neighbors — some sketchier than others — drop miniature lumps of teeth-rotting gold into your pillowcase. And that’s pretty much the entire holiday. A little flash, hopefully no snow, maybe a few pumpkins and possibly a razorblade that one of your neighbors stashed in a Snickers bar. All in good fun, really, until you get too old and the same neighbors refuse to give you any candy and tell you to just go home.
This is where haunted houses come in handy. They capitalize on the adult portions of Halloween: fear and terror. And there might not be a better state in the nation to celebrate the next stage in our Halloween life-cycles than Michigan.
For a state so economically depressed, Michigan’s haunted house market is one sector that isn’t suffering. More than 50 haunted attractions can be found within a few hours of Ann Arbor, with more being added each year. This hasn’t always been the case, though the popularity of Halloween among college students is sky high (even if that means a lot of beer and a lot of cleavagey Cinderellas).
A lot of the credit for the state’s position as the nation’s most haunted area can be traced back to Ed Terebus and his brother James, owners and creators of the nation’s largest haunted house, Erebus, in downtown Pontiac.
What started as a side project has turned into an all-out passion for Ed Terebus, a locksmith by trade, who prior to 2000, sold his home and moved in with his brother, James, to buy the warehouse where Erebus is now housed. The two brothers have been in the haunt business for 28 years and are the creators of the Fear Finder, a newspaper listing of local haunts across Michigan.
Though Erebus — clearly the leader in the haunted house world — competes with other haunted attractions in the state, Terebus said that keeping the little guys alive is a big deal for Michigan to support such a thriving haunted market.
“We want to keep the little guy alive,” Terebus said. “We were all small haunts at one time.”
This sort of camaraderie among owners in Michigan is one of the main reasons for the explosion of haunted houses in the area, big and small. Families and couples are able to make a night of terror for themselves out of a pseudo-road trip to explore the haunted attractions.
Two such smaller attractions, the Haunted Winery in Farmington and Terror in Townsend Forest (run by the Oakland County Sportsmen’s Club) in Clarkston, may not have the pizazz — nor the budget — of something like Erebus, but they still manage to pull off a haunting thrill. The Haunted Winery capitalizes on a confusing maze of dark rooms and people in costume who, to varying degrees, jump from behind corners looking to scare people. Terror in Townsend Forest is a different type of experience. A tour guide leads a group into a forest filled with goblins behind trees, funhouse tricks and plenty of chainsaw-toting clowns.
Dick Wilton, one of the Forest’s tour guides and a lifetime member of the Oakland County Sportsmen’s Club, has been leading tours for three years and says the forest is geared more toward families and teenagers who aren’t looking for a massive spectacle.
“This isn’t like (Erebus). People like the woods and this is a little bit different,” Wilton said.
Though the woods provide a clever alternative to the standard haunted house, they provide people an opportunity to explore another part of Michigan’s heritage: the outdoors.
Joe Oberlee, president of the Oakland County Sportsmen’s Club, agrees, and said people are attracted to the forest for a couple of different reasons.
“People really like the unknown, and Halloween is a last hurrah before snow sports season,” Oberlee said.
Undoubtedly, though, Erebus is king. Named by the Guinness Book of World Records the Largest Walk-Through Haunted House in 2005, Erebus has maintained the title, always expanding and changing the frights to keep the house fresh from year to year. Dragons, monsters, mutant apes and people in gruesome makeup line the 9,800 square feet of pitch-black — and often cramped — hallways to create a truly sweaty-palmed experience. Around 90 employees, from actors to security personnel, ensure that the experience is always unique and frightening. If you think you can’t be spooked by a haunted house, then you haven’t been to Erebus. The crew rips out about 30 percent of the house each year, keeping some favorite elements and consistently adding new ones. With balls that swing from the ceiling, simulated swamps made of lasers and smoke, total body dismemberment and simple tricks with glass floors and claustrophobia, Erebus never disappoints.
Though Erebus seems out of place in downtown Pontiac, nestled in among the trendy clubs like Tiki Bob’s and indie concert venues like the Crofoot, a warehouse that stood empty for 40 years made for the perfect location for a haunted attraction, and the feelings of loneliness and desolation is still apparent in many of Michigan’s abandoned buildings like the hulking Michigan Central Depot in Detroit.
What started as a four-year plan for the brothers has turned into an all-out obsession, with Erebus expanding every year. Though Ed knows they have the best in the state, they never stop working toward improvement to bring the scares to Michiganders.
“Right now, our show is decent. I’ve been working for 28 years, and am I done learning? Not even close,” Ed Terebus said. “We’re only working at about 60 percent of our potential. Get us up to 80 percent, and then you’ll really wet your pants.”
Ed Terebus says expansion and the need to keep people uneasy throughout the house is a key component to getting people to come back for more and keeping the industry alive. One such trick (what Ed calls “Buried Alive”) that received strong support but isn’t featured this year drops thousands of plastic balls on a victim, giving them the feeling of claustrophobia.
“If you have your hand in the air, it’s staying there,” Ed Terebus said. “My ex-fiancé didn’t realize she was claustrophobic until it happened and she was freaking out and crying and I smiled, and thought, ‘Look, you’re freaking out!’ And that’s why she’s a former fiancé.”
It’s not just Michigan’s use of creativity and work ethic that has sustained so many different attractions for years now and what still fuels the new houses that enter the market every year. Halloween, unlike many other holidays, is steeped in the tradition of escapism. Especially in Michigan, whose economy has been struggling since the 1970s, people need a (relatively affordable) everyday escape from work and real life without actually taking a huge, life-altering risk. The haunted houses provide just the right kind of catalyst for it all.
“Around Halloween, you can be whoever you want, and no one will give you a second glance,” Ed Terebus said. “Our house is a safe way to live on the edge without actually jumping out of a plane.”
But what brings someone like Ed Terebus back for more every year? It’s not so much escapism for him; it’s this sort of joy and love for making people uncomfortable that keeps his house, and others like it, alive.
“That I can scare people for a living makes me giggle,” Ed Terebus said. “To watch these people, the way they jump, is just great. Everyone experiences things differently. Listening to people talk about the experience forever after it happens just makes me smile.”
There’s a reason no other state in the country can sustain this sort of market. It may be that Michiganders use their agricultural and industrial backgrounds to create truly ghoulish adventures, but it’s that sense of escapism that lets Halloween really flourish here. From getting that little adrenaline rush to wanting to grab your date a little closer in the eyes of a man in a Freddy Krueger costume, haunted houses give people something they can’t get every day: a safe break from reality. And with so many attractions as evidence, that’s something everyone in Michigan could, and should, get behind.