The New Nightmare Leitersburg Celebrates Twenty Five Years of Terror
by Nathan Oravec
It generally begins the same each year.
Your heart rate speeds to a frantic pound as you inch slowly toward the blackened maul of the building, where, just moments before, those preceding you disappeared into pitch darkness. This is nothing compared to the moment when you, yourself, cross the threshold, the realization setting in that you couldn’t turn back now, even if you wanted to.
The Fall cold that has previously gone unnoticed outdoors suddenly chills you to the very marrow of your bones; not entirely unlike - the thought crosses your addled mind - what it must feel like in a morgue. Ushered to a plank-board seat in this macabre waiting room of horrors, you join others like yourself in a psychological prologue to a terrifying journey, which, it dawns on you, you volunteered for.
“This is purely spectacle,” you attempt to calmly convince yourself, as your heart rate accelerates to puree. “Halloween tradition by way of Spook House. Gory effects, loud banging noises, and actors in costumes - people I’ve most likely seen in the grocery store.”
“You are a grown adult,” you strive to remember, as you scan the audience, taking little comfort, and feeling some embarrassment, in the fact that there are children present, and they seem to be taking the whole thing much better than you are.
Any voices of reason are soon muted, however, when the initial fear of the dark is replaced by a fear of the unknown. The curtain rises on this house of horrors and your mind utters one last reassurance, “It isn’t real.”
But by then, your fears are realized.
Welcome to the Leitersburg Haunted House. A community institution scaring the common sense out of patrons for some twenty-five years.
At least its origins were innocent.
According to Kelly Eakle, Leitersburg’s Teen Center Administrator, the idea for a Haunted House was spawned twenty-six years ago, coinciding with the arrival of the aforementioned Center in town. “It’s always difficult raising funds,” Eakle explains, citing the Teen Center’s money-gathering attempts ranging from candy-bars to pizza kits before one Halloween, an epiphany arrived: “Why not try a Haunted House?”
The first event, held in the original Leitersburg Teen Center building, was a minimal success garnering $700 in total profit and foreshadowing the House’s return the following Halloween. Word of mouth would spread with each subsequent venture; high school students spinning tales of their Haunted dates the night before or morning shop talk at the water cooler revolving around the shocks and scares endured by only the bravest of office personnel. “It just grew and grew,” says Eakle. Seventeen years ago, he notes, the fear relocated, taking up residence in the old, abandoned Leitersburg Elementary School. Owned by the Ruritans (who cosponsor the event with the Teen Center), today the structure is devoted solely to the project.
This Halloween, the renowned Haunted House will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. “We decided to do something extra special,” Eakle cryptically offers, noting that, following a series of revisions and renovations, including a complete disassembling and reassembling of the building - adding a new 300 foot maze, “It’s an entirely new show this year.”
“We don’t want to give too much away,” he explains. “It’s a surprise. We want people to be overwhelmed.”
One thing he will mention is that a lot of characters from the original show will be making guest appearances this year, as will some popular scenarios familiar to Haunted House regulars.
The FX, too, he promises, will be top-notch. “We invest a tremendous amount of money into the Haunted House.” These operating funds go toward the purchase and upkeep of special props, theatrical lighting and a “very sophisticated” sound system.
In addition, pain-staking steps are taken in an effort for the frights to be as authentic as possible. “We try to keep everything reality-based.” Commercial, theatrical stage blood is utilized, and makeup is done in-house. “It usually takes a character two to three hours to prepare.”
And, he adds, “we use all real meat parts.”
Okay, perhaps too much information.
“We constantly hear people afterwards saying how scary and real it felt,” he says. But despite the perception of real danger, Eakle stresses that the Haunted House is 100% safe. “We meet all guidelines, local building and Fire Marshall requirements. We have several emergency exits. It’s a very big deal to us. Security is a very big part of what we do.”
He adds that there is also a great deal of supervision, helping to make the event kid-friendly. “There are no age restrictions. Ironically, the kids usually don’t get as scared as the adults.”
According to Eakle, it takes over 55 individuals per night to pull the show off, and each is a volunteer. “All money raised from the Haunted House goes back into the community,” he says, proudly. “We have a great community program here,” he continues, noting that funds raised benefit a number of projects and groups, from helping to build tennis and basketball courts and sponsoring scholarships to contributing to the Ruritans and Boy Scouts, among others.
On Friday night, October 18, the 25th annual Leitersburg Haunted House will open to the public, and the Haunted House roster of ghouls, ghosts and goblins will be perfecting their scare-tactics right up until that time. “We seem to work up to the last minute,” Eakle says. “A lot of this is almost a year round process.”
So, the question is, for those that have put so much time and effort into scaring others, do they ever, when the lights go out, manage to scare themselves?
“I think I can speak for almost all of us when I say that we kind of get goosebumps too when we see it,” confesses Eakle. He recalls a guillotine effect from a previous year. “When that head fell down in the bucket, you got a funny feeling - it looked so real.”
Brian Taylor, a Leitersburg native, has been a part of the Haunted House since he was a child. “I’m amazed at how much of a community thing it’s become,” he says. “It’s always meant a lot to me.”
Suffice to say, “when you’re the only one in the building working late at night, it can kind of get to you.”
The Leitersburg Haunted House runs Oct. 18-20, Oct. 25-27 and Nov. 1-2 with continuous shows starting at 7 p.m. Admission is $8. For more information, call the Haunted House hotline at 301-766-0039.