VIRGINIA — To me, Halloween brings memories of more than dressing up and patrolling the neighborhood for candy and treats. It reminds me of the fun I had with Halloween haunted house-type productions over the many years. I enjoyed the preparation and participation in the theater of the macabre. Ghosts and ghouls, screams and giggles … what fiendish fun I’ve had!
Virginia’s “Scream in the Dark” event was an important chapter in my tales of terror. It began in an October 1969 classroom at Roosevelt High School— Wednesday, October 29, 1969, to be exact. The previous evening (October 28), I attended the opening night of Scream in the Dark. I was thrilled by it, chilled by it…I loved it! I wanted to be a part of it. I was seated near someone who could maybe help me out. Maybe…
Ken Davis was the executive director of Campus Life/Range Youth for Christ (YFC) in Virginia at that time. The organization’s mission was to connect with the area youth, providing guidance, fellowship activities and Christian values in an organized and entertaining way. My take on it, anyway.
I was aware of YFC, but I didn’t get involved until the haunted house event began. Scream in the Dark would seem an odd production for YFC, but it attracted kids, got them involved (it got me involved!) and raised funds. It was presented with success in many cities in many states as it would be in Virginia.
I’m sure finding a secure, inexpensive and easy-toaccess location would be the most difficult problem in producing a haunted housetype attraction such as this. Ken Davis really lucked out. Virginia had an abandoned clinic building that he was able to secure for the event: the old Lenont-Peterson Clinic at 4th Avenue and 1st Street South. This building, just sitting there in the shadows beyond the street lights, was quite spooky.
On Tuesday, opening night, as I waited outside with a large crowd, I marveled at the building’s weird lighting and ghostly sounds coming from the entrance door loud speakers. Ken Davis was at the entrance in a Dracula-like costume, guiding the “victims” inside.
Once inside, I stumbled down a short corridor and came face to face with a vampire chewing on a large bone over a cauldron of “blood.” The next room was filled with a maze of swinging columns to navigate through. This was difficult as the only light was a strobe light and there was a Frankenstein Monster stalking me.
Other rooms and other creatures followed…thrills, spills, chills until I made it to the final room. A female “severed head” was resting on a dinner plate on a kitchen table. To my amazement, it was alive and it spoke to me in a high-pitched voice. It moaned, “Join…Campus… Life” over and over.
Once back on the street, I ran back to the front of the building and went through it again. I’d found my calling!
So, back to my classroom story. The student seated near me was a friend of mine named Bill Schmitke. He was the vampire with the soup bone I saw the night before. I asked Bill if there was any way I could be part of Scream in the Dark? I’d do anything, I told him.
Bill asked me if I’d be interested in taking his place as the soup bone vampire. He wasn’t real keen doing it, but he had volunteered when the roles and responsibilities were assigned in preparing the production.
Would I be interested in being the vampire? Gadzooks… of course, I would be interested! Bill told me to show up that evening and he’d explain the change to Ken.
I arrived at the old clinic in plenty of time and met up with Bill. He brought me over to meet Ken and explained my taking over as the vampire. I recall Ken being none too happy about the change initially. I thought I should probably just leave quietly and quickly! But Bill was firm about wanting me to substitute for him. It was finally agreed that I would take over the vampire role. I received a quick instruction of what to do and I was off to makeup. Hooray! I was in the show.
It was the perfect setting and the perfect monster for me to be. I was one of the first creatures encountered and I developed my performance to provide maximum scare. As I could hear the patrons coming down the corridor to my room, I kept my head down low and in the shadows over the large bone I was clutching in both hands (bone provided by F & D Meats). There was a dimly lit candle on each side of me.
The clear bowl in front of me on the table was half filled with red water to simulate blood. I had a pitcher of red water to refill a cup. Before bowing down, I would take a mouthful of red water from the cup. Once the “victim(s)” were close enough to me, I’d slowly raise up my head and glare straight into their eyes. Then, I’d bare my large vampire teeth and groan from my throat while gurgling blood from my mouth all over the bone and into the bowl below me. It WAS effective and gruesome.
On most occasions, the result was screams of panic and a quick exit into the next room… right into the strobe light confusion of swinging columns and a Frankenstein Monster (played by Lee Billings Jr.).
