Making a scary living

Fairhope is home to the top rated haunted house in Alabama

By Allison Marlow
Posted 8/30/17

Christian Byrd reckons he was a most effective ghoul last year in the clown maze.

This, he tells his panel of judges, is where he scared the most. Drew the most screams. Creeped out the most …

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Making a scary living

Fairhope is home to the top rated haunted house in Alabama

Posted

Christian Byrd reckons he was a most effective ghoul last year in the clown maze.

This, he tells his panel of judges, is where he scared the most. Drew the most screams. Creeped out the most visitors.

“I took a sociology class last year and we talked about fears. Four to five people said they are afraid of clowns,” he said.

Auditions. Sociology classes. Reading your audience. This is the art of the scare.

At Nightmare Chambers in Fairhope, the business of eliciting Halloween screams starts now as owner Seth Woodruff auditions would-be spooks to build not just the scariest, but the most realistic fright night around.

“This is serious business,” he said. “Customers want to be frightened. They want the experience of being in a different world. They don’t want a charity haunted house with Phil on the chainsaw tonight. They want to be chased by a butcher on the loose.”

This year Woodruff may have his pick of the scariest actors around. Last year Nightmare Chambers was given a near perfect rating by Scurryface.com, a professional haunted house reviewer – yes, there is such a thing - was named the top scare in Alabama and one of the top 10 in the Southeast.

As a result, nearly 200 people have inquired about actor positions at Nightmare Chambers. They began funneling through the process last week. Each potential haunt stands in front of a panel of judges: Woodruff, his father Rob Woodruff and other year-round staff members who peak in and out to see the new crop of actors.

For now, the inside of the chambers seems benign and quiet. Fake blood is spattered on the gray walls. Painted spray foam looks silly in the light but will turn into realistic-looking, disgusting, spattered guts in the right light.

Hospital gurneys rest in corners waiting for the actors to bring them to life. Plastic and vinyl disemboweled patients, their faces frozen in painful howls, rest against walls waiting to be propped into just the right place to elicit the loudest screams from passersby.

The interview begins.

“Are you afraid of the dark?”

“Have you worked in fog?”

“Can you handle loud noises?”

“What about large crowds?”

“Can you be a crazy clown? An insane asylum patient?”

The questions are anything but typical.

“Now, show us what you got.”

Katherine Ming crawls around on her hands and growls, her long blonde hair falls in front of her face.

She worked at Nightmare Chambers last year, outside as a zombie. She apologizes for her voice. It is not as raspy tonight as she would like.

The Fairhope High School junior says she is terrified of haunted houses. Always has been. But, being part of the scare crew is nothing but fun.

“It is a whole different experience to be the one doing the scaring,” she said.

Justin Blalock, of Daphne, gives a quiet and creepy soliloquy of a clown offering a blood-filled balloon.

“I’m good at scaring people,” he says quietly, hands shoved into his pockets. “And I don’t mind blood or organs.”

Some actors are new. Some return year after year.

Amanda Reynolds, of Loxley, is Nightmare Chambers’ resident insane patient. Her performance last year was so unnerving that a visitor came to the front office, concerned that she actually needed help.

Reynolds said she watched horror movies as a child. She learned to read people. She can tell which direction to take her act to frighten them the most.

“I go into a deeper, darker version of myself,” she said.

For Woodruff, these interviews are the most important part of the process. His dad operated a haunted house in the 1980s and the family opened Nightmare Chambers 11 years ago in an abandoned building near Fairhope Airport.

They made the Middle Street location their permanent home several years ago and spend most of the year tweaking the effects inside. They know what scares. And scares come, mainly, from the actors.

“These fake bodies cost $1,000 each. But it doesn’t matter how many details you have, you have to have good actors,” Rob Woodruff said. “If you don’t have good actors it’s not scary.”

Seth Woodruff has auditioned for and been hired for his share of local movies. The part-time stunt man was cinematically killed in two locally filmed Nicolas Cage movies – eaten by sharks in one and shot by the actor in another.

When he is not perfecting Nightmare Chambers, or being killed on screen, he operates Tubby’s Tees. One endeavor fuels his living expenses, the other fuels his passion.

“There’s not a lot of pay,” he says. “It’s more for the love of it. It’s pretty cool to start working on this as soon as one season is over. We’re already planning a different theme for next year.”