Be Fear or Be Afraid

Behind the scenes at two top local haunted houses

Oct 20, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Bud Stross, one of the three owners of The Dent Schoolhouse, plays many roles at his haunt: Killjoy, VIP the Crazed Hillbilly, Jasper the Clown and the title villain, Charlie the Janitor. Charlie lurks in the basement; he’s the one who murdered all the students and faculty. He’s the reason The Dent Schoolhouse is haunted.

“You see the story of Dent happen, and you get to relive it through these characters,” Stross explains. “I’m a man of many faces and characters. That’s what the haunt allows me to do.

“If you’ve never scared anyone before, it’s like a drug and the haunted house is literally so addicting that you can’t stop. I guess it’s the same reason many people come — because they want to get that rush and scream.”

Besides being a professional poltergeist, Stross is also a third shift DJ on WYGY (97.3 FM). And performance is in his blood — his father, Chuck Stross, is another of the trio of owners and gets the same perverse thrills at turning the normal adults who arrive at The Schoolhouse into quivering masses of jelly when they leave.

The Dent crew has worked since last December to prepare for this season. It takes that long to improve on the haunt, keep up with fire codes and add new scenes.

This year Dent added Detention Hall, a large maze. They had to clear the land behind the main building, dig trenches for utilities to power strobe lights and fog machines and erect the chain link fencing that boggles the visitors condemned to walk the labyrinth.

“You’ll notice some people are freaking out, and it’s not my place to sit in tears, but if it’s a group that’s having fun with freaking out then you can amp it up a bit,” Bud says. “There are four ‘Ps’ to a haunted house, and I’ve successfully checked all four off. It’s pee your pants, puke, pass out and poop your pants. If you can get all four ‘Ps’ it’s a good haunted house, and we’ve done that many nights.”

Amazing design and challenges

USS Nighmare General Manager Allen Rizzo has as much fun as any of the visitors at the city’s haunted riverboat. Rizzo grins like a kid as he describes the scares he’s doled out. He says he’s always pleased to see kids show their bravery by making it all the way through an experience that some adults can’t finish.

Rizzo likes to make accommodations for young guests who want to go through but can’t. Recently, the mother of a seventh grade girl called asking for help because the young lady was too scared to go but didn’t want to lose face in front of her friends.

“She doesn’t want to tell her friends she was too afraid to go,” Rizzo says. “The mother calls me and asks if I can hijack her, pull her out of line and let her bypass all the scary stuff. I say, ‘I can do better than that. I can put her behind the walls and when her friends go by it’ll be her behind the wall.’

“It’s amazing how you can take a kid who has tears on their face, and when it’s all said and done the others are all jealous.”

The prosthetics used to make up the characters are intricate and custom-made by staffer Steve Schreibeis. He’s in charge of makeup and special effects and goes to great lengths to make the ghouls believable and terrifying.

Schreibeis says the kitchen scene, which includes a pig-faced cannibal cook, is one of his favorites to set up and provides a lot of opportunities for the cast to interact creatively with one another and with the guests.

Rizzo says the boat offers amazing opportunities in design and unique challenges. During the off-season it’s docked in Dayton, Ky., which has made it an attractive target for vandals and thieves.

“The first year we had this boat it got broken into and we lost a coffin,” Rizzo says. “The police department found it about a week later. We didn’t even know we lost it. They took all this stuff that we’d inventoried, but we didn’t inventory the coffin. The police came down and asked if we could see if this was ours and said, ‘We’re not allowed to open it, and if you don’t tell us it’s yours we’ve got to call the coroner.’ Down in Dayton there’s a graveyard, and they’ve had people dig up coffins before.”

Rizzo says bones and other macabre trinkets are probably still buried at the Nightmare’s old dock in Covington and might trigger another police investigation if they’re ever exposed by the river water. Working on the project is definitely a labor of love, he says, and the folks involved are passionate about what they do.

“We have the benefit of working with a group of people who’ve been together a long time, eight to 12 years,” Rizzo says. “Our planning process for next year has already started. When I got into this business I was told, ‘You’ll either run out of time or you run out of money.’ And it’s true.

“There are some things we didn’t finish (this year), but we know the things we left unfinished.”