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American Haunt: Fear, Phobias, Family & Sanguinary Delights

The Halloween season is magical for its multitudes of possibilities. It’s hard to come up with a major holiday that gives such free reign to explore fear, surprise, and celebrate the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead. (The bounty of candy typically doesn’t hurt either.) One of the most popular ways to get your metaphorical bleeding into literal spook-on is to get your mitts on a ticket to your hopefully not-too-friendly local haunted house.

Haunts have always held a special type of spooky attraction for me. This dates back to when I was a little kid when I flipped out after hearing a radio ad for the local Jaycees annual Haunted House, set up in the parking lot of the Northwest Arkansas Mall. My insta-excitement was quickly doused when I was told I was too young to attend. (The minimum age was around 12 and I was, maybe, all of five or six years old.) But the idea of a structure created solely for the intent of dark thrills and chills has enticed me ever since.

Over the years, I have been to a number of haunts. Some were better than others but none of which had given me that kinder-dream-mare experience of getting an adrenaline rush of feeling like you’re in the strangest horror film ever. Well, that was until last year, when I was lucky to go to Riverside Entertainment’s Warehouse of Fear. It was a straight shot of horrific delights that was needed on a level that I did not even fully realize till I was standing in the middle of it.

Nestled in the rolling green hills of Northwest Arkansas, the Warehouse is flanked by a wooden pirate ship on one side and a large corn maze on the other. It’s the kind of sight you dream of finding placed in the middle of the rural South. Opening, appropriately enough, around dusk, you roll in and immediately see the metal structure that contains the cornucopia of scares. In front of the building is a vintage black hearse with a coffin busting out of the side. If that’s not enough for you, next to that is a skeleton horse and man leading a windowed carriage containing the corpse of a most unlucky bride.

Step up, get your tickets and then go into the waiting room of the Warehouse, which is something out of some brilliant infernal industrial club. Red lights and smoke bathe the metal walls and clockwork-like-gears on the ceiling. (When the setting is not spookified, it is occasionally utilized as a steampunk-themed event center.) Horror movie trailers and music videos play on two large TV screens up above, all lending to the feeling that you’re about to truly enter a scene from any and all images being displayed. A muscular ghoul pops out occasionally, sneaking up and polluting any lighthearted vibes merely with his presence. If someone did this to you on the street or the subways, you would either mace them or start walking faster. But that’s one of the beauties of a great haunt. You can have multiple boundaries tampered with and stretched but in a safe, fantastical way. (As opposed to being trapped with carnies in a port-a-potty kind of way.)

Every year, there are different themes and characters, keeping the experience fresh for both new meat and returning visitors. This year I experienced everything from old world Gothic revenants to backwoods cannibalistic rednecks that frankly struck a PTSD nerve from the rural family reunions of my childhood (minus the long-pig references) to a clown portal that was less the expected-Bozo-Pennywise tropes-a-go-go and more surreal, included being greeted by an especially striking figure whose appearance was akin to if Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) became an Edward Gorey style clown. Even better? There are few cheap thrills and zero trademarked characters here, making every monster, killer, victim, and ghoul a truly locally created character. After going through the adrenaline-fueled scare ride, you’re greeted with the darkening trees and hills bordering the National Forest. Having all of this nature around you after going through all of this beautifully strung together scary fever dream is a trip of a contrast and so strangely lovely.

I was impressed enough with this haunt that I wanted to find out more about it, particularly the cast and crew behind it. The fact that such a cool and macabre creation has been in operation for a little over seven years in Northwest Arkansas made me doubly curious. There are a lot of things people associate with my home state and great haunted houses are probably not terribly high on that list. I reached out to the fine folks at Riverside Entertainment and, much to my delight and plenty of relief, they not only responded quickly but ended up being incredibly nice. Crazy nice actually, which is where the relief comes in since anyone who has ever had to do any stripe of cold pitch or call understands the anxiety that comes with it, especially if the person or group in question ends up being less than ideal. That was nowhere near the case here.

Driving out there one early afternoon, on Friday the 13th no less, which was not a purposeful move but felt like Halloween-related kismet, seeing the haunt as I pulled up into a mostly deserted parking lot was quite the interesting sight. Seeing anything built for fear on a sunny, open blue sky kind of day is fascinating because it reveals different layers that you can miss in the nighttime. Waiting there actually had its own quiet flavor of eerie as few things spook more than the silence of a not intimately familiar spot.

