Any drive to Wauconda can be scary, if you ask me: the desolate cornfields, the roadside graveyards, the mysterious traffic (there's nothing here, where does it come from?). By the time you creak into the parking lot at Terror Through Time, Annoyance Theatre's haunted house on the west side of town, you're primed for a visit to the Bartoc Institute. You're met by a woman in a lab coat and a seven-minute video that explains how you're about to enter a black hole for some time travel. Then you ante up the ticket price, step under a globe crackling with static electricity, and find yourself stranded in a dark, disorienting maze punctuated by scenes of campy horror.
There are moments when it's clear this is mostly kids in makeup yelling boo, but Terror Through Time is not a venue for the preschool set. There are no friendly witches or helpful goblins. The most frightening scenarios are tongue-in-cheek takes on real life: serial killers, torture chambers, auto carnage. You pick your way through the blackness from one atrocity to the next: three skeletal babies wail in a macabre hospital nursery; Santa sprawls in front of a fireplace, his head blown off (while "Winter Wonderland" plays softly in the background); Ed Gein extracts human hearts and livers for sale in his blood-splattered, strobe-lit deli. Chain-saw murderers lurch after you through the twisting tunnel; torture victims beg for your help. And not to give it all away, but when that luminous devil driver slams on his brakes in front of you, take a look over your shoulder: there's a massive truck bearing down from the rear.
Terror Through Time sprang from the fevered brain of Annoyance Theatre company member James Vale, an actor and special-effects maven who's worked on films like Alien Nation and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Vale grew up in nearby Lindenhurst and has been hooked on terror since he and his sister ducked out of a Bible-story film their mother sent them to and snuck into Carrie. He's worked in haunted houses since he was eight, starting with one run by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Lake Villa.
This one is, in fact, a reincarnation. Four years ago Vale quit a job at another haunted house, disgusted by the owners' unwillingness to deliver on advertised promises to make things bigger and better. Retreating to a decrepit cemetery near the Annoyance for a solitary lunch, he mused that the graveyard would make a great "room" in a haunted house. Without any particular plan, he started making sketches and models. Eventually, prodded by Annoyance's "do something" philosophy, he rented this vacant former Sears store in Wauconda and brought his dream scene to life. That was last year, and it was a disaster.
"I hated it," Vale says. "I thought it was garbage. I went on the radio for interviews and told people not to come." They came anyway, and a lot of them agreed with his assessment. Haunted by his failure, he conceived of this year's show as "an apology." He began building props last December. With help from set designer Dan Haberkorn, makeup artist Geoffrey Grace, and many others, he's been working in the space (sometimes sleeping there) every day since July. The resulting 12,000-square-foot site is twice as big as last year's and takes a staff of 60 to operate. The response has been gratifying, says Vale, with visitors happily scared out of their wits, but it's not going to be profitable: "I'll pay off everything, but there's no way that I won't lose a lot of my own money."
Vale is a soft-spoken, baby-faced 30-year-old. On an October afternoon, midway through the 24-day run, he's also coughing and feverish. He's caught a cold in this chilly hell of his own making and is sick of the place. Being here all the time is "maddening," he admits, adding in the same breath that he's already possessed by a vision of next year's show. "It'll be called 'The Apocalypse,'" he confides. "We've shown you the past, we've shown you the future, and now we're gonna show you the end." His eyes are fixed and glittery. Maybe it's just his low-grade fever, or the fog playing with the light in here. Or maybe he really is a shade too earnest for comfort.
Terror Through Time's final weekend is tonight and tomorrow night at 450 W. Route 176 in Wauconda. It's open from 7 to midnight. Admission is $8 per person. Call 847-487-8399 for directions.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Vale photo by Eugene Zakusilo.