What fun! I was part of Scream in the Dark and wanted to do a good job. I didn’t let up for anyone, even for the circulators. Circulators were people (usually Ken Davis) who were part of the show and went, on a regular basis, through the house with the crowd to ensure that the monsters were okay, no props or areas needed repair, and no patrons were lost, hurt or causing trouble. Ken would usually make a goofy face at me when I did my act for him.
Besides circulators, there were controllers. They stood at strategic points in the house where a patron might get lost or confused on which direction to go. Also, they were there to report any problems to the circulators as the monster-actors were supposed to stay in character at all times (unless in an emergency).
A circulator (or controller) would accompany someone who was so frightened they couldn’t make it through on their own. This happened occasionally and the monster was signaled to let up and let the person pass quickly and quietly. I found it interesting that a person would happily buy a ticket, but be too frightened and uncontrollable to go through the haunted house without assistance.
And, on the wild and frightened subject, accidents could happen. I believe a couple of female classmates of mine got excited in the Frankenstein strobe light room. One girl’s hand swung up and caught the other girl with her fingernail. I think there was real blood involved in that incident. Accidents were very rare, though, as I remember.
The monsters were not allowed to touch anybody, but they got touched (sometimes hit) with some regularity. Remember the female-talking severed head on the platter that I mentioned earlier? I was told she got her nose pinched or tweaked enough that a controller had to be nearby for her comfort. A severed head can’t fight back very well, you understand.
Interestingly enough, there was the occasional kid who would pay his admission and come through the house carrying his own mask to try to scare the monsters. Or, better yet, a kid would find a nice spot somewhere in the dark corridors and set up shop, slipping on the mask and scaring right along with the other Scream-actors. These “do-it-yourself ghouls” were removed from the premises when found. But I can’t blame them…I did what I could to be part of the show, myself.
I did my vampire bit each night for the rest of the run. We were open nightly from 7:30 – 10:30 p.m., except for the final night (Saturday, November 1) when we went to midnight. On a night when the crowd thinned out, we sometimes would close early. I could tell we might be closing soon as the wait between patrons got longer. Once we were given a “show’s over for the night,” we monster-actors could follow the circulator through the rest of the house and enjoy the show.
As patrons were still completing the tour, everyone had to stay back until they finished and exited. Then it was time to take off your costume and makeup and go home. I cleaned up once I got home. I could clean off my makeup, but my mouth and chin were slightly stained by the constant dribble of red-dyed water. I went to school with those stains. It took a bit of time for those stains to wear off after Scream in the Dark was over. I was sad to see it end, but knew I wanted to be back if they were.
October 1970 was my favorite year with Scream in the Dark. I was joined by my best friend Mike Mattson, which made it extra special and fun. A bonus for me was that I got to do the artwork for the tickets and the posters. In this Scream, I was Dracula and Mike was the Mummy. I was stationed in a room made up to resemble a mad doctor laboratory and Mike, as the Mummy, was down a short dimly lit corridor in a wall space right after my room.
I’d wait for a crowd to enter the room and sneak up behind them. As they screamed and ran around the corner and down the corridor, they’d be trapped by a slowly approaching Mummy. Retreating, they’d see my Dracula attacking from behind them. The Mummy and Dracula would hold them trapped for a few seconds, then the Mummy would retreat back and let them pass.
Many times, the temporary narrow wall, which was built for the corridor, would bulge out at the seams from the crowd pressure. Mike and I had our scare-system down pat! But we knew when to let up and would gently talk patrons through if they appeared too frightened to proceed. Even then, in sudden reactions of fright, I witnessed weeping, sobbing, prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, and soiled wet pants. We’d back off, but sometimes it was too late.
The following article “Scream!” is a great 1970 review of the event by Star of the North reporters Jeanne and Vicki, published for the Virginia High School newsletter:
On the very dreary night of October 29, the bravest of the Star of the North reporters sacrificed their lives for the paper. This, of course, meant going to the Youth for Christ spook house where the old Lenont-Peterson Clinic used to be (and we think they left some of the fatal cases there.)
