It turned out to be quite the mediocre Halloween horror year in 1993. With Jennifer Aniston’s film debut in the laughably bad Leprechaun, to the un-scary — yet somehow wonderful — Hocus Pocus, we weren’t exactly binging on fun-size Snickers bars to numb the fear. However, that year still managed to birth a local All Hallow’s Eve gem: the U.S.S. Nightmare.
Now in its 25th season, the U.S.S. Nightmare has been anchored on the banks of the Ohio River in Newport, inciting fear in Tristate thrill-seekers with a nautical theme and a few surprises to get your blood nice and curdled.
Inside the 227.5-foot-long boat, you’ll run into a coven of non-sparkly, actually scary vampires waiting to initiate you into their clan; countless zombies that will move quickly enough to stroke your hair without you noticing; and an appearance by Pennywise, the delightfully devilish clown from Stephen King’s It.
And, for Allen Rizzo, the general manager and creative mind behind the boat, the haunted house industry is a full-time gig. Rizzo works year-round to keep the U.S.S. Nightmare up to the most menacingly horrific standards possible, and the themes of the house change annually.
“We have to find rooms and areas to change to stay fresh, so even if a room is a great room, it’s probably going to go away,” Rizzo says. “We do think about what’s in the news and what’s going on and try to be sensitive to that.”
As far as what it’s like to be inside the gruesome makeup, actor and makeup artist Dave Abney says it takes a unique individual to not only play the part, but also to deal with the sometimes-disturbing consequences of when guests get spooked.
“There’d be a 10-year-old come up and want to shake my hand and talk to me, and yet there’s a 40-year-old man and he’ll scream and run out of the room,” Abney says. “We’ve had people have accidents in their pants, if you know what I’m saying. That’s not always pleasant, but it happens.”
From grown men running through the room screaming without even a sidelong glance to women literally jumping out of their shoes, Abney’s seen it all. This year, his post is in the military-themed “Distillery” room.
“I just bark orders at people like a drill sergeant,” he says. “As a matter of fact, last weekend, I had about a dozen people drop and give me push-ups, which was quite funny.”
But the most horrifying part of this haunted vessel? It’s actually haunted. Or, at least some think so. Numerous accounts of a certain Captain Mitchell roaming the halls of the ship are floating around among the crew, and with good reason — the dredge, originally named the William S. Mitchell, suffered a catastrophe befittingly known as the “Mitchell Massacre,” where the vessel crashed into a railroad bridge, leaving extensive damage ending its time as a river-worthy vessel and leading to its life as the repurposed U.S.S. Nightmare. The Mitchell Massacre was the last in a series of unlucky occurrences on the boat, which leads some to believe that there could be an authentic paranormal presence. Nicknamed the Death Dredge, there were reportedly 112 crew member deaths in the ship’s 45 years of service.
Actor, makeup crew member and construction crew member Steven Davis has been roaming the halls of the Nightmare for 20 years and claims there might be something on board scarier than being chased around by a teenager in clown makeup at his weekend job.
“My first season here, I saw a pair of legs walk into my room — just legs — and then turn around and walk out,” Davis says. “Shortly after, I actually encountered the captain, Captain Mitchell. He came up to my room, gave me a little nod like I was doing a great job, turned around and walked out.”
While paranormal investigations have been conducted aboard the dredge, nothing is set in stone. However, whether or not you believe in real ghosts, one thing is certain: A quarter of a century later, the U.S.S. Nightmare remains a haunted attraction that requires more than just a sturdy set of sea legs to venture bow to stern in one piece.
The U.S.S. NIGHTMARE is open through Oct. 29. More info and tickets: ussnightmare.com.