Scenes from a maul
Blood and squalor at Spooky World, the best little horror house in New England
by Carly Carioli
Scene from a real-life B movie, take one. Monica Lewinsky is standing in front
of a toxic-waste dump. She's got a chain saw, and she knows how to use it. But
somehow, the specter of the president's worst nightmares isn't looking quite
frightening enough. I mean, this photo shoot isn't for Vanity Fair or
anything, but we're looking for something a little more . . . spooky.
My photographer tries to coax her out of her shell.
"You hate Bill Clinton. I'm scared. Arrgh."
A Spooky bankruptcy
As the Phoenix went to press, the Berlin,
Massachusetts, horror theme park Spooky World had filed for Chapter 11
bankruptcy to protect itself from an inspector-ordered shutdown of three
Last week, a local building inspector declared the three buildings
unsafe because they lacked sprinklers. But Spooky World owner Dave Bertolino
disputed the inspector's ruling, claiming the town had misread the state
building code. Last Friday, a Worcester Superior Court judge upheld the
About an hour later, Spooky World sought court protection by filing an
emergency motion for Chapter 11. The town showed up on Saturday and shut
the three buildings down anyway. As this paper went to press, a Worcester
Superior Court hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday, October 21,
to sort out the ruckus.
Spooky World remains open during its normally advertised hours, and admission
has been reduced to $15.50 until the dispute is resolved.
She jiggles the chain saw harder. Still not quite there. Perhaps it's not
entirely her fault. Under the dull gray light of a soggy afternoon, Spooky
World -- a cluttered compound of barns and ramshackle wooden façades
built on soft clay farmland in Berlin, Massachusetts -- is proving a
less-than-spooky inspiration. Scattered about the post-apocalypse-war-movie set
nearby are a downed helicopter and a missile warhead (both scavenged from a
rival haunted attraction, Silo-X, which Spooky World acquired in the
off-season), as well as a couple of smashed-up, bombed-out automobiles rusting
along the trailside. The scene looks strangely plaintive, like the impromptu
salvage graveyards that build up around backwoods New England houses. The
chatter of machine guns, mortar fire, and an occasional grenade runs on a tape
loop; the clay has turned to mud from heavy rainfall and has deep ruts from
hayride tractors. And 20-year-old Shrewsbury native Jeremy Braga, who last year
wielded one of Spooky World's chainless chain saws in the guise of
Halloween's Michael Myers, looks slightly less enthusiastic about his
latest assignment -- portraying one of the Attacking Lewinskys, this year's big
marquee attraction. Leave it to Spooky World to put the suck back in
As chain saw-wielding madmen go, Braga's as good as they come. But dolled up
in a pink smock, faux pearls, bobbed wig, and the ubiquitous beret, he finds
himself arousing an entirely different set of anxieties.
"You gotta get an angry face on him," an elderly technician hollers to us
from farther up the trail. "Tell him he's bisexual. All those Lewinskys are
Spooky World bills itself as "America's Horror Theme Park," but it's more like
a scaled-down county fair, with picnic benches, carnival-type pizza and
fried-dough stands, and an abridged midway where one might win stuffed South
Park characters (the most popular being Kenny, the perpetually dead one,
and Mr. Hankey, the talking excrement -- indeed, some combination of these two
seems to inhabit the very soul of the place). Four haunted houses of varying
spookiness, a barn full of horror-movie memorabilia, and another barn full of
merchandise lie within the circumference of a haunted-hayride trail wherein
"actors" -- ranging in age from 18 on up to the speed limit and dressed in all
manner of ragtag costumes -- make it their business to scare you silly.
Fear, as sprung in the dimly lit trails and claustrophobic mazes of Spooky
World, is not the subtle, wispy ambiance of Gothic psychodrama. It is the
sharp, momentary disconnect of being startled, and the anticipatory dread of
dark spaces shielding attackers-in-wait. This is not the fear we associate with
castles and ghosts, but instead the fear of dark alleys and muggers. It is fear
on the cheap, the equivalent of a guy in a raincoat who jumps out from behind
the tree and says "boo." Oldest trick in the book, and still the only one that
consistently keeps 'em screaming.
And though there may be a few heart-stopping moments, it's unlikely that
anyone who's old enough to drive will find Spooky World, well, spooky. As a
friend of a friend put it, if he'd wanted to sit on a rickety carriage while
being harassed by agitated, semi-employed people, he'd have saved his $19
admission and taken a ride on the T. To my way of thinking, though, it seems
entirely appropriate that a tribute to horror and exploitation flicks should
promise more than it delivers and keep its thrills on the cheap. I confess a
weakness for old-time carny hokum; for me, the gap between what you expect
Spooky World to be and what it actually offers is one of its chief attractions.