We stood down by the Water & Light Department (the end of the line) and, after slushing through all the mud in Virginia, we got to the front door (about 2 1/2 hours later). Some little girls in back of us had nervous conditions, and some kids in front of us were planning how to scare the kids even more, so we were almost ready to go to the end of the line again. As if that wasn’t enough, some weird-looking kid with some sort of beanie on his head kept flashing his flashlight in our faces. In a way, we were quite ready for what was inside. In fact, it may be less frightening…
When you first get in there, you’re closed in a weird green room. Then some guy with a complexion matching the room grabs you and shoves you into what seems a sewage pipe (it’s that hard, anyway). You crawl (you’re supposed to walk, but we didn’t know that) for about two miles and come to a coffin with some lady sobbing (we knew it was you all the time, Cheryl B). Then, you go through more tunnels and meet a spider (who some said was Katie J., but considering it was mechanical…), some monster whipping some girl (he slipped and I got the whip in the back), a wolf man (who resembles J. J. without his morning shave), some kid locked up in a cage (what a way to use up his hours of control), and other interesting characters.
Of course, the kids in our group were no help. The girls were climbing the walls when they weren’t hanging on to us for dear life. The final zap of the night came from C.B. and J.B. At the seance. I never had a bigger shock than that.
Well, in all, the Youth for Christ have really outdone themselves. It was so hard writing this article, mainly because we didn’t see anything, mainly because we didn’t want to look. So if it scared the bravest of the Star of the North reporters, it would have scared anyone. So next year, if you want to bump off that “favorite” teacher of yours, just mention that she’d enjoy…
I will explain (as mentioned in this school article) that the ending seance “zap” was an electric shock to your butt as you sat at the Fortune Teller’s table. An old automobile magneto wired to a 12-volt battery did the trick.
The next year (1971), I played the Frankenstein Monster. I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall to begin with, but built-up monster boots were added for extra height. I was placed down in the basement area with VERY low ceilings so I would appear taller. Mike was the Mummy again, but we didn’t have the ability to interact like the year before. I recall not having much fun as the Frankenstein Monster. I was called Herman Munster a lot.
There was a guy stationed near me who wore a really goofy monster mask and was trying to scare people by yelling “Boo!” They’d usually laugh at him and he’d mumble and grumble and giggle under his breath about how people are too darn dumb to be scared. I was trying not to laugh myself, listening to his constant narrative. He should’ve been in a comedy club. He was really funny!
The final year I participated in Scream in the Dark was in 1972. Dave Culbert (a VERY tall guy) played the Frankenstein Monster that year, so I went back to playing Dracula. My vampire nest was located in a long hallway and a clever special effect was devised to scare the patrons. Two identical vampires were made up: a mobile Dracula (me) and a stationary Dracula (another fellow). A large pane of glass was placed at a 45-degree angle to the floor. The stationary Dracula was flat on the floor, positioned to reflect an image on the angled glass. A floodlight on a dimmer switch was aimed brightly in such a way that the patrons would see a huge human vampire hanging upside down from the hallway ceiling as they entered.
It was a beautiful optical illusion! Dracula was hanging upside down from the rafters like a huge bat and moving his claw hands and greeting the crowd. Then, the floodlight would slowly dim to off and the hanging Dracula would slowly disappear into thin air, leaving people seeing nothing but a long, dark and empty hallway.
Where did Dracula go, they wondered? Boo! Dracula (me) was standing right behind them, cape spread and ready to strike. Wild shrieks and screams ensued! As the frightened bunch raced down the hallway, a henchman with a battle axe popped out and forced them to exit a doorway to the left. The effect worked very well—only when the patrons kept walking and didn’t look back did they lose out on a good scare. I enjoyed this, my last year an actor in Scream in the Dark, very much!
I was an actor/participant in Scream in the Dark from its first year, 1969, to 1972. Four years of great screams and fun. Mike Mattson and I went through Scream in the Dark for the very last time in 1974. Our music band (Spectrum) was playing for a Virginia Jaycee Dance at the Legion Club close by and we decided to visit Scream before the dance started. A highlight that I remember was an evil Headless Horseman riding up and down 1st Street on a black horse and entertaining the crowd waiting to get into the building. I believe that was the final year for the Campus Life/YFC Scream in the Dark Halloween event.
The old clinic building would be torn down and other Virginia Halloween haunted house events would come and go in the following years. I’ve participated in and attended many other Halloween shows and events myself. It’s near impossible to best the Scream in the Dark house in that 1969 to 1974 era. I’m thankful I was a part of it!
Now…what would’ve happened if Bill Schmitke would’ve told me to “go fly a kite” on that October 28 Wednesday at school in 1969?
Richard Olson is a frequent contributor to Hometown Focus. Originally from Virginia, he now resides in Duluth.