Some people honor Christmas in their hearts all year round. Haunt Mistress Ann-Margret Naber is a little different.
"Halloween is my favorite holiday. I've loved Halloween since I was a small child and ever since I was small, I have loved art," she said.
She shared a memory.
"I was coming home from school. It was just kind of turning dusk. The leaves were falling and I was so anxious to go trick-or-treating. I was a clown. To this day, I still love Halloween."
To this day, Ann-Margret still loves art, but is afraid of clowns.
Naber is a familiar face and voice at Rockford Area Arts Council (RAAC). She is the first person you see when you walk in the door, and the first voice you hear if you call the office. She has been the administrative assistant for 20 years and teaches visual arts at McIntosh Elementary after school. She also used to teach classes at 317 Studio & Gallery. Ann-Margret is married to Brian Thomas. Together they own the Screamatorium Haunted House in Brodhead, Wisconsin (population 3293). Though this is only their second year in Brodhead, they have been running haunted houses for 18 years.
"We've been together for about 21 years and I've always liked Halloween. One day I said, 'Let's open a haunted house.' And we did."
I truly thought there had to be more to it than that, so I interviewed her husband, privately. Here's what Brian had to say:
"One day my wife decided -- she came home from work and was like, 'Let's do a haunted house,' and I'm like, 'Okay, I'm game.' What can I say? You know, she's the love of my life. I'll do anything for her."
When a work of art is brought together by love, it's special and the Screamatorium Haunted House is no exception. The venue for the Screamatorium is Brodhead Manor, which was built in 1906. It used to be a middle school. Now the historic building is a safe, inclusive gathering space for the people of Brodhead and those who visit the small town. The classrooms serve as modest studio apartments for a tight knit community of dedicated artists who work around the clock throughout the year to get the haunt ready for Halloween.
Ann-Margret and Brian work with a staff of up to eight people and they start planning for Halloween in January. They discuss the previous season and go over what worked and what didn't work. Then they brainstorm about new ideas for the next Halloween.
Every year in March, Ann-Margret attends the TransWorld Halloween Show. She said, "It used to be held in Chicago, but now it's in St. Louis." It's an enormous trade show and thousands of haunters from across the world gather to share ideas about Halloween culture and trends. She said she enjoys this part of the preparation.
Ann-Margret and the other haunters create most of their props, costumes and set pieces. They also acquire unique, specific pieces from local funeral homes, churches, and clinics. For instance, a "gently used" autopsy table is part of their haunt, along with an antique embalming machine, an old-fashioned wheelchair, and sundry pieces of unsanitary surgical equipment.
At the Screamatorium, there is large scale spectacle and lighting, but also very specific, very tiny examples of craftsmanship. Plastic bugs are hot-melt glued to the walls of the scenic flats. When the haunt is open and the stage lighting is activated, the roaches appear to be alive and crawling. On a sofa, a cute kitten sleeps curled up in a tiny ball. Upon closer look, one realizes it is actually dead. Ann-Margret said, "The devil is in the details."
She refers to her colleagues as her "haunt family" and said, "We've seen a lot of relationships come and go. Throughout the 18 years, we've seen people get married, date, have a family. So I think there's a good connection. People do find friends." She continued, "It's important to us to have people work together -- that get along together. That become a family. Brian and I don't have kids but it feels like one month out of the year, we have 30+ kids."
I met one of their "kids." Stitches the Clown. This is Stitches' first year with the Screamatorium. I asked him how he was feeling and he said, "Dreadful."
He explained, "Every good clown has a bad day and every bad clown has a good day." He then craned and twisted his neck, mysteriously made ratchet sounds, and warned me to, "Look out for me and my stitches."
After that, Stitches took a seat on the bleacher with Ann-Margret's other kids, a disturbing crowd of wounded freaks. Of course, they weren't really "freaks." They were actors in very convincing makeup and scary, detailed costumes awaiting pre-show announcements.
While waiting, Ron Schubbe, one of the building's four owners, helped one of the brides (there are two) with her wedding dress.
As he adjusted the fabric, he asked the bride, "Is it just too much? Is it too poofy? Alright, try this and if it doesn't work for you, we'll just wrap you in gauze."
She seemed satisfied and confident that she could make her dress work, and took her seat in the bleachers.
Then Bill Wolter, the fourth and final owner of Brodhead Manor appeared before the group. It was a few minutes before the doors were to open and he led an efficient pep rally.
"Alright guys. We're a little shorthanded tonight. It's fine. We can get through this. We got the major roles taken care of now. I'm going to try to get you guys into scene a little early tonight because it is cold outside. I want to bring the people in from outside. The only thing I really wanted to talk to you guys about is this: If you're a screamer, and you just scream and scream and scream -- that's basically what you do -- please turn your head away from the patrons when you scream. With that said, everybody have a great night. Have fun, just be yourselves. Let's do this."
Heavy metal music went up and the house lights were dimmed. Haunters took their places. Patrons started to file in, and Bill and Brian made sure each person was scanned before they entered the haunt. The security team makes sure no one is armed or intoxicated. Everyone who goes through the haunt must first watch a 3-minute safety video. There are some spoilers in this story. If you want to be surprised at the Screamatorium, stop reading.
The haunt is a series of macabre scenes. Patrons walk through at a slow pace. The scenes represent well known fears. Examples include going to the dentist or doctor, confrontational clowns, and chainsaws. There is even a nod to male pattern baldness. If you're afraid of it, it's probably frightfully and delightfully represented at the haunt.
I spoke one last time with Ann-Margret. She was standing beneath a 30-foot sign she had painted herself and holding a prop she constructed, a plate of crackers adorned with cheese and meal worms for the "manor scene." She spoke about her role as an owner of the Screamatorium.
She said, "I enjoy doing more of the 'behind-the-scenes' stuff in our attractions. Signs and facades. I'm very fussy about detail. I think that's where my art background comes in a little bit."
Before touring the haunt, I waited with a group of teenagers including Bridget Collins and Abigail Santiago. It was their second time at the haunt and they were both excited. Collins said, "I think it's really fun. I can't wait to see what's changed. It's very realistic and well worth the money."
Moments later, as I moved through the haunt, the bride burst through a wall and screamed at me. She arched her back and was upside down. Not only did that moment scare me, but it made me realize exactly why the dress needed to fit properly.
Throughout the night, I saw people of all ages laughing and screaming, especially as they were chased out of the building by a "creeper," effectively portrayed by J.T. Coleman. Coleman said this is his third year with the haunt and that his job is to chase patrons out of the building with his roaring chainsaw. He called it "good family fun."
The haunt is filled with blood and guts, screams and shrieks, lights and lasers, sounds and smells. More importantly, the experience is filled with humor, heart and soul. Ann-Margret recommends the haunt for ages 13 and up, but young children are allowed with a parent. If anyone starts to panic at the haunt, there are costumed security members standing by to assist.
The Screamatorium is located at 406 10th Street, Brodhead, Wisconsin. It's open Friday-Sunday, October 18-20; Thursday through Sunday, October 24-27; and October 31-November 2. Tickets to the Screamatorium cost $20 for a regular ticket or $30 for a VIP speed pass.