Soon, one of the core of 6 owners arrived in the form of Charla Reed. She was then followed by two of her partners, Kevin and Caitlyn. Charla was instantly warm, greeting and leading me to the make-up room for a hale and hearty discussion. The haunt had initially begun as a hayride, growing into the trio of attractions featured as of 2017. (There’s hope to grow the venue into headlining up to six in the future.) The family vibe is apparent immediately, especially since many of the spouses of the six all work in different aspects of the Haunt. Even Charla’s adult age son, who is also a bodybuilder, plays the lobby area ghoul. Unlike a lot of workplaces that use the word “family” as a code for highly dysfunctional slipping into toxic interpersonal dynamics, the backstage vibe at the Warehouse is genuinely warm and healthy feeling.

Kevin, who had quite convincingly played the hungry-for-human-meat Southern man who threatened to turn me into sausage for his sweet-little-old-mother (played by Kevin’s honest to goodness real life 94-year-old mother, naturally), turned out to be a very funny and gregarious gent. In addition to being a professional, card-carrying Santa (yes Virginia, they apparently carry cards), he is also the die-hard horror fan of the group. While Charla and Caitlyn grew to love the haunt industry and scary films over time, Kevin’s the one with the true monster kid credentials. (Of course, since we can often sniff out our own kind, we immediately hit it off.)

There are several things that inspire the numerous rooms of the Warehouse. Part of the fuel is fear based therapy. After dealing with some personal health issues, Charla designed a hospital-themed room, for example. Horror has always been one of the best vessels for processing your own fears and phobias, making it as much of a genre as well as a psychological tool. Given the immersive experience of haunts in general, the Warehouse itself is created to be not only pulse-quickening therapeutics for the hauntees but also for the haunters themselves.

Another very intentional strategy is styling everything to give one the feeling of stepping inside a movie without referencing any specifically known horror characters. The lack of any proxy-Freddy Kruegers, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers is seriously refreshing. I’ve been to past haunts that used all of those characters, and while they were fun, seeing these familiar faces tend to take one out of the whole experience. It’s an expected move and really, how can you be frightened if you already know what’s coming? The unknown is always a more fertile territory for the day and nightmare landscapes, which is a factor that most definitely is played into at the Warehouse.

After giving me an actor-free tour of the haunt, Charla was kind enough to let me roam free to snap some pictures and admire the little touches that are easy to miss when the haunt is in full action mode. Several of their props are quite authentic-looking and for good reason, since the team have been known to hit many a flea market, antique mall, auction, and even a hospital in the quest of haunt decor and inspiration. Getting to roam around a haunted house by myself, while music is already being pumped through the quality sound system, was a sheer joy and my own personal version of Disneyland. It was like a home away from home.

Later on, I got to meet some of the actors and see the special effects process. Charla and Kevin did double duties by making-up two actors at once. The two got their sfx make-up chops back in the 1990s with assorted church productions, which is frankly pretty amazing. The pair they were making up, Brandon and Kayla, are a brother and sister team, with the former getting to act out a fairly extreme version of sibling torture towards his poor kin. Both of them have been working at the haunt for a few years and keep coming back for the love of the scare experience. Kayla, a nurse-in-training in her non-haunt life, started acting for the Warehouse at the age of 16 and six years later, has no intentions of quitting anytime soon.

The entire attraction employs a staff of around seventy people, making the down-home, personal vibe even more impressive. The crew did run into some hardship earlier this year, thanks to some unusually heavy rain and flooding that hit this region back in April. There are two types of people in this world: those who weep among the wreckage and those who look at the wreckage and say, “Okay, what can we do with this?” The Warehouse of Fear crew did exactly the latter and after contending with over seven feet of water flooding and damaging the interior, used the initial handicap as an impetus to build and design entirely new rooms and themes from scratch. Their hard work definitely shined this year, since last year’s experience was awesome, this one was downright magical for those of us with the love of the macabre in our dark little hearts.

As the seasons change, my love and gratitude for not only meeting some high caliber people but also getting to celebrate the best season in such a singularly fun way remains. If you live in or visit this region, please check them out at riverside-entertainment dot com. If you don’t, then be a generous ghoul and support your local haunted house.

About Heather Drain

Heather Drain is a fringe culture writer who has written for Dangerous Minds, Video Watchdog, Lunchmeat and Cashiers du Cinemart. She has also been a contributor to The Rialto Report, The Projection Booth, Paracinema, Cinema Head Cheese and, on occasion, as a guest writer at both Rupert Pupkin Speaks and Turner Classic's Movie Morlocks blog. Heather currently writes for Art Decades as well as her own site, Mondo Heather, and is the Music & Culture Editor at Diabolique Magazine.

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