Spooky World's print ads tout appearances by "Dead Elvis and the Colonel." But
when Dead Elvis shows up, toting a geriatric walker in one hand and a
six-string in the other, his companion isn't his deceased manager, Colonel Tom
Parker (himself a former carny) -- it's fast-food icon Colonel Sanders. And
along a wall as you enter one of the haunted houses is a remnant of old-time
hokum still in general use at rural county fairs. In bold lettering, an
elaborate sideshow-style banner advertises BATS!; encased in glass is a
In the carnival and the fun house and the spook show, then, the joke is almost
always on you. Legendary producer David J. Friedman (Blood Feast) -- a
master of the singularly American art of exaggeration, half-truth, and flimflam
practiced by the proprietors of medicine shows and carnivals and the pioneers
of exploitation film -- often maintained that audiences were, in the end,
complicit in the showbiz con. In effect, even when one advertised the
spectacular and delivered the ordinary (a unicorn that turned out to be a
stuffed zebra with a horn glued to its head), the audience still got something
for its money: the brief, illusory promise of the impossible transformed into
the possible. The master of hokum was a huckster of dreams. At Spooky World,
you are promised Attacking Lewinskys, and you get a couple of guys with chain
saws and berets. You must ask yourself: what did you expect? The letdown is
inevitable. The real payoff is in the sudden, absurd possibility of such a
Some 150,000 people walked through Spooky World's gates last October, and
though this year's season has been hampered by rainouts, general attendance
rises every year. This despite the common wisdom that the place is unredeemably
corny, a plebeian pleasure best suited for children and sci-fi geeks salivating
over autograph sessions with scream queens and obscure horror bit players. It
is an opinion that is not without some basis. The aesthetic of Spooky World's
attractions is revealingly low-fi, wildly enthusiastic but helplessly
amateurish. You are reminded of Ed Wood's movie graveyards -- rubber spiders,
mechanized UFOs and dinosaurs that work only sporadically, plastic tombstones
looking as if they might fall over at any instant, cheap props, actors as
wooden as the façades, and pretensions to topicality. But this is what's
endearing about Spooky World: that it tries and fails, and in so doing leaves
itself naked to the world, perpetually caught in the act of transformation with
its pants around its ankles, its internal social clockwork laid bare, like some
mutant hybrid of Waiting for Guffman and The Addams Family. You
often feel as if you're behind the scenes wherever you go. When I first visited
Spooky World four years ago, I got spooked right out of my shoes by a
middle-aged woman wearing a mad monk's solemn black tunic; she got me good, and
then felt so bad about it she took off her hood and apologized profusely.
If you wanted to be cruel, you might call Spooky World a refuge of Halloween
hackdom. But, by Godzilla, they're my kind of hacks. As predictable as its
scares might be, as relentlessly insipid its attractions, Spooky World embodies
Halloween in all its flawed glory -- the promise of transformation run up
against the apologies of the flesh. It's caught between the holiday's
fundamentally subversive morbidity and the impulse to turn the whole thing into
a greeting card. One of Spooky World's visitors in its inaugural season eight
years ago was a kid from Haverhill who later changed his name to Rob Zombie;
the stage sets he eventually designed for his band, White Zombie, often looked
like something out of Spooky World's haunted hayride, from cartoonish
headstones down to bargain-bin camo nets and crude plywood shacks --
self-consciously derelict façades that understood they were
façades, celebrating their own lack of depth.
In the red-brick house that serves as Spooky World's corporate headquarters,
rooms converted to makeshift offices buzz with phones, fax machines, computer
terminals. Megaphones and boxes of props clutter the halls; the walls are lined
with dozens of framed vintage horror-movie posters: Dr. Phibes Rises
Again; a King Kong rip-off called Konga; Munster, Go
Home. The only common area is the kitchen, which doubles as a reception
area, conference room, and trophy hall. Two refrigerators, a microwave, a
dishwasher, and a badge-making machine compete for space with a modest wooden
table. A pumpkin cookie jar sits on top of a Hallmark-style Halloween
tablecloth dotted with grinning black cats and amoebic ghosts; a witch grins
from a woodcut reading HOUSEWORK MAKES YOU UGLY. Civic citations from the
Massachusetts State Senate and House of Representatives share wall space with a
mock diploma from Tromaville Junior College, provided by the low-budget slasher
studio Troma Pictures. A jumbo check made out for $53,000 to the WBZ Children's
Hospital Fund hangs near a framed feature on Spooky World from an
Entrepreneur magazine story on "51 Million-Dollar Success Stories." A
three-dimensional relief of Jason from Friday the 13th glowers from a
wall opposite a signed photo of Mr. Rogers, who, although he's never been to
this neighborhood, "dug all the Spooky swag we sent him," says Dave
Bertolino (better known in these parts as Spooky Dave, the former haunted-house
prop dealer who conceived Spooky World and remains its sole owner).
The message is clear: Spooky World is a family joint. "We created Spooky World
first as a safe theme-park environment for families to celebrate the season,"
says Bertolino, a heavyset man with a soft but insistent demeanor. "The second
attack was that we wanted to make it a month-long celebration rather than a
one-day celebration. If you remember when you were a kid, if it rained on
Halloween night, you were screwed. So ultimately we made it a 31-night
celebration, and we draw the numbers."
A dozen or so site managers crowd around the table to talk shop. Does the
spaceship come out early enough? Are the recorded crackling-tree noises loud
enough? The severed head on a decapitation gag is coming apart. They're running
out of blood at the 3-D
Haunted Disco. Then Bertolino turns talk to the Lewinskys, and everyone groans
-- even among this crowd, the Monica gag has been a topic of wry consternation.
She has stolen the spotlight. Bertolino turns philosophical: "We didn't go
overboard on it," he insists. "I thought that the [Lewinskys] would be spitting
milk out on the trail, but they haven't been."
Ruth Phelps, 27, of Salem, isn't a huge fan of the Lewinskys, but she's got
bigger problems on her mind. She shows up for work in knee-high boots and a
Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt,
red ponytails wrapped around the crown of her head. It will take her an hour to
get into makeup: when she's done she'll look like Pippi Longstocking with
hypothermia, her skin a decaying shade of blue. Then she'll lie down in a
display case filled with a couple hundred mice and writhe as if they're eating
her alive. "I've had pet rats. It's not that big a deal," Phelps says. The
thing is, this year she really is getting eaten alive. "I'm working on getting
new mice," she says. "We got these at the last minute, and they're too old.
Last Sunday they reached sexual maturity, and they started fighting and biting
like crazy. They're a bit frisky."
But the show must go on. Frankenstein chats with lab-coated mad scientists;
stabbing victims mingle with mad monks, grim reapers, gypsies, and ghouls
outside a converted garage that serves as dressing room and makeup area. A '70s
poster of John Travolta watches over the entrance in homage to this year's
other big attraction: a haunted house with a disco theme, Universal Studios
meets Studio 54. As you walk through with 3-D
glasses, you come across a bathroom in which an animatronic zombie vomits
hydraulically into a urinal. "We wanted to have 'em doing lines off the sink,"
confides one staffer, "but it's a family show."
The staff finds other ways to let off subversive steam. Tonight there's a
little intersquad rivalry going on. The grim reapers are engaged in a dispute
with the psychedelic killer clowns over who's scarier. In protest, the monks
have hanged a clown doll in effigy. "This is the only clown we hang out with,"
puns one of the monks. One of the clowns tries to rescue the doll, which has
the Korn logo slashed in marker on its belly. She is rebuffed. "I don't care if
they have it," groans a reaper. "I'm sick of that damn thing already." Later,
the clowns are overheard plotting revenge. "We'll have a reaper hanging the
same way tomorrow," says one. "We oughta burn it," says his accomplice.
Scene from a real-life B movie, take two: Another soggy afternoon at Spooky
World, where the night's show has already been declared a rainout. Although
Mary doesn't give us her age, she looks to be in her early 40s, with long
dirty-blond hair tied up in a plucky, utilitarian sprig, wearing a pair of
reasonably fashionable overalls over a white T-shirt.
"On days like today we make blood and stuff," she says. A housewife and mother
of three, she brought her kids to Spooky World last year and was so spooked she
decided to sign up as an actor this year. She volunteers to get into costume to
indulge a few visitors. "I always loved Halloween. Last year I was terrified by
the clowns. I'm doing better this year."
"Can you do bullet holes for me?" she asks her horror cosmetician. "I had
black lips, a big scar running down my face."
"I went home last night and scared my husband and my children," she says. Even
after she's gotten the full makeup treatment, she pauses to apply more blood,
inflicting a deep open wound on her face, making the bullet holes leak a little
more. "Don't take a picture, please," she says. "I wanna smudge this some
At last, she's ready -- middle-class utility transformed into a ripe vision of
slasher chic. Her boss hands her a bloodstained overcoat.
"Do I look gory enough?" she asks, studying her morbid reflection, as you
might check yourself before heading out for a night on the town.
"Spooky enough for a rainy day," he says.
Carly Carioli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.