The haunting of old North Point

Up Front

October 23, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The hardest part, writing about a Haunted House?

How do you spell a scream?

There's AIYEEEEE, but that's more like what a bronco rider screeches just before being thrown off the bronco. There's ARGHHHH, but that's what Charlie Brown yells when Lucy pulls away the football. There's EEEEKKKK, which is what Little Miss Muffet exclaimed when the spider sat down beside her, so that's close.

Still, it's not quite right. It doesn't quite capture the combination of surprise, fear and joy that's the benchmark of a good Halloween-style Haunted House.

Like the 30th annual Gray Charles Recreation Council Haunted House, which you can visit through Halloween night at the old North Point Junior High School in Dundalk, at the corner of Wise Avenue and Merritt Boulevard.

Liz Staley, 14, screamed plenty as she was led through the house's pitch-black maze, guided only by the black-robed group leader (who, thank goodness, thought to bring along a flashlight) and the reassuring presence of her friend, Connie Gasior.

"I didn't think it was scary at all," says Connie, who may be a year younger than her friend but seems to have a lot more experience in matters horrific. "I thought it was just OK, but she was petrified."

"I can't help it," Liz counters, her cheeks still a little flushed from all the excitement. "I'm a chicken."

Who could blame her? In the space of about 15 minutes, she'd recoiled from a howling wildman (housed behind bars that could barely contain his animal savagery), been cursed by a witch, barely escaped the mad butcher shop with all her digits intact and watched helplessly as Michael Myers (the star of all those "Halloween" films) raised a mean-looking kitchen knife in her direction.

All of which pleases Jeff Chopper to no end. For 12 years, he's been the man in charge of turning what was once a school locker room into the stuff of which nightmares are made. During most of the year, he's a soccer, wrestling and baseball coach at Patapsco High. But around this time of year, his thoughts get, shall we say, a little more demonic.

And yes, that's his real name -- Chopper -- not some Halloween-season affectation.

Pretty scary, huh?

"We just try to give them a lot of atmosphere," says Chopper, 36, who's been involved with the Gray Charles Haunted House almost from its beginning. He remembers the days back at Merritt Beach, where it all began -- inspired, he says, by an offhand comment at a meeting of the council's executive board.

"They were commenting that the spider webs in the meeting room made it look so eerie," he explains, "and that's how they came up with the idea of the haunted house."

After seven years at Merritt Beach, the annual fright fest moved to the old Stansbury horse farm and then, 16 years ago, to the former school building. These days, it's the council's major fund-raiser, attracting about 4,000 visitors annually.

But enough with the recollections. Chopper would much rather talk about the butcher shop he helped set up inside the Haunted House, complete with a refrigerator that's had its cooling mechanism yanked out, but not its light -- so, he explains with understandable pride, "all the brains and stuff we have in there show."

How chilling.

Of course, Chopper doesn't do all this alone. On any given night, some 75 macabre-minded volunteers are there to help him out: about 20 adults, to serve as chaperones and trouble-shooters; 20 teen-age girls, to serve as guides (indispensable, since they wield the flashlights), and 32 teen-age boys, to don costumes and work at scaring people out of their wits.

Rounding-up the teen-age volunteers is easy. Not only is it fun -- how often do kids get to scream and howl and leap about without anyone telling them to calm down? -- but the time they volunteer at the haunted house counts toward the 75 hours of community service required by the county school system as a condition of graduation.

Norman Shifflett, for instance, takes great pride in his role as the Wildman, whose job is to rattle the bars, scream maniacally and otherwise act deranged, making people feel most unwelcome.

"It's fun scaring people," says Shifflett, whose character is sort of a litmus test for how well visitors to the house will fare.

"You see a lot of people, when they get to me, they back up. That's as far as they'll go," says Shifflett, who's proud that his over-the-top performance has been known to make people have second thoughts about walking through this place willingly. "That's why they put me either in the middle or at the end, so you don't get too much of a backup at the beginning."

Even the guides, flashlights and all, aren't immune to such collected fright.

"I think it's pretty scary," says Amie Erbin, 12. "But once you go through it a couple times, you get used to it."

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