Terrified, on purpose

(Published October. 19, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

Haunted houses open their creeky, cobwebbed-draped doors

By Douglas Stewart

The Week

The House of Darkness at the Walworth County Fairgrounds is under new management and all new for this year.

The victims ... I mean guests ... will be terrified, ah, entertained by 30 actors and animatronic spooks.

These creatures inhabit a dozen different rooms, ready to unleash some very unsettling surprises which we will not reveal, lest you think you are prepared.

The "House" is a 6,500-square-foot maze of your worst nightmares. Without giving too much away, the haunted rooms included The Demented Bridal room (beware the flying bride), The Tombs (Egyptian), The Execution Room, The Torture Room and scares in the halls. There are 12 in all.

"Dolly's Room" will give you a taste of what's in store. Sandra, "Dolly" Davidson is a professional haunt actress from Janesville. Dolly was committed for her dementia. She is an arsonist and is cruel to animals. She is prone to narcissistic rages, hallucinations and self-mutilation. She is also given to (gasp) littering. Perhaps she is safe in her cage, but she will still try to get you.

Who would want to run a haunted house?

The new operators are Ken Donat of Crystal Lake and Charles Witte of Chicago.

In the real world, Donat is an insurance broker and Witte runs a real estate company.

So what possesses two otherwise rational men to run a haunted house?

"That's easy," Donat grinned. "We're in love with Halloween. This is our escape from our 9-to-5 jobs."

It was Ken Donat who stumbled on the haunting business. "I had been insuring haunted houses for about five years when I took my son Kenny and we went to Transworld. Transworld is a trade show for folks in the haunt business held annually at the Donald Stevens Convention Center in Chicago.

"There were somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 people there from all over the world."

Merchants in the scare business display their wares, animatronics, set pieces, sound and light effects, tactile, visual and unspeakable displays-a smorgasbord of spooky stuff. "The animatronics there, the ones we use are the same ones Disney uses," Donat said. Animatronics are sound-sensor-activated three-dimensional animated creatures that "will basically scare the hell out of you!"

When Donat got home he called Witte. "I told him, 'You got to see this." And they were both hooked. The Elkhorn slot was open. Tim and Ann Marie Gavinski, who ran the fairground house in previous years, had opened "Morgan Manor" at the Waukesha Expo Center.

The new proprietors jumped at the chance to get their hands dirty.

Fear and fun awaits

You enter through the main gate at the Walworth County Fairgrounds and buy your tickets. From the ticket booth, you are led to the Charles H. Wiswell Building, the octagon on the south side of the fairgrounds, to await your turn.

"We take people through in groups of five or six at a time." Witte said.

The fun starts in the octagon. Actors and apparitions warm up the crowd and get them in the mood for what is to come. While at the Wiswell building, you can also enter to win your very own animatronic werewolf from Bartz's Party Stores in Milwaukee.

When your group is led to the House of Darkness, you will be greeted by a 10-by-10-foot skull, brooding ominously over the entrance. The "House Rules" are posted at the entrance to the maze.

They warn pregnant women, asthmatics and folks with high blood pressure, bad tickers and those prone to seizures NOT to enter. Those who do enter, go at their own risk.

Of course, if the experience is too intense, you can place your hands on top of your head and say "I quit!" Security personal will escort you out.

And then you enter into the darkness.

Total darkness.

And music, weird music. There is music throughout the maze.

Fog wraps around you as you grope your way to the first room. The castle walls of the black corridors can only be seen in places, a fleeting glimpse of solidity in an otherworldly atmosphere.

As you are led from room to room, all you can expect is the unexpected. "Enter at your own risk" and above all, have fun!

Tickets are available onsite, at The House of Darkness Web site, www.terror4you.com, and at Bobby Rocket's pub in Lyons. General admission is $12 and that gets you in.

A Scream Pass is $20 and this entitles you to skip to the head of the line.

A V.I.P. Pass gets you preferred parking, a special line (like the Scare Pass) a House of Darkness T-shirt and poster. Not a bad deal for those of us who love the dark side!

The House of Darkness is located on the south end of the Walworth County Fairgrounds and is open Thursday Oct. 19 through Sunday, Oct. 22 and Thursday Oct. 26 through Tuesday, Oct. 31, Halloween.

Hours of operation are from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., Midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

For more information, including a spooky biography of the Angel of Death, go to their Web page at www.terror4u.com. Happy haunted Halloween!

The author, a regular contributor to The Week, lives in Elkhorn.

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