This is a little story I have posted here and there on the net, and you people being Halloween enthusiasts and all, I thought that some of you folks might like to read about a little haunted house operation that was put together by some people in West Covina, California back in 1983. Such a long time ago!
“THE BIG HAUNTED HOUSE” Part One
Now, this is a story about a Haunted House Attraction that was done in the Halloween season of 1983. It was huge--I can’t say I remember with accuracy how many rooms or “themed areas” there were, but there were at least 40 of them. This was one of those walk-through attractions, of course, the kind you have probably seen, but I feel this one was unique, because it was a one-time affair that was never to exist again. Why? Because it was being constructed within the ruins, if you will, of an old elementary school in West Covina, California. A few interested kids from my high school were invited to go and volunteer their time there during September and October. The staff of the charitable organization running the event told my friends and me that the school was being demolished. They had acquired permission to use it for this purpose, and this was now the school’s last hurrah before being bulldozed and replaced with a shopping center. What a wonderful opportunity!
I was developing my skills as a makeup artist at the time, and all too eager to check the place out and see what creatures I might build, or who might look good wearing a rubber monster appliance or some greasepaint. A bunch of us got into a car and drove out there one Saturday, around noontime. A tangible atmosphere was noticed immediately as we arrived. The buildings looked like they had been around since the 50’s or thereabouts, but very likely the school itself had been around longer than that, perhaps the 1930’s. I felt strongly that we were looking at a rebuilt version, which now was old itself, and crumbling.
Very strong in the air was that sense of this being a “one time thing,” and an opportunity to have a lot of fun. A lot of West Covina schoolkids were about that Saturday, and they were all anxiously waiting to be given something to do. It was clear that no one considered this job to be any sort of “work.” Everyone wanted to dress up a room, and everyone eventually wanted to be a ghoul once the run of the show started. Everyone wants to try their hand at acting--at bringing a fantasy, even a scary fantasy, to life just for a moment.
The school consisted chiefly of a number of “strip-shaped” buildings, you know, a bunch of classrooms all in a row next to each other, connected as one long structure. There were four or five like this, each strip consisting of six or seven classrooms. Then there was a large multi-purpose building with a very high ceiling, a kind of building I was familiar with from my elementary school days--a cafeteria, stage, and movie theatre all in one, depending on how you set things up in there.
Then there was a strip building that was just for the offices--the teacher’s lounge and principal’s office. This last building was turned into the headquarters for the haunting staff, and also housed the sound effects “control center.” There was a very talented sound designer named Tom (whose last name I forget), and Tom had started adapting the school’s public address system to blast out different audio tracks. And this guy was a maniac. He was always running around, stringing wires and attaching speakers to the walls, hiding the speakers, testing this sound and that sound...a real wacko...he balanced the volume for every single speaker in the attraction, and considering that there were more than forty rooms, well...there was a lot of audio going on in there.
People were also bringing in speakers and amplifiers, to give the show some extra volume. The main sound system room was in one of the office rooms, and consisted of a number of reel-to-reel tape decks and a simple computer control system, such as existed at the time.
The beginning of construction, or perhaps I should say destruction, had already begun. Before the sets went up, an important consideration had to be seen to: the general layout. A continuous path had to be determined, and anything blocking that path had to be eliminated. So, the classroom strip buildings were adapted for this--the walls dividing the rooms were being sledge-hammered down, creating makeshift doorways that would allow the haunt attendees to zig-zag their way through the rooms without having to go in and out of the structure.
Being the type that likes old books, I went hunting around for the school's library that day. I found it, and was overjoyed to see that nearly all the books were very old! But I opened one of them up and found that it had been thoroughly chewed up by bookworms. They were all like that--nothing I wanted to take home, I'm sorry to say. The library was severely, and appropriately, worm-eaten.
It looked like the school hadn’t been used in quite some time--had mouldered away for years, empty and quiet, the blinds drawn. I wondered how many people living in the city had grown up going to this school.
