Jim Talent spends his days tethered to skyscrapers with a safety harness, installing communications towers hundreds of feet in the air. When he reports to his second job, however, things get scary: "I walk in the front door of the house, announce myself to the ghosts, and say, 'Don't fuck with me,'" he says. Along with four partners, Talent runs Dream Reapers--a 14,000-square-foot stretch of strip mall in Melrose Park that's considered one of the best haunted houses in Illinois.
On a final walk-through before the doors open one recent October evening, he navigates the 22-room labyrinth as if it were his own home, barging through secret entryways, activating animatronic zombies with hidden switches, and pointing out his favorite features--like the caves of hell, which took four months to construct. Inspecting the circus room, he makes the executive decision to increase the barf flow from an upside-down hanging clown.
Though the partners' duties tend to overlap, Talent is the electrical pro and carpenter of the Dream Reapers team. Rick Zawodniak designs the props, John Vitiritti is the set painter and makeup artist, and Mike Cash rigs the animatronics. And Ken Spriggs, who has a vast knowledge of life casting, also serves as human resources director, overseeing the crew of about 40 volunteer actors who help haunt the house. The partners, who range in age from late 20s to mid-50s, started Dream Reapers in 1999, after an acrimonious secession from another area haunting outfit they decline to name.
Spriggs, an operations manager at a trucking company by day, estimates that each of the partners spends about 15 hours every week at the haunted house. Unlike many lesser haunted houses, Dream Reapers doesn't go back to being a church basement in November. The partners pay rent all year round, and in the long off-season they do routine maintenance and construct new chambers of horrors--the house this year, according to Dream Reapers' Web site, is 50 percent new.
While the house is open for business, through much of October and into the first weekend of November, the actors report for duty at 5:30 PM. Most are friends or friends of friends, but some are strangers who just showed up and filled out applications. Everyone comes in a layer of basic black--a blank slate for the costume and makeup department.
Backstage the actors mill around, waiting until it's time to take their places. In the break room, two garden-variety ghouls chat over Pepsis while a demented clown fills out a medical form. A Civil War-era zombie slips in through a side door with a night's supply of Entenmann's doughnuts.
Minutes before seven o'clock, when the doors are to open, the creeps assemble for a pep rally in the alley behind the mall. Last-minute cigarettes dangle from their expertly mangled lips as Spriggs does his best General Patton: "Remember that you run the house, not them," he says. "This week will be destructive to our brains and bodies." Other matters on the agenda: "The Insane Clown Posse will be here tomorrow night. Don't put them on a pedestal--just treat them like everyone else." He closes with a hearty "Go to hell!" and the creeps give a collective cheer.
A couple of goblins lag behind as the others file into the building. One of them is looking for pointers on what to scream at the guests. "You can do better than what you've been doing," his comrade offers. "You've been saying, 'Get out of my house' a lot lately. Why don't you try something new? Rent a horror movie and listen to what they say." The novice nods and heads inside.
As the guests begin to funnel through the house, screams ring out almost continuously. In the library, 14-year-old Jason Maysonet, dressed as a sort of mossy green zombie, leaps out from behind a painting to scare guests. Although he's worked here only a short time, he's already discovered the major occupational hazard of haunting. "I got pushed over by a bunch of blondes," he confesses. "Then they stomped on me with their heels." The actors are strictly forbidden to touch the guests, but guests don't always show them the same courtesy. "An actor will get popped every now and then," Talent admits. "The best thing they can do is get their scare in quick and get out before there's a chance to swing."
A good scare can provoke other physical reactions too. Talent recounts with relish the story of a coulrophobic girl who passed out in the circus room and was brought back to consciousness...by a bloody clown. Spriggs says he watches for people leaving the house with a coat tied around their waist--a telltale sign of a spooked bladder. Trevor Bishop, a paramedic pal of the partners, is usually on duty at Dream Reapers, and when he's not, another paramedic is.
When they decided to open their own haunted house, the Dream Reapers team also started Nightmares Inc., a prop house that specializes in the altogether ooky. Why, they reasoned, should they pay other people for what they knew they could do themselves? Among other products, the company sells elaborate chandeliers made from skulls and bones and a line of evocative aromas called Sinister Scents, which are field-tested in the Dream Reapers house: the haunted-woods room smells like pine, the surgery room is spritzed with "Hospital" (which sort of smells like cotton candy), and the caves of hell smell like several kinds of decay. (A few of the rooms smell like marijuana smoke, too, but that's not one of theirs.)
Nightmares Inc. hawks its wares at trade conventions like TransWorld's Halloween, Costume & Party Show, held every year at the convention center in Rosemont. Thousands of haunted-house pros from around the country gather to compare marketing strategies, renew friendships, and test out the latest gadgets. (The Halloween industry, says TransWorld marketing veep John Wolf, is worth about $9 billion annually.)
Haunters are "about 98 percent male and probably 99 percent white," estimates Rochelle Santopoalo, founder of the Evanston-based Happy Halloween Magazine, whose purpose is to "promote a positive view of Halloween." Not surprisingly, many--including Jim Talent, who grew up in Schaumburg--started haunting as kids. "Our yard haunts would attract thousands of cars up and down the block," says Greg Talent, Jim's brother. "The neighbors were happy when we moved." Of course it's a hobby that grows more expensive over time: Dream Reapers spent about $100,000 readying this year's house. Admission is $10, and the house expects about 30,000 visitors over the 19 days it's open, but it has operated at a loss in the past. (The partners also donate 10 percent of the profits to charity; this year it's the Make-a-Wish Foundation.) "You've got to really love haunting to get involved in this business," explains Talent. "It's not a cheap thing to do."
Maybe we can never fully understand another man's dream. "We try to get people to piss, puke, shit, pass out," Talent says proudly. "Last year a guy got chest pains. I don't know if it was a real heart attack, but the paramedics had to take him away."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Bernacchi.