The Boston Phoenix
October 22 - 29, 1998

[Features]

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.

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 haunted houses.

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 inspector's decision.

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.

"You hate Bill Clinton. I'm scared. Arrgh."

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 succubus.

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 bisexual."


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 Louisville Slugger.

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 thing.


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 more."

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 ccarioli@phx.com.

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