But anyway, not long after the interested parties showed up and introduced themselves, the building began. Rooms were delegated to various groups and the teams then went to work, bringing in whatever they needed and building things as they went. I was not in charge of a room; my job was to try to provide makeups, masks and props for rooms that were lacking them. I walked around and talked to the various room supervisors to ascertain which of them needed the most help. I had a VERY small budget of $200.00 which the show had provided so I could buy latex, plaster and clay.
The first strip building featured, as one of its rooms, an indoor hillside set constructed of a wooden framework and canvas, all covered with dirt and leaves. The canvas had holes cut in it, so that actors in zombie masks would crawl out of the “hillside” to menace the people walking on the path. After menacing a hauntgoer, the zombie would go around the side of the hill and go back under the canvas, so that it could pop out again and scare some more people. I thought this was a clever “zombie-recycling” idea. They wanted me to make five or six zombie masks for this room, and I started work on these, making them very cheaply and quickly, by painting layers of latex on a head-cast of a friend and peeling off the “mask,” then adding cotton and latex to create a creepy zombie texture.
Inside this room, my friend Scott and I had placed a dummy of the character "Jack" from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (the skeletal Jack). We spent a lot of time on it and set it up so it could be puppeteered through a hole in a wall and could talk to people passing by. But really it was badly placed. The way it turned out, people going through the maze passed it by and never looked at it, because their attention shifted over to the actors in the zombie costumes. Our dummy languished sadly in the gloomy corner.
But this “zombie room” was known for being a most dangerous room to work in--and not because of the zombies. Not long after the leaves and dirt were hauled in to dress the place, people were seeing the dreaded Black Widow Spiders, who found the room to be an ideal nesting environment. Some insecticides were employed in an attempt to eradicate the spiders, but the black widow sightings continued for the duration of the show...
(Part Two of this story will describe the general layout of the haunted attraction, and how the whole thing went.)
"The Big Haunted House" Part 2
Back to the story, now:
Once the attraction was operational on the first night, the din was incredible. You could hear the howling of all the sound sources half a mile away! And everything was cranked up to a loud volume...
Of course, you wouldn't want to work on something like this without going through it at least once, so all the haunt workers inside the attraction took a break at some point, took a V.I.P. spot at the front of the line, and wandered in to sample the wares.
The layout that had been built was impressive: You would buy your ticket at the entrance to the school and begin down a walkway towards the first strip building. This walkway was lined with lots of plastic plants and rigged with speakers pumping out the sounds of crickets and the occasional wolf howl. This area was known as “The Werewolf’s Forest,” and was sort of an atmosphere thing to get you primed up for the rest of the show. No werewolves jumping out at you--just the sound and the atmosphere. A very classy introduction before you got to all the craziness inside. I liked this part a lot because the sound effects made the walkway come alive. The crickets sounded real...
Once inside the first strip building you would experience several haunted rooms (including the zombie hillside), and then leave the structure, to be diverted briefly over to the multi-purpose room, whose large area was being divided up into several sections. Now that you had gone through the first of the strip buildings, and seen a few small but cool scenes, the haunted attraction would hit you with a big production wallop that just floored me, personally:
The big display piece, sitting in the multi-purpose room, was a completely fabricated house, small enough to fit inside the building, but still full-sized. I don't know who designed it or built it, but it was amazing, and built from scratch. Imagine walking into a building and finding a building inside that building, with a path leading up to it, trees, and so on. Amazing!
You would go into the multi-purpose room and start walking along a fabricated pathway, complete with rocks and shrubs and broken fence sections, and then you would enter the house itself, which was neither rigged for effects nor populated by ghoul performers--the house was considered spectacle enough that they let it exist on its own, which I think was a tasteful idea. I remember seeing this and just thinking, "Wow." You walked up the front steps, and then into and through the house, and then out of the house and down the back steps. I've never seen anything like this in any haunted house show.
After walking through the house, you would then leave the multi-purpose room, which had other scenes that you would see later on in the tour. The next thing in your “Halloween Adventure” was to visit the remaining strip buildings, moving from one to another continuously. These strip buildings made up the majority of the haunted house, time-wise. The connecting gaps between the buildings were roped off so people wouldn’t stray off the course, and these “between” areas were supervised by haunt workers. “Move alooooong, please,” they would say in a spooky voice. This horror maze was a huge affair, and it took quite a while to get through it...forty-five minutes I think was the average time it took? So really, it was worth the four bucks...
Anyway. Many Halloween fans in Los Angeles had been invited to run sections or “rooms” of these strip buildings, and they had gone crazy decorating them and adding props. Each “room supervisor” was tireless and devoted, and vying to “outdo” the other supervisors...old furniture had been dragged in...dummies constructed and rigged...“sledge-hammer sculpture” techniques employed to texture the walls of some of the rooms.
One area was your basic “black walls in the dark” maze that you had to feel your way through, and as soon as you got through most of it and started seeing light, someone in a mask was waiting to scare you. They got me pretty good when I went through the first time.
One room was a “Psycho”-inspired room, liberally splashed with dark purple Pan-Chromatic Blood, a movie blood put out by Max Factor. It must have been sitting around in somebody’s closet for decades. The Max Factor movie blood formulas were heavily scented with a rose perfume, so the Psycho room reeked of roses...and the dark purple of the Pan-Chromatic Blood was very unpleasant and strange. This room was lit with lots of red, and a “Mrs. Bates” dummy sat in a chair, watching you as you went by.
One room had a dummy of “Michael Myers” standing on a pedestal holding a big knife, and the theme from the “Halloween 2” soundtrack playing VERY VERY LOUD. Deafening to walk through this area.
One room had an “Iron Maiden” theme, complete with the proper music and the band’s mascot, Eddie, lurking around trying to scare the unsuspecting.
I remember too that there was a very tall dummy of Frankenstein’s monster mounted on a platform that rocked slowly back and forth, to create the impression that it was walking towards you. I think a Don Post mask was used for the head...crackling electricity sound effects and a strobe light completed the scene.
After going through a couple dozen of these rooms, each with a distinct theme, you went out of the last strip building and into the night air again, cool at this time of year, and went back into the multipurpose room for the remainder of the show. The kitchen of the multipurpose room had been renamed “Hell’s Kitchen,” and there, a mad chef menaced with a plastic meatcleaver. I can’t say whether this actor was male or female...all I remember is the hideously contorted face, and the dark circles under the eyes! When I walked through this area, I felt a strong urge to move on into the next room. The mad chef definitely creeped me out...
Then there was a blacklight-lit corridor, painted flat black and then dashed with splotches of glowing neon color. Very disorienting!
There was one nice gag with a monster head that popped out of a box like in the movie “Creepshow”--a performer was hidden behind a wall with a mechanism similar to those trash cans with the lids that pop up when you step on the pedal. When someone approached the box, the hidden performer would see them and step on a pedal, which made the monster poke its head up.
And then there were a few more rooms...I recall that one of them was a room full of large bones...I don’t know if they were real or not, but they looked real, and I never cared to go close enough to find out for sure.
The show ran for ten nights or so in the month of October and cost four dollars or thereabouts to get in. All the proceeds went to the reputable charitable organization called "The March of..." something, I don't remember what they were called, but anyway all this wackiness was for a good cause (helping sick children). On the last night of the show my friends and I went all out with the makeup, bringing in every rubber appliance we had and gluing rubber pieces on anyone who wanted them--and there were quite a few volunteers. “Oooo, me, do ME!! I wanna look creepy!”
These ghouls and monsters roamed around the front of the school, taunting and menacing the people waiting in line. One of the security guards saw a goat-face appliance he just had to have glued on, so he became a security goat. Several TV monitors were set up where the line formed, so that the people waiting could watch the trailer for the film "Terror in the Aisles." It turned out that "Terror in the Aisles" had some kind of deal going with the show, they contributed financing or something and in return they got a publicity venue for their film. Neat! So I remember walking around outside and seeing this trailer over and over and over again.
The attraction drew quite a crowd during its run, and I don’t remember anyone being badly scared by it. It was too much spectacle and too much fun. Everything went very pleasantly...and when the whole thing was done and the last night finished up, a bunch of us went out for burgers and hot dogs, very tired and hungry, and not a little sad that the show was all done. I’ve done a few haunted house things like this since then, but none of them had such huge scope or such pervasive atmosphere. It's a very special memory of a special time.