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A Chronicle Written In Blood

Cincinnati’s haunt history is rife with fear — and innovation

By Randy Schadel · October 19th, 2011 · Halloween List
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The local commercial haunted house industry got its start in 1970 at a small house on St. Clair Avenue in Clifton, charging customers the princely sum of $1 to experience 16 rooms filled with classic monsters such as Dracula, the Wolf Man, Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster. Huge crowds swamped the event, and the WSAI Haunted House was the talk of the town that October. The Sycamore-Deer Park Jaycees and radio station WSAI were at the forefront of an entertainment phenomenon that’s now a multimillion dollar industry with hundreds of events across the world. 

The past 40 years have seen Cincinnati’s haunts grow from freaky fundraiser to full-on horrifying Hollywood production. 

The 1970s: Red Paint and Mannequins Are Your Friends

Haunts of the ‘70s were low-tech by today’s standards. Aside from a few Halloween masks and greasepaint, there were no readymade macabre props like there are at today’s Halloween shows. If you wanted it, you had to build it. This made houses highly unique. Civic and church groups looked to nearby vacant houses as scenes. 

In 1971, just a year after the WSAI haunt was launched, there were more than a dozen new attractions across Cincinnati. The WSAI haunt led the way with large, elaborate haunts located around Clifton and eventually large venues such as Union Terminal and Cincinnati Gardens. Their main rivals from 1971 on were the Hamilton-Fairfield Jaycees, which put on shows at the old Naval Reserve Center in Hamilton before moving to the magnificent 100-room Butler County Home in 1978. They buried disc jockeys from radio station WMOH in the front yard and put speakers in the Port-O-Lets just for that little extra scare. The St. Rita’s haunt (often known as the Q102 House) got its start in Cassinelli Square in 1976 before moving to the school in 1978 (where it remains, possibly America’s oldest haunt at 36 years). The Haunted Cave at Lewisburg also got started in the late ’70s.

The 1980s: The Dark Age of Haunting

Haunts of the ‘70s could be dangerous affairs, with neighborhood events ignoring basic fire safety and allowing actors to manhandle hauntgoers. As fire marshals began to crack down and liability insurance became a concern, many haunts closed up and groups lost interest in them as fundraisers.

When eight teens were killed in a fire at New Jersey’s Six Flags Haunted Castle in 1984, this sealed the fate of fly-by-night events. 

Dark attractions from the ‘80s were by and large not as good as their ‘70s counterparts, with exceptions such as St. Rita’s, the Fairfield Touchdown Club’s House in the Haunted Woods and the Our Lady of Visitation haunt (which eventually became today’s Dent Schoolhouse). 

Dark, barren mazes were the norm as charities attempted to both artificially extend the length of their attractions and cut down on costs. There were some other well-done attractions such as the Horseshoe Valley Haunted Trail in Mount Healthy, The Asylum of Terror in Middletown, the Middletown Haunted Hotel and particularly the Comboni Mission Center Haunted Manor (a critical and financial success that was shut down when a new priest took over the Mission Center and deemed it “inappropriate”). Loveland Castle also began to “haunt” the historic building every Halloween, with blacked-out bus rides down the steep hill to the castle that were more terrifying than the actual haunt.

The 1990s: Deep Pockets and Corporate Haunting

Haunting began to pick up steam in the 1990s with the advent of specialized props and horrific room décor, as showcased at the annual Transworld Halloween show. Cincinnati saw its first professional haunts in 1993 — the Night of Fright and the USS Nightmare. Pro haunts featured catchy names (no more radio station call letters or sponsor groups), much longer tours, high-quality production values and shows that were far more intense and less “politically correct.”

The Night of Fright, with its bright neon piping and searchlight, garnered a large cult following and exemplified the new breed of haunters (the event fell victim to arsonists in 2000). The USS Nightmare pointed the way toward events in unconventional venues (the original boat was replaced with the much larger Nightmare II several years ago). 

It wasn’t long before the pro haunts began to kill off the weaker haunts in town, leaving only the best charity events like (again) St. Rita’s, Mt. Healthy Haunted Hall and the Dungeons of Delhi. In 1996, the groundbreaking attraction Nightmare on Glenway made a huge impact, with hyper-detailed rooms, feral actors and its trademark school bus (with Freddy Krueger at the wheel). The event moved and became Nightmare Estates and later Nightmare at the Beach before disappearing. 

The Our Lady haunt continued to make the transformation from a charity haunt to pro. It began to call itself THE Haunted House and was set up at various venues including an old Swallen’s store and Forest Fair Mall before ending up at the Schoolhouse in Dent in 1997. Advances in character makeup began to make masks obsolete and also allowed for something rarely seen up to this point: the haunt “icon,” an actor who developed an individual character all their own. An early pioneer was Bludzo, the original blood-spewing Klown at Nightmare Estates who is still active at Dent.

2000-Present: MegaHaunting for a New Millennium

Today every type of haunt imaginable is available, with big budgets, Hollywood-level sets and special effects and talented, dedicated actors. We have traditional houses (Dent and The Chambers), a haunted ship (USS Nightmare), haunted hayrides (Springboro and Sandyland), haunted trails (Angel of Death), haunted scream parks (KI and Land of Illusion), a haunted cave (Lewisburg) and the best surviving charity haunts (St Rita’s, Mt. Healthy, Dungeons and Mayhem Mansion). 

They’re also themed around every possible concept. Today’s haunts are worthy successors to their forefathers, pushing the envelope both theme-wise and creatively. But the lessons taught by the earlier events haven’t been forgotten; imagination and passionate actors are still more highly prized than the best props and effects. Indeed, the 1970 WSAI house would still feel right at home in today’s haunt community.

Randy Schadel writes and manages The House of Doom (www.houseofdoom.net), a catch-all site for Cincinnati’s haunt community. The site has even more grisly details of our city’s classic haunted attractions.



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