Photo by Nathan Marchand.

There’s No Place Like a Haunted House

I love haunted houses!

No, I’m not talking about places where people believe the restless spirits of the dearly (and not-so-dearly) departed hang out. I’m talking about haunted house attractions. You know, the places where you pay money to wander around a dark labyrinth while actors in ghoul costumes chase you.

Surprisingly, this is something I’ve gotten into in the last few years. I occasionally experienced similar events growing up—like a “haunted barn” at a 4-H party or a “haunted hike” while at summer camp—but I didn’t make an effort to visit these yearly attractions despite hearing about the more popular ones in Fort Wayne, Indiana (the largest “big city” to me). Once I visited one, I instantly loved them.

Hundreds of people stand in line to visit the Haunted Jail in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

Hundreds of people stand in line to visit the Haunted Jail in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

The entrance to Soul Taker's Acres in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

The entrance to Soul Taker’s Acres in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

There are two that I make sure to visit every year: Soul Taker’s Acres in Warsaw, Indiana and the Haunted Jail in Columbia City, Indiana. While quite different in many ways (and also rivals), they share one thing in common: both are small-town attractions. I love that about them. It adds a homespun, down-to-earth flavor to them. They may not have the crazy production values of places like the Indy Scream Park in Indianapolis, but they make up for it with ingenuity.  Both places have volunteer actors, most of them kids or teens. The costumes, make-up and props are donated by the actors and/or organizers. Sometimes they get lucky and have some high-quality stuff, but for the most part they rely on making the best with what they have. Honestly, they’re consistently scarier than the big-budget haunted houses, like the one I went to at Cedar Point a few years ago, which was boring.

Me giving the Soul Taker himself (at least, I think it's him) a much-needed backrub in 2015. Photo by Sergio Garza.

Me giving the Soul Taker himself (at least, I think it’s him) a much-needed backrub in 2015. Photo by Sergio Garza.

My friend Sergio Garza (left) and I preparing to hunt some zombies. "We got this guys! We got it by the @$$!"

My friend Sergio Garza (left) and I preparing to hunt some zombies. “We got this, guys! We got it by the @$$!”

Soul Taker’s Acres greatest strength—besides kid actors who are freakishly good at their jobs (seriously, they once had a scary little girl in one hallway who almost made me turn back)—is the organizers’ willingness to try new things almost every year. Since it’s set up at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds, they take advantage of the location. One year they had a sideshow featuring macabre items like a vampire hunter’s kit and John Dillinger’s death mask.  Another year they hung a huge white sheet in a barn, set up some chairs and a projector, and showed old public domain horror movies. It was showing George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead when I was there. This year they got even more ambitious by adding a secondary attraction that promised patrons they could “get even” after surviving the haunted house: The Zombie Hunt. For an additional charge, patrons could ride a cart pulled by a tractor and shoot “zombies” (probably 4-H kids wearing helmets and protective gear) with paintball guns. This, was genius. It offered a different kind of thrill while also tapping into the popularity of things like The Walking Dead. I’ve yet to hear of any other haunted-house attraction that does something like this.

Deimos Nosferatu, the caretaker of the Haunted Jail in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

Deimos Nosferatu, the caretaker of the Haunted Jail in 2012. Photo by Nathan Marchand.

My brother Jarod Marchand (far left) and I (far right) hanging out with one of the Haunted Jail's many inmates (who's actually my co-worker Josh Case) in 2013.

My brother Jarod Marchand (far left) and I (far right) hanging out with one of the Haunted Jail’s many inmates James “The Cutter” Johnson in 2013.

The Haunted Jail’s greatest asset is its setting. The “jail” part isn’t a gimmick: it’s actually the old Whitley County jail. The building is 140 years old and has a scary history before becoming a Halloween attraction in 1985. Many think it is actually haunted. The old jail is the site of the one and only execution performed in Whitley County. In March 1884, a man named Charles Butler was hanged for murdering his wife, but his neck didn’t break. Instead, he suffocated for 10 minutes, dying in the front room of the old brick building. There have been ghost sightings there ever since. However, if there are spirits present, they don’t seem to mind the thousands of people who’ve explored the jail every Halloween season. While only a few rooms have extensive props and scary décor, the place’s eerie history and appearance add natural atmosphere.

Patrons can even walk through the old jail cells in the basement, which has only the barest minimum of light. The actors know every nook and cranny, allowing them to find the perfect places to hide before jumping out of the shadows. I don’t scare easily, but this year they terrified me. The final stretch this year was one of the best. A tall, skinny guy in zombie make-up shambled up to patrons, hands outstretched. Then seemingly out of nowhere, he produced a chainsaw and revved it. He chased my friend and I through a maze until we exited by the concession stand. We enjoyed ourselves so much, we went a second time.

If you have any haunted house attractions in your area, visit them. Nothing can get you in the Halloween spirit like braving ghouls and ghosts determined to make you scream like a baby. With Halloween falling on a Saturday this year, it’d be a great way to enjoy the evening—

If